Archive for the ‘Literature’ category

CS Lewis on the “True Myth”

July 3, 2018

The Areopagus in Athens

“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’. Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are the translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened…”

This quotation is from CS Lewis in a letter to Arthur Greeves: from The Kilns (on his conversion to Christianity), 18 October 1931. If you have read much of what I write, you would readily notice that I quote and allude to CS Lewis often. He resonated with me in college, and he continues to resonate. He is cited by more diverse groups of people, perhaps, that any person I can think of. He had a unique way of approaching things from fresh points of view, often pulling those fresh ideas from the dusty tomes of ancient literature. His concept of myth and True Myth is one such point.

Some might consider his frequent allusions to ancient, pagan myth heretical, and some might even confuse his love of pagan myth as New Age. I find him to be extremely orthodox in unorthodox ways, and I find his creative approaches to orthodoxy to be refreshing and thought-provoking.

We don’t have to look any further than the ultra-orthodox, Paul the Apostle, to find some common ground with CS Lewis. When Paul was in Athens, some Epicureans and Stoics he debated in the marketplace, brought him to the Areopagus to address a Greek crowd. In that address, Paul referenced an altar inscribed “To An Unknown God” and quoted Aratus, a Cilcian poet (Phaenomena 5): “in him we move and live and have our being”. (Acts 17:22-28)

Paul used the quotation from Aratus that was spoken by a pantheistic poet to convey a theistic principle about God. (See Acts 17:22-28 – Quoting the Philosophers?) On the one hand, Paul connected with the people “where they were” using language and references they understood to convey something about God. In one sense, this is how CS Lewis relates the ideas of myth and True Myth.

It’s interesting to me, as well, that Paul know enough about pagan poetry to quote Aratus. In Titus 1 (v. 12), Paul quotes a Cretan philosopher, Epimenides. Again, it’s striking that Paul knew enough about pagan philosophy (presumably) that he could quote Epimenides.

What CS Lewis says about myth is that it contains some elements of truth, which shouldn’t be surprising at all, as truth is universal and should, therefore, be something that is universally recognized. The difference between myth and True Myth is that all myth ultimately is just a shadow of the True Myth. All myth conveys truth through storytelling. True Myth isn’t just another story; it is The Story. It isn’t “just” myth, but reality – “it really happened” as CS Lewis says.

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Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Erhman – Part 6 – Postscript

May 27, 2018


I have taken some time in previous blog articles to summarize my comments about an interview of Bart Ehrman by Sam Harris. Ehrman talks about his early induction to a fundamentalist Christian world and losing his faith. He talks about the issues with biblical interpretation that led him away from belief.  I provide some comment on issues that factor into loss of faith, and the most recent articles address a modern view of miracles that avoids wrestling with evidence of the resurrection, and an observation that I share with others: that atheists and fundamentalists interpret the Bible similarly (two sides to the same coin).

On way to summarize Bart Ehrman’s story is the rejection of a rigid, wooden Christianity that imposes (or tries to impose) a “literal” meaning to everything in the Bible.  For Erhman, this is an all or nothing proposition.  Either it is all literally true, or it is all literally false.

As many people have noted, this is a false dichotomy.  It fails to appreciate nuance, different genres in the Bible, the significance of symbolic, metaphoric and allegoric meanings, context, and many other things.  It is the position of someone insisting that the Bible be read in a certain way and read through a particular lens, rather than allowing the Bible to speak for itself.

When we approach the Bible, or any literature, with our own assumptions and presuppositions, we have already begun to dictate where we will end up. Ehrman originally approached the Bible with the assumption that it was all literally true (whatever “literally” meant to him and the people who influenced him). Ehrman now approaches the Bible with the assumption that it is all literally false, and that colors the way he reads it.

Harris’ example of Hume’s standard for determining the proof of a miracle comes back to mind.  If we set the bar “exceedingly” high, as Hume says we should, we rig the analysis, from the start, to discount every miraculous claim.  That the standard we have set is impossible to meet is the ultimate point.

This way of approaching a subject doesn’t seem very scientific or scholarly to me.  Yet, Harris is a scientist.  Erhman is a scholar.  While skepticism is a useful tool, it needs to be employed with a dose of humility, and the same skepticism should be applied to the “hermeneutics of skepticism” employed by the skeptic.

When the interview starts, Harris talks about people failing to use skeptical scientific tools.  Harris is, generally, referring to the scientific method. The scientific method is primarily a skeptical approach, demanding proof.  There is nothing inherently wrong with that approach.  The danger, however, is that we sneak all kinds of presuppositions into our scientific approach which, by their very nature, will dictate outcomes.  This really is not what the scientific method, in its purest form, is meant to be.

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An Inkling of Transcendence: Lewis and Tolkien

October 8, 2017

Despoitphotos Image ID: 121201272 Copyright: chrisdorney

“[His] father had taught him to absorb doubt and disbelief into his beliefs.”

This statement from the book, Inklings, by Humphrey Carpenter, is spoken of Charles Williams, who was a regular participant in the informal discussion group, the Inklings, formed by CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien at the University of Oxford, England. The group met at various times in Lewis’s classroom and a local pub from the late 1930’s to 1949. Charles Williams was an early member of the group and continued as a regular until his death in 1945. Williams grew up “a devout churchman” but was encouraged by his father “to appreciate the force of atheistic rationalism and to admire such men as Voltaire and Tom Paine”.

Lewis, of course, was an atheist when he arrived and began teaching at Oxford. His journey from materialism to agnosticism to Christian theism is chronicled in his autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy. Tolkien was already a Christian when Lewis joined him as a professor at Oxford, and Tolkien influenced Lewis in his transition to Christianity. Williams came along later. These men were attracted to each other as much by their love of language, literature and poetry as their faith, though their views on literature and faith often diverged sharply.

These three men, and others who joined them, were powerhouses of thought and creativity. CS Lewis, of course, wrote many books from fiction to philosophy. JRR Tolkien wrote, perhaps, the greatest mythological series of the 20th century in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Charles Williams, though lesser known, was a prolific writer, literary critic, publisher and student of English literature who could recite hundreds of passages from sheer memory.

They influenced each other, despite their very distinct differences, and their collective influence has been felt by generations from their day to ours. They were Christian men, believing very authentically in the Bible as scripture, but they were also fierce academics who held their faith up to the rigors of intellectual exercise.

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Living with the End in Mind

January 19, 2016


“Terminal” is the beginning and the end of a new project by Jon Foreman, one of my favorite musical artists. (See “The Wonderlands”,  (http://www.jonforeman.com) and the video posted online by Relevant Magazine produced at the Guitar Center.)

Jon Foreman, like Bono, repeats the theme in his music that these lives that we live are short compared to the expanse of time. We “die a little every day”. Our lives are terminal.

We all think about it from time to time, though most of us would rather not dwell on it. Yet, there it is: in the back of our minds, nagging. It never quite goes away. Though we try to drown out the beating drum of time marching on, the incessant cadence continues on, always under the surface of our consciousness.

Like many ancients, Jon Foreman does not shrink back from the reality. Unlike most, he embraces it. (more…)

Exploring the Gospels from Different Angles: Location, Names and Nuance

August 16, 2015

Kinnereth (Sea of Galilee), Israel - panorama of the southern end, February 5th, 2014I am continually interested in the latest evidence for God and the authenticity of the Bible. Not that I am doubting and looking for evidence to bolster my faith. Rather, it is like opening presents on Christmas.

I searched, and I found the path that I am on long ago. Not that I was a great discoverer; far from it. God saw me coming. Not that I have arrived, but there is no other path for me. I was meant to be on this one. When Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father but through me”, I believed.

I still believe. Not that this belief is unsubstantiated faith. Far from it! God made Himself known to me years ago. He met me where I was years ago, and he continues to be true, trustworthy, faithful and present today. The older I get and more I learn, the more true it rings.  (more…)

Theology, Science, Dreaming and Waking

July 20, 2015

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I am a great fan of C.S. Lewis. Not that I agree with everything he has written, I love his genius and insight that is marked by a truly Renaissance journey through all of the great classical literature, philosophy and rational, scientific discourse. He approaches Christianity from the opposite shore and provides a view that most churchgoers would never otherwise get.

I recently read his short essay (Is Theology Poetry?) that is published with the Weight of Glory and other addresses by Harper One. In classic Lewis style, he starts off with a very obscure, nuanced question (that few, if anyone, would even think to explore) and, from the seeming pedantry and narrow beginning, he opens up the discourse about half way through into a sweeping view of an eternal truth that is absolutely breathtaking. (more…)

The Joy of C.S. Lewis

November 25, 2013

cslewisThe death of C.S. Lewis was eclipsed by the death of John F. Kennedy on the same date in history. Ironically, Aldous Huxley also died on that date in 1963. Unlike the overshadowing at his death, the life of C.S. (Jack) Lewis and the legacy of his writing and thinking endures. He is perhaps better known today than even during his life.

I have always been enamored of C.S. Lewis. He became a Christian in the secular environment of academic pursuit at Oxford. I became a believer in college in the same type of environment, though hardly of the same high academic and intellectual standard. His autobiographical book, “Surprised by Joy,” stands as a favorite book for me, and one which has become a waypost in my own life. It can be a tough read, not only for the enormous detail of classic and philosophical references, but for the somewhat self-indulgent inward looking preoccupation of the author – but, after all, it is an autobiography.

For me, the importance is not in what he did, but in his journey of thought. Lewis was an uncompromising thinker who diligently, methodically, and with integrity and brutal honesty, journeyed from childish religiosity, past the death of his mother, where the emptiness of religion without connection to the Living God is found to be wholly wanting. From there he careened to the opposite shore, finding comfort in the grim, cold world of materialism, exactly for the reason that no Cosmic Interferer dwells there to bother a fiercely independent soul.

Lewis was nothing if not driven to seek ultimate truth through the enormous volume of reading material that he devoured with relish. He traveled the path of logic and truth, tested by personal experience, through the various stages of his journey, which he described as a search for “Joy”. Lewis read the classics in the actual Latin and Greek and went from genre to genre and era to era tracing the breadcrumbs of literary history left by the greatest of the great writers. Through the cold air of atheistic materialism in his early twenties broke the warm sunlight of Christian thought from writers like G.K. Chesterton along with the fluorescence of the occult. From the unlikely combination of these sources, the possibility of the miraculous and magic pierced the hard shell of purely rational and materialistic thought. It was not long thereafter that Lewis abandoned the barren ground of atheism for the swampy soil of agnosticism.

Lewis says that he was tempted by the occult, but he was also fearful of it, like a person who does illicit drugs but has enough sense to know the line not to cross. He rejected that path even before finding his Destination in the same way he rejected physical lusts and other temptations. He found them ultimately to be counterfeit, substitutes for the real Joy of which he had gotten glimpses at different points in his life. This Joy became his measure for what he sought. He described it variously, but perhaps best, as a longing that in the longing was the most fulfilling of experiences one could know. It was for Lewis an inner compass pointing true North.

The new atheist has no prior claim to the ground Lewis Lewis already traversed with his academic mentors who were firmly and rigorously entrenched in rationalistic, materialistic thought. Peering through the prism of the greatest thinkers from every age, he found it ultimately one dimensional. Lewis trusted the “inner man”, the individual conscience and personal experience, guided as it were through the various veins of thought, testing each one in turn for dependability, harmony with the amalgam of ideas sifted through many ages and many thinkers and, not the least, as reflected through the natural world itself. Of this last strainer of thought, Lewis would echo the writer of Romans (1:20):

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made….”

From the abandonment of atheism for the more plausible, but uncertain, reality that there lies behind the veneer of this material world a Source of that Joy that became his fixed pursuit, Lewis journeyed into the realm of belief again, much the wiser and.

He does not spend a great deal of time describing his examination of the gamut of religions before landing on the steps to the House of the God of Abraham, leaving the impression that his pace from atheist to agnostic to Christian accelerated along the way, as if he found the guideposts clearly marked and the compass firmly fixed as he emerged.

Lewis does not spare himself in the chronicle of this journey. In fact, he is almost surgical, in the most intimate way, in his analysis of the various stages of his thought life, not holding back any information, however self-deprecating. In this way, Lewis demonstrates well the wisdom he gained along path: that the worst of the attitudes, and the furthest from God – the Source of Joy – is human pride.

His conversion is almost anticlimactic. He simply gives in one day to the only proposition left at the end of this long journey. Like the Psalmist who said, “Where can I go from your presence? Where can I flee from your spirit?” (Psalm 139:7), Lewis had nowhere else to go; the trail led to one Place only and only one: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Though some claim that Lewis never had a true conversion (and how would they know?), the rest of his life from this submission to God at the age of 31 bespeaks a man who came to rest solidly and squarely on the foundation of the Bible, the cornerstone of which is Jesus Christ. It became his defining Truth, the Compass for all future thought, and the filter through which the body of his written work clearly flows. That he wrote of fantastical creatures and magic and used imagery that is often accused of being occultist is a product of his enormous memory bank of all the great writings in history. He conjured up these things, like the classic and romantic writers – Milton and others, Christian or not – who borrowed from the same historic library of great writings.

These images are allegories, and Lewis was a master of allegory. For Lewis, the myths of all ages reflected truth, like shadows dancing on walls from the bright sunlight through prison bars, but the sunlight is Christ. 

Of the fact that he brought all these images into submission to God, I have no doubt. This was the world Lewis knew, and this world of knowledge he used as a prism to show in radiant color the truth and the light of the Gospel – Jesus Christ, and him crucified, dead, buried and resurrected, the hope and salvation of all mankind to as many as will believe, offering grace for sin, life for death, having made the way for men to be made right and to have fellowship as sons and daughters with God the Father – the Source all Joy.

What Lewis learned early, and what led him on his journey, was not to settle for a false joy, which is merely a shadow of the real Thing. What he discovered is that the real Thing is not the joy, itself. The Joy he experienced resulted from close encounters with the Living God – catching glimpses of the Creator of heaven and earth – who reveals himself to the man who searches, who opens the door to the man who knocks, and who is found by the humble and submitted heart. The real Joy is found in God Himself. Joy, the experience, is only the shadow; God is the Source.

I recommend Surprised by Joy to anyone who likes C.S. Lewis or would like to follow his journey. Here is another take on this underrated classic by Dr. Bruce L. Edwards, English professor at Bowling Green: http://personal.bgsu.edu/~edwards/surprised.html; and for a collection of thoughts and essays on C.S. Lewis: http://personal.bgsu.edu/~edwards/lewisr.html.


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