Thursday, November 05, 2009

Book Review: Fern-seed and Elephants

CS Lewis is best known as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia, and as the Christian apologist author of Mere Christianity. However, his entire writing career notched up many smaller essays, addresses and sermons, some of which have been published in collections. One such collection goes under the title of Fern-seed and Elephants, taken from a scathing attack on the problems of modern Biblical scholarship, in which the scholars
'ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can't see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.'

We'll return later to the conclusions from that particular address, but first we'll review the other essays in the collection. 'Membership', ahead of its time, decries the insistence that 'religion belongs to our private life', while private, solitary time is effectively denied by the wireless! How much more today, with broadband internet, mp3s, satellite and digital TV, and other modern technology! Lewis' point in the essay is that membership in a society or club is very different from membership in the church, in the body of Christ. In a club, all members are equal. and equal rights is key. In reality, though, membership in the church means that all are different, but together make up the body. The key difference is that
'we are summoned from the outset to combine as creatures with our Creator, as mortals with immortal, as redeemed sinners with sinless Redeemer.'

'Learning in War Time' was primarily addressed to students in Oxford during the Second World War, who were concerned with whether they should be studying in the midst of wartime. However, to ask that question is to miss the more pressing question than war:
'Is it right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything.'

The solution for Lewis is that becoming a Christian doesn't mean that we stop doing the normal everyday things we did before, but rather that we offer them up to God, doing everything for his glory.

'Forgiveness' is a very short piece which was very challenging, in which Lewis admits that the forgiveness of sins is something that we affirm in the creeds, but which can be hard to believe. On God's part in forgiving sins, we find it difficult to believe for two reasons - we want to excuse our own sin rather than confess (with the problem that if wrongdoing did have mitigating circumstances, then it is not sin, and that God knows such circumstances better than we do, and so takes them into account anyway); and that we don't really believe that God will forgive our sins. When it comes to us forgiving the sin of others, it's another story. We accept our own excuses for sin too easily, but don't accept others' excuses easily enough. Forgiveness is defined by Lewis as 'killing every trace of resentment in your own heart - every wish to humiliate or hurt him or to pay him out.'

'Historicism' was an essay that I have to confess I didn't really 'get' - perhaps it was more relevant to the particular circumstances in which Lewis was writing, or for a particular audience. The main point appears to be that we can't claim to accept anyone's explaining historical events, because we can't fully know God's purpose, unless God reveals it. The only divinely sanctioned explanation of events is found in the Scriptures.

In 'The World's Last Night', Lewis examines the reality of Christ's return, and considers the question of how we would react if this was the world's last night. He hits a slight wobble when he gets sidetracked into discussing the claims that the end would come in the lifetime of the apostles, yet even through this hits on a useful point, that errors and ignorance make up the strongest proof that the New Testament is historically reliable. More positively, as he discusses the practical impossibility of predicting the time of Christ's return, he says that 'precisely because we cannot predict the moment, we must be ready at all moments.' Not that this should lead to perpetual fear, but perpetual remembering - is this an activity I want to be doing as Jesus returns? The return will bring judgement- which should be stripped of it's inherent modern association with punishment. Rather, judgement is the verdict: on what each of us is. Then punishment or reward will follow, with no errors made.

'Religion and Rocketry' is an interesting theological discussion concerning life on other planets, and how Christ would relate to them. Would they also have fallen? Would Jesus' death on the cross satisfy for them too? How would we relate to those other creatures and species?

'The Efficacy of Prayer' is another short article which begins by asking if prayer works, but is quickly turned around, because prayer and God cannot be subjected to laboratory experiments. Prayer is not something to be used for our benefit, to work for us; rather it is a relationship and a revelation of who God is, not what we can get. Indeed, answered prayer is not a sign of favourites with God, after all, the Lord Jesus' prayer in the Garden was refused, the cup was not taken away, and he went to the cross.

And so we return to 'Fern-seed and Elephants'. Speaking to ordinands who seemed to disbelieve the Bible but keep the public front of intellectual assent, Lewis is highly critical of this unbelief and sham. His final paragraph is worth repeating in full:

Such are the reactions of one bleating layman to Modern Theology. It is right that you hear them. You will not perhaps hear them very often again. Your parishioners will not often speak to you quite so frankly. Once the layman was anxious to hide the fact that he believed so much less than the vicar: he now tends to hide the fact that he believes so much more. Missionary to the priests of one's own church is an embarrassing role; though I have a horrid feeling that if such mission work is not soon undertaken the future history of the Church of England is likely to be short.

An excellent and thoughtful series of articles, although with some minor things I would disagree with. All in all, Lewis is worth reading, and especially in his less well known shorter collected writings.

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