Friday, September 30, 2011

Surprised by 'Surprised by Joy'

This week I began to re-read C.S. Lewis' spiritual autobiography - Surprised by Joy. As I go through it, I am re-discovering its insights with pleasure. Do I mean pleasure? Lewis distinguishes carefully between that and joy. Whereas pleasure is merely gratification of some personal desire, joy is more impersonal, transcendent. An aching loss is more joyful than greedy feasting upon something. The longing, rather than possession, is the joyful experience. In this sense it is an other-worldly sensation - a hankering after heaven. 'God has set eternity in their heart,' Eccl 3:11.

Recollections from Lewis' private life make interesting reading. His lonely, cruel childhood is described. Indeed, it is almost suggested in the title, from a Wordsworth sonnet describing the loss of a child, his 'heart's best treasure'. Each discovery Lewis makes on the path to God is described so clearly and rationally, it is almost like I am making the same discovery, reaching the same conclusion, as he does. Does this suggest a good writer or a gullible reader? Lewis touches on a similar theme as he recollects, in his atheist phase, his encounter with the works of G.K. Chesterton.

Another amusing task is to trace pictures from Lewis' fictional work back to their sources in his personal experience. For instance, the old professor from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe might be his tutor in Surrey. The masked mourners in the Pilgrim's Regress seem reminiscent of the stiffly dressed people at his own mother's funeral. The recalcitrant parent in the Screwtape Letters might recall his father, with whom Lewis had trouble engaging.

There are several aspects of this book that I found most encouraging.

  1. The diverse ways in which God draws wandering souls to himself.
  2. Lewis' description of the utter emptiness of self-gratification (particularly of the fleshly kind) for the sake of the act itself.
  3. ...and I'm looking forward to his conversion, on the top deck of an Oxford bus - but I haven't got that far in the story yet!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Is Salvation Selfish?

One of the major Biblical characterizations of humanity in its natural, default state is that we are selfish. "Men shall be lovers of their own selves." [2 Tim 3:2] This is in radical contrast to the two great commandments highlighted by Jesus - love God and love your neighbour. [Matt 22:37-40] Not only Jesus' teaching, but also his life, was characterised by selflessness. He took a towel and washed his disciples' feet. He always looked after other people's needs and concerns, [Phil 2:4-5] giving his life as a sacrifice for his enemies. [Ro 5:10]

So, here's a question. To obtain salvation (by grace alone through faith alone) is to accept eternal life from God. Isn't this the ultimate act of instinctive self-preservation? Surely this act is motivated by selfishness? I agree in one sense - becoming saved is the last selfish act we perform, since once we are Christians, our lives should become living sacrifices - given over in service to God and others.

But actually, we really need to define what we mean by selfishness. To take what we need to survive is only selfish if we are depriving others: Hence we breathe, but there's enough air to go around so that's not selfish. On the other hand, we in western society consume more than our fair share of world food, etc - perhaps this is selfishness?

Returning to the topic of salvation - when we accept what God gives us, are we preventing anyone else from getting it? The answer is a resounding no! God's gift is infinite - the world is His scope. In fact, when we become Christians, we might be starting a spiritual chain reaction, resulting in other people being saved. The apostle Paul is a good example of this. So no - while salvation may be self-preservation, it's not selfishness.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Happy Birthday KJV

The King James Version of the Bible is 400 years old. The Oxford English Dictionary and the BBC have been celebrating this milestone, and tracing the influence of the KJV on the English language.

Although I have been brought up reading the KJV, in my personal readings I often prefer to use more recent translations such as the RSV or the NEB (for) (against). CS Lewis agreed - it's helpful to read the Bible in an accessible and contemporary linguistic setting. After all, Koine Greek (the language of the original New Testament manuscripts) was the vernacular. Again, William Tyndale (the pioneer of English Bible translation) wanted the ploughboy in the field to be able to understand the words of Scripture. So I feel a modern translation is following an age-old (and theologically sound) precedent.

Often I feel slightly embarrassed quoting Bible passages directly from the KJV, especially to people who are unfamiliar with the style. I generally paraphrase as I go - turning "whosoever believeth" into "whoever believes", "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God" into "You shall love the Lord your God" etc.

So it was interesting to listen to various media, thespian and religious celebrities expressing their admiration for the majestic and simple language of the KJV, in the recent BBC Radio 4 broadcasts. I enjoyed listening to the various readings, which were spoken with clarity, passion and a suitable level of dramatic emphasis.

However when I reflected on the comments people made about the KJV, I was struck by the fact that people extoll its virtues as literature, influential upon the development of the English language. However they appear to give little thought to the underlying message of the Bible. Things haven't changed much since Ezekiel's day - we are quite prepared for cultural, high-brow entertainment from the Bible, but we don't want the sharpness of its message to pierce our hearts. What a tragedy! Let's get back to the Bible and read it "as it is in truth, the word of God". [1 Thess 2:13]