Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Review: Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

Mere Christianity
C.S. Lewis
HarperCollins, 1952
Buy it from Amazon.com: Mere Christianity

In this 200-page work of non-fiction, C.S. Lewis presents the edited and slightly expanded transcriptions of some radio radio talks he gave to English audiences in the 1940's. His conversational writing is all about “apologetics,” explaining and defending the Christian faith.

Lewis states early on that he doesn't intend to forward a particular denomination of Christianity or discuss the finer points of theology—he's discussing “mere” Christianity, just the basics of what all Christians say they believe about God and about his son, Jesus. He systematically builds up his logic point-by-point and recaps what he's establishing at the beginning and end of every chapter. The very first building block of his discussion is the idea of the Moral Law, or The Law of Human Nature. Whenever one person fights with another person, they tend to appeal to some higher standard: it was unfair of you to steal my sandwich from the fridge; it was selfish of you to play your music at full blast when you knew I was studying; it was rude of you to cut me off while driving on the freeway. Everyone has an idea of morality, and arguing with another person about their behavior means trying to prove the other person did wrong. Often, the guilty party won't outright say that what they did wasn't wrong—instead, they'll argue that they had special reasons for acting against the moral standard. So there is some idea we all have of fair and right behavior, and we tend to feel uncomfortable/embarrassed/ashamed when we don't adhere to that standard. We come up with excuses and reasons for falling short, but there is still a Moral Law, and none of us fully obey it.

Also, even when we don't want to do the "right" thing, we still feel that we ought to do it--when the instinct to help someone and the instinct to keep yourself comfortable compete against each other, a third, distinct feeling tells you that you should choose to do the more difficult, more selfless thing. From these internal struggles, Lewis concludes that there must be something behind the workings of the universe which incites these feelings, something with a will and a powerful intention to nudge us toward "right conduct". But there's nothing comfy about the Moral Law or the will behind it, and the idea of an absolute good is downright scary: “God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies” (pg 31). This is the first time in the talk that we actually get close to Christianity, because Christianity promises forgiveness if people will turn from their sins, but no one's going to be interested in that offer unless they acknowledge that they have sinned and realize that forgiveness is something they need.

He talks at length about the different conceptions of God, because even after you establish that somebody or something is making reality function as it does, there's still a lot of opinions about who or what is running the control room. Pantheism is the attitude that says there's some sort of God, one that's everywhere, in everything, and doesn't especially care about right and wrong, because it is beyond those sorts of simple distinctions. Monotheism says there is one God, a person who very much cares that you do what is right—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are three major monotheist religions. Dualism believes that there are two equal forces in the universe, one good and one evil, but if we accept that idea, we run into the old conundrum—if we see one power as good and one as evil, isn't there some third thing inside us that makes us regard them as aligning or not aligning with the Moral Law? “Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in the part of the universe occupied by the rebel” (pg 45).

So Christianity believes that we live in a good world that has gone wrong, a place made by a holy God and tainted by a fallen angel, the devil. But if there is an absolutely good God in control of everything, why does he allow this rebellion? Because goodness and rightness are a choice God offers to human beings. If we didn't have free will, our good behavior wouldn't be of any more value than a mechanical toy that walks and talks when it's wound up. Without the choice between right and wrong, we wouldn't be people capable of giving and receiving love--we would be objects that perform a set of programmed actions.       

Now Lewis' discussion moves to the sacrifice of Jesus, specifically. About 2,000 years ago, Jesus came along and claimed to be the human incarnation of the one true God. He offered the forgiveness of all sins, not just forgiving people of wrongs done against himself, but of all wrongs done at any time to anyone. Some say he was a good, moral teacher, but it's impossible to view Jesus as just a man who had some helpful advice, because he emphatically said, within the context of monotheistic Judaism, that he was God in human flesh and that he could forgive sins. With such outrageous claims, he was either crazy, or evil, or he was (and is) what he claimed to be. It's easy to focus on his teachings and miracles, but the main thing he came to earth to do was die and be resurrected. His sacrifice puts us back into a right relationship with God, if we decide to accept him and follow his teachings. One of the big principles of the Christian faith is that we humans don't need to be improved only slightly or made a just little bit nicer—we need to be completely changed and taken over. We have to let go of our own pride and self-will, the idea that we don't need to change and that we're really not so very bad or so very wrong.

Proverbs 11:14 says, "Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety," and C.S. Lewis has been one of my lifelong counselors--his wisdom and love for the Lord shine through his writing. I've seldom read anyone so educated and yet so humble. He answers lots of objections to the faith, always in a kind, friendly manner, and he never belittles the reader, and never seems angry or prideful. Mere Christianity was a life-changing book for me. It's excellent reading for Christians who'd like to see an educated former atheist's explanation of God, faith, sin, and repentance, and it's also good for non-Christians who'd like to know what all this Jesus stuff is really about. Grade: A+

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Review: The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis

The Four Loves
C.S. Lewis
Harcourt, 1960
Buy it from Amazon.com: The Four Loves

Here's another review brimming with love and admiration, but I can't quite call it a fangirl review, because C.S. Lewis' non-Narnia writing inspires calmer, but no less strong, feelings in me. Beyond his ultra-well-known children's book series, he also wrote science fiction, literary criticism, and theological works, and The Four Loves belongs to the final category. His non-fiction has a very distinct “voice” to it, which can't really be mistaken for anybody else's. In The Four Loves, a guide to human and divine representations of love, his writing feels very Christian, very British, very scholarly, and very masculine, because he was a Christian, an Englishman, and an Oxford professor who spent most of his life surrounded by all-male society. As I'm a believer myself, all that he says in The Four Loves strikes me as exceptionally helpful and spot-on, but I think that almost any type of reader could find beauty and benefit in its brief 140 pages.

The first distinction he makes between types of love is a very basic observation that Gift-love and Need-love are two very different impulses. He explains it nicely here: “The typical example of Gift-love would be that love which moves a man to work and plan and save for the future well-being of his family which he will die without sharing or seeing; of the second [Need-love], that which sends a lonely or frightened child to his mother's arms” (pg 1). He notes that although human love most resembles divine love (the kind shown by God to his creation) when it is giving, this doesn't mean that Need-love is bad or always purely selfish. Is it wrong for a child to need their parents? Is it wrong for teens and adults to seek out the companionship of our friends because we prefer not to be alone? Of course not. In fact, Lewis says that since people truly do need other people, it's a bad thing if we don't exhibit any signs of needing others, “just as lack of appetite is a bad medical symptom because men really do need food” (pg 3).

From here onward, the book is divided into four sections—Affection, Friendship, Eros, and Charity.

Affection: Storge (two syllables, hard “g”), in Greek. Originally defined as the fondness felt between parents and children, and vice versa, but here it has a broader definition. Lewis says Affection is a bit different than regular friendship, since we usually choose our friends because they appeal to us (they're kind or clever or thoughtful or creative in just the precise way that we like), while we may feel deep Affection for people who do not “suit” us, and with whom we have nearly nothing in common. We'll often have Affection for our great-grandmother, our neighbor who collects antebellum coins, or that cashier guy at the grocery store who always seems to be half asleep. Affection isn't picky; all it demands is that the object be “old” and familiar. Also, though Affection often mixes with friendship and with romantic love, it can exist by itself. If you're very fond of spending time with your mother, though she's obsessed with crossword puzzles and the Shopping Channel, while you're into marathon running and rebuilding car engines, that's Affection at work. Lewis calls it a comforting and comfortable sort of feeling, very homey and never loud or braggy. The difficulty with Affection is that, though it's true that almost anyone can be the object of it, almost all of us expect to be the object of Affection and get grumpy when we're not.

Friendship: Philia in Greek, as in “Philadelphia,” the city of brotherly love. Friendship is the least natural of all loves, and not in a bad way. By unnatural, Lewis means it's not a biological necessity. Eros is necessary to continue life and most people are affected by it, and Affection is pretty much necessary to hold society together and most people are affected by it, but plain, strong friendship between individuals isn't something that any of us must experience, and plenty of us don't. Society, or in animal terms, the pack or the herd, can get along perfectly well without the existence of two-person friendships. In fact, “the moment two [people] are friends they have in some degree drawn apart together from the herd” (pg 58). Friendship was lauded as a serious virtue in ancient and medieval times, but in modern times, the love-focus seems to have shifted away from it. How often do you see a novel that's a grand epic of friendship? More often, you see a love story or a family saga than a tale whose focus is two platonic friends. And how many current books about friendships use the friendship either as a segue to romantic love or to the horrible backbiting that results in folks becoming “frenemies” or even outright enemies? In regard to the blending of loves, plenty of people know firsthand that romantic love and Friendship can exist within the same relationship, but “in some ways nothing is less like a Friendship than a love-affair. Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest”(pg 61). Lewis is a great advocate of Friendship and has much to say in praise of it, which ties in with what we know of him and his famous friendship with Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien.

Eros: romantic love. Has to do with the state of “being in love” and is not necessarily what we currently think of as erotic—“That sexual experience can occur without Eros, without being “in love,” and that Eros includes other things besides sexual activity, I take for granted” (pg 91). Eros is focused almost completely on the love-object, the Beloved, and little attention is paid to the self. We don't love the Beloved because we think they will provide us with more pleasure than anyone else can—we love them for their own self, regardless of the affect they have on us. Eros is very unselfish in that fashion, completed situated outside the self and centered on appreciating and benefiting the Beloved. Lewis says that one of the main difficulties with Eros is the tendency to take it too seriously, not in the sense that love isn't a serious and important matter, but in the sense that it's so easy to get swept away by the heightened, near-angelic state of being in love, by the soul-deep gravity of it, that people can forget the lighthearted side and the comedy involved in our behavior when we love. It's important to retain the ability to laugh at oneself! Deadly serious lovers are targets for parody, in real life as in fiction. The other point to be wary of is the tendency to make Eros a god in its own right, to serve the emotion itself with wholehearted devotion because, well, it's just plain awesome.

Charity: agape, in Greek. The three previous examples have been “natural,” earthly, human types of love, but Charity is divine love itself, the source of all the others. Affection, Friendship, and Eros “cannot even remain themselves” or keep from fading or mutating without the help of divine love. And Lewis believes that natural loves don't often compete with our love for God; in fact, we're far more likely to love our fellow human beings too little than too much. Rather than being in competition, the presence of divine love, when it rules in the human heart, nurtures and strengthens all the natural loves. There is nothing needy about Charity, as it's the original Gift-love: “In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give” (pg 126).

I try to keep my reviews positive, but it is a rare book indeed that gets an A+ from me, because it's a grade I reserve for books that have stayed with me over time. Usually, I've read them three times over and can see myself reading them as many more times. These sorts of books haven't just earned a place on the keeper-shelf—they've defined the qualities of literature I want to keep near me, the kind of things I like to have working on my mind. The NY Times Book Review blurb on my copy of The Four Loves says it “deserves to become a minor classic as a modern mirror of our souls, a mirror of the virtues and failings of human loving.” I couldn't agree more. Grade: A+