Roger Newell, Insights of C.S. Lewis

Roger NewellRoger J. Newell is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at George Fox University. Dr. Newell completed his doctoral studies under Professor James Torrance in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Dr. Newell discusses the theological insights in C.S. Lewis’ fiction.

Edited transcript

JMF: You’re working on a book and putting the final touches on it now. Can you tell us about that?

RN: Yes, my concern is to try to try out the implications of Trinitarian theology for how we read Scripture. I found a wonderful guide in this with the writings of C.S. Lewis, who has himself had to work through a lot of false starts of trying to respond to God, and he learned through the writings of George McDonald and through encounters with Christians, that he had sold Christianity prematurely as not a helpful way, that he had to let go of as he grew up.

He had grown up in a legalistic Protestant environment in Northern Ireland, and some of his experiences there had caused him to have this attitude. But to watch how he recovers and had his faith restored is…. He’s articulate, he explains it so well, then he applies it to the reading of literature, and I’m taking some of those lessons in trying to describe how one can recover an understanding of the grace of God – and not just a conceptual understanding, but a felt, emotional congruence with the truth. I want to shed some light on that and show how his way of reading can help us recover the meaning of what Scripture is all about.

JMF: Anything new on C.S. Lewis is bound to be flying off bookshelves; we look forward to reading that. You deal in the book with The Chronicles of Narnia and how Lewis deals with judgment and redemption and freedom and such issues through those stories.

RN: The central part of our faith has to do with the judgment of God, which is surprisingly also where we meet God’s grace. This is clearly shown in the death of Jesus on the cross, in which is the judgment of the world, and yet also is where we encounter the grace of God at its most penetrating. How can these two, judgment and grace – we tend to think of them as opposites – how can they come together and both convict us of our sin, and also bring us healing and hope, so that we aren’t just the victims of our failures, morally and every other way.

Lewis does a wonderful job of showing how the judgment of the children. The scene in the first novel, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is a moment of extreme judgment and also a radical intervention of grace. This is something that he doesn’t forget as he gets older.

The last novel he writes, Till We Have Faces – the climax of the book is this wonderfully talented but flawed woman who is the queen of this Oldia Greek city state who is now ready to die. She’s an old woman and has to come to grips with her entire life and how she came to power and especially how she treated her little sister, who is a beautiful woman. She has to come to terms with the fact of how she really felt about… she has convinced herself that she’s been only loving towards her sister, but now she has to see herself as she really was, and this is part of her judgment, and this is a devastating experience when she finds the truth about how selfish her love was. (This is a great theme of Lewis in his book The Four Loves, also – how love can be ironically selfish.) Helping people can sometimes, because we love them, be very selfish, and so she has to figure out a way to face this truth.

And yet the miracle of this judgment is also, it’s accompanied by grace. That’s the hope. Lewis’ sense is that, in his career as a writer, about this amazing juxtaposition of judgment and grace. If we read the Old Testament carefully and see how the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New, this is our hope, too – that the judgment of God is not mutually exclusive from the grace of God, and that’s our hope.

JMF: You reminded me, when you were talking about how love can be misused, of another episode in one of Lewis’ books, The Great Divorce. The woman rode the bus up to heaven from hell, and she is touring with everyone else, but she’s the one who had devoted her whole life to just service – helping everybody in the family and doing work for them. But she was always angry because they’d never seemed to appreciate how much she did for them and what sacrifices she made for them and so on. Her expression of love was actually negative for her and for those around her.

RN: Yes. Lewis has this image again in the Four Loves. He has Miss Fidget, who worked herself tirelessly for her family and inadvertently wore her family out by trying to accommodate all of her care. As a pastor, I think of how many times I was involved in caring for people in ways that were maybe a lot more focused on my own role, or my being a servant of God, that became much more self-serving than I would like to admit.

Part of the healing process is taking that, so one can learn to see that our love is often a wounded thing, and we need to be forgiven even of our attempts at love. This is the radical hope of grace, that even our virtue has to be forgiven, but there’s hope in that. Even at the places where we may seem to have a virtue. Karl Barth says that religion can be the place where human beings most fiercely resist or challenge God.

We wear religious clothing, and as a professional Christian, as a minister, you wear Christian garb. One of the great challenges of living faithfully is to learn that those clothes are simply that, and to learn ways to be neither rejecting of every effort to give and to show love, faith working through love on the one hand, but also to realize that anything that has validity in those acts of love and service of love, giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name or going and visiting a sick person, etc., always needs to be under the mercy of God and the grace of God, that it won’t be a self-serving sacrifice in some way to draw honor or attention to yourself. That’s an important part of the lesson of an ongoing journey of leadership in the church.

JMF: Henri Nouwen’s book Wounded Healer gets into pastoral recognition of our own need, like Hebrews talks about – the priests like ourselves who are sinners too, and accepting that, coming from that foundation as we serve and help others.

RN: Here’s a place where Trinitarian theology is very therapeutic for us, just putting our lives back together. At the very heart of who God is, there is this perfect communion of giving and receiving love. It’s this equi-poise of free unconditional giving and then this free responsiveness between Father and the Son and the Spirit from all eternity, and we get to be included in that and brought into that. That means that my service learns not only the art of giving gracefully but also the art of receiving gracefully. This changes the dynamics of a pastor and his flock, a teacher and the students, and all the rest of it.

It becomes more of a communion rather than identifying love with just one side of that equation – giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name – but also it’s so blessed when you are thirsty and somebody gives you a drink, and you don’t have to earn it, you can simply receive it and look them in the eyes and say, “thank you.” Sometimes our families, our children, our spouses, our congregation, give us that wonderful gift, if we are willing to receive it and not always having to be on the giving end. That’s a very humbling part of maturing.

JMF: The whole communion, being part of that relationship, Father, Son, and Spirit, totally changes the pastoral/penitent or lay relationship. (You’ve touched on that to some degree, I don’t want to talk about this right now, we’ll get to it later, you’ve done work with, and working now on political theology in Germany from the ’30s up through 1989, and some of that plays into the relationship between leadership in the church and those that are being served.) Before we get to that, I want to go back to the judgment scene in Lion, Witch and Wardrobe and get you talk about that a little bit more.

RN: That’s maybe the central point in the Narnia series, and probably weighing it, because when you read the four Gospels, the death of Jesus is so central and so focused, and attention is paid to that. It is a scene of the judgment of all humankind, and the cross is the climactic moment when the sins of the whole world are judged. And the miracle is, is that it’s not simply condemning the world and rejecting it, because God did not come into the world to condemn the world but that the world, through Jesus, might be saved.

So in the moment of our deepest having to come to terms with our judgment, that our sins have put Christ on the cross, he has taken our place, he has come alongside us and he has spoken from the deepest place in our humanity, this word of hope and forgiveness is given so we can begin, from the bottom of our beings, to begin to live a different kind of life, a response, a genuine response of thanksgiving and gratitude for this gift.

So there it is, like the scene in Narnia where the little boy Edmund deserves to be killed because of his betrayal of his family. At that point of his most vulnerability and most sure of being guilty, he’s rescued. There’s an intervention there, and later in the story you realize how costly this intervention is on the part of the great lion, Aslan. But there’s hope, that even when Edmund is most guilty, and he has to face the kind of person he’s become, in doing that, he also discovers the depth of God’s meeting him and coming alongside him, not to condemn him, but to rescue him. That changes the tone of everything, and it changes the tone of our lives.

JMF: Don’t we all walk in the shoes, or take the journey of each of those characters? We’re all Edmund at one time or another, in one way or another – needing the grace of redemption. But we’re also Lucy and Susan having to forgive, and we’re also Peter having to deal with that response to the betrayal and the anger, of being the responsible one who has been thwarted and hurt by the betrayal. All of us need the redemption that comes at that point.

RN: Yes. That that highlights the fact that we don’t do this in isolation from each other. When I sin, or when I continually, maybe forget something – sins of omission as well as commission – that has consequences to my relationships of everyone: friends, family, strangers, community. Part of what takes place in the Narnia that’s so lovely is you learn how the children learn to forgive one another – what has happened vertically, begins to be experienced horizontally, in the way they learned to treat each other in a new way. That’s the challenge of being a family of God, a communion of faith in the church and in our families – to practice the art of forgiveness. It’s the great challenge and hope of Christian living.

St. Augustine says something wonderful about the hope of trying to come to terms with the terrible challenges of betrayal – the greatest sins Augustine talks about – how the one place where the gospel really addresses the frailty and brokenness of people is, that the church has the audacity to practice the forgiveness of sins. When you hear this preached and taught and lived out, it’s a costly thing, it’s not a simple thing. When a community catches the meaning of this, you know the gospel of Jesus Christ is being preached and being lived.

JMF: You bring out in The Chronicles of Narnia – as you used those as a springboard – the difference between a felt response and an obligation, in terms of responding to God.

RN: This is an important part of it, isn’t it? The reason life is so difficult sometimes is because we might know something we say in our head, but our hearts are not connected to where our head is, so how do we have a felt at-one-ment as well as a cognitive one? This is one of the gifts that I think Lewis brings to us in the Chronicles – he helps to pull out what’s in the Gospels, but we’ve just grown by our Sunday School associations. He says we have this subtle turning of good news into “should” news, and how do we recover that?

How do you discover the reality of thanksgiving and forgiveness and gratitude? It inheres in our response to God because this kind of grace has its natural inter-correlate – a response of gratitude. That is the emotion that is most congruent with the grace of God. So, whatever is getting in the way of that – fear, anger, or guilt – part of what I need to discover is, where I feel like resistance is coming at me in this way, part of what I need to do is just open that up – whatever that is, whether it’s an anger, or fear, or guilt, open that up and see what I’m going to find there at the bottom of that, isn’t just rejection and condemnation – but actually hope that even in my most unattractive, un-healed, un-loving part within myself, the grace of God will not reject me and turn away from me. It causes me to come clean on this so I can begin to live in a new way – a way of being reconciled to God and to my neighbor and to my family and so on. Again, that’s good news. It’s not “should” news.

JMF: There’s a freedom that we have, that we don’t even realize we have, that you show in the course of Lewis unfolding the story of Shasta in A Horse and His Boy. Could you talk about that a little?

RN: It’s especially touching because the great thing in America is freedom. We love freedom, and this country prides ourselves on our commitment to freedom and liberty and so on. One of the things that’s interesting about Shasta is he is an orphan boy who’s grown up in a totalitarian hierarchical society in which freedom is not very available, but his whole desire is to become free, and so he’s on a journey to run away from where he’s an orphan in this not-very-nice culture of Calormen and to get back to Narnia, get back to freedom and to become free. He discovers, like I guess we all do, that becoming free he’s brought with him into Narnia a lot of slave habits of thought, and a slave has certain qualities (that are internalized) which make a free response to people, or free response to life, very difficult.

The other irony of that story is the little girl he meets, who goes with him on this journey to freedom – to Narnia – is on the opposite side of the political-economic spectrum. She’s a wealthy, aristocratic child, and she’s being forced to marry somebody she doesn’t want to marry, so she wants her freedom, too.

The two of them together on this journey have to find out what freedom is all about. That means that she has to give up her attitudes of superiority, and Shasta has to give up his attitude of inferiority complex, which was always putting himself down and always feeling basically he’s not very worthy; these are classic descriptions of a slave’s mentality. C.S. Lewis does an interesting study in words, and he describes in his book a study in words, what are some typical attitudes of slaves, slave habits of thought – he takes this from Aristotle and some of the other ancient Greek writers. One of the dangers of growing up a slave and being in a slave-holding society is the sense of inferiority that you’re constantly pre-occupied with and therefore need to prove yourself or put yourself down or something.

The other thing is the sense of, as a slave you’re typified as always looking after yourself. This is actually a phrase in Aristotle – a slave is always thinking about himself and not with the common good. It’s interesting that part of what Shasta has to discover in real freedom is not just constantly thinking “what’s in it for me?” – the angle of looking after number one, this kind of language, that’s a slave mentality. Part of his discovery of the freedom he has in Narnia is that he can begin to be healed of this self-preoccupation by having this deep sense of commitment to other people and by being bound to their welfare. Now he has a freedom to be a different kind of person, not just the person who’s constantly looking for “what’s in it for me.”

Aravis, the girl, discovers the freedom to not look down on people – which is a terrible way to live, even as it is a terrible way to live to constantly be looking up. But to look at people eye-to-eye and seeing them as humans and real people, free citizens of Narnia, and to begin to relate to people in an entirely new way – this is tremendously liberating.

JMF: My favorite passage in all the Chronicles of Narnia is the scene in The Silver Chair where in the depths of the underground realm of the green witch, the children are captured and the prince is captured, and Puddleglum (a marsh character) is also there. She’s putting out some kind of smoke that causes them to get drowsy. Even though they’re trying to find their way up to Narnia, up to the surface, she’s telling them, there’s no such thing as the sun, and there’s no such thing as the upper world, and there’s no such thing as Narnia, and all of this is just a figment of your imagination – and this is the real world, and you need to stay here with me where, this is all there is. Everyone is drowsy, they’re coming under the spell that she has kept the prince under, captured with, all this time, and Puddleglum, as a last desperate act, sticks his foot in the fire, and burns himself. He regains his senses and remembers what is real, and he says, “Look, even if you’re right and there is no sun, and there is no Narnia, and there is no Aslan, I’d rather spend my life searching for those things than to live here in this place you call the real world.”

RN: That’s a wonderful confession of Lewis’ faith and belief that the bottom line is, that I’m going to live as a Narnian even if there is no Narnia. It makes me think of Job in the Old Testament where it says, “Though God slay me, I will trust him.” It makes me think of this strong affirmation of trusting in God that comes in Romans, where Paul says, “Let God be true and every man a liar.”

There is a fundamental reality here that, even if it isn’t popular, even if it’s been a camouflage and hidden, and there’s smoke and mirrors everywhere telling you that all that really matters in life is whatever contemporary fashions are, either the materialism, or certain kinds of temptations that are played within our contemporary culture (and they’re unavoidable), there is a fundamental reality that pierces through all that.

Luther says, “Faith doesn’t create God, or create this reality – faith sees what is there.” Seeing that which is invisible. It’s there, and faith doesn’t create it. Faith is gripped by it, and this is the power inside of old Puddleglum, which is an insight and an experience that is very important for all of us.

JMF: It’s a mix of doubt where we need something like that to cling to and hold on to, because we all go through these periods of doubt, and our faith becomes cloudy and misty and weak. It isn’t a static thing where I have a strong faith and it just stays like that. It spikes and then it looks like the stock market does today. But Lewis deals with that in a number of ways as you move through the Chronicles of Narnia.

RN: That’s right – faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive. Ray Anderson used to say, “Faith grows on the narrow ledge of doubt.” That’s a lovely way of expressing that, and one of the things that’s very impressive about Lewis is how he continually has this deep honoring of people who ask tough questions. One of his heroes is Puddleglum, who tends to look on the difficult, the dark side of life. He’s not going to pretend that things are okay. In the New Testament, one of our heroes of faith is Thomas, because he’s not willing just to hear a feel-good story about the resurrection that isn’t real. He says, “You guys sound pretty happy, you seem pretty convinced that things would work out okay, but unless I can see, unless I can touch this risen Lord, I’m not going to, just for the sake of camaraderie or just for the sake of everyone feeling good, to go along with this.”

The beautiful thing is, the disciples don’t say, “Get out of here, Thomas. You’re not one of us anymore, because you’re being awkward here.” He says, “I want to be a follower of Christ, and I don’t want to pretend I don’t have these doubts, but I don’t want to leave you guys, I’m here with you.” It’s in that context then that the risen Christ appears to Thomas. He doesn’t scold Thomas; he just meets with Thomas and says, “Blessed are those who don’t have this privilege that you have, Thomas, but your questions are not bad questions.” The only bad questions, when we have doubts, it’s the bad side of that when we cover them up or try to pretend.

Augustine has this wonderful prayer that we sing in some of these Taize songs, “Let not my doubts and my darkness speak to thee Lord, let your light shine upon them.” So we open them up; we don’t hide them away. We allow them to surface because they need God’s touch also. They need to be open. Many wonderful questions are in the New Testament, and like Mary, we were talking about Mary last time, and Mary asked the toughest questions that anybody has ever asked about the virgin birth. She asked them not in a casual way, but in an honest and heartfelt way: “How can these things be?” She doesn’t hide those things, and that’s to her credit. That means that she’s really engaging God with her deep self, not just a superficial self.

JMF: Do you have a title for the book?

RN: The Feeling Intellect: Reading the Bible with C.S. Lewis. He is the dialogue partner, and he provides a style or a way of being receptive and open. I try to apply that style to some things he addressed, and then some issues that we have to deal with now in more contemporary situations.

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Last modified: Tuesday, February 12, 2019, 8:33 PM