Last Post: Tolkien, Lewis, and the Gospel
In our last post (J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the Gospel Accounts) we saw the impact (on me at least) of C.S. Lewis’ opinion of the gospels. Lewis, a former atheist, a professor at Oxford and Cambridge, and an expert in ancient literature, wrote that the gospels are either a documented account of the life of Jesus, or, “some unknown writer in the 2nd century, without known predecessors, or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.” In other words, C.S. Lewis believed the scriptures to be true. (I posted Lewis’ statement on Reddit and a commenter, SuddenlySeymour, with a masters degree in English Literature explained it better than I ever could. If you’re interested, you can read what he wrote in the NOTES section at the bottom of this post.)
Why Should I Listen?
The next thing we explored in the last post was the next logical step after learning of Lewis’ conclusion. And that step is to read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life very carefully. Because if those accounts are true as C.S. Lewis asserts that they are, then when we read the gospel accounts, we’re reading a documented account of the life and words of the Son of God Himself.
The Son of God Himself. No one’s life can be more important than his. No one’s world view can be more important than his. No one’s words can be more important than his. He said he came to save lives, eternal lives, and I want to explore that. But before we continue I think it will be helpful to first look at how firefighters decide to save lives.
Why Dive Through a Window Into a Burning Building?
In my thirty years in the fire service, I have heard of only one person crazy enough to disregard the interpretation of a fire scene by firefighters. Unfortunately I experienced it first hand. The call came in around 7 in the morning, as a house fire with children trapped at 503 Alberts St., in Medford, Oregon. When we rolled up we saw the house was well involved with fire. I’ll never forget my surprise when, as we deployed off of our fire engines, we were met by a man screaming obscenities. He was, if you will, challenging our interpretation of the fire scene—in no uncertain terms. He couldn’t understand some of the actions we chose to take, and he let us know about it.
The man screaming at us wasn’t the only one to meet us as we arrived. A mother of three children also approached us. She said her three kids were trapped in the two back bedrooms of the burning house. I’ll never forget what I saw as we drug our hoselines around to the back. There was thick black smoke under heavy pressure boiling out of the bedroom windows. The chances that anyone could still be alive inside were slim to say the least.
But Firefighters Erin Sawall and Brian Hammer climbed into that house. They made their way through the boiling black smoke, and handed the bodies of three limp grade school age children to others waiting outside. Two died. One survived.
Choosing Action at a Fire and Choosing a Worldview
Please bear with me in this section because after thirty years with a fire department I tend to look at things from a risk management perspective. At a fire it’s impossible to gather all the information you would like to have before taking action. I think that’s similar to the decisions we make when choosing a worldview. For instance Hammer and Sawall couldn’t take the time to determine how long the fire had been burning or the location of the fire’s origin before making their decision to plunge inside. And they couldn’t wait for a structural engineer to drive out and give his assessment of the potential for the building to collapse. They had to take action (or they could have decided not to take action). That’s how it is when you choose a worldview, you gather the information you can, limited though it may be, then you make your choice.
As you can see from our example, even if the chance for human survival is very small, a firefighter will risk his own life to save someone inside a burning building. Brian Hammer and Erin Sawall’s lives aren’t the only examples.
One thing Jesus said has to do with risk management, and is relevant to whether or not Lewis is correct in his assessment of the gospels. It’s important to look at this particular statement Jesus made because I have to realize that it’s possible Lewis is wrong. After all there are some experts who agree with Lewis, and there are other experts who say the gospels are fiction.
When I consider the accuracy of the gospel accounts I’m working with limited information, similar to the limitations at a fire scene. So when I contemplate Lewis’ conclusion I’m managing risk, to my life–my eternal life. Because Jesus said, “…if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins.”
And just like Firefighter Hammer and firefighter Sawall who crawled through the bedroom window into a fire to save a life–even though their chances were slim–I find myself in the position where the only thing that makes sense is to act on Lewis’ assessment of the gospels as did Lewis himself.
I must accept them as truth.
Yes But Can I Choose to Believe?
Now at this point you might be thinking to yourself, “Yes but that statement Jesus made, ‘…if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins.’ I can’t make myself believe.” I pray you’ll be careful about that thought. Because there’s a notion out there that if you come to a conclusion based on your own interpretation of your environment, you’re not responsible for the consequences of that conclusion. Sometimes atheists feel that way. But the reality is we’re all responsible for our conclusions. My kids used to deliver pizza to a woman who weighed well over 400 pounds. She had a huge appetite for pizza and her appetite effected her interpretation of facts concerning nutrition. Her interpretation of the facts concerning nutrition was the more nutrition the better. But of course there are still consequences. She doesn’t eat pizza anymore, because she died. She died at a relatively young age, unnecessarily as a result of her morbid obesity.
The same can be said of an alcoholic’s interpretation of medical opinions on drinking. Or a drug addict’s interpretation of medical opinions on his drug of choice. Their conclusions have been made. They’ll tell you with great conviction they believe their truth. Often they’re convinced they really do believe their truth. But the consequences are still there.
How Much Faith Is Enough?
Or maybe you’re saying to yourself, “I’m just not sure. I’m not sure I believe, or at least not all the way, so what can I do?”
What you can do is to believe a little. Because another thing Jesus said was that a little faith is enough. Think of it this way. Imagine a building twenty stories tall. You’re on the roof, walking toward the edge to admire the view below because you like the way people look like ants and the way cars look like, well–like tiny cars. But suddenly you see behind you the concrete fire suppression water reservoir has fallen off it’s supports and is rolling toward you (just like that giant boulder in Indiana Jones) and you have no where to go but to jump. So you do. You jump. It’s surreal–everything seems to happen in slow motion (as they always say). And immediately just as you begin to fall, there on the side of the building near the top, you notice a balcony railing, an awning, and a flag pole–all within your reach. You think to yourself, “I’m not sure which of those might be the right one to reach out and grab.” You remember the flag pole mounted on the front of your neighbor’s garage, that it’s a half inch wooden dowel rod slid into a thin aluminum bracket–too flimsy. You remember seeing movies where people landed on awnings, but your trajectory isn’t right for that, and the awning doesn’t seem very grab-able. You wish you knew more about the balcony railing. Is it made of metal? Is it well anchored? I gained a few pounds recently–will it hold my weight? But it’s impossible to know these things. All you know is the railing looks like the best option.
And here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re audacious when you take action or if you’re tentative. It doesn’t matter if you reach out for that railing like you’re Mark Wahlberg or like you’re Ken Jeong. It doesn’t matter if you reach out with complete certainty, or if there’s an element of doubt. What matters is that you pick the right thing to grab. As long as you grab the right one, you’re saved.
You Can Have Faith
So your faith doesn’t have to be blind faith. You can believe in the truth of the gospels because they’re not mythological literature. And you can choose to believe in Jesus Christ, even if it’s just the tiniest amount of belief. It works. Just as you weren’t entirely sure that balcony railing would hold you, but you chose to hold onto it anyway, all you have to do is choose the right one. And the evidence points to Jesus. He’s the right one.
Believe on Jesus, even if your belief is small. My hope and prayer is Jesus Christ will pull you up out of your sea of doubt.
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” -Jesus Christ, Matthew 14:31
Next post we’ll look at some of the reasons for unbelief.
The following is a Reddit Christianity comment concerning C.S. Lewis’ assessment of the gospels.
Ok, in answering this I am speaking somewhat within my expertise, which is literature (I have a masters degree in English Literature). Lewis is talking about what scholars refer to as mimesis. Mimesis, comes from the greek word for imitator or actor, and covers how reality and personality are presented in literature.
It is hard for most people to realize that the novel itself is only 400 years old. We are so fully soaked in the novel as a story telling form that the realism and psychological intimacy of the modern novel are how we think of stories. As partakers of narrative we live this side of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Daniel Defoe’s Crusoe and Jane Austen’s novels, and so we naturally think in complex, psychologically driven, realistic narratives. That is our mother tongue.
But classic culture knew no such mode of fiction. When you read Homer and Virgil and the Greek and Roman classics, you simply don’t get this type of narration. Lewis, further on in the passage cited recommends the reader read Erich Auerbach’s remarkable book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Which does a far better job at covering this ground than I am doing and is still highly regarded by scholars of literature today. You find similar arguments in books like Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning (not an argument about the gospels, but about the key change in the perception and projection of self that led to the psychological drama and realistic narrative.)
Lewis is quite right. To make the claim that the gospels were literature is to make the claim that “some unknown writer in the 2nd century, without known predecessors, or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative” – we simply didn’t begin writing fiction like that for 1600 years. It never occurred to us.
Timothy Keller Podcast, Doubt: What should I do with my doubts?
[Image via Matt Lemmon – Creative Commons]