Joe Rigney explores particular themes that run throughout C. S. Lewis's popular and lesser-known writings, illuminating how they help readers develop a deeper awareness of God's presence and work in their lives.
About the Author
Joe Rigney (MA, Bethlehem College and Seminary) is assistant professor of theology and Christian worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is the author of Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles and The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two sons.
Stephen J. Nichols (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) serves as the president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries. He is an editor of the Theologians on the Christian Life series and also hosts the weekly podcast 5 Minutes in Church History.
Justin Taylor (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher at Crossway. He has edited and contributed to several books, including A God-Entranced Vision of All Things and Reclaiming the Center, and he blogs at Between Two Worldshosted by the Gospel Coalition.
Read an Excerpt
The Unavoidable Either–Or
"Begin where you are." This little phrase, tucked away in one of the letters to Malcolm, is the right place to begin our exploration of Lewis on the Christian life. Lewis calls this a great principle, and it is implicit in almost everything he writes. Again and again, he wants to bring us back to brass tacks, to awaken us to the present reality, to help us feel the weight of glory that presses on us even now. This is the real labor of life: "to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake."
But come awake to what? Ultimately to God. But Lewis knows that we often need a preliminary step. We need to face some sort of "resistant reality." That's what "begin where you are" is meant to accomplish. The exhortation "Begin where you are" gives us a location, an identity, and a time. Let's look at each one in turn.
The word "where" denotes location. We are always in a particular place, and Lewis wants us to be attentive to it. Right now, you're reading this book in a particular place. Take a moment to notice it. The firmness of the chair or the softness of the mattress. The wind in the trees or the smell of the coffee. The noise at the next table or the silence of the living room. There's a realness to these things, what Lewis calls "quiddity" or "what-ness." The world around us is real and objective. It is concrete and particular. It has a determinate quality, shape, and texture. And it is full of "impenetrable mysteries." This world of sights and sounds and smells, "this astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas, this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes and toads" — this is what Lewis calls nature. So, to begin where you are means that you begin here, in the present location.
Second, the exhortation accents an identity. "Begin where you are." But what are you? According to Lewis, you are a thinking thing, a rational animal. Part of you belongs to nature — your body with its senses and motions and stubborn limitations. But there is another part of you, what Lewis calls an intrusion of the supernatural into the world of nature. This is the soul, the part of you that thinks and reasons, that imagines and enjoys, that wills and chooses. According to Lewis, the validity of our reasoning depends upon the transcendence of reason itself. Reason must stand outside of nature in order for it to give us truth about nature. Our thinking, if we are to regard it as true or false, must be a shot from Something beyond nature, a beam from the Light beyond the sun, a participation in the eternal Logos. And if this were a book on Lewis's apologetics, we'd spend some time exploring this argument. As it is, I'll simply note that the "you" that is here is also an incomprehensible mystery, half spirit and half animal, straddling the line between nature and super-nature.
Third, Lewis's great principle accents time. "Begin where you are." Not where you were. Not where you will be. Where you are. Because you are not just here; you're also now. You're in the present, that astounding place where time touches eternity, the infinitesimal point where the past meets the future. You have a past. You have a future. But all of your living and thinking and enjoying and willing takes place in the present.
So, to begin a book on Lewis, you must begin where you are. And where are you? You, a thinking, imagining, and willing person, are here and now.
God Is Everywhere
But you're not the only one who is here and now. God also is here and now. God is both omnipresent and in the present. He is present everywhere and everywhen. "We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito." But he is not omnipresent in a pantheistic fashion. Pantheism believes everything is God, or at least, a part of God — who is diffused in all things like a universal gas or fluid. But Christianity views God's omnipresence in a different way. The world is not a part of him, and he is not a gas. Instead, he is totally present at every point of space and time, and locally present in none. His omnipresence is that of an author with and in his story; it is only his attention that keeps us going moment by moment. What's more, space and time do not constrain or confine him. He is transcendent as well as immanent, high and lifted up as well as near and close at hand.
But we can say more. This God who is here and now is "Unimaginably and Insupportably Other." He is beyond our capacity to understand. Not only our language but also our thoughts are inadequate to fully grasp or comprehend him. But this is not because he is too abstract for human speech and thought. He is not abstract at all. As the source of this world of concrete and individual things, he himself is concrete and individual in the highest degree. He is not an ultimate principle or ideal or value. He is not "universal being" (as though he were a big vague generality), but "absolute Being" (he alone exists in his own right). He is the ultimate Fact, "the opaque center of all existences, the thing that simply and entirely is, the fountain of facthood." He is incomprehensible and unspeakable not because he is too abstract, but because he is too definite for words.
Not only is God here and now; not only is he the ultimate, concrete Fact; he is also personal. Indeed, he's more than personal. He is suprapersonal, beyond personality. This too makes him unfathomable to us. He is triune, three-in-one, three persons while remaining one God. We cannot grasp this, any more than two-dimensional beings could grasp what is meant by a cube. But though we may not comprehend him, we can comprehend our incomprehension, and from that beginning, begin to know him.
So, then, to begin to understand Lewis on the Christian life, we must keep ever in our minds these two truths: (1) you are here and now; (2) God — the eternal, omnipresent, suprapersonal Author of all — is also here and now.
God Demands All of Us
But we must go another step. God is not just here and now. He is here and now pursuing us. This ever-present God makes demands of us. And not just any demands. He is not a tax collector, asking for a percentage of your time and resources and leaving the rest to you. As your Creator and Author, he demands all of you. He is the Maker; you are the made. He is the Potter; you are the pot. He is the Author; you are his character. Therefore, he has all rights and claims to you and yours. The almighty Maker of heaven and earth lays claim to your ultimate devotion and affection.
This total claim again sets Christianity off from pantheism. The god of pantheism makes no demands of us. Believing in such a god is attractive precisely for this reason. We get all the emotional comfort of belief in God with none of the unpleasant consequences.
When you are feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries and carrying you on its crest. If, on the other hand, you want to do something rather shabby, the Life-Force, being only a blind force, with no morals and no mind, will never interfere with you like that troublesome God we learned about when we were children.
This pantheistic life-force is a tame god, giving us all the thrills of religion with none of the cost. He is there if you wish for him, but he will not pursue you.
But some of us wish to go beyond the life-force. We want a personal god, not a mere impersonal force. But we don't go the whole way with Christianity. We want a personal god, but one who won't interfere. We don't want a Father in heaven so much as a grandfather in heaven —"a senile benevolence who, as they say, 'liked to see young people enjoying themselves,' and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, 'a good time was had by all.'"
But the God who is here and now is neither a tame life-force nor a senile grandfather in the sky. He is alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed — the hunter, King, husband. He is not indulgent or soft. He is the Great Interferer, insisting that because he has made us, he knows what is best for us. He pursues and interrupts. He confronts and challenges. He is a lion, and he is not tame. But (and we must never forget) he is also good.
This is why Christianity has an ambivalent relationship with what men commonly call religion. We think of religion as "man's search for God," and we place it alongside other departments of human life — the economic, social, intellectual, and recreational. But the living God, the God who is here and now, will not settle for a portion; he demands all. In this sense, if we are to retain the word religion, it must encompass and infuse all our activities. There can be no nonreligious acts, only religious or irreligious ones.
Thus, we begin with these three facts: (1) You are here and now; (2) God is here and now; (3) God demands all of you. These three facts yield a fourth: (4) Every moment of every day, you are confronted with a choice — either place God at the center of your life, or place something else there. Either acknowledge the way the world really is, or attempt to live in a fantasy of your own devising. Either surrender to your Creator and Lord, or rise up and assert your own independence. Reality, Lewis says, "presents us with an absolutely unavoidable 'either-or.'" We live in a world of forked roads, where every path regularly and repeatedly branches in two mutually exclusive directions. Our task is to reject the illusion that, in the end, all paths lead to the same place. We must choose, and our choice will make all the difference.
The Choice in The Great Divorce
In The Great Divorce, Lewis's imaginary vision of the afterlife, the narrator journeys from the outskirts of hell (the "Grey Town") to the outskirts of heaven (the green plains), meeting and conversing with many departed souls. For much of his journey, he is guided by his mentor, George MacDonald (much as Virgil is Dante's guide in The Divine Comedy). Many evangelicals stumble over Lewis's imaginary tour of the afterlife. His dream suggests that damned souls can take excursions — leave hell and journey either to earth or to the doorstep of heaven (what MacDonald calls "the Valley of the Shadow of Life"). More than that, Lewis suggests that these damned souls have another chance to repent after death. They can choose to stay in heaven (though we witness only one soul making such a choice). Finally, Lewis suggests that if a ghost on an excursion chooses to stay in heaven, its time in the Grey Town will have really been purgatory.
Holidays for the damned, second chances after death, and purgatory. What are we to do with these? The first thing is that we must not deny them. They are really in the story and, at least in the case of purgatory, seem to represent Lewis's actual beliefs. Having said that, we need to see what Lewis is doing in this book, which does not include teaching or speculating about the afterlife. In the preface, he is quite clear that he is offering an "imaginative supposal." The transmortal conditions "are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us." He reiterates this point at the end of the book in the mouth of George MacDonald. When the narrator discovers that he is dreaming, MacDonald says, "And if ye come to tell of what ye have seen, make it plain that it was but a dream. See ye make it very plain. Give no poor fool the pretext to think ye are claiming knowledge of what no mortal knows."
So if Lewis is not trying to give us detailed knowledge of the afterlife, and if he's not attempting to give us a treatise on the relationship between eternity and time, what is he doing? MacDonald tells us plainly: "Ye cannot fully understand the relations of choice and Time till you are beyond both. And ye were not brought here to study such curiosities. What concerns you is the nature of the choice itself."
That is why Lewis has shared his dream: to clarify the nature of the Choice. In the dream, we can see the Choice (in all of its various guises) a bit more clearly than we can see it on earth. The imaginative supposal gives us a clearer lens. Thus, we need not accept purgatory or second chances or even Lewis's odd views of eternity and time in order to benefit from the story. The main point lies elsewhere, in the choices made by the ghosts. The damned souls who go on holiday are only slight exaggerations of us. They are, in one sense, caricatures. But a caricature is drawn in order to accentuate real features of a person's face. And the ghosts in Lewis's story — with their sins and excuses and grievances and complaints and justifications — are all too real and reminiscent of the person we see in the mirror every day.
The Centrality of the Choice
I highlight Lewis's purpose in The Great Divorce because I believe it is his purpose in all his writings on the Christian life. In everything he writes, his aim is to remind us that we are here and now, that God is here and now, that this God makes total demands of us, and that therefore we must choose to bow the knee or to bow up, to surrender and join our wills to God's or to resist his will and insist on our own way. In short, Lewis is ever and always attempting to clarify for us the nature of the Choice.
This Choice is inherent in the very idea of creation. In creation, God makes that which is not God. Needing nothing, he "loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them." Perfecting us means drawing us into his own life, not in pantheistic fashion, as if we are to be melted down and absorbed into God like drops of water into the ocean. Rather, Christianity shows us how human beings can "be taken into the life of God and yet remain themselves — in fact, be very much more themselves than they were before." Like a boomerang, God flings us into existence with his right hand in order that he might receive us back with his left. But — and this is crucial — we boomerangs can choose whether to return or not.
By creating something other than himself — that is, something not God but possessing a mind and a will — God made the Choice (and therefore sin) possible. "From the moment a creature becomes aware of God as God and of itself as self, the terrible alternative of choosing God or self for the centre is opened to it." The creature that is entirely dependent upon God and can only be happy in God can try to set up on its own, to exist for itself. This is the sin of pride, and it lurks behind all other sins.
[It] is committed daily by young children and ignorant peasants as well as by sophisticated persons, by solitaries no less than by those who live in society: it is the fall in every individual life, and in each day of each individual life, the basic sin behind all particular sins: at this very moment you and I are either committing it, or about to commit it, or repenting it.
This is what confronts us in the here and now. God says to us, "You must be strong with my strength and blessed with my blessedness, for I have no other to give you." This is the only happiness there is. "To be God — to be like God and to share his goodness in creaturely response — to be miserable — these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows — the only food that any possible universe ever can grow — then we must starve eternally." This is the Choice: God or self. Happiness or misery. Heaven or hell.
Of course, there are many variations of the Choice. MacDonald expresses it this way in The Great Divorce:
"Milton was right," said my Teacher. "The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words 'Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.' There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy — that is, to reality. Ye see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends. Ye call it the Sulks. But in adult life it has a hundred fine names — Achilles' wrath and Coriolanus' grandeur, Revenge and Injured Merit and Self-Respect and Tragic Greatness and Proper Pride."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Lewis on the Christian Life"
Copyright © 2018 Joe Rigney.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Series Preface 11
1 The Choice: The Unavoidable Either-Or 25
2 The Gospel: God Came Down 35
3 Theology: A Map to Ultimate Reality 51
4 The Gospel Applied: Good Infection and Good Pretending 69
5 The Devil: The Proud and Bent Spirit 83
6 The Church: Worshiping with Christ's Body 95
7 Prayer: Practicing the Presence of God 107
8 A Grand Mystery: Divine Providence and Human Freedom 123
9 Pride and Humility: Enjoying and Contemplating Ourselves 139
10 Christian Hedonics: Beams of Glory and the Quest for Joy 151
11 Reason and Imagination: Truth, Meaning, and the Life of Faith 167
12 Healthy Introspection: The Precarious Path to Self-Knowledge 187
13 The Natural Loves: Affection, Friendship, and Eros 205
14 Divine Love: Putting the Natural Loves in Their Place 231
15 Hell: The Outer Darkness 249
16 Heaven: Further Up and Further In 263
17 Orual's Choice: Discovering Her True Face 277
Lewis Works Cited 297
General Index 299
Scripture Index 309
What People are Saying About This
“Joe Rigney has written an engaging book that artfully pulls together much of what C. S. Lewis had to say about living for the glory of Jesus Christ. Drawing upon Lewis’s books, essays, and letters, Rigney offers an insightful overview of the author’s teaching on Christian discipleship.”
Lyle W. Dorsett, Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University
“There may be no more important cultural question today than what it means to be human, and as Joe Rigney says early in this book, C. S. Lewis continues to be refreshing and unique on this question and so many others. Rigney’s ability to reintroduce Lewis to readers is refreshing, unique, and on full display in this book.”
John Stonestreet, President, The Colson Center; coauthor, A Practical Guide to Culture
“C. S. Lewis gets to the heart of the human condition, and Joe Rigney gets to the heart of C. S. Lewis. Here is a much-needed book that offers a clear and concise overview of Lewis’s vision for the Christian life. Rigney’s take on Lewis is appreciative where deserved, critical where necessary, and always insightful in its application.”
Trevin Wax, Director for Bibles and Reference, LifeWay Christian Resources; author, This Is Our Time; Eschatological Discipleship; and Gospel-Centered Teaching
“A thoughtful, lucid, and beautiful exposition of a magnificent writer. Whether you are relatively new to C. S. Lewis or have read all his books, Joe Rigney will show you ideas and connections that are easily missed, and increase your appreciation for Lewis’s insights on the Christian life.”
Andrew Wilson, Pastor, Kings Church London; author, The Life We Never Expected and Unbreakable
“C. S. Lewis’s theology is a mix of faithfulness to the creeds, brilliant analogies, rare good sense, and, unfortunately, a few areas of doctrinal weakness. Joe Rigney’s book Lewis on the Christian Life accurately reports Lewis’s theology as it relates to practical Christian living. He does an excellent job of bringing out the good sense and carrying on a respectful but critical conversation with Lewis about those shortcomings. The end result is a book that will help you understand Lewis and practice the Christian life. This is a book I’m glad I read and one that you will want to read. I recommend it with enthusiasm.”
Donald T. Williams, R. A. Forrest Scholar, Toccoa Falls College; author, Deeper Magic: The Theology Behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis