Slow Mission book review: C S Lewis, by Alistair McGrath

C. S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet
I wanted to write a detached, cool-headed evaluation of this book and even had thought of some suitably ironic ways of describing it: ‘ostrich prose’, for example (covering a lot of ground with great enthusiasm but never quite taking off). 

Unfortunately, I can’t do it. I shamelessly and unapologetically absolutely loved this book. I have to confess some shared interests. Alister McGrath is a former professor at my old college. He’s a scientist and atheist who turned to Christ. In some of his other writings, he has discovered the loveable pinata-like qualities of Professor Dawkins. So I was predisposed to like this book and therefore quite determined not to.

I don’t know if it’s a masterpiece or not but I found it an entirely satisfying retelling and re-evaluation of the man that I will treasure for a long time. They even got A N Wilson, big-beast among Lewis biographers and newly -returned-to-the-faith-Christian, to say something mildly pleasant about McGrath’s work. So, perhaps, it must be good. It’s not just me. Generally I prefer reading Lewis to reading books about Lewis but this is the business.

‘They did not wait for his plans to unfold’

Bad, very bad.

CIMG2561.JPG

Psalm 106: vv 12-13:

‘Then they believed his promises

and sang his praise

‘But they soon forgot what he had done

And did not wait for his plans to unfold.’
Enough said.

The (second) greatest story ever told

A Christmas CarolI only re-read one book every year (apart from the Bible). I have an audio version of A Christmas Carol and I listen to it every Christmas season without fail. It’s huge fun and it’s about repentance.  What more could you want?

It’s also interesting for two other reasons:

  1. It’s nearly perfect. For me A Christmas Carol is the textbook for popular storytelling. Everything opened up at the beginning is resolved at the end. Everything is vivid and passionate. The dramatic tension never stops, building like a symphony through scene after perfect scene to the final explosion and the shattering and remaking of Scrooge.
  2. It shows how a novelist can change culture. All of us in the West draw on this text when we think about Christmas. Dickens edited the world by scribbling stories. He’s a reminder of why people should write; in a story-dominated world, culture is jerked and pulled across the stage by the story-tellers. If you want Christmas to be about something other than snow and the wretched jingle of sleighbells-something like a gleeful, subversive transformation of an old sinner–write a book.

My novel Paradise isn’t about Christmas. But it is subversive and is supposed to be funny.  A recent Amazon review from someone who described herself as an “extremely liberal atheist” was kind enough to say “Truly excellent! … I can’t wait to read his next work.” Which was nice. Courtesy of internet bookshops, I’ve been able to make Paradise a free download. Happy Christmas.

 

The Primaeval Prologue as a reverse-engineered smoothie

You know it’s good for you

A smoothie: there it is in front of you, but you have no idea what’s in it. Somebody has to tell you what the ingredients are. Reality is like that.

Here's what we drink...
Here’s what we drink…

The first 11 chapters of the Book of Genesis are called the “Primaeval Prologue,” and they are rather different from the rest of the book.

Once you get to the safe waters of Genesis 12, you know you are being helicoptered into the Middle Bronze Age and the scenery is familiar enough from all other kinds of historical documents that have been dug up over the centuries. Genesis 12 and onwards is Bronze Age literature with Bronze Age conventions, and it’s not much of a stretch to see it as broadly historical.

Genesis 1-11 is different. It talks about Creation, the Garden of Evil, the Flood, the Tower of Babel. It’s hard to shoehorn that into what we currently think we know of pre-history: human evolution, the development of languages, the way the world seems always to have known suffering, rather than having a time of perfection that was upended by human sin.

Not only that, but the stories in the Primaeval Prologue themselves seem to be … well different. Adam, for example, is not so much a name as the word for ‘mankind’. Then you have talking snakes and metaphorical trees.  And people who live 900 years. It’s as if the Bible is trying to tell us something. What’s it saying? Perhaps it’s saying the Prologue is much more about reality than it is about history. It’s really, as my Old Testament lecturer told me, about ‘who we are and what we are to do.’

But here's what it looks like
But here’s what it looks like

Reality is presented to us like a smoothie, already whizzed to a mush. The Primaeval Prologue tells us the ingredients: it’s a reverse-engineered smoothie. Here are these ingredients:

  • God made everything, and he made it good
  • People have chosen independence over trust and we are all caught up in this and it’s caused a lot of problems.
  • Disaster and recovery is an engine of history — the Flood is the archetype.
  • People coming together, achieving something, thinking they don’t need God, then toppling over, is another engine of history, true of corporations and countries — the Tower of Babel is the archetype.

Creation, fall, death, loss, coming together, falling short, falling apart are the ingredients of the smoothie called ‘reality’. They are history’s heartbeat: God’s creation and recreation; human rebellion; networks re-forming; on and on.

This is a much more fun text, much more profound, and much more useful than if it were merely history.


Bonus material — another way of saying that same thing that physicists might like: the Primaeval Prologue as a Fourier transform

Suppose you were able to express reality as a single complicated waveform.  Call that trace ‘reality’.  It would be quite a scribble.

Physicists know a beautiful piece of maths (called a Fourier analysis) that says every single possible scribble, however complicated, can be expressed as a sum (or in the limit an integral) of a bunch of beautiful, regular sine waves. If you find enough different sine waves and put them together carefully enough, you can reproduce any scribble, any signature, anything that can be drawn without a pencil leaving the paper.

So the complex scribble (or waveform) is ‘reality.’ The writer of the Primaeval Prologue did a Fourier analysis of it. And the stories in Genesis 1-11 are the resultant sine waves, simple things that everyone can understand. Sum them together, and you explain who we are and what we are to do.

Nice.

Here’s a link that explains the Fourier Transform. Unbelievably, it uses the same metaphor of a smoothie as I used earlier on. Equally unbelievably, it demonstrates how to transform a sketch of Homer Simpson in a series of sine waves.


You can read much more about this sort of thing in my book More than Bananas, How the Christian faith works for me and the whole world, which is free on Kindle.

by - [-]
Price: - - - -

Rowing a boat alone across a lake

Behold the terror and the joy

 

Lonely BoatingImagine rowing a boat on your own across a lake. The fears and joys are yours alone.

We are always alone. People may sit by our fireplaces–as it were–over many wonderful evenings and years. They may hug us and hold us, accepting each other as completely as two humans can.

But no-one knows us quite fully or quite truthfully. There are always veils. We are not entirely as we present ourselves, even to those we love the most.

Thanks to faith in Christ, though, I’ve discovered I’m never alone.

When I’m rowing alone across a lake, also known as living, Christ knows with me all the terror and the joy. Other loves may kindly watch, from the shore or other boats. Other loves may cheer and blow kisses. But he knows it all and we share it together.

 

O come, O come, Emmanuel

Recently I spent two weeks reading through 900 pages of the prayer handbook Operation World. (I was preparing the text for conversion to a phone app: exciting project.)

Operation World is basically the most gigantic prayer list every compiled. Prayer points are suggested for each country and there are thousands of them.

Reading Operation World over just a few days is an exhausting experience. So much need. So many places and points for prayer.

Many countries and peoples are still owed the gospel, and we in the church have been slow coming up with the goods.

A few countries, have, if anything been punched drunk by repeated visits of short-term missionary teams; not exactly over-evangelized but at a certain level exploited.

Corruption, power seeking, divisions? Apathy, defeat, retreat? Immorality? Idolatry? Take your pick. It seems to be everywhere. Everywhere needs good teaching, disciples being formed, the Spirit stirring. Everywhere needs leadership training and student work and children’s work.

It’s exhausting.

How to make sense of it, this spraying, kicking hosepipe of need? I was puzzling over this when I remembered the prayer at the very end of the Bible, which is also perhaps the simplest prayer in the Bible.

Come, Lord Jesus. Into every situation. Into every heart. One day, in power to usher in a new world. O come, O come, Emmanuel.

(This title is an edited and occasionally updated version of the 2010 version, with about 600 fewer pages, which–full disclosure–I helped edit.)

The unreconciled

A few cheerful thoughts

Tree by the laneIf you block off every channel by which grace might come to your soul, I agree, like an autumn leaf or a dead branch, finally you will fall from the tree.

But God’s mercies are new every morning, rising like the sun. We Christians believe God came in the person of his Son with the aim of reconciling humanity and creation to himself for eternity. And he is kind and dogged in his pursuit of us.

What about those we feel have already gone, lost from us? It seems necessary to believe they’ve fallen into darkness, but it’s a darkness scented with mystery and kindness. One of my favourite bits of poetry anywhere is this:

Lift up your eyes and look about you:
    All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
    and your daughters are carried on the hip.
Then you will look and be radiant,
    your heart will throb and swell with joy (Isaiah 60:4-5)

The children they thought were lost forever are carried back to them, all grow’d up. It is poetry. Still…

 

A touch of the hand-done

Creation is a bit bodged together

A biologist friend of mine, a Christian, was telling me that what he saw through his microscope was … well … a bit ramshackle. It was a challenge, he said, to the idea of a Creator.

You would think a Creator would do something altogether more slick and wonderful. And of course, many biologists peer down their microscopes and do see shades of the beautiful and even the elegant. Perhaps biology is both wonderful … and a bit Heath-Robinson.

My friend and I were talking in our local Anglican church.  And when I think of the words “bodged together” and “still a bit wonderful” the words “Church of England” follow quite naturally. The C of E did not spring, intricate, interlocking, gently humming with purpose, from its Maker’s hand, like an expensive watch. Nor, it appears, did Life.

We serve the God of cuckoo clocks.

Day #3: KerPlunk marble tube and CD dominoes

*

Here’s my comic novel Paradise, which takes the themes of “redemption” and “ramshackle” to new heights, or possibly, depths. Free on Kindle as a gateway drug to the next ones in the series.

by - [-]
Price: - - - -

On following the money

Channel your inner Yorkshireman. You know it’s good for you

UntitledMy late accountant friend, a fine Christian, used to work out the health of things by ‘following the money’. It sounded a bit mercenery to me, but I’ve come round to liking it a lot for its diagnostic power.

If the money isn’t working, your vocation, ministry, organization is not in good health. (Discuss.)

Last night I went through in my head the stories of several friends who followed a Christian vocation or a business idea and just couldn’t make the money work. They tried for a long time. Often, others told them it wasn’t going to work. All suffered quite a bit. In the end each had to give up and do something else. I’m not saying they were wrong to try, but the subsequent let-down wasn’t painless.

Interestingly, of all them changed direction and got jobs that paid and that were also a toned-down version of their original dream. They found a middle way that included earning a living as well as being fruitful and happy.

Our men’s breakfast group at church was looking at this the other week, and we were surprised how emphatically the Bible came down on the side of common sense — channelling, as it were, its inner Yorkshireman. Follow your dreams by all means, but first make the money work.

This is difficult!  In pursuit of vocation, dream, calling, or business idea, many of us have to face opposition, shortage, severe financial hardship. So how do you know if your current-financial-hardship-in-pursuit-of-dream is

(a) a merely necessary stage in your eventual success or

(b) a sign from God that you have located the wrong tree. (Good effort for barking up it but, wrong tree.)

Some common sense surely helps here. Living an indebted life isn’t good. Failing to look after your family definitely isn’t good. And finally and definitively running out of money is sometimes a great mercy.