Just Beastly

Here’s an even longer paper from last spring–a class on C.S. Lewis. I meant to post this yesterday, and forgot, but that’s okay, because this post contains memories, w‘s, family stories, and theology, and since it’s super-long, but I haven’t been posting much lately, you can just count it as all the rest of the posts for this month. You’re welcome.

JUST BEASTLY
Animals and the Theme of Creation in the Writings of C.S. Lewis

Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements of HS 772 The Ancient Future Lewis

By Jennifer A. G. Layte

May 2014

When I was a child we had a black cocker spaniel named Chocolate Chip. He was sweet and stupid, and maybe we were, too, because although we loved him dearly, we didn’t do it very well. Lots of accidental but horrific things happened to Chippy, some of which we couldn’t have prevented, but some of which we probably could. As it was, he didn’t live long. I wonder if he might have lived longer if my family had had a better theology of animals at the time. It wasn’t that we didn’t care—we just didn’t know. C.S. Lewis might have been able to give us some pointers, had we been paying attention to that sort of thing when we read The Chronicles of Narnia.

We had the same hair.

We had the same hair.

“And God saw everything that he had made,” said the writer of Genesis, “and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31, ESV). Contrary to prevailing contemporary views that value is completely subjective, a value judgment was placed on creation as soon as it was brought into being, by the very One who made it. God’s speaking the cosmos into existence and declaring truth about it packed creation with meaning—derived from Him.[1] When C. S. Lewis, a philosopher, a writer, and most of all a Christian, wrote worlds into being himself, he was “simply rearranging things that God has already made,”[2] elements that had their own inherent meaning, communicated into them by God’s word. Lewis’ perspective about objective meaning and hierarchy within creation was informed by centuries of earlier Christians’ perspectives. This view gave him the freeing humility to fill his own works with meaning by exploring these inherent meanings by assertion or negation. One of the most powerful ways he disclosed the nature of creation in general, and humanity’s relationship to its Creator in particular, was through his written treatment of animals.

The Noble Beast

Lewis’ view of our relationship to animals is well-nigh sacramental, according to Armstrong’s definition: “Sacramentality is the belief that transcendent spiritual reality manifests itself in and through created material reality, that all creation is in some sense a reflection of the creator, that God is present in and through the world.”[3] Like Francis of Assisi before, him, C.S. Lewis saw the significance of animals in creation as yet one more vehicle through which to “[experience], and [act] extravagantly upon, an overwhelming passion for the person of Jesus.”[4]

In Lewis’ novel That Hideous Strength, Mr. Bultitude the bear and the animals at Belbury are probably the most “realistic” animals in all of Lewis’ fiction. Mr. Bultitude’s described impressions and experiences are decidedly fuzzy, only human insofar as Lewis has to employ words to communicate them to us at all. Nevertheless, the animals in the story gain a sort of nobility beyond that of the pitied abused (at Belbury) or even the beloved pet. “Mr. Bultitude is the last of the Seven Bears of Logres and the hero of the novel, That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis,” proclaims Mr. Bultitude’s Facebook page (only 18 likes), accessed on May 21, 2014. “Mr. Bultitude enjoys eating honey and saving the world.” Such an assertion may be an overstatement, but in Lewis’ tales, even a bearlike bear does indeed have heroic qualities.

He has 19 likes, now.

He has 19 likes, now.

The previous two books in The Cosmic Trilogy, of which That Hideous Strength makes the third, contain other sorts of animals—extraterrestrial ones. Perelandra, the book at the center, shows an idyllic, unfallen world in peril, with animals in relationship to the “humans” of Venus (Perelandra) the way Lewis imagines humans and animals related in Paradise:

“The beasts raced forward to greet her . . . She turned as they approached her and welcomed them, and once again the picture was half like many earthly scenes but in its total effect unlike them all. It was not really like a woman making much of a horse, nor yet a child playing with a puppy. There was in her face an authority, in her caresses a condescension, which by taking seriously the inferiority of her adorers made them somehow less inferior . . .[5]

On Mars (Malacandra) in the very first book of the Trilogy, “dumb animals” exist, but are overshadowed by other animal-like beings which are anything but mute or senseless. For that planet, Lewis imagines hnau, non-human beings who seem to be on the same tier of the hierarchy as humanity.[6] Malacandra has three sorts of hnau, the hrossa, the seroni, and the pfiffiltriggi. Each type is distinct from the other, but each is rational and is able to interact across species and with the supernatural eldila who also more or less inhabit the planet. It is still difficult to imagine these hnau as being other than animals, however. Lewis seems to have anticipated that when he describes the hero Ransom’s impressions:

“It was only many days later that Ransom discovered how to deal with these sudden losses of confidence. They arose when the rationality of the hross tempted you to think of it as a man. Then it became abominable . . . But starting from the other end you had an animal with everything an animal ought to have . . . and added to all these, as though Paradise had never been lost and earliest dreams were true, the charm of speech and reason.”[7]

While it is the Talking Animals of Narnia who are the most renowned examples of what Lewis is describing above, this paragraph from Out of the Silent Planet is, in fact, what really sums up Lewis’ approach to animal life in creation. Lewis does not intend even his most anthropomorphized beasts to be seen as human. However, it is telling that their significance is always relative to human beings. Lewis’ consistent insistence in almost all his writings is that the Incarnation—the entry of the Creator into His own creation as a human being—is “the central miracle asserted by Christians.”[8] Therefore, although humans are not at the top of the hierarchy of creation as understood by the medievals[9] and possibly by Lewis himself, they are uniquely honored in the created order. “Since our Beloved became a man,” says the Green Lady on Perelandra, “how should Reason in any world take on another form?”[10] In other words, since the Word took on earthly, human flesh (John 1:14), He would not take on other. Thus Lewisian animals, in a lower rung of the hierarchy, are ennobled by their closeness or likeness to human beings. Conversely, however, the more Lewis’ human characters take on baser “animal instincts,” the less noble they become.

The Beastly Human

George MacDonald, one of Lewis’ ideological mentors, whose writings famously helped propel Lewis toward the Christian faith, once wrote a story about Curdie, a boy who was given the gift of being able to tell the nature of a person by holding or shaking a person’s hand.

“’Have you ever heard what some philosophers say—that men were all animals once?’” asks the princess in the story, who enabled Curdie’s new gift.

“’No, ma’am.’

“’It is of no consequence. But there is another thing that is of the greatest consequence—this: that all men, if they do not take care, go down the hill to the animals’ country; that many men are actually, all their lives, going to be beasts. People knew it once, but it is long since they forgot it.’”[11]

Later in the story, Curdie discovers this almost empirically, every time he has contact with another human being’s hand. He is able to feel, at the touch of the hand, whether that person really possesses a a paw, a hoof, or a claw. If the person is a sincere human being, like his mother, for example, he feels a true human hand “just like that of the princess.”[12] It is difficult, after once encountering it, not to see this line of thinking at work in Lewis’ writing as well.

The most famous example in any of Lewis’ fiction of a person degenerating into a beast is, of course, when Eustace Scrubb, the odious cousin of the more heroic Pevensie siblings in the Narnia Chronicles, becomes a dragon.[13] He has been progressively alienating himself from his cousins and the other people on the journey of which he finds himself unwittingly (and unwillingly) a part. After wandering off and taking a nap in a cave, he discovers,

“He had turned into a dragon while he was asleep. Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself . . . But the moment he thought this he realised that he . . . wanted to be friends. He wanted to get back among humans and talk and laugh and share things. He realiezed that he was a monster cut off from the whole human race. An appalling loneliness came over him.”[14]

the_change_of_eustace_by_slazerbeam

Fortunately for Eustace, there is still hope. He still has some vestiges of true human sensibility, and when he meets the lion Aslan, the Lord—and Redeemer (contrary to the statement in Perelandra about the Beloved not needing to take on other flesh)—of Narnia, Aslan “undragons” him. After that, Eustace, having been personally redeemed, becomes a much better human being indeed.

Eustace, however, is not the only character in the Narnia chronicles who is transformed into an animal, and not all of the characters who descend the created hierarchy are brought back. The haughty Prince Rabadash of Calormen, in The Horse and His Boy, is turned by Aslan into a donkey before a large crowd. His restoration is possible but conditional, and only conditionally permanent.[15]

A more notable—and even less hopeful—example of this descent is seen in the story of Ginger the Cat. In The Last Battle, the final book in The Chronicles of Narnia, we first meet Ginger, as a Talking Animal. Talking Animals are really the chief inhabitants of Narnia. (If we were mixing Lewisian constructs across books, we could say that although, after Aslan, humans are always the true rulers of Narnia, Talking Animals are the chief hnau.) Ginger, however, does not appreciate his place even in an exalted animal hierarchy.

Ginger is clever, and arrogant and smug about it. Ginger thinks that because he is aware that the creature posing as Aslan in a stable is false that therefore Aslan and all supernatural beings are fables, and so when he encounters the demon god Tash in the stable, his status as a Talking Animal is downgraded in the shock.

‘“Look, look!’ said the voice of the Bear. ‘It can’t talk. It has forgotten how to talk! It has gone back to being a dumb beast. Look at its face.’

“Everyone saw that it was true. And then the greatest terror of all fell upon those Narnians. For every one of them had been taught—when it was only a chick or a puppy or a cub—how Aslan at the beginning of the world had turned the beasts of Narnia into Talking Beasts and warned them that if they weren’t good they might one day be turned back again and be like the poor witless animals one meets in other countries. ‘And now it is coming upon us,’ they moaned.”[16]

Neither Lewis nor MacDonald appear to see a necessity of arguing for or against the idea that humans evolved from animals. It is interesting to note, however, that the evolutionary theory can actually augment their belief that when people either abdicate or overstep their place in the created order, they become less human, which both men seem to see as a reversion, and not simply a deterioration.

As a final example of Lewis’ understanding of the devolution of humans who reject God and His appointed role for them, we should take note of the self-appointed scientists, sociologists, and other diabolical “men of learning” at Belbury, the Hell-in-the-making of That Hideous Strength. It does not take long for the reader to realize that each one of the men and women of Belbury are already significantly subhuman when we meet them. Each one retains some characteristic of humanity which is totally out of balance and has become a caricature in the absence or corruption of any other human qualities. Among all the characters in any of Lewis’ books (save perhaps Weston, in Perelandra), these have most obviously attempted to usurp God’s role as sovereign over all creation. Not least among their sins is a menagerie of animals they have collected for vivisection. In Lewis’ fiction, the truly rebellious characters always exhibit a lack of respect for others and for the rest of creation, particularly the animal kingdom. The pinnacle—or nadir—of this conception is seen here.

None of these evil people in That Hideous Strength turn into literal brute animals as they might have if they were transported to Narnia. They are, however, overcome by the animals they have abused. It is in this context that Mr. Bultitude becomes unwittingly heroic, as part of the animal mass which ultimately finishes off Belbury. He is not, however, the animal that leads the charge or wreaks the most havoc. In fact, first of all, the human inmates of Belbury who think they have so much control, lose the ability to speak intelligibly, just like Ginger the Cat. It is only after this that the animals are let lose among them—by a man who has not lost his paradisical ability to communicate with them:

“Suddenly, the confusion of cries ran all together into one thin long-drawn noise of terror . . . Something had darted very quickly across the floor between the two long tables and disappeared under one of them. Those who had seen it clearly could not tell the others: they could only point and scream meaningless syllables. But Mark had recognized it. It was a tiger.”[17]

A Sumatran tiger

The tiger is not the only animal that has its way with the humans at Belbury. More and more of the escaping menagerie descend on the nightmarish banquet, culminating in the arrival of an elephant, which tramples humans under its feet. This seems a not-so-coincidental reversal of that poem in praise to God and in wonder of humanity, Psalm 8, where King David says of man,

“Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field . . . “ (Psalm 8:5-7).

This scene of the confounding of words (the vehicle of meaning since God created the cosmos) and the uprising of the animals is the most logical conclusion and effective illustration of Lewis’ views regarding the rejection of created meaning and order, and regarding humanity within that meaning and order. Conversely, his closing scenes in that same book, where the animals are reunited “each according to its kind” (Genesis 1:25), and where the humans are, too—almost like Adam and Eve in the Garden, but a restored Garden—is the logical conclusion and illustration of the fulfillment of the meaning God spoke into creation at the beginning of time.

Unleashed—The Theology of Animals in Life and Ministry

At the very least, the preceding observations provide an interesting study for the Christian animal lover. Lewis’ belief in “man’s lost prerogative to ennoble beasts”[18] is clear after only a brief survey of his writings. At a minimum—or perhaps it is the maximum—this study has provided me with devotional material such that, even as I have been writing about the role of animals in God’s creation (and Lewis’ writing), the underlying thought in my head is a wondering, “What is man that You are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4). I suspect that was at least part of Lewis’ intention whenever animals entered his art.

However, this study also has implications beyond my devotional edification, for ministry in general and for the specific ministry in which I am personally involved. Vigilance is necessary to keep any sort of teaching or focus on animals in the church from turning into a twisted idolatry or sentimentality. Yet I believe some kind of teaching about creation in general, with a more specific focus on humans and animals and their relation to each other within that creation, could be an important corrective both to that sentimentality and directionless outrage that comes from animal rescue videos, and to the disregard for animal life as unimportant which can still be found in some pockets of society (interestingly sometimes both in scientific and Evangelical communities). A truer appreciation within a Christian ministry context of the created role of animals may also help to diminish both animal abuse and the abuse of people. Contemporary wisdom states that harming an animal is frequently the first step on the trajectory toward harming a human. Not only does this seem plausible to me, but if Belbury is any indication, Lewis’ would agree.

Some churches have special services in which they bless the animals. I have never been to such an event, and I suspect its value differs from church to church. However, the fact that I have worked in churches at all corners of the theological grid and never have encountered such a service in person is only one indication that maybe the church at large today needs a stronger theology of animals. We would do well to inquire of Christians of past eras as Lewis did—perhaps of Francis of Assisi, William Wilberforce, or even C.S. Lewis himself.

My own experience with animals, combined with this study of their role in Lewis’ writings, confirms my view that animals can be a vital part of ministry here and now. In 2009, I completed a regimen of radiation therapy for breast cancer, and was soon afterward also promoted to a full-time position at the church where I still work. The change in employment status enabled me to cease shift work at Starbucks, and so as something of a reward for all of these positive developments, as well as possibly a little penance for the ill-fated Chippy of my childhood, I adopted a timid little black cockapoo from a pet rescue organization. Because I was single at the time and still worked long hours, I sought and obtained permission from the church to bring him with me to work each day.

Not only did Oscar and I benefit each other, but he has become a source of pleasure and joy to the people who come into the church during the week, and to the children and youth with whom I work. He is still timid, but he is and always has been gentle with children, and has served to bring many a child more timid than himself into community with the rest of the youth group, camp, or Sunday school.

He also provides me with excellent object lessons, since I lack children of my own to use as illustrations. Yesterday a young woman I mentor was asking me about the Good Shepherd passage in John 10. She didn’t understand it. But she knows Oscar.

“Oscar,” I said, “is, as you know, really a one-person dog. He is absolutely, one hundred percent at all times in tune with where I am and what I am doing. He could appear to be passed out on the couch, but if I rustle a piece of paper, he perks his head up immediately to see if I’m going somewhere and if he can come, too.” I could have reminded her that at our summer camp, if I left the premises for half an hour and returned into the middle of a bustle of teens and said something, he would perk up his ears and come running. But I didn’t need to. She understood me and could fill in other illustrative details because she knows Oscar.

IMG_2835

“Oscar knows my voice,” I said. “That’s the kind of thing Jesus the Good Shepherd wants from His sheep.” The young woman understood that, too.

I think Oscar’s relationship with me really is a picture of what Jesus wants of us humans. I think that kind of relationship between humans and animals is what Lewis thought was so important, precisely because it was meant to be a kind of mirror of our relationship with God. Like a reflection, a restored relationship with God engenders an improved relationship with His creation. Conversely, I think Lewis might have surmised that a genuinely restored relationship with creation had the potential to re-open a relationship with God, too.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Armstrong, Chris R. “Getting Earthy—Creation’s Glory and Sacredness.” Unpublished chapter, 2014.

Armstrong, Chris R. “Getting Passionate—Heart Religion.” Unpublished chapter, 2014.

Barkman, Adam. C.S. Lewis & Philosophy as a Way of Life. Allentown: Zossima Press, 2009.

Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia, sig. ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005.

Lewis, C.S. The Cosmic Trilogy. comp. ed. London: The Bodley Head Ltd and Pan Books Ltd, 1989.

Lewis, C.S. The Discarded Image, Canto ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Lewis, C.S. Miracles, HarperCollins ed., New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

MacDonald, George. The Complete Works of George MacDonald: The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess And Curdie, Lilith, Phantastes, Parables, Far Above Rubies and More (73 Books With Active Table of Contents). Kindle Edition, undated.

 

 

[1] Chris R. Armstrong, “Getting Earthy—Creation’s Glory and Sacredness” (unpublished chapter, 2014), 2.

[2] Adam Barkman, C.S. Lewis & Philosophy as a Way of Life (Allentown: Zossima Press, 2009), 513.

[3] Armstrong, “Getting Earthy,” 4.

[4] Chris R. Armstrong, “Getting Passionate—Heart Religion” (working manuscript, Bethel Seminary, Bethel University, St. Paul, MN, 2014), 10.

[5] C.S. Lewis, The Cosmic Trilogy compiled ed. (London: The Bodley Head Ltd. and Pan Books Ltd, 1989), 200-201.

[6] Ibid., 59ff

[7] Ibid, 50.

[8] C.S. Lewis, Miracles, HarperCollins ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 173.

[9] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, Canto ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 11.

[10] Lewis, The Cosmic Trilogy, 198.

[11] George MacDonald, The Complete Works of George MacDonald: The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess And Curdie, Lilith, Phantastes, Parables, Far Above Rubies and More (73 Books With Active Table of Contents), Kindle Edition, undated. loc. 239822-239827.

[12] Ibid., loc. 239958.

[13] C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, sig. ed. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005), 462-476.

[14] Ibid., 466.

[15] Ibid., 308.

[16] Ibid., 727.

[17] Lewis, The Cosmic Trilogy, 715.

[18] Lewis, The Cosmic Trilogy, 672.

Versus?

Theology Thursday

Here’s a paper I wrote for last spring’s semester. I’m actually posting it because it’s relevant to a Bible study I’m leading right now and I wanted to make it an accessible reference. You can read it, too, if you like.

VERSUS?

Exploring the Divide Between Faith and Works
Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements of NT 516 New Testament Survey

By Jennifer A. G. Layte

March 2014

The Great Divide

Within certain circles, an almost urban-legend-grade fact circulates that the great Reformer Martin Luther disliked the Biblical book of James so much he called it “a book of straw.” Luther’s well-documented gripe stemmed from his own conversion experience when the truth of the apostle Paul’s assertion that salvation was through faith “alone” (sola fide) struck him with force. Luther perceived James to argue for a salvation of works like that of the Roman Catholic Church from which he (Luther) had emerged. Ever since then, if not at times before, there has been a perceived tension between the Biblical tenets of faith and good works. The apostle Paul is traditionally known as the champion of the “salvation by faith” concept—and the champion of salvation for the Gentiles.

Luther_at_Erfurt_-_Justification_by_Faith

However, Martin Luther notwithstanding, James’ “book of straw” is also a part of the Biblical canon—and in fact is not the only New Testament book to take a more apparently “practical” view of Christian life and salvation. It also has a more evidently “Jewish” perspective. Thus three questions emerge. First, what was the intention of the (Jewish) Messiah whom both these men claimed to follow? Second, is the basis of this ostensible divide a Jewish versus a Gentile orientation? Third, are Paul and James truly arguing at cross-purposes? In this paper, I intend briefly to explore these questions via the books of Galatians (by Paul) and James (by James) in the light of the gospel of Matthew, and to show that in reality, Paul and James both believed in salvation by faith as evidenced through works.

What Would Jesus Say?

The book of Matthew was most likely written to a primarily Jewish-background Christian community. His Gospel contains the assumption that Jewish Scripture, traditions, and laws are known entities. He assumes Jewish underpinnings of the gospel message. Matthew transcribes Jesus’ teachings known as the “Sermon on the Mount,” in which Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5.17-18). Mounce observes, “Jesus goes on to say that the entrance into the kingdom of heaven requires a righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.”[1]

The Sermon is extensive and is not the only place in Matthew’s Gospel where practical, ethical behavior appears to link to entrance to the kingdom. Another notable example is Jesus ‘ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, where those who serve the unfortunate are received into the kingdom on the basis of having unwittingly served Jesus himself, while those who ignored people in need are condemned. The parable seems to advocate a salvation by works. Harrington asserts, “One can argue strongly that Matthew’s Gospel has been the most influential book in the Bible for Christian life. Under the term ‘Christian life,’ I include spirituality . . . ethics or moral theology . . . and community.”[2]

SheepGoats2

Jew Versus Gentile?

At first glance, James (likely Jesus’ own brother) appears to reinforce a salvation via works. “James is fully at home in the world of Judaism,” says David Nystrom. “While this book is unquestionably a Christian one, its roots in Judaism are virile and deep.”[3] James asks pointedly, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2.14, emphasis mine). Therefore, Paul’s insistence to the Galatian Christians that their sudden frantic observance of the Jewish law of circumcision is a capitulation to a false gospel (Galatians 1.6-10) makes it sound as if he and James (and Jesus?) are opposed to each other. “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ,” Paul says, “so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (2.16).

Paul is clear in the book of Galatians that a conversion to Judaism is not necessary in order to become a follower of the Messiah. But is James equally clear?

He doesn’t address the issue specifically in his letter, which was most likely written before his meeting with Paul regarding the place of circumcision and other Jewish practices. However, his emphases on social justice and “anti-favoritism” could be generalized to apply to the Jewish/Gentile conundrum, even if it wasn’t what he was thinking of when he wrote them.

They seem almost to prefigure Paul’s declaration, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28). Paul, for his part, is quite proud of (or maybe grateful for) his own Jewish heritage, but he is willing to declare it rubbish in comparison with his standing before God through faith in Jesus Christ, and not through his ethnic and religious credentials (Philippians 3.4-9). In other words, he insists that these are not what grant him that standing.

In fact, we know from the book of Galatians itself that both Paul and James reached agreement regarding conversion (Galatians 2.9). “Becoming Jewish” was not a prerequisite to following Jesus—but “they asked us,” says Paul, “to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (2.10). This request is in keeping with the entire tenor of James’ letter. Perhaps the perceived divide between faith and works is not so great—if it is even there at all.

Faith Versus Works?

The real difference between what Paul says to the Galatians and what James writes “to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (James 1.1) is not the basis of salvation, but the focus of their respective books. “Unlike Paul,” says Nystrom, “James does not argue the Christian position against Jewish purity laws or food laws.”[4] Paul, on the other hand, does not argue against good works, but against additional requirements for salvation above and beyond the work that Jesus had done in His life, death and resurrection. The Judaizers against whom he rails in Galatians, “did not deny that you must believe in Jesus for salvation, but they stressed that you must . . . let Moses finish what Christ has begun. Or rather, you yourself must finish, by your own obedience to the law, what Christ has begun.”[5]

Two Sides of One Coin

In Matthew 7, Jesus speaks of a person’s character being known by the “fruit” they produce (7.15-19). He goes on to say, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (7.21-23, ESV). In one fell swoop, He negates both the idea of salvation by works apart from faith, and by faith apart from works. Calling Jesus Lord without the works of righteousness that a real relationship with Him engenders is hypocrisy. Doing the works without that relationship is ultimately powerless and equivalent to lawlessness.

In effect, whether intentionally or not, Paul guards against one error, while James guards against the other. Paul declares that circumcision as an attempt to curry favor with God is not only unnecessary, but actually harmful, as it creates a barrier to the trust in the Messiah which saves—the faith that admits that we are powerless to save ourselves. James shows that simply calling Jesus “Lord” does not imply that saving faith either—we must bear the fruit to show it, or we are no better than the demons who believe in the existence of God and shudder (James 2.19).

The Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus itself shows that nothing about human life with God is one-dimensional. Nothing is solely physical, or solely spiritual. “In the case of the foundation of Matthew’s community,” says Ascough, “the divine will was revealed at both the supernatural and the natural level—supernatural through the revelation of Jesus’ true identity to Peter by God (16:17) and natural through the physical presence of the human ‘Son of the living God’ with Peter (16.16).”[6] This reminder of the inseparability but distinction of the divine and the human in Jesus is a clue to understanding the inseparability of true, saving faith and genuine, faith-borne works. When Jesus healed the paralyzed man lowered through the roof, He both forgave him (spiritual) and healed him (physical).[7] Had either component been missing, the man could not have moved into the redeemed life God intended for him.

Thus it is for all of us. When James says, “Can that faith save him?” he is not asking whether faith can save. He is asking whether a solely intellectual assent, without naturally (yet supernaturally) attendant good works can save. When Paul deplored the decisions of the Galatians, he was not deploring good works that stemmed from faith, but rituals that stemmed from a lack of faith. The Galatians had lost faith that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus was enough to save them. In Paul’s personal illustration of this to them, he describes Peter’s sea-change attitude toward eating with Gentiles. The problem with Peter (and, Paul demonstrates, with the Galatians) is that “he still believed the gospel, but he failed to practise [sic] it.”[8] His “faith” was without genuine works.

At the end of Galatians, Paul produces a list of works that are contrary to faith in the Messiah, and a list of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5.22-23). Clearly, to Paul, it goes without saying that true faith in Christ will produce gradually increasing fruit of goodness. James’ assumption from the very beginning of his book seems to be that only true faith produces true works of righteousness. “True faith, he insists, always changes the heart and therefore results in acts of mercy and compassion.”[9] When considered carefully, neither writer seems to have any inkling that salvation without either faith or works is possible.

“The relationship between the free gift of grace and Christian responsibility is less difficult than the limited ability of human language to express it with facility.”[10] Each apostle emphasizes one facet of the miracle of salvation for his respective community, but faith and works are not two things. The works themselves require faith to perform. They demonstrate the faith. The faith is the underpinning for the works. They are two facets of one thing, completely unattainable apart from the Spirit of God. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit,” says Paul, very clearly assuming a practical expression of faith (Galatians 5.25). “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory,” says James, making it evident that the foundation of all actions should be faith in Jesus. “Follow me,” says Jesus, “and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4.20). It takes faith to drop what we’re doing to follow Him, but if we have that faith, we can hardly do anything else.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ascough, Richard S. “Matthew and Community Formation.” In The Gospel of Matthew in Current Study, ed. David E. Aune, 96-126. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001.

Burge, Gary M., Lynn H. Cohick, and Gene L. Green, The New Testament in Antiquity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009. Kindle edition.

Carson, D. A. and Douglas J. Moo. Introducing the New Testament: A Short Guide to Its History and Message. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013. Kindle edition.

Harrington, Daniel J., S.J. “Matthew’s Gospel: Pastoral Problems and Possibilities.” In The Gospel of Matthew in Current Study, ed. David E. Aune, 62-73. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001.

Mounce, Robert H. New International Biblical Commentary: Matthew, Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991.

Nystrom, David P. The NIV Application Commentary: James. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.

Stott, John R. W. The Message of Galatians. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1968.

Burge, Gary M., Lynn H. Cohick, and Gene L. Green, The New Testament in Antiquity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009. Kindle edition.

[1] Robert H. Mounce, New International Biblical Commentary: Matthew (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 43.

[2] Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., “Matthew’s Gospel: Pastoral Problems and Possibilities,” in The Gospel of Matthew in Current Study, ed. David E. Aune (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), 70.

[3] David P. Nystrom, The NIV Application Commentary: James (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 18.

[4] Nystrom, 19.

[5] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Galatians (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1968) 22.

[6] Richard S. Ascough, “Matthew and Community Formation,” in Aune, The Gospel of Matthew in Current Study, 107.

[7] Mounce, 83.

[8] Stott, 52.

[9] Nystrom, 150.

[10] Ibid., 156.

More about School

The Tuesday Reblog
King Midget’s got it right. Listen up, kids.

KingMidget's Ramblings

I though of this analogy yesterday while sitting in classes seeing all these kids who didn’t seem to care.  It’s like a football game and they think the game hasn’t started yet.  They think the game starts later.  When they get to college.  When they get a job.  When they get married.  When they have a baby.  I’m not sure when exactly, but they think the game hasn’t started yet for them.  They’re in their pre-game routine.  Or they’re waiting for somebody to tell them in which direction to run.

The only problem is that the game has started and they’re falling behind.  They’re in the first quarter.  Score early, do the hard work now, and your chance of success is greater.  Fall behind early, due to lack of preparation or effort, and your chance of success is less.  The game has started, kiddoes, it’s time for a little effort…

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This Theology Thing Goes Way Back

Memory Monday

That Dietrich Bonhoeffer stuff last week has got me thinking of my senior year “Christian Thought” class at Wheaton College. It was basically a systematic theology overview and there are a few distinct moments from that class that I still remember, which have been clamouring for my attention as I have, once again, been trying to systematise my theology at the end (finally!) of a degree programme.

The first thing I remember is that we were assigned to presentation-project groups, and my group, which was the first to present, had to try to come up with a way to defend the doctrine of the Trinity to a Muslim. Although I’m not sure anymore what we even said, I do remember doing the research, partly because I remember hoping I would never have to read about Arius again. We can see how that went.

My buddy Athanasius and I have faced down that Arius guy a time or two. With pretty different results so far, I guess.

My buddy Athanasius and I have faced down that Arius guy a time or two. With pretty different results so far, I guess.

Mostly that assignment has stuck in my head more than any other, though, because only about two years later, one of my assignment-mates and I, independently of each other, both ended up moving to England for approximately five years a piece, and one of us spent that entire time making friends with Muslims, but also basically trying to explain the Trinity to most of them. You can maybe guess which one of us that was.

Another thing I remember is that we had to make one visit each to a Roman Catholic church, and Eastern Orthodox church, and one other church of a type with which we were not familiar. I went with friends to all of these. We were late to the Roman Catholic mass–just in time not to partake of the Eucharist if I recall–but maybe that’s because that’s the only part I actually recall. The Eastern Orthodox church was a new church plant so they met in a space surprisingly devoid of imagery and colour, and as we had been warned, everybody (including us) stood the whole time. (I no longer remember if chairs were even on offer–since they were renting space, it may well have made more sense not to even bother setting any up.) As for the Lutheran Church which was my “other,” I had completely forgotten that some churches used actual wine in their celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. Since I had grown up in an (at the time I was growing up in it) teetotalling home and what’s more had signed “the Pledge” which included a clause not to drink alcohol, I went through a moment of internal crisis as I shuffled in shock back to my pew, although what the point of the crisis was, I’m not sure, since I had already drunk (the very miniscule sip) of wine by the time I realised it. I probably justified my unintentional lapse to myself by acknowledging–not that Jesus had actually instituted the practice using wine–but that I hadn’t really enjoyed it that much.

I might also have been more relaxed about it had the chalice been this amazing . . . but probably not.

I might also have been more relaxed about it had the chalice been this amazing . . . but probably not.

People nowadays might still consider me uptight about “following the rules” (at least some of the rules–maybe fewer of the rules, anymore), but my reasons for wanting to live out my faith with integrity (which I realise I don’t always, still) are different now than they were then. I was probably just as serious about my faith then as now, and I did really love Jesus, but although I believed He loved me back, I think at the time, I was constantly afraid of disappointing Him and I really didn’t want to disappoint Him, so I lived my life under a dread of it. Maybe sometimes I still feel it, but I can’t think of the last time I felt like that.

All this means that probably it wasn’t the best idea for this particular student, that our Christian Thought professor also assigned us to read The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The basic premise, as far as I can remember and as far as I understand other people’s summaries, is that to be a real Christian is more than simply intellectual assent and taking for granted God’s grace for salvation, but that it costs something, in the outlet of our lives. I agree with that basic premise as far as it goes, and I could probably reread the book now and have a different reaction from the one I had at the time. But let’s just say that something in there (and I no longer remember what it was) made me feel that I was far too self absorbed (entirely likely, since it still seems to be a problem, as evidenced by this blog!), and that probably the most self-absorbed thing I did was to keep a journal (ironically, a long-lived spiritual discipline of other disciples whose faith had cost them–and presumably Bonhoeffer himself). So I went home after saying tear-filled goodbyes to my college friends at graduation, and threw all the journals I had written since I was thirteen in some giant garbage bags and chucked them in the rubbish. In reality, that’s probably all they were good for, but it was still a wrenching experience.

I talked to my parents about this, and I don’t think they were particularly happy about this decision. They gently gave me some outs, but I think they also had the wisdom to know not to stand in the way of a young person who was trying to discern what God wanted of her and to let her make her own decisions and mistakes. I think they were right. It didn’t feel good, but I suspect there’s some value in irretrievably sacrificing something for the One you love–maybe even if you didn’t actually need to. I did start to re-evaluate pretty quickly, though.

About a week after the trash had gone away, I said, “Ugh! My notes from when Chaim Potok came and spoke, and the picture I drew of him while he was doing it, was in there! I wish I would’ve remembered and at least kept those pages.”

About six months after that, I became a nanny and the only way I could hope to process that new experience was to write it down. I began to wonder whether or not I could function as a human at all without journaling, or whether, maybe, God had designed me this way in part as a way for Him and me to communicate. So, I bought another spiral notebook, and began.

(Not mine. My handwriting is not that awesome.)

(Not mine. My handwriting is not that awesome.)

Shock and Awe . . . and Sheep

Theology Thursday

The Lord is the strength of his people;
he is the saving refuge of his anointed.
Oh, save your people and bless your heritage!
Be their shepherd and carry them forever. —Psalm 28.8-9 (ESV)
Contrary to what some of you might have supposed, I think that good theology and good doctrine matter. And of course I think my own theology and doctrine is correct because–well, I mean, what’s the point of believing something if you don’t, right?
I still maintain the value of crossing theological cultures, and I still maintain that not one of us has ever thought about God 100% correctly, so that ultimately it’s up to Him and not to us whether we are, to use an already coined term, “saved.” But I also believe there is such a thing as “saved” and what’s more, I am in the middle of a two-semester-long class in which I have to–somehow–codify my theological views and back them up, so I’ve been thinking and reading about these things a lot.
On Sunday during “Energy Shot”–the time we talk about God and the Bible and Life with the Youth Group on Sunday, one of them asked a question that essentially meant, “Wouldn’t God want us to become mature enough not to need Him to do everything for us?”
This is an important question, but parents were already arriving to pick kids up, and I like to teach by asking questions rather than correcting or pontificating if possible (though I dare say I do enough of the other two as well), so I tabled it until a later date. Then, as I was readying to write a statement about what I believe salvation means for my seminary class, I read something that startled me. According to a theology textbook of mine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed essentially the same thing as the Youth was asking about. So I guess she is in good company. But . . . Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
I mean, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I mean, I guess, if that’s true, I fundamentally disagree about something with Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
This guy.

This guy.

I’m still trying to decide if I’m more stunned that a guy who seems to be laudable across the theological scope of Christendom (including with Evangelicals like me, who might be considered to be more picky) was developing such an unorthodox view, or that I’m in my early 40’s having grown up in a very “Christian-schooled” context (all the way up until now), having read his works and having a mother who just read his very extensive biography, and this is the first I’m hearing of this.
Admittedly my theology book calls Bonhoeffer a “forerunner of this view” that “secularism [is] not a competitor but as a mature expression of Christian faith,” and that “The human race’s coming of age is not rebellion against God, but is God’s educating his highest earthly creature to be independent of him” (Christian Theology, Millard Erickson, Baker Publishing Group: Grand Rapids, 1998). Also admittedly, we could talk about the historical context surrounding Bonhoeffer (mainly, how he stood up against the German state church’s capitulation to Nazism for his whole life and was executed for his work) which kind of explains why “religion” wouldn’t have been a high value to him even if God/Jesus was.
But I still disagree with him. I don’t think that the Bible leaves room for us to grow up to independence of God. I think it’s the root of the human problem to begin with: “You shall be like God”–without God–didn’t go so well. Jesus told us to become like little children, and New Testament writers who followed Him did talk about maturing in our faith, but it was always about growing into God through Christ, not growing independent of Him. Even Jesus (who I would argue–and am in the process of figuring out how to argue–is God Himself) is said to have “learned obedience” to the Father. Plus there’s all that stuff about children and sheep, and God being our Father and Shepherd.
Nobody these days wants to be a sheep.
Even a cool black-and-white sheep in Ireland.

Even a cool black-and-white sheep in Ireland.

I guess Jesus didn’t want to be one either, exactly, but He loved us, so He went there. And I think, for His sake, Bonhoeffer did, too.

The Girl Who Cried, “Literally”

Wwwednesday – Words

So I was on Twitter for a while, and pretty much hated it, and then I needed to make a Twitter account for Now Church, so I made myself a new one, too, and it was still lame and then suddenly I met a whole lot of awesome and funny people on it and now I spend most evenings making people I don’t know laugh. #Comedienne, anyone?

At some point during this Twittermorphosis, a couple of devout and overt Roman Catholics started following me, which is interesting and maybe kind of flattering–anyway, they’re very nice people with some good things to tweet. Yesterday, a young woman who hopes to become a Sister one day, tweeted,

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 10.09.29 PM

Now, I don’t know what you think she meant, but I thought she meant that while she was praying, the physical light in her room literally turned off. (And I guess she probably also meant that she thought there was some spiritual significance behind this sudden very localised power outage, which I wouldn’t affirm or deny, but I still thought she was talking about, you know, a light. With a bulb.)

But I guess when you 1) are part of a subculture (as I am) that believes that the spiritual and physical impinge on each other, and 2) are part of a larger culture that misuses the word literally nearly always, it is to be expected that other people started getting concerned thinking that some metaphorical or maybe metaphysical light within herself just suddenly and definitively went out while she was praying.

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 10.16.23 PM

So then I tweeted

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 10.25.27 PM

I think we’ve all seen the light now, though. You can decide if it’s literally or figuratively.

But here's a light. And now we've seen it.

But here’s a light. And now we’ve seen it.