C. S. Lewis on love and grief

The love sonnets in the previous post were written by the American Joy Davidman to C. S. Lewis.

A series of 45 Sonnets were only discovered in 2010 by Douglas Gresham (the younger of Davidman’s two sons) and have been published in 2015. Don W. King, The Naked Tree: Love Sonnets to C. S. Lewis and other Poems by Joy Davidman.

davidman-lewisDavidman and Lewis’s relationship has been well told of course – not least by the 1993 film Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

They started corresponding in 1950, she first met him in 1952. She was divorced in 1954 from a long troubled marriage to William Gresham. Davidman and Lewis were  married in a civil ceremony in 1956, apparently on his side more to help her stay in the UK when her visa ran out. It was only really when she fell fatally ill with cancer that Lewis finally realised he had fallen in love for the first time in his life.

His subsequent and deeply moving book  A Grief Observed, (in which he called her H) recounts his own honest cries of the heart following her death in 1960 (Lewis himself would only live until 1963).  While that work has been in the public domain since 1961, Joy Davidman’s poems remained hidden away, undiscovered, in an attic.

What’s fascinating is the question of just how much his wife’s passionate honesty and uninhibited love changed Lewis. The sonnets show how infuriatingly passionless she found the confirmed bachelor academic!

In utter contrast to the platonic friend that she wished would shoot her dead rather than kill her with his kindness is his own description of marriage in A Grief Observed. How Joy Davidman’s love eventually broke through his English reserve!

For those few years H. and I feasted on love; every mode of it — solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers. No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied.

And this on the physical embodiment of love:

There is one place where her absence comes locally home to me, and it is a place I can’t avoid. I mean my own body. It had such a different importance while it was the body of H’s lover. Now it’s like an empty house.

And this desperately sad passage revealing how she had shaken him out of his old life and opened him up to a life that perhaps he had not even suspected existed :

The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant — in a word, real. Is all that work to be undone? Is what I shall still call H. to sink back horribly into being not much more than one of my old bachelor pipe-dreams? Oh my dear, my dear, come back for one moment and drive that miserable phantom away. Oh God, God, why did you take such trouble to force this creature out of its shell if it is now doomed to crawl back — to be sucked back — into it?

I guess King and many other Lewis scholars will be reassessing how his wife’s many previously unknown poems, which he almost certainly read, may have shaped his own writing in A Grief Observed and elsewhere.

One thing is sure, her love profoundly changed his understanding of love – for love cannot be understood in theory, but only in the experience of loving others and being loved.

Yet all love has an end. Lewis wrote about the end of his unexpected, dazzling and yet all too brief love affair in typically compelling prose:

And then one or other dies. And we think of this as love cut short; like a dance stopped in mid career or a flower with its head unluckily snapped off — something truncated and therefore, lacking its due shape. I wonder. If, as I can’t help suspecting, the dead also feel the pains of separation (and this may be one of their purgatorial sufferings), then for both lovers, and for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love.

And this to close.

Does H. now see exactly how much froth or tinsel there was in what she called, and I call, my love? So be it. Look your hardest, dear. I wouldn’t hide if I could. We didn’t idealize each other. We tried to keep no secrets. You knew most of the rotten places in me already. If you now see anything worse, I can take it. So can you. Rebuke, explain, mock, forgive. For this is one of the miracles of love; it gives — to both, but perhaps especially to the woman — a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted.

To see, in some measure, like God. His love and His knowledge are not distinct from one another, nor from Him. We could almost say He sees because He loves, and therefore loves although He sees.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Musings on the strange and wonderful thing called life

I had a ‘significant’ birthday recently. Of course, one day is like another and so such milestones are artificial. But milestones have a very useful function – or at least they did when we measured distance in miles and when people went on long journeys by foot or horse and actually took note of the numbers on a stone by the side of the road. Those numbers told you where you were on the journey; how far you’d come, how far yet to go.

A birthday milestone tells you how far you’ve come, but nothing of course about how far you have to go …!

Anyway, at a serious risk of cliché, life indeed is like a journey.  I was going to use the analogy of a train that keeps going and you can’t get off. But that sounded too much like a prison and who wants to spend their life trapped by Irish Rail?

A pilgrimage is the classic way Christians have viewed this strange and wonderful affair we call life. For a pilgrimage is a journey with a destination at the end. There is a discipline and focus to a pilgrimage. It has a clear goal. And that goal is to shape how life is lived in the here and now.

C. S Lewis said that it was Christians who were the most heavenly minded that were of the most earthly use – I think he’s dead right.

If the purpose of the Christian life is future-orientated and relational – one day no longer ‘seeing through a glass darkly’ but seeing God ‘face to face’ – then how we live now, what we do with our lives, how we spend our days, time and money, will all be shaped by preparing for that future. It is lived with a very conscious awareness that ‘life now’ is NOT an end in itself. Yes, it will come to an end, but much more significant is what lies beyond the end. This is why Paul could talk of persecution and possible violent death in terms of ‘our light and momentary troubles’ (see 2 Cor 4 as a whole).

This is of course completely nuts within a western consumer culture that has its goal pleasure, wealth, comfort, convenience and limitless choice.

The author of Hebrews and Paul both use the image of a race for the Christian life for good reason. To run a race you need training, discipline, perseverance and focus. I’m trying to prepare for a 10K run in May and it is hard going for I have not enough of any of those things!

Acts 20:24 I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.

1 Cor. 9:24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

Gal. 5:7 You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?

2 Tim. 4:7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us

Since these are musings, I wonder if Christianity in the West is in such bad shape because it is terminally distracted from running the race? Or  even forgetting that we are even in a race? Has the idea of pilgrimage / race been eclipsed in modern church life? Are we more like tourists rather than athletes or pilgrims?: wandering around, taking in the sights, enjoying all the experiences life has to offer but not really getting anywhere?

In other words, I wonder if we have lost the New Testament’s overwhelming eschatological focus?

But on a more positive note: God’s grace is deep, he picks us up when tired and weary and lost. He forgives us our idolatry and pursuit of created temporary things. He gives us his Spirit to guide and empower along the way.

And we don’t run alone. By far the most enjoyable thing about my birthday was that it was spent celebrating with others. We need company along the road – to encourage and be encouraged to keep pressing on til the end.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Alister McGrath on Theological Education (2)

This is a follow up post on the European Evangelical Accrediting Association (EEAA) annual conference that I was at last week near London.

Alister McGrath was the guest speaker looking at the challenges, vision and changing context of theological education. Here is a snapshot of some things that stood out for me from the second lecture we got to.

And again I should say that these are just my impressions and notes – not verbatim quotes!

Staying rooted historically; staying engaged culturally. Challenges and concerns.

Prof McGrath sketched the task of theology – to remain faithful to orthodoxy while engaging with an ever-changing culture and the new questions it raises. And as usual a story gets this point across best.

He told the story of C S Lewis being asked to speak to RAF crews in 1941 and having to ‘translate’ his understanding of Christianity into the language of his audience. Lewis judged his first attempts a failure but he kept being asked back.

Reflecting later, he said such translation can only be learnt by doing. In Lewis’ words, the “‘power to translate is the test of having really understood one’s own meaning.”

This is the theologian’s task – to translate God’s truth in understandable ways in his/her own context. Such translation is rooted in the past, and speaks into present. If we can’t do this, have we really understood God’s truth in the first place?

And from here McGrath appealed for evangelicals to be rooted in the past so as to speak with depth and meaning into the present. His concern is of evangelical shallowness and historical illiteracy and its rejection of the past. What C S Lewis called our ‘chronological snobbery’.

And he referred to the paleo-orthodoxy of Tom Oden, and the Deep Church movement in the UK (the name inspired by Lewis again) as examples of evangelicals in search of  historical rootedness for the present.  [Lots of other examples could have been mentioned like the late Robert E Webber and his Ancient-Future faith].

McGrath reminded us, that however cutting edge we think we are, our thinking will soon be out of date. Even a classic like John Stott’s Basic Christianity is becoming dated in its modern framework.

Knowing the past helps open our eyes. So read older books! Learn from other voices and see with other eyes. Read the theological giants of the past.

Seeing differently is  a great model for theological education. So get students to engage with these thinkers. Reflect and learn from them.  View these people as a resource. How did they do? How are we doing? Immerse students in the rich tradition.

If theological education fails to excite and thrill, then we have failed.  The task is to first catch that vision for ourselves and pass it on.  Theological education really matters. It is a privilege and a responsibility to have people ‘passing through’ your colleges. Excite them, connect them to the Great Tradition, help them translate God’s truth into their context, and help them see what difference they can make.

While he didn’t draw this out, humility is not far from the surface here. If our thinking will soon be out of date. If we can only have a partial and incomplete perspective. If we need to learn from others in the great story of the church … all of this should make us humble learners.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

N T Wright in Dublin (2)

OK so here is your faithful reporter’s take on last night’s C S Lewis Lecture by Prof N T Wright, ‘God in the Dock: what place now for the Christian Faith in the Public Life?’

A really well run and organised event. Good wine and snacks beforehand. Well designed hotel conference room. Smooth. Sean Mullan did an excellent job introducing and responding. And NTW is always entertaining and a pleasure to listen to – wonderful communicator.

I tooks notes on my phone – for what they are worth here they are. And I’m leaving them rough – hey this is a blog post. Any of my comments are in brackets:

Three Narratives of faith in the public square

1. Secularist narrative.

The church made hell on earth to save people in heaven. The answer is eduation, science, progree, tolerance, beyond superstition. Religion bad for u. Strident. Media takes the narrative for granted. Assumed the church internally corrupt. No place for church in modern life. No voice in public sq. And soon church will disappear.  [In Ireland we’ve taken to this narrative zealously].

 2. [An inadequate] Christian response.

Secularist story has failed. Look at the crimes committed by secularists and atheism. Guillotine, gas chamber. Also a straw-man caricature of all religion bad.

But this story does not really address the place of church in public life. And the cold fury of the failure of public faith [and this goes deep in Ireland – deep deep disgust]. It tends to assume that life will go on as before. And overlooks how church had been practicing its faith. So a response to the New Athiests may have some success but does not reflect on how church got lost. There needs to be more honest self- reflection and transparency within the Church.

3. An Alternative narrative of Jesus and the Kingdom of God

Back to Jesus and his followers. New athiests tend to ignore Jesus. Kingdom of God brings us to the question of Jesus the King. And in the Creeds the life of Jesus is missing. [well known point of view of NTW here – somewhat in conflict with Scot McKnight’s argument for strong continuity in gospel terms between the NT and the Creeds in the King Jesus Gospel. Clear elements of gospel in Creed but NTW is right that the life of Jesus is missing].

Kingdom is GOD IN CHARGE: This king will be and is king of the whole world. Where this gets political is Jesus is God in charge of all. BUT to many this seems unbelievable. God is not in charge – just look at the world. Also undesirable – leads to theocracy, rule of clerics. Fundamentalism.

Thus a response is for the state to becomes divinised – communism and secularism. Now liberal democracies pose a competing narrative. They have tried (are trying) to replace the church – where the political becomes caring provider just as the church did. So the church is marginalised and religion is privatised.

This is the Enligtenment and earlier Epicurean idea of banishing the gods to their world and hunans living theirs. (Sounds like Kant). Hobbes, Rousseau. Modernist science and democracy hopes for naturalism and human progress. So church can do its private thing and has no place in public faith. Not about tolerance, it is about the belief that god and the world do not mix.

Ireland today is the brittle disjunction of God’s world and ours. And often the church has colluded in fulfilling this disjunction – see in african spirituals and in RC purgatory.  Even those opposing the marginalisation of Christians in public life have tended to do so by arguing for ‘our rights’ and left the dualistic structure of western thought about faith and society unchallenged.

[NTW mentioned an un-named former archbishop here – must be Lord Carey. I blogged about ‘persecution’ of Christians in the UK here – and I think NTW is dead right here.  The Christian Insititute and others on the right are ‘fighting’ for rights, but there is little deeper engagement with the secularist narrative and especially there is little or no self-reflection, humility, and engaging with the ‘powerlessness’ and ‘foolishness’ of the ‘upside down Kingdom of God – and this is where NTW went next].

NTW argued that kingdom speaks of power redefined. NOT of the church fighting for a slice of bit of power. It is Jesus power; redefined power. A call for Jesus people to live kingdom life in this world. Beatitudes. NOT God sending in the tanks! But God sends in love, humility, gentle self-giving love. By Jubilee projects.  By justice issues. NOT a private individualism.

Good works in NT are for all as well as the church (Gal 6). This is subversive christianity of the early church. [sounds much like anabaptism!?]

The Church is a society of repentant sinners. And many in the church are doing wonderful servant things unseen and unreported.

The call of church is also to hold power to account.  A prophetic gift to the world. Yes church will get it wrong and needs discussion and discernment. But it is not to  wait til second coming before holding power to account. [And this is where he defends the role of Bishops in the House of Lords etc. I think he argues that this is where his view diverges from anabaptism of Yoder and Hauerwas etc. But I’m not so sure – they also hold power to account. Their anabaptism is NOT non-political. It is politically engaged, but refuses to use power to achieve ends.]

Jesus is Lord of all. But this does not lead to theocracy. The call of the church is to be salt and light etc … In small local ways in tough situations. The small and insignificant, from the bottom up. [Anabaptism again]. Youth groups, pastors on streets at 3am, in care for poor, etc. Being ‘Poor in Spirit’. Meek taking over the earth without powerful noticing. This is an alternative powerless kingdom.

I liked all this because I have strong anabaptist leanings. In the Q & A, I got to ask NTW if he was an anabaptist bishop in disguise 😉 He found that amusing but disagreed. He thinks anabaptism too disengaged. He used the image of a visiting an interesting and attractive zoo, but cut off in its own world. But that’s a bit of a caricature. I’m unconvinced that there was that much difference between what he was saying and the best of anabaptism – Hauerwas, Yoder.

Comments, as ever, welcome.