Monday, October 20, 2014

C. S. Lewis and the Inner Ring

A number of years ago I was asked to stand in an election for a position, and, I lost the election. I had received a premonition of this but I was unprepared for the inner emotional turmoil that ensued. At one point I said to myself: it’s time to re-read C. S. Lewis’ The Inner Ring.

Writing in multiple formats and genres Lewis had one message: the truth of Christianity, which truth, in and of itself, is the everlasting Glory of God. It was his intention that everything that he wrote, even his scholarly works, would point the reader to this transcendent glory. 

God’s glory should be seen shining through us, through our lives, which means quite simply that the Christian’s holiness is part of the apologetic/evangelism project which intentionally shapes all of his writings. This interface of between the Christian’s holiness and the defense of the Gospel emerges with great force as the Christian faces one of her three great enemies, the World.

Lewis sketched the architecture of this conception in an address by that in an address titled The Inner Ring, which was given to King’s College University of London in 1944[1]. Once this architecture is viewed it becomes clear that it forms the infrastructure structure of a number of his writings, most notably of course the novel That Hideous Strength which he himself labeled a novel of the inner ring. But the conception of the inner ring also appears in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where part of Edmond’s temptation is to leave his brother and sisters and join the secret society of the witch. Recently I suddenly woke up to the fact that I was reading it again as I re-read Surprised by Joy.

The moral structure of Surprised is formed, as I mention above, by his adherence to the classic tripartite coalition of evil: the world, the flesh and the devil. The world, in Surprised, is what Lewis encountered at the public school Wyvern College. There he encountered human society in miniature which might be summed up with the word hierarchy, or, the system of inner rings, a system there that was structured around certain students called “Bloods,” of whom he says: “the adored athletes and prefects were an embodiment of all worldly pomp, power and glory.”[2] He was tricked into a supposed insult of a “Blood” named Porridge, which brought him the rebuke: “Who are you? Nobody. Who is Porridge? THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON THERE IS.”[3]

For Lewis this rebuke summed it all up, that is, the school provided a system where students were expected to aspire to becoming The Most Important Person There Is, so that every waking moment was to be spent attempting to adopt the right tone of voice, giving a cheer at games at great volume while displaying the proper look on ones face, shining the shoes of “Bloods” with an attitude of servility, in short, doing anything for approval, anything to ultimately gain admittance. However, these  humiliations were not  the real problem, they were the symptoms.

These were symptoms of something more all-pervasive, something which, in the long run, did most harm to the boys who succeeded best at school and were happiest there. Spiritually speaking, the deadly thing was that school life was a life almost wholly dominated by the social struggle; to get on, to arrive, or, having reached the top, to remain there, was the absorbing preoccupation. . . And from it, at school as in the world, all sorts of meanness flow. . . .[4]

While Lewis reacted against the system, he does not appear to have done so by recognizing the corrupt temptation of the inner ring, but rather because of his fierce desire not to be interfered with, for he simply wanted to be alone, to be able to read and learn, and little more, a life that he would later live with Professor Kilpatrick, but which he would eventually label as “almost entirely selfish.”[5] But that still lay in his future. At Wyvern he choose not to succumb to the allure of reaching the top of the social hierarchy by joining an ideal hierarchy the members of which he did not know, but he knew that somewhere they existed. Thus, his rejection of the inner ring was not a rejection of the world, but rather a critique that this display of worldly pomp and power was hollow. He wanted the real thing. And, knowing himself to be superior to others in the one thing that mattered, intellect and knowledge, and “good taste” he simply viewed their pretensions with contempt.  “. . . Wyvern made me a prig.”[6]
And if “our “taste, then—by a perilous transition—perhaps “good taste or “the right taste.” For that transition involves a kind of Fall. The moment good taste knows itself; some of its goodness is lost. Even then, however, it is not necessary to take the further downward step of despising the “philistines” who do not share it. Unfortunately I took it.[7]

So, autobiographically Lewis identified what he considered to be the two great temptations of the world, namely, to provide us with identity and status apart of God, or, to resist a particular group by telling ourselves that we are in fact already “too good for them,” but only to find that in fact we are merely searching for yet another “inner ring” from which we hope to milk identity and status.

I believe Lewis’ analysis of “the inner ring” is in truth the best phenomenological analysis (pure description) of the New Testament concept of the world that currently exists. We think of the Greek word cosmos in moral passages (such as 1 John 2:15) as meaning the structure and, shall we say, the offerings, of society. Often we see “the world” as meaning such things as fame and fortune, but Lewis is driving us more deeply still. He wants us to ask: “what did it take to become famous? What did it take to have riches? And, how much of my integrity did I toss in at the toll booth along this broad highway?”

[1] C. S. Lewis. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. Harper, 1949, and on line at the site of the California C. S. Lewis Society,

[2] C. S. Lewis. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955. P. 83
[3] Ibid. p.91.
[4] Ibid., p. 108
[5] Ibid., p. 143
[6] Ibid., p. 101
[7] Ibid., p. 104

Thursday, September 11, 2014

What I Learned From Billy Graham

While Billy Graham is still alive I would like to note with appreciation some of the things I learned from him.

First, I learned to preach relevant sermons. I am not sure who first said: “every day read the morning newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other” but no matter who said it, I learned to do it by listening to Billy Graham preach. Some mocked him for so frequently quoting TIME magazine, I took the clue and subscribed to TIME and remained a subscriber for decades, for beyond finding catchy openers and clever illustrations, preaching must reflect life as it is being lived today as preachers bring truth and wisdom to the questions, fears and anxieties of the people who are listening.

In the fifties, when communism dazzled the eyes of the rising generation Billy Graham would say “young people today are looking for a cause, a flag to fly.” As I read this morning’s paper about hundreds of youth making or trying to make their way from Great Britain, Canada and the United States to Syria so they may fight with ISIS, I realize that his analysis is as relevant today as it was then, so I may soon repeat those words, referring at once to the morning paper and at the same time lifting up, as he did, the cross and the gospel as the only true cause worth living for and dying for.

Second, I learned to connect with the centers of society and culture. James Davidson Hunter has spent his life documenting evangelical’s addiction to living on the periphery of culture and society, feebly seeking protection from the world by setting up a parallel culture. Perhaps a case could be made for Billy Graham having contributed to the evangelical desire for a safe haven; he did after all base his headquarters in Minneapolis while living in a remote part of North Carolina.

However, as a child I was taken to his Crusade in St. Louis and I remember his introducing the Governor of the State of Missouri who then gave greetings. Oh, how easy it is to be cynical about that! But the point is this: I have observed over the years that Billy Graham and his associate evangelists took it upon themselves to develop discreet but meaningful relationships with political and cultural leaders, seeing them as unreached people. Billy Graham personally led more than one of these people to Christ. Yes, he made mistakes, like kneeling in prayer on the White House lawn after visiting Harry Truman, and yes, it is certain that Richard Nixon sucked him in. But, to his credit he learned from these mistakes and continued to use his position to talk to people that no one else could talk to.

For me, that meant that while a pastor of an inner city church of about 90 people in Detroit my telephone calls would be received by most of the members of the Detroit City Council. And in a small Ontario city, if I asked the mayor to come and give special greetings to a special meeting, he would duck out of a city council meeting if necessary to come to our church and welcome our guests. If we want to bring some health to our society we have to learn to strongly connect with those whom God has put into positions of political, cultural and business leadership.

Third, I learned to open doors to a wider Christian world. This perhaps more than any one thing brought hatred against Billy Graham, and I use the word hatred advisedly. In fact, we might say that while inventing evangelicalism, he also inadvertently invented the Christian right. When he allowed churches from main line denominations to sign on to the Crusade, which meant that converts from those churches would be channeled back to them, the wrath of the right rose up in a fury that never abated. But, eventually many of the people in those Main Line churches, taught in the Christian Counseling courses, nurtured by BGEA publications and seminars, began to drift towards evangelicalism, and they carried their local church, and sometimes their denomination, with them, and that brought great spiritual health to millions. 

It was not only the main line that he reached out to, but also to the ancient churches, in particular the Roman Catholic Church. I remember his appearance at the Economic Club in Detroit where Detroit’s Catholic Bishop introduced him, and then Billy Graham stood up and joked about the last time he and the Bishop had golfed together. From the days when a Roman Catholic was not allowed to set foot in a Protestant church the idea of a Bishop and Billy joking around about their golf game moved the earth under my feet. 

And so a few years back in our dear Ontario city, when Associate Evangelist John Wesley White came to preach at the invitation of the pastors, relations between churches were so warm that the Roman Catholic Church in that city was the first in history to sign on to a BGEA sponsored evangelistic mission as a fully participating church. I so well remember one of the priests coming down to the front at each invitation and walking back and forth, Thomson Chain Reference Bible in hand, so as to encourage his parishioners to respond. Lately we have seen more and more cooperation between evangelicals and the ancient churches on all levels, and, following Billy Graham’s example, we have discovered that one can do that without compromise, without saying to our people that the differences don’t matter. The differences do matter, but so do the similarities. 

Fourth, I learned to build the infrastructure of the evangelical movement, not that I could ever, by any means, do so on the level which he so amazingly did. Billy Graham understood that even though he had spoken live to more people than any human being in the history of the world, that alone was not enough to move the nation, much less the world, towards God. To address revival in the churches he knew that the main line churches must be brought back to orthodoxy, and to help with that he launched Christianity Today which, under the editorship of Carl F. H. Henry, incessantly spoke to the weakness of Liberal and Neo-Orthodox theology. To raise up a new generation of leaders he sat on the Board of Directors of Wheaton College, and as his active ministry days were drawing to a close he not only launched the Billy Graham center at Wheaton but also set up strong endowments at Wheaton, Gordon-Conwell and other Christian schools.

I am amazed that so few seem to understand the critical role of infrastructure. Our schools, especially in Canada, go begging for adequate funding, they survive rather than becoming strong and viable voices in our land, and this is still true in the United States as well. The only aspect of the evangelical movement that truly prospers is its relief efforts, and that is good, but it rests on a foundation that is beginning to age, show cracks, even settling back into the mud of obscurity. Billy Graham always saw the big picture, always saw that the worldwide evangelical house needed a foundation, plumbing, electrical service and a good roof.

Fifth, I learned to protect my reputation in an authentic way. Billy Graham told again and again the story of seeing a front page photo of a southern evangelist receiving a bucket full of money at the end of an offering and vowing that such a thing would never happen to him. And so BGEA paid him, and all the associates, a salary. No money from a Crusade ever went to him; no one accepted checks made out to them. Every Crusade had to have a local organizing committee, a budget, a fund-raising strategy, and in the end an outside firm would audit the books and publish the audit in the local newspaper. It is a practice which is rigorously followed today and it laid the foundation, not only for evangelical financial accountability, but for accountability in the wider charitable world.

And then there is the private life. Graham always traveled with his assistant T.W. Wilson. Mr. Wilson made the travel arrangements and when there was a hotel, Wilson walked into the room before Billy Graham was on the floor, examining the room carefully to see if anyone had placed anything in it that could then be used against Billy Graham. All of these precautions were followed because he understood that it is not enough to say “I am OK in the eyes of God,” one must also be “OK” in the eyes of the men and women of the world. 

Thank you Billy Graham for being a role model to a child, a teen and finally a person in the later years of ministry; I learned and still learn significant parts of the craft of ministry and preaching from you.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Comments on The Enchanted, A Novel by Rene Denfeld

I do love this book even though I didn’t love it for quite a while as I read it, for it is a sad book, a book about brutality and pain as it is experienced by so many in prison. Prison in fact is the lead metaphor of the story, never called hell but rather called the enchanted place. The lead characters are never named, the lady, the failed priest, the warden, the boy with white hair, and the unnamed narrator. It seems to me that these characters are on a journey to existing, to being human, a state which they have fallen from rather than one which they are aspiring to reach. What keeps them in a grey zone between being human, being persons, or as older philosophical writers might have put it, existing, and whatever totally non-existence must be, is guilt and despair, a despair that shields them from love. For some, the despair is overcome by a strong act of the will, a decision to murder or a decision to die. Sartre would have approved. But, is this the path to redemption? In the end those who risk giving and receiving love find at last their humanity.
I read this novel as part of the National Post’s Afterword Reading Society. In a written response I theoretically asked the author what place forgiveness has in such a story of redemption. To make a choice, even as powerful a choice as love, is life changing and truly self-authenticating. But people who have been pushed to the edge of what it means to be human need to extend love through forgiveness themselves in order to completely sever the bonds to the past. These two decisive decisions, to love and to forgive, go together, and the third is the decision to be forgiven by both others and God. These decisions bring a person to a personhood that lasts forever.
Thank you Rene Denfeld for giving us a book that speaks of the horror of prisons, of despair, and of the hope that despair can be transcended by anyone.
The Enchanted, A Novel by Rene Denfeld, Harper, 2014.


Friday, January 31, 2014

Philip Yancey and the Problem of Pain and Suffering

Philip Yancey: The Question That Never Goes Away, 2013

This short book is an excellent address to the problem of horrific tragedy and catastrophe. Yancey faces the issue head on, talking about his experiences at Virginia Tech, in Denver and at New Town Connecticut. He speaks of the shallowness of easy answers, especially answers such as “God needed X in heaven,” and on the other hand, “how could a good God allow this?” and rightly trashes them.

If there are weaknesses in this book they primarily grow from its strength which is Yancey’s ability to draw us into the scene, to sense the pain and thus to viscerally face the questions. But, because of that, the answers seem to be left shivering in the cold, present, but are they a match for the storm? So these very foundational truths are given:  there is hope, and the presence of God, the identification of God with suffering in Jesus, and finally, the resurrection which is God’s true answer. These answers are a match for the storm, but they need to be given traction, and I would suggest that such traction comes from the center of faith, the cross.

Not beyond these truths, but with them, I would like someone to say: God hates suffering, pain, and death. He hates it, and like his love, his hatred of it is eternal and infinite and beyond our understanding, it is a consuming fire and I so long to hear that this eternal and infinite hatred of evil, like his eternal and infinite love of people, is shown to us in Jesus Christ at the cross.

We need to say this so that we might be robust in calling for justice, in working to help the suffering, and in repenting of our sins.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Books Read: The Unity of the Bible

Fuller's Unity of the Bible, 1992, is a grand overview of the story of redemption. Fuller wrote this to speak to the growing trend to deny unity, looking only at the individual writer's perspective. Fuller writes from what I might call a modest Reformed perspective. I hold to the concept that the Bible has unity, that it is a presentation of the unfolding work of redemption, but I think that Fuller did not see redemption enough from a Christological perspective. For him, the work of God, and this is where the Reformed perspective dominates, is the glory of God, which is not to be denied, but is not the glory of God his love? God does not need to magnify sin so that we will somehow understand his mercy. Fuller emphasizes mercy, which is powerful to be sure, but unless we grasp the love of God in sending his Son I do not think we grasp the unity of the Bible.