Getting the Bible Inside

Eugene Peterson:
“A caveat about the disciplines: I’m uneasy about the word discipline. It’s a useful word, which Richard Foster has brought back into the Protestant vocabulary. But in practice it often encourages people to take charge of their own spirituality. When you practice a discipline, you’re doingsomething. There’s not much relaxation. There’s not much letting go. Some people say to me, “You’re such a disciplined person.” I ran marathons for twenty years, but it wasn’t a discipline. I loved it. I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything. I have the same feeling about reading scripture, prayer, worship.
I was talking just this last week to a retired businessman. He led Bible studies for most of his life, but at some point he realized that he wasn’t getting it inside of him. He went to his pastor for advice, but his pastor couldn’t really help. So on his own, without any direction, he developed a system of lectio divina, almost exactly the way the books tell you how. He compiled huge notebooks of meditation and reflection on scripture. He told me he’d been doing this for ten years, that he’d wake up at five-thirty in the morning and he couldn’t wait to start. It wasn’t a discipline. It simply got inside of him.
Maybe discipline has become a cliché. Maybe there are new ways to talk about it. Maybe we’re right on the edge of that.”
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The necessity of contemplating beauty

Melinda Selmys, from her book Sexual Authenticity:

“Beauty is not largely an irrelevant addendum to the life of the soul. It is through beauty that we come to understand the appeal of heaven. The atheist can’t get excited about sitting around forever with the big man on the throne. The sexual sinner can’t imagine an eternity without sex. Almost everyone, at least on some level, thinks that this world is more appealing than the world to come. It is because we do not spend enough time contemplating beauty, because we do not take into our hearts the realization that all of the wonders and marvels, all of the joys and triumphs, of this world are only a tiny spark thrown from the fire of Beauty that burns in the mind of God.”

The truest index of our real situation

C.S. Lewis, from his sermon, “The Weight of Glory”:

In some sense, as dark to the intellect as it is unendurable to the feelings, we can be both banished from the presence of Him who is present everywhere and erased from the knowledge of Him who knows all. We can be left utterly and absolutely outside – repelled, exiled, estranged, finally and unspeakably ignored. On the other had, we can be called in, welcomed, received, acknowledged. We walk every day on the razor edge between these two incredible possibilities. Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.

The demise of Wither and Frost

Finished That Hideous Strength – a wise and strange book – in many ways I was continually surprised by the strangeness of it. I believe Alan Jacobs wrote that Lewis was very influenced by Charles Williams when writing it, and whether or not I’m remembering that correctly, it has the ring of truth. It is distinctly Lewis – his philosophy, his style, his sense of humor. But especially in the early chapters I was continually reminded of Williams’ novels, and his interweaving of the spiritual, the bizarre and the modern.

But That Hideous Strength is still Lewis through and through, and bears the marks of his cohesive philosophy. Many talk about his picture of hell as populated by people who choose to be there, and point to his treatment of that idea in The Great Divorce or in The Problem of Pain. But he depicts that same idea here in it’s most frightening form. He does so in depicting the deaths of the academics Wither and Frost, acting heads of NICE (the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments). In both cases their descent into death (and quite truly, hell) is a direct result of their life-long choices, their basic life orientation and their deepest beliefs.

For Wither (who dies first), the realization that he is going to die is incapable of moving him. “He had willed with his whole heart that there should be no reality and no truth, and now even the imminence of his own ruin could not wake him.

So how indeed do the damned go to their damnation? Lewis continues:

The last scene of Dr. Faustus where the man raves and implores on the edge of Hell is, perhaps, stage fire. The last moments before damnation are not often so dramatic. Often the man knows with perfect clarity that some still possible action of his own will could yet save him. But he cannot make this knowledge real to himself. Some tiny habitual sensuality, some resentment too trivial to waste on a blue-bottle, the indulgence of some fatal lethargy, seems to him at that moment more important than the choice between total joy and total destruction.

There it is, same as in The Great Divorce. After a lifetime of choices, in the final, fatal moment of last opportunity, the person chooses a “tiny habitual sensuality”, a trivial resentment, or the indulgence of lethargy rather than surrender to God and true joy. And so:

With eyes wide open, seeing that the endless terror is just about to begin and yet (for the moment) unable to feel terrified, he watches passively, not moving a finger for his own rescue, while the last links with joy and reason are severed, and drowsily sees the trap close upon his soul. So full of sleep are they at the time when they leave the right way.”

Frost likewise faces a final moment of choice, a small glimpse of clarity, and yet is damned by his own choice and firm belief. A thorough-going materialist, Frost believes there is nothing but matter and that his own self is merely a projection of his body. It is a matter of fundamental faith for him that the soul and all transcendant values, morals and meaning are merely material phenomenon which disappear when seen “objectively”. And so at the end of his story the full ramifications of this belief play out. Nearing death, he is allowed:

“to suspect that death itself might not after all cure the illusion of being a soul – nay, might prove the entry into a world where that illusion raged infinite and unchecked. Escape for the soul, if not for the body, was offered him. He became able to know (and simultaneously refused the knowledge) that he had been wrong from the beginning, that souls and personal responsibility existed. He half saw: he wholly hated. The physical torture of the burning was not fiercer than his hatred of that. With one supreme effort he flung himself back into his illusion.

Here it is again, in full. The opportunity to escape damnation – to say to God, “Thy will be done” – was offered. He glimpses this alternate world, the real world of the immaterial that he had denied (souls, personal responsibility), and rather than accept it, he denies it with heroic effort. It doesn’t matter if it is true – he hates the very idea of such a world. “He half saw: he wholly hated.”

And so, his demise is also sealed.

In that attitude eternity overtook him as sunrise in old tales overtakes and turns them into unchangeable stone.

Here is a frightening depiction of humans rejecting God and instead of surrender choosing damnation. Here too is a depiction of the deeper caverns of volition. What if, prior to reason, prior to evidence, prior to logic, humans are most fundamentally subject to our desires? 

And what if our desires are deeply bent? What hope is there for us, if we don’t want, won’t accept, the only heaven and more importantly the only God that there is?

No hope, outside of the deep regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.

The horror when beauty becomes too weak a stimulant

From That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis:

Suddenly…desire (salt, black, ravenous, unanswerable desire) took him by the throat.

…[This desire] disenchants the universe. Everything else that Mark had ever felt – love, ambition, hunger, lust itself – appeared to have been mere milk and water, toys for children, not worth one throb of the nerves…

…It is idle to point out to the perverted man the horror of his perversion: while the fierce fit is on, that horror is the very spice of his craving. It is ugliness itself that becomes, in the end, the goal of his lechery; beauty has long since grown too weak a stimulant.

The deep caverns of volition

Alan Jacobs, in his book, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis (242):

Objections to Christianity…are phrased in words, but that does not mean that they are really a matter of language and analysis and argument. Words are tokens of the will. If something stronger than language were available, then we would use it. But by the same token, words in defense of Christianity miss the mark as well: they are a translation into the dispassionate language of argument something that resides far deeper in the caverns of volition, of commitment. Perhaps this is why Saint Francis, so the story goes, instructed his followers to ‘preach the Gospel always, using words if necessary.’ It is not simply straight-forwardly wrong to make arguments in defense of the Christian faith, but it is a relatively superficial activity: it fails to address the core issues.