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Reading Classics Together

March 26, 2009

We continue today with our effort to read through William Wilberforce’s Real Christianity. As you know, this book seeks to help the reader discern true faith from false beliefs. This week we come to the third chapter, “Inadequate Conceptions of God and of Christian Behavior.”

Incidentally, if you are interested in hearing a bit about “Reading the Classics” you can listen to the latest Boundless Show podcast. I was a guest on the show to talk about these books we are reading.

Discussion

Wilberforce begins this chapter by laying out some of the very basic beliefs of the Christian faith and says that few churchgoers are so attentive as to be entirely ignorant of them. His concern, though, is that people can hear such great truths about human sin and God’s redemption and remain unmoved and unaffected. “Let the most superficial observer compare the sentiments and views of the bulk of the Christian world with the articles of faith that still appear in their creed. An amazing discrepancy must strike him! Thus, in the minds of the crowd, religion appears to be wholly excluded from the business world and the vanities of life.” In other words, the creed people profess seems to have no bearing on their lives. Says Wilberforce, “Vainly you strive to bring them around to speak on this topic. One would expect the subject of God to be uppermost in the hearts of redeemed sinners. But they elude all your endeavors. If you make mention of it yourself, they do not give it a cordial welcome; indeed they greet it with unequivocal disgust. At best the discussion remains forced and formal.”

Wilberforce uses this chapter to write about four topics, all of which fit under the heading of “Inadequate Conceptions of God and of Christian Behavior.” He says that people have an inadequate conception of Christianity as a faith. This is shown in an inadequate appreciation of Christ, an inadequate appreciation of the Holy Spirit and inadequate conception of Christian behavior. He then looks to the validity of emotions within religion, carefully defending his view that, though professed Christians have long turned to emotional fanaticism instead of true belief, it is presumptuous “to propose excluding from the Christian religion such a large part of the composition of man.” “Surely our all-wise Creator had just as valuable a purpose in giving us the elemental qualities and original passions of the mind as He did in giving us the organs of the body.” Our emotions must be subject to our reason, but they must still be exercised. And how do we know if these emotions are being used properly? We can simply ask this: “Do they motivate the love that keeps His commandments?”

He turns in the third place to inadequate conceptions of the Holy Spirit’s operations, saying “the tendency prevalent among the bulk of nominal Christians is to form a religious system for themselves, instead of taking it from the Word of God.” We see this in the neglect of the doctrine of the influence of the Holy Spirit. People prefer to follow their own religious systems instead of relying on the Spirit to point us to God’s religious system. And finally, Wilberforce looks at mistaken conceptions of the terms of acceptance with God. Such theology is, of course, absolutely foundational the Christian faith. “If anything is unsound and hollow here, the superstructure cannot be safe. That is why it is important to ask the nominal Christian about the means of a sinner’s acceptance by God.” Here we will find that many people rely wholly or substantially on their own efforts, not believing or understanding that the Christian must depend entirely on Christ.

I enjoyed these closing remarks:

The title of Christian is a reproach to us if we turn ourselves away from Him after whom we are named. The name of Jesus is not to be like Allah of the Muhammadans, or like a talisman or amulet, worn on the arm as an external badge and symbol of a profession, thought to preserve one from evil by some mysterious and unintelligible potency.

Instead, we should allow the name of Jesus to be engraved deeply on the heart, written there by the finger of God Himself in everlasting characters. It is our sure and undoubted title to present peace and future glory. The assurance that this title conveys of a bright turning toward heaven will lighten the burdens and alleviate the sorrows of life.

As I read this book, written centuries ago, I continue to be amazed at its relevance to our day. As the French say, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose (The more things change, the more they stay the same).

Next Week

We’ll continue next Thursday with Chapter 4, “Inadequate Conceptions Concerning the Nature and the Discipline of Practical Christianity.” Do note that this is the longest chapter in the book. You will not want to leave it all until Wednesday evening or Thursday morning!

Your Turn

Reading the Classics Together is, at its heart, an interactive effort. If you have read the chapter and have comments or questions, please feel free to post a comment. If you have a blog of your own and have written about the book there, please feel free to leave us a link to your article.
March 19, 2009

This is a slightly abbreviated version of my usual “Reading the Classics” post. I am in Orlando and about to begin blogging the Ligonier Ministries National Conference. I am going to need to head to the church in just a few minutes. So I will to leave it to the other participants in this effort (that’s you!) to add a little bit more detail about the contents of this chapter. For now, here are just a few brief notes.

Discussion

I tried something different this week. We had a long drive this week, traveling from Toronto to Chattanooga and, while we were driving, I asked my wife to read this chapter to me. It’s the first time I’ve listened to a chapter of the classics instead of reading a chapter of the classics. I quite enjoyed it.

In this chapter of Real Christianity, Wilberforce writes about “Inadequate Conceptions of Human Nature.” He shows that one of the keys to discerning true from false beliefs relies on a person’s understanding of human nature. He believes rightly that a proper understanding of human nature “lies at the very root of all true religion. And it is the basis and groundwork of Christianity.”

“Most educated, professing Christians,” he writes, “either overlook or deny the corruption and weakness of human nature.” Though they are forced to acknowledge that something is amiss with human behavior, they will deny sin and depravity and speak instead of frailty and infirmity, of petty wrongdoings rather than indwelling sin. “The majority of professing Christians usually speak of man as a being who is naturally pure. He is inclined to all virtue. Only occasionally something draws him out of the righteous course…” Wilberforce compares and contrasts such a view to the Bible’s understanding of humanity which describes man as desperately wicked and sinful to the very core.

He is right when he declares “They who have formed a true notion of their lost and helpless state will most gladly listen to good news. And they will have a high estimation of the value of such a deliverance.” I almost wonder if he was thinking of his friend John Newton when he wrote these words. Regardless, he goes on to say that, though talk of man’s depravity is a difficult and painful discussion that does damage to man’s pride, it is one that is necessary for one who would truly understand the great work of the gospel. “The mind listens to it with difficulty, nay, with a mixture of anger and disgust. Yet it is here that our foundation must be laid. Otherwise our superstructure, whatever we may think of it, will one day prove tottering and insecure.”

Next Week

We’ll continue next Thursday with Chapter 3, “Inadequate Conceptions of God and of Christian Behavior.”

Your Turn

Reading the Classics Together is, at its heart, an interactive effort. If you have read the chapter and have comments or questions, please feel free to post a comment. If you have a blog of your own and have written about the book there, please feel free to leave us a link to your article.

March 12, 2009

This morning brings us to week two of this round of Reading the Classics Together. We are reading William Wilberforce’s Real Christianity. Last week we covered the introductory matter, leaving us this week to read through the first chapter. I am going to provide just a few introductory thoughts and then invite your comments, questions or further discussion.

Discussion

William Wilberforce’s A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country Contrasted with Real Christianity was first published in 1797. However, but for the antiquated language and the references to the Church of England, it could just as easily have been written in modern day North America. What afflicted Christianity in Wilberforce’s day afflicts Christianity today, and especially so, I think, in the United States. Where Christianity is assumed, moralism prevails. It is a concern for us today as it was for Wilberforce in his day. Real Christianity is his attempt to help his readers discern true faith from false beliefs; true faith from mere moralism done in the name of God. But “with Christianity, professing Christians are little acquainted.” For so many people “attachment to Christianity is merely the result of early and groundless prepossession.” “In a great measure, the bulk of the Christian world knows so little, and mistakes so greatly, the foundational principles of the religions that it professes!”

Wilberforce proposes examining professing Christians by listening to “the unreserved conversation of their confidential hours” because “here, if anywhere, one sees the interior of the heart laid open.” And here we will see that many people show few traces of real Christianity. Their faith is shown to the public and in polite, convenient circles; but when they are alone, their faith means nothing, their faith is nothing.

Real Christianity, says Wilberforce, forms itself from the study of the Scriptures while this fraudulent Christianity forms itself from commonly received maxims of Christendom. He describes this as a “voluntary ignorance.” “When God of His goodness has granted us such abundant means of instruction, how great must be the guilt, and how awful must be the punishment, of voluntary ignorance!” Here is a quote that stood out to me as a challenge: “Bountiful as is the hand of Providence, it does not bestow its gifts to deduce us into laziness. It bestows gifts to arouse us to exertion. … Yet we expect to be Christians without labor, study, or inquiry!” In other words, God’s gracious provision of his Word should not causes us to be complacent but should cause us to work hard, to work earnestly, to devour it, to know it, to live it. In fact, the only way we can really know the value of Christianity is to exert ourselves in the study of Scripture. It is by studying our faith that we will know the value of our faith!

As the chapter draws to a close, Wilberforce offers two reasons why people who profess to be Christian may actually persist in a state of “lamentable ignorance.” The first suggests that “it signifies little what a man believes; look to his practice.” The second, related to the first, suggests that “sincerity is all in all.” We see both of these just as clearly and just as often today; I’ve often thought they are related to the postmodern mindset that pervades the culture and the church today, but Wilberforce writes from centuries before the dawn of postmodernism. Perhaps such lamentable ignorance is a universal product of sin and not something connected to any one culture force or worldview.

I was both surprised and delighted at just how relevant Wilberforce’s words are to us today. I am looking forward to continuing through this book!

Next Week

Next week we’ll read chapter two. I am going to be at a conference and my schedule will be different than what I am accustomed to. But I will try to get the chapter posted here early in the day.

Your Turn

Reading the Classics Together is, at its heart, an interactive effort. If you have read the chapter and have comments or questions, please feel free to post a comment. If you have a blog of your own and have written about the book there, please feel free to leave us a link to your article.
March 05, 2009

Today, as part of the Reading Classics Together effort, we begin looking at the next classic of the Christian faith—William Wilberforce’s Real Christianity. We’ve gone from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity to Wilberforce’s Real Christianity. It’s nothing more than coincidence.

If you are interested in reading along with us, there is still plenty of time. Over the next seven weeks we will be reading this classic of the Christian faith, one chapter per week, and posting thoughts and reflections at this blog. You can go ahead and purchase a copy of the book or even find it online. Do note that the book has gone through many editions and revisions, some substantially longer than others; I will be reading from the David C. Cook edition edited by James Houston.

Our task today was really just to make sure we all have the book and to ensure we have at least a sense of what it is all about. In this excerpt from Wilberforce’s original introduction to Real Christianity (originally titled “A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country Contrasted with Real Christianity”), we see his reason for writing it:

I’m not going to attempt to either convince skeptics or answer the questions unbelievers always seem to ask, but rather point out some of the problems with the beliefs and actions of those who already claim to be Christians. I’d like to attempt to contrast what we see in the lives of many, perhaps most, who make this claim with what I understand the Bible teaches about what it means to believe in Christ. I am disturbed when I see the majority of so-called Christians having such little understanding of the real nature of the faith they profess. Faith is a subject of such importance that we should not ignore it because of the distractions or the hectic pace of our lives. Life as we know it, with all its ups and downs, will soon be over. We all will give an accounting to God of how we have lived. Because of this fact, I’m not going to pull any punches in what I write. I hope you will seriously consider what is contained within these pages.

He offers this encouragement to his readers: “If what I write seems too rigid or austere, I would only ask that you check what I have to say against what the Bible teaches. That is the only opinion that counts. If you accept the authority of the Bible, I assume you will agree.”

So it is that simple. The purpose of this book is to help readers discern true faith from false beliefs. It is written in the context of eighteenth century England where Christian faith was assumed; there was a cultural Christianity that led everyone to claim Christian faith even if there was little evidence to back the claim. In that way it is probably not too different from twenty-first century America. And for that reason I think we will find this book both relevant and applicable. I am looking forward to diving into it.

Next Week

For next week, please read the first chapter. Then come back here on Thursday, March 12 with any questions or comments.

February 26, 2009

I posted this last Thursday but wanted to offer this as another reminder…

Real Christianity WilberforceIt is time to think about the next classic book of the Christian faith that we will be reading together. The impetus for this project was the simple realization that, though many Christians want to read through the classics of the faith, few of us have the motivation to actually make it happen. This program allows us to read them together, providing both a level of accountability and the added of interest of comparing notes. Those who have participated in each of the programs will now have read Holiness by J.C. Ryle, Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen, The Seven Sayings of the Savior on the Cross by A.W. Pink, The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards and Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I have benefited immensely from reading these books and know that others have, too.

Today I’d like to announce the next classic. My rationale for choosing this book was that it somehow just seemed to fit. Perhaps it had something to do with the media focus on race or perhaps it was something to do with recent celebrations of William Wilberforce’s life. But as I thought about what I wanted to read next, my thoughts were drawn to Wilberforce’s Real Christianity: Discerning True Faith from False Beliefs. Here is a brief description of the book: “William Wilberforce (1759-1833) came from a prosperous merchant family. A politician by age 21, his early years were relatively unremarkable, but his conversion to Christianity in 1785 soon changed that. Wilberforce committed himself to two ambitious callings: rousing professing Christians to understand the nature of true faith, and bringing about the end of slavery in England’s colonies. Real Christianity challenged the ruling classes of early 19th Century England more than any other writings. To this day, Real Christianity remains a compelling work that soundly teaches the tenets of evangelical faith and stirs the consciences of Christians.”

I do not think we can easily overestimate the impact of Wilberforce’s life. As I read biographies of him last year, as I watched the film that traced his life, I knew that sooner or later I would want to hear him in his own words; I’d want to hear that passion that drove him through year after year of conflict.

And so this seemed like a good opportunity to do just that. The book has just seven chapters so this will be just an eight week study (allowing a week to read the Introductory matter). But I trust it will be a valuable one. As always, you can buy the book at Monergism Books (and I believe you can also find it in various places online if you don’t mind reading electronically). If you scroll down a little bit on that page you’ll see two related books. If you would like a brief biographical sketch of Wilberforce’s life, Piper’s book is worth the read. The other book is (I believe) geared to children so may be worth reading to or with them.

We’ll begin reading Real Christianity on Thursday March 5 and continue reading one chapter per week until it is complete. Please read the introductory matter for March 5.

Buy It Here

February 20, 2009

I am going to address two topics in this post, so be sure to read long enough to catch both of them.

In just a moment I want to tell you about the next classic book of the Christian faith that we will be reading together. But first, I want to announce a special reading project that I’ll be leading.

The Cross He Bore

The Cross He BoreEaster is fast approaching and I think it would be both fun and worthwhile to read a book together as we prepare to remember the Lord’s death and to celebrate his resurrection. The book that always come to mind this time of year is Frederick Leahy’s The Cross He Bore. This is a series of thirteen meditations on the sufferings of the Redeemer, beginning with Gethsemane and ending in the outer darkness. In his Foreword to the book, Edward Donnelly says, “in rereading these chapters, I found myself more than once compelled by emotion to stop - and then to worship. I cannot help feeling that this is exactly how they were written and that the author’s chief desire is that each of us who reads should be brought to gaze in fresh understanding and gratitude upon ‘the Son of God,’ who loved me and give himself for me.”

This book ranks on my list of all-time favorites (read my review here) and I look forward to reading it again this Easter. I’d love to have you read it with me! I assure you that you will find it well worth the read. The book costs only $3.75 when you buy it from MonergismBooks.com. So why don’t you purchase a copy (or two or three) and we’ll read it together. We can begin reading it on Sunday March 29 and read one chapter per day in the thirteen days leading to (and including) Good Friday. I will post a brief reflection on the chapter each morning.

Buy It Here.

Reading the Next Classic Together

Real Christianity WilberforceIt is also time to think about the next classic book of the Christian faith that we will be reading together. The impetus for this project was the simple realization that, though many Christians want to read through the classics of the faith, few of us have the motivation to actually make it happen. This program allows us to read them together, providing both a level of accountability and the added of interest of comparing notes. Those who have participated in each of the programs will now have read Holiness by J.C. Ryle, Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen, The Seven Sayings of the Savior on the Cross by A.W. Pink, The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards and Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I have benefited immensely from reading these books and know that others have, too.

Today I’d like to announce the next classic. My rationale for choosing this book was that it somehow just seemed to fit. Perhaps it had something to do with the media focus on race or perhaps it was something to do with recent celebrations of William Wilberforce’s life. But as I thought about what I wanted to read next, my thoughts were drawn to Wilberforce’s Real Christianity: Discerning True Faith from False Beliefs. Here is a brief description of the book: “William Wilberforce (1759-1833) came from a prosperous merchant family. A politician by age 21, his early years were relatively unremarkable, but his conversion to Christianity in 1785 soon changed that. Wilberforce committed himself to two ambitious callings: rousing professing Christians to understand the nature of true faith, and bringing about the end of slavery in England’s colonies. Real Christianity challenged the ruling classes of early 19th Century England more than any other writings. To this day, Real Christianity remains a compelling work that soundly teaches the tenets of evangelical faith and stirs the consciences of Christians.”

I do not think we can easily overestimate the impact of Wilberforce’s life. As I read biographies of him last year, as I watched the film that traced his life, I knew that sooner or later I would want to hear him in his own words; I’d want to hear that passion that drove him through year after year of conflict.

And so this seemed like a good opportunity to do just that. The book has just seven chapters so this will be just an eight week study (allowing a week to read the Introductory matter). But I trust it will be a valuable one. As always, you can buy the book at Monergism Books (and I believe you can also find it in various places online if you don’t mind reading electronically). If you scroll down a little bit on that page you’ll see two related books. If you would like a brief biographical sketch of Wilberforce’s life, Piper’s book is worth the read. The other book is (I believe) geared to children so may be worth reading to or with them.

We’ll begin reading Real Christianity on Thursday March 5 and continue reading one chapter per week until it is complete. Please read the introductory matter for March 5.

Buy It Here

And do let me know if you’re going to participate in one or both of these projects.

January 29, 2009

Today brings us to our final reading in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. We’ve gone through it quite quickly but this has worked well, I think, as the book lends itself to a quick reading. This week we come to the final pages—chapters seven through eleven of Book 4. There was not a whole lot of discussion last week, but the consensus seemed to be that this is not the strongest section in the book. Lewis has lost a little bit of steam. Having said that, I think this week’s reading improves upon the last one.

Discussion

Then again, though I think that this week’s reading was better than last week’s, it was not without it’s troubling portions.

In these five chapters, Lewis focuses on sanctification, on putting aside the old man and on becoming sons of God. I found a lot of great quotes that were worthy of some highlighting. Because there were so many, I think I’ll focus on simply sharing a few of them today. Here are some favorites:

“We begin to notice, besides our particular sinful acts, our sinfulness; begin to be alarmed not only about what we do, but about what we are.”

“Surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats; it only prevents them from hiding.”

“[Putting on Christ] is not a sort of special exercise for the top class. It is the whole of Christianity. Christianity offers nothing else at all.”

“Christ says ‘Give me all. I don’t want to much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it.’”

“As long as Dick does not turn to God, he thinks his niceness is his own, and just as long as he thinks that, it is not his own. It is when Dick realises that his niceness is not his own but a gift from God, and when he offers it back to God—it is just then that it begins to be really his own.”

“If you are a nice person—if virtue comes easily to you—beware!”

“We must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world—and might even be more difficult to save.”

But there were some areas of the chapter that were not so good. for example, in the final pages he writes about evolution and seems to have drunk deeply of that explanation to man’s origins. I find it hard to believe that a man of his insight could have believed in evolution without seeing that it is almost a religion unto itself. And yet he seems to have believed in it wholeheartedly. It certainly puts a damper on the book to have all of that in the final chapter.

There is more. I realize that this statement could be taken two ways, but from what I know of Lewis, he may mean exactly what it seems he means here: “There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it.” Lewis seems to have believed that other religions could lead people to enough of God’s truth that they could be saved. He does not articulate much further in Mere Christianity but apparently does so elsewhere. Obviously we need to set aside such unbiblical talk, realizing that it simply cannot be supported by Scripture.

So I guess in this last chapter we see again Lewis at his best and his worst. For every five or ten great insights (and many of them truly are great) there is one or two strange and unbiblical beliefs. And it’s too bad, really. I can see why Mere Christianity is regarded as a classic but it seems to me that this must depend largely on Books 2 and 3. It is here that we see Lewis at his finest and it is here that he is at times unparalleled. While there are moments of brilliance in the rest of the book, there are also quite a few moments I think we could do without.

Having said all of that, I am glad that we took the time to read this book and to read it together. It has fed both my mind and my soul.

Your Turn

The purpose of this program is to read these classics together. So if there is something you’d like to share about what you read, please feel free to do so. You can leave a comment or a link to your blog and we’ll make this a collaborative effort.

Next Up…

I guess we will wait just a couple of weeks and then start to think about the next classic we will read together. Feel free to share your suggestions in the comments.

January 22, 2009

Today we come to our sixth (and second-to-last) reading in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. This means as well that we have come to the fourth and final book that makes up Mere Christianity. And I think we are beginning to see why Lewis is known more as an apologist than a theologian.

Discussion

Book Three, “Christian Behaviour” was, I think, Lewis at his best. I enjoyed each of the twelve chapters and thought Lewis was brilliant throughout. Through the first six chapters of Book Four, “Beyond Personality,” I’ve been mostly disappointed.

Lewis opens with a chapter on “Making and Begetting.” His opening words are useful as he shows the value of theology. “I think any man who wants to think about God at all would like to have the clearest and most accurate ideas about Him which are available. You are not children: why should you be treated like children?” I guess people in the 1940’s must have been much like people today, feeling that theology was for theologians, not for those who really wanted to follow God. They wanted to feel God without necessarily knowing God. Lewis counters this well. While he teaches rightly that doctrine is not the same as God, but merely something that points to God, he does not minimize the importance of knowing who God is by knowing God as he is. Theology has real and practical value and he is sure to point this out.

In this chapter he grapples with the difference between making and begetting. “A man begets a child, but he only makes a statue. God begets Christ but He only makes men.” Thus God begets God, something of the same kind of himself. He is careful to show that Christ is not a created being and yet somehow is still begotten of the Father.

In “The Three-Personal God” he tries to offer a reasonable explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity. His illustrations prove, as all illustrations must, just how difficult it is to explain the Trinity in human terms. Eventually Lewis concludes that we must trust that God’s explanation of himself as Father and Jesus as Son is the best illustration or metaphor we can have.

In “Time and Beyond Time” he shows how God exists outside of time, seeking to dispel the fears of those who believe that God could not possibly hear a million prayers offered to him at one time. Lewis shows that, though we cannot really understand such a thing, God exists outside of the bounds of time. However, he comes perilously close to open theism when he suggests that there is a sense in which God does not know our future actions until we have done them. I believe Lewis’ issue here is one that plagues every open theist—how God can know our future actions (thus showing that we cannot possibly do anything other than what God foresees) and how at the same time we can retain free will (defined as the ability to choose, of our own accord, the exact opposite of the action we took). Reformed theology offers an explanation to this, of course, saying that we are bound by our natures and are free to choose only as our natures dictate. But this seems to escape Lewis.

Lewis continues through “Good Infection” where he discusses a few topics that somehow did not become bound together in my mind, “The Obstinate Toy Soldiers” where he looks at how men can become sons of God and “Two Notes” where he pauses to offer further thoughts on two questions.

As I said at the outset, I found this week’s reading quite disappointing. It occurred to me as I thought about it, that while I had some familiarity with the content of the previous chapters simply by virtue of the vast numbers of times I’ve read them quoted in other works, I do not recall reading any quotes from these past six chapters. And there is, I think, pretty good reason for this. While I think Lewis was wrong on at least one or two points in these chapters, more often he is just a little bit muddled. His arguments lack the force and compulsion of the chapters that came before. Or that was my sense of it. I’d be interested in learning if you agree.

Next Week

For next Thursday, please finish up the book. We’ll read the last five chapters, post some final thoughts, and I guess we’ll then begin to think about the next book we can read together.

Your Turn

The purpose of this program is to read these classics together. So if there is something you’d like to share about what you read, please feel free to do so. You can leave a comment or a link to your blog and we’ll make this a collaborative effort.

January 15, 2009

We’re continuing to make our way through C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity having reached the final chapters of the third book (out of four). We actually have only a couple of weeks left in this book. Compared to some of the ones we’ve covered in the past, this one has gone by very quickly. But the easy reading is, thankfully, in no way an indication of the value of the content.

Discussion

This week we covered the final six chapters of Book III, “Christian Behavior.” It may well be my favorite reading yet, and especially so through the first four of the chapters.

The first chapter deals with Forgiveness and Lewis’ take seemed to be something like this: “Look, I don’t quite understand or like it either, but it’s just something we have to do.” “I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could do—I can do precious little—I am telling you what Christianity is. I did not invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgiven those that sin against us.’ There is not the slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive we shall not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it. What are we to do?” When discussing how hard it is to offer forgiveness, Lewis asks this difficult question: “How could you hate what a man did and not hate the man?” His answer is brilliant. “Years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life—namely myself. … In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.” Thus Christianity does not require us to reduce our hatred for what is evil, but it does require us to hate properly—to hate the evil but still hope that the person who has committed evil may be cured from it.

We need to remember that this book was written in the context of the Second World War and Lewis has to make his words applicable to that conflict. “Even while we kill and punish we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves—to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good. That is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not.”

Lewis turns next to The Great Sin of pride. He is brutally harsh on this sin. It “leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.” It is an essentially competitive sin which “gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man” so that “once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.” He, as do so many Christian writers, sets this as the greatest and most dangerous of all sins. A right knowledge of God is what helps us fight against pride. “The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.” When we see ourselves in the light of God’s holiness, there is no place for pride. After all, “He and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble—delightedly humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life.”

The next chapter deals with Charity, one of the three great theological virtues. Charity is more than giving away money but really indicates “Love, in the Christian sense.” It is not an emotion or a state of the feelings, but a state of the will. These words are worth heeding: “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you do. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” The opposite is equally true. “The more cruel you are, the more you will hate; and the more you hate, the more cruel you will become—and so on in a vicious circle for ever. Good and evil both increase with compound interest.” The lesson in all of this is that Christian love does not demand that we sit and try to manufacture feelings. Instead, Christian love asks “If I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?” and then does it.

Chapter 10 looks to hope. “Looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do.” This chapter is filled with some of Lewis’ most memorable words. “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.” “The real want for Heaven is present in us, [but] we do not recognise it.” “The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.” He gets beautifully sarcastic when he writes about the stereotypes of heaven in which people spend eternity sitting on clouds playing harps. “The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. … People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.”

Lewis concludes with two chapters titled “Faith.” I found these chapters slightly more obscure than the ones preceding. He seeks to cover two ways that Christians use the word faith. In the first chapter, faith is “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” In this way, both atheists and Christians exercise faith that may be strong at one time and weak at another. This habit of faith must be trained to persevere through weak times. He asks this good question: “If you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?” He also offers wisdom on accepting our own badness. “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.” “We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means—the only complete realist.” In the second chapter he looks at faith in a higher sense. This kind of faith comes after a person has tried to practice the Christian virtues and has still failed. He has discovered his moral bankruptcy and now has to put his faith in another—in Christ—trusting that He will make things right.

I could go on and on. But I will stop here. I am really looking forward to hearing what parts of this chapter you enjoyed the most.

Next Week

I think we’re keeping up a pretty good pace here. So why don’t we read the first six chapters of Book IV for next week. Again, that is only about 30 pages—pretty easy to cover over the course of a week. That will leave us just one more week after that and we’ll be done with Mere Christianity.

Your Turn

The purpose of this program is to read these classics together. So if there is something you’d like to share about what you read, please feel free to do so. You can leave a comment or a link to your blog and we’ll make this a collaborative effort.

January 08, 2009

This morning, after a lengthy holiday break, we return to C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity in our effort to read together some of the classics of the Christian faith. After two short and preliminary sections (which were actually first published as short books) dealing with “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe” and “What Christians Believe.”, we are now in the heart of Lewis’ classic. And I think we are beginning to see what sets Lewis apart and why Mere Christianity remains an important and even unmatched book even today.

Discussion

In Book 3, Lewis turns to his discussion of “Christian Behavior.” Here he shows how Christians are to live. He immediately distinguishes moral ideals from moral rules and shows that he has foreseen society’s slide into postmodernism. These words are near-prophetic: “It is dangerous to describe a man who tries very hard to keep the moral law as a ‘man of high ideals,’ because this might lead you to think that moral perfection was a private taste of his own and that the rest of us were not called on to share it.” And this, of course, is exactly what society declares today. We have left behind morals and have turned instead to values; we have left what is absolute and unchanging and turned instead to what is personal and temporary.

A couple of the chapters seemed a little bit odd or unexpected to me and perhaps none more so than “Morality and Psychoanalysis.” I suppose this reflects the time in which the book was written since psychoanalysis isn’t a term we encounter so often today. Then again, perhaps psychology has become so ingrained in our culture and our minds that terms like that one have almost lost their meaning. I did appreciate this warning: “Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and a good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends. … That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it.” This is also a quote to file away and think about: “When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. … Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.”

Where I thought Lewis was at his best is in the chapters dealing with sexual morality and Christian marriage. I am quite sure I’ll write at length in the future on Lewis’ thoughts on modesty, chastity and such. More on that another day. Here are two statements I had to highlight: “Christianity is almost the only one of the great religions which thoroughly approves of the body” and “Christianity has glorified marriage more than any other religion.” Lewis deals very well with the early years of the loosening of sexual mores that have continued and escalated between then and now. The lie in all of this “consists in the suggestion that any sexual act to which you are tempted at the moment is … healthy and normal.” While Christianity celebrates sex, it does so within its properly God-given context. Lewis’ encouragement to those who fight against sexual sin (or any other kind of sin) is well-taken. “Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again.” “We learn, on the one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.”

And then Lewis turns to marriage, presenting it as a good gift from God. “The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union.” I was really struck by his words about the way love inclines lovers to bind themselves to one another with promises. Lewis says, “The Christian law is not forcing upon the passion of love something which is foreign to that passion’s own nature: it is demanding that lovers should take seriously something which their passion of itself impels them to do.” Hence the promises of marriage are simply the promises of love taken to their natural end. For a man who, at this time in his life had never been married, Lewis had much mature wisdom to impart.

For sake of time I will stop with just these few reflections. I could go on at much greater length for this section really was a gold mine. I look forward to reading about the areas that stood out to you.

Next Week

For next Thursday, let’s just finish up book three. Again, six chapters seems like a lot, but in reality most of the chapters are only a few pages. To read only half of them would amount to only 20 pages of fairly light reading. After Edwards and Owen we should be well equipped to handle 40 pages of Lewis in a week!

Your Turn

The purpose of this program is to read these classics together. So if there is something you’d like to share about what you read, please feel free to do so. You can leave a comment or a link to your blog and we’ll make this a collaborative effort.

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