Continuing my grand tradition of reading way too many books at the same time, I picked up C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity again this week. Lewis is so easy to read. When he writes, I find that he doesn’t have to persuade me about much. Instead, it’s almost like he’s uncovering all of the things I already believed in my heart, gathering them up, and presenting them back to me in a way far more logical and clever than I ever could have managed. Don’t get me wrong. I went through a period where I hated C.S. Lewis with a burning passion. When you’re a Christian that wants to learn more about faith, he’s one of the only serious theologians that many pastors seem to be comfortable prescribing. You’d get sick of anyone if they came up that many times! But ultimately he’s prescribed for a reason: he’s phenomenally good. Perhaps the closest thing to a mutual source of authority for Protestant churches in America.
In any case, this quote particularly struck me:
I will tell you another view that is also too simple. It is the view I call Christianity-and-water, the view which simply says there is a good God in Heaven and everything is all right- leaving out the difficult and terrible doctrines about sin and hell and the devil and redemption. Both of these are boys’ philosophies. It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real things are not simple.Mere Christianity, 40
It was such a relief to hear that a man as distinguished as Lewis had experiences with pop faith that are so similar to ours today. After all, how many people do you know that are just Christian enough to acknowledge that God exists, but can’t imagine that this God would want anything aside from their own happiness? It’s so common! The term “moral therapeutic deism” is thrown around to describe that kind of faith today, and Lewis is talking about it all the way back in 1952. That flimsy faith rarely gets further than this: God exists and he wants us to be happy. Don’t be mean, love yourself, and everything will work itself out. The best of secular wisdom is echoed back at an individual with a tint of religious nostalgia. It’s distinctly frustrating to hear for those of us that are eager to dig in to Christianity as the core of our life, and a core that continually forces us to give things up, to repent, and to turn back to the baffling God that demands everything. A faith less than that would seem frivolous to us! As the famous agnostic philosopher Julian Barnes wrote, “there seems little point in a religion which is merely a weekly social event (apart, of course, from the normal pleasures of a weekly social event), as opposed to one which tells you exactly how to live, which colours and stains everything,” (Nothing to be Frightened Of, 64).
On one hand, it was self-justifying. I remembering being in seminary and seeing that the United Methodist baptismal liturgy didn’t contain the traditional question “Do you reject the Devil and all of his works?” I asked the professor about the exclusion and his answer was blunt: “Oh, yes, they replaced that with ‘evil, injustice, and oppression.’ The governing body didn’t think they would be able to get the traditional language approved by a vote.” What a loss! It’s a tragedy to throw away a liturgy over a thousand years old because we’ve fixed the language with something moderns find more comforting. That stuck in my head. I imagined myself as the bold Christian, right alongside Lewis, representing the real faith for the world.
But don’t’ worry. That spiritual cockiness didn’t make it through the week.
I’ve been working on a little project to try to understand how we can be better at Christian service. And as since I want to be better at serving in a distinctly Christian way, I have to understand what “Christian service” actually is and how it differs from other ways of serving it the world (community service, quid pro quo, etc.). It’s been a delightful adventure so far. A challenging one too! I’ve begun by recording each narrative of service in the book of Acts and then recording commonalities between the events to see what consistently comes to the top. And geeze! It’s convicting!
Two of the most common pieces of service in Acts are the invocation of the name of Jesus, and the proclamation of the Gospel. I have to ask myself, do I do them? Do I actually use the name Jesus? The name that caused scandal all those years ago because of the brash claims that accompanied it? Not really. I often use “God,” which is a name that’s a lot more culturally comfortable. It’s easy to say, causes less tension with other traditions, and is printed on all the money for maximum cultural complicity. And how often do I proclaim the Gospel apart from preaching and teaching in the church? The popular (and probably fake) St. Francis quote “Proclaim the gospel always. Use words when necessary,” suits my sensibilities so well. But is that what the apostles did? Or is it a way that I can comfortably move in a secular world without risking discomfort? I suppose none of this is “theology” in the way that Lewis meant it, but it’s certainly a way in which the faith I’m living is not like that of the Christians in the Bible. I may include the “terrible doctrines” about Hell and sin, but I exclude the terrible actions that would risk embarrassment as I move through the world.
Lewis not only believed uncomfortable truths in the comfort of his own mind, but he lived them out in the real world. And not always in a way that won him admiration! Close Christian friends like J.R.R. Tolkien thought he was too evangelistic, and more than a few promotions went to other people because he was “too Christian” for the taste of others (131 Christians Everyone Should Know, 135). He’s proven himself invaluable one more time on my journey. On one hand, he gives a word that comforts. On the other hand, the same word cuts to the core. I hope my faith is never too comfortable, in thought or in deed.