Tag Archives: C. S. Lewis

Review: Poems (C. S. Lewis)

Rating: ★★★★

Who: C. S. Lewis, British scholar and lay theologian.

Overview: This little volume of poems was arranged posthumously from sundry sources, including many plucked from The Pilgrim’s Regress. There is in general a strong overlap in subject matter with both Lewis’ fiction (“Narnian Suite,” “Wormwood,” “The Dragon Speaks”) and his nonfiction (“Love’s As Warm As Tears,” “Divine Justice”). Walter Hooper has arranged the poems along the lines of their themes, beginning with the most ambitious.

Though enjoyable, it will never enjoy as wide an appeal as Lewis’ fiction or Christian living titles, since much of the material is written for a literary audience. If you enjoyed his excursions and ramblings in God in the Dock, or The Pilgrim’s Regress, or George MacDonald’s poetic works, you would probably enjoy this book.

In terms of form, all of the poems are very short except for two or three, and almost all of them rhyme, sometimes incorporating sonnets, other times incorporating classical metrical schemes.

Meat: There are several hidden gems in here whose original sources are no longer available. “The Turn of the Tide” is a favorite, which conceptualizes Bethlehem in terms of spiritual combat. The poems from The Pilgrim’s Regress—which, like The Lord of the Rings or Phantastes, mixes poetry with its prose—stand alone quite well.

Not surprisingly, Eden is a major theme: see “The Future of Forestry,” “Adam Unparadised,” and “Eden’s Courtesy,” for a few. Other Old Testament characters are dealt with (“Solomon,” “The Late Passenger”), though none so seriously or so often as Eden, which is seen as a hint of the new creation that will be:

This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell. (“What the Bird Said Early in the Year”)

Lewis’ intellectual independence is also seen in some of the more sarcastic works, like “An Exposulation: Against Too Many Writers of Science Fiction” and “Evolutionary Hymn.” His odes to Andrew Marvell and John Milton are also notable in the context of his academic position.

Bones: Christian readers expecting didactic theological insights would feel for the most part short-changed by Lewis’ poetry. The book is, for the most part, a literary effort, and therefore has little in the way of moral imperative. Part I especially—pages 1-49, more than a third of the book—is replete with classical references (“And Peleus took the Nereid Theris …”) which are lost on almost all modern readers.

Overall, this collection is well worth having, but most people will prefer to cherry-pick poems with intriguing titles rather than read the whole book.

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Review: God in the Dock

Rating: ★★★★

Who: C. S. Lewis, British scholar and lay theologian.

Overview: God in the Dock: Essays in Theology and Ethics is a smorgasbord of Lewis’ short articles, mostly on theological topics. Many of them are responses to theological or literary controversies of the day, but they are written with the same cleverness and care for detail that he put into his other writings.

Meat: The strength of this book is that we can hear Lewis at length on topics that he loved, but were unworthy of a full book. Topics scattered throughout his writings come into full focus here. The essay, for example, on “Reading Old Books” is still particularly relevant and quoted often as an antidote to the worship of the “Idol of the Age.”

My favorite parts of the book, though, were Lewis’ thoughts on mythology scattered throughout. In short, Lewis believed that in Jesus’ resurrection was, in a sense, “myth became fact.” He mentions this in Perelandra, but he expounds it much more clearly in God in the Dock, especially in “The Grand Miracle” and “Myth Became Fact.” These two essays are the kernel of the book and are central to understanding to Lewis’ theology as a whole.

Bones: Some of the essays—a long-winded argument against ‘naturalism’ for example—may be opaque to modern readers. As the book goes on, some of the essays on ethical and critical topics, are for the most part yawn-inducing. (Some of the topics also have little or nothing to do with religion, by the way.) As a whole, it is definitely a book worth having, but I wouldn’t worry about reading it cover to cover.

An abridged collection, The Grand Miracle: And Other Selected Essays might be a quicker, more palatable alternative for less patient readers (and it looks like it has a closer focus on the Christian topics too).

Quotes: “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another a new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.” (“On Reading Old Books”)

“The Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him. It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left.” (“The Grand Miracle,” p. 80)

Related: Several similar (though shorter) compilations of Lewis’ articles have sprung up. Confusingly, there is a compilation called God in the Dock that is shorter than this full book; The Grand Miracle is also a kind of “best of” taken completely from God in the Dock. Lewis’ other books of essays and speeches, such as The Weight of Glory and The World’s Last Night, are unrelated to this one and do not overlap.

This book is available in print, digital, and audio formats.

Review: That Hideous Strength (No Spoilers)

Rating: ★★★

Overview: The third installment of C. S. Lewis’ Space trilogy is by far the most ambitious of the three. Set on Earth, That Hideous Strength begins with a new protagonist: This time a snarky academic is being reeled into a plot that could determine the fate of England—even Earth. But how deep does the intrigue go? And who else will resist the relentless expansion of the N.I.C.E.?

Meat: A few readers claim this as their favorite of the trilogy, but not many. It is replete with symbolism, and it may be in a different genre from that of the first two installments of the trilogy. Lewis tries hard to plant all three in the world we know—but in the third book, the cosmic crises of the first two books come crashing into England’s villages. The action comes home.

While the first two books deal with innocence and temptation, the third installment focuses on the advance of deception. For this reason, many reviewers take it as Lewis’ figurative eschatology.

Bones: The plot of the book was quite slow to pick up. Lewis sacrificed accessibility for literary flare. That Hideous Strength is a far cry from the universality of Narnia. If you don’t enjoy the esoteric, this book may be a bore for you.

A side point: In my opinion, Lewis was unduly influenced by Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion. Both are fantasy novels set in England with a long exposition involving a few cynical academics, eventually culminating in a conflict that combines spiritual, magical and historical elements.

Quotes: “Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder.”

“Why you fool, it’s the educated reader who can be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and skips the leading articles. He buys his paper for the football results and the little paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats. He is our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the high-brow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’re all right already. They’ll believe anything.”

“This is the courtesy of Deep Heaven: that when you mean well, He always takes you to have meant better than you knew. It will not be enough for always. He is very jealous. He will have you for no one but Himself in the end. But for tonight, it is enough.”

Review: A Grief Observed

Rating: ★★★★

Who: C. S. Lewis, British scholar and lay theologian.

When: 1961, following his wife’s death in 1960. They had been married for just four years.

Overview: Later in life, Lewis married Joy Davidman, a prominent author in her own right. She was snarky, academic, and just what Lewis wanted. But after only a few years together, she was diagnosed with cancer; after prayer, Lewis thought she was recovering, but the cancer returned, and, in a short time, she died.

A Grief Observed is C. S. Lewis’ shortest and most confessional book, pulled from his journals in his time of intense grief. Publishers call these his “reflections,” but that makes them sound like a leisurely or imaginative read, which they are not. This book’s value is not informational, but formational. There is progression, but no steps; doctrine, but no instruction.

Meat: Many people going through grief say that this book simply resonates with their difficulties. Sudden grief often leads to trust issues, and Lewis had his fair share, after marrying so late in life, and being so suddenly bereaved. The passage that resonated most with me is about the sense of being emotionally overwrought, so that grief makes you unable to know God’s nearness. These common experiences, though seldom spoken of, are the lot of many in grief. Nevertheless, “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Bones: These journal entries were not really intended for publication, so they are honest in the extreme. Lewis himself wrote that they were a product of his experience, and do not fit with his other “popular theology” books. I’ll pass on the advice I received about this book: don’t read this until you’re going through true grief.

Quotes: “The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.” (ch. 3)

“What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know he is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist?” (ch. 3)

“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”

Review: Perelandra (No Spoilers)

Rating: ★★★★★

Overview: Dr. Ransom makes his second journey “through deep heaven” in this novel, and becomes embroiled in a conflict that could decide the fate of the entire planet of Perelandra.

Lewis’ second installment of his Space Trilogy has much more theological meat in it, and for that reason, is the clear favorite of most theologically inclined readers. Perelandra will make the first book seem simplistic in comparison.

Meat: Out of the Silent Planet imagines a race that has never known sin; Perelandra deals with the intrusion of temptation on such a race. The result is a wealth of insight on both the Fall of Man as a doctrine and resisting temptation as a practice. Unlike the other two books in the series, in Perelandra Ransom’s inner dialogue provides a voicebox for extended theological discussion.

Bones: In my opinion, this might be C. S. Lewis best theology, but it’s wrapped up in a science fiction package. Some of Ransom’s dialogues would fit just as well on the “Christian Living” or “Philosophy” shelf at Barnes and Noble, and that is both the strength and the great criticism of this book, in particular, within the Space Trilogy.

Quotes: “Whatever you do, he will make good of it. But not the good he had prepared for you if you had obeyed him.” (ch. 9)

“Maleldil can make good use of all that happens but the loss is real.” (ch. 12)

“The world is so much larger than I thought. I thought we went along paths–but it seems there are no paths. The going itself is the path.” (ch. 14)

“I think he made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying him is but doing what seems good in your own eyes also. Is love content with that?” (ch. 16)

“Why did no miracle come? Or rather, why no miracle on the right side? For the presence of the Enemy was in itself a kind of Miracle. Had Hell a prerogative to work wonders? Why did Heaven work none? Not for the first he found himself questioning Divine Justice. He could not understand why Maleldil should remain absent when the Enemy was there in person. But while he was thinking this, as suddenly and sharply as if the solid darkness about him had spoken with articulate voice, he knew that Maleldil was not absent. …

‘It’s all very well … a presence of that sort! But the Enemy is really here, really saying and doing things. Where is Maleldil’s representative?’ The answer which came back to him, quick as a fencer’s or tennis player’s riposte, out of the silence and the darkness, almost took his breath away. It seemed blasphemous. ‘Anyway, what can I do?’ babbled the voluble self. ‘I’ve done all I can. I’ve talked till I’m sick of it. It’s no good, I tell you.’ He tried to persuade himself that he, Ransom, could not possibly be Maleldil’s representative as the Un-man was the representative of Hell. The suggestion was, he argued, itself diabolical – a temptation to fatuous pride, to megalomania. He was horrified when the darkness simply flung back this argument in his face, almost impatiently….” (ch. 18)

Review: Out of the Silent Planet (No Spoilers)

Rating: ★★★★★

Overview: Lewis takes us on an unexpected space journey with Dr. Elwin Ransom, a philologist (or linguist). Much of the book deals with his encounters with exotic beings and his attempts to communicate with them. This book would be appropriate for teens or middle-school children, although the rest of the trilogy treats more mature themes.

Meat: The strengths of this book are essentially the same as those of The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis’ description in this book is simple and beautiful, and the metaphors are plain and elegant. The crux of the book lies in Ransom’s realization that his species, is, in fact, the strange one. Through this lens he explores what it means to be human, and imagines the possibility of an unfallen species. The insights on this line deepen in the sequel, Perelandra.

Bones: As in Narnia, Lewis’ metaphors for divinity are thinly veiled, but to the believing reader this is merely Lewis being himself. Critics point out that Lewis’ explanations are unscientific—but then, that’s not really the point of the trilogy. Others might find, on the contrary, that he uses too much of the scientific perspective in the book. As a scientist and a believer, I found the book concise, elegant and readable.

Quotes: “At length he understood that it was his species that was the strange one.” (ch. 11)

“Like a silence spreading over a room full of people, like an infinitesimal coolness on a sultry day, like a passing memory of some long-forgotten sound or scent, like all that is stillest and smallest and most hard to seize in nature, Oyarsa passed between his subjects and drew near and came to rest, not ten yards away from Ransom, in the centre of Meldilorn.” (ch. 18)

“The very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean all the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he now saw that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes-and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply ‘the heavens.'”

Soul Espresso

It was 5:00 a.m. on one of the coldest days of winter. I was a freshman in college. My friend Mitch Mitchell had told me that the first ten people to a local coffee shop got a free drink. I didn’t know what coffee tasted like, but free sounded good.

I ordered a mocha latte. Mitch proceeded to chug four shots of espresso before falling asleep on the opposite side of a chess set.

I have never liked ‘drip’ coffee, and still don’t drink it often—but since that morning I have loved espresso drinks.

Espresso is unique. Invented in Italy, it requires high temperature and high pressure to saturate the water with coffee. Once it is exposed to oxygen, the composition of espresso begins to change, which is why it is usually either combined with water or milk, or drank immediately. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the high-pressure concentration of truth: spiritual espresso. I discovered that potent and concentrated spiritual truth can come in a very small package. Here are three examples:

My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers

“Beware of posing as a profound person; God became a Baby.”
Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, November 22

This classic devotional has been in print since 1924 in 39 languages. An old friend gave me My Utmost for His Highest as a high school graduation present, and I came to know Christ about two months later. The gift, at first unwanted, was not a waste. I was recently carrying one of Chambers’ books at a conference, and a friend told me “that’s a four-pages-at-a-time book.” I told him, “yeah, I can barely read one subsection before I have to stop and think and pray.” That’s what I mean when I call these writings spiritual espresso.

Oswald Chambers died at 43, but his wife Biddy had transcribed hundreds of his talks verbatim and spent the rest of her life publishing them. He was a YMCA chaplain to British soldiers during World War I in Egypt. He believed in a concept he called “seed thoughts”: simple but true statements about God and life could change your entire way of thinking. He had a bulletin board on which he posted a thought daily. (When the camp flooded, he posted, “Closed during submarine maneuvers.”) While My Utmost shows this tendency, his wife compiled an even briefer devotional called Run Today’s Race which better illustrates Chambers’ tendency for potent, concentrated thought.

George MacDonald: An Anthology by C. S. Lewis (compiler)

“The Lord cared neither for isolated truth nor for orphaned deed.”
C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald: An Anthology, Entry 54

Oswald Chambers said about George MacDonald that it was “a striking indication of the trend and shallowness of the modern reading public that [his] books have been so neglected” (Christian Discipline, vol. 1, pp. 44-45). C. S. Lewis compiled MacDonald’s best “seed thoughts” into an anthology, which I facetiously call “C. S. Lewis’ best book.”

Systematic statements take you to a conclusion; once you arrive at that conclusion, you find your thought finished for you. Seed thoughts are different. They live and grow over time, and are not conclusions in themselves. This is one thing Chambers and MacDonald had in common; they asked questions as well as they answered them. The goal here is not to produce in you a thought, but to get you to think.

Knowledge of the Holy by A. W. Tozer

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
A. W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy, p. 1

A third book that packs a lot of depth in a few words is Knowledge of the Holy. But then, Tozer has an unfair advantage here: if you want to go deep, there is nothing deeper to write about than God Himself. All of these authors are at their best when they take you to the Source of our faith without speculating, arguing or equivocating. “The knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov. 9:10).

But there is another connection that I have omitted. Chambers was an avid reader and quoter of poetry. MacDonald wrote volumes of poetry himself, as did C. S Lewis. Tozer compiled his Christian Book of Mystical Verse, stating that his best devotional times were alone with a Bible and a hymnbook. What is there about poetry that relates to the spiritual life?

Distilled Language

One American poet laureate said that “poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” Bad poetry, like bad stories, have a lot of words with little meaning. The best poetry has few words with great meaning. Even Bible expositors often quote hymns or Christian poetry to add something that an exposition can’t. The apostle Paul quotes Greek poetry at least three times in the New Testament. He encouraged the use of song as part of Christian teaching in Colossians 3:16: “…teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Songs often communicate our deepest thoughts the most simply. They can contain the gospel in a concentrated form, capable of being understood by children.

Embedded in a few of Paul’s letters are extremely concise statements of Gospel which some people think were actually early Christian hymns. Two examples include Philippians 2:5-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16, quoted below in verse:

God was manifest in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.

Most amazing of all, Jesus quotes the ancient hymnbook of his people from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) As today, Jewish hymns were often titled after their first line. (If I shout “amazing grace” in a room full of Christians, a few might erupt, “how sweet the sound!”) So some scholars think Jesus could as well have shouted “Psalm 22” from the cross, pointing the Jews to a song that prophesied nearly a dozen circumstances pertaining to his crucifixion and resurrection. In just four Aramaic words, Jesus communicated great truth about who he is, his own death, his victory over it—and the prophetic power of one ancient worship song written in a heart of affliction.