C. S. Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God
by Joe Rigney
This book pulls together one of my favorite dead authors with one of my favorite living ones. C. S. Lewis was undoubtedly one of God’s greatest literary gifts to the church in the 20th century, while Joe Rigney has already established himself as one of the most creative young theologians out there with his books Live Like a Narnian and especially The Things of Earth.
The book forms the 15th release in Crossway’s “Theologians on the Christian Life” series. Having not yet read any of the other volumes in the series, I don’t know how representative this one is. I can say, however, that if you’re looking for extensive interaction with secondary Lewis sources by critics like Michael Ward, Alan Jacobs, or Donald Williams, you will be disappointed. While Rigney has clearly read those guys, this book engages almost entirely with Lewis himself. Though not all of Lewis. Having already distilled lessons from Narnia in his previous book, he deliberately focuses his attention on Lewis’s extra-Narnian corpus (21).
Highlighting the Choice
There’s too much to cover in a short review. The book traces Lewis’s thought on everything from God to Satan, from Heaven to Hell, with the gospel, prayer, and love in between. The unifying theme that Rigney comes back to again and again, however, is the theme of “The Choice: The Unavoidable Either-Or” (the title of chapter 1). God will not be ignored, and in the end, we must either take him and live or die rejecting him. As Lewis put it,
To be God—to be like God and to share his goodness in creaturely response—to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe can ever grow—then we must starve eternally. (32)
Rigney believes that in everything Lewis wrote,
…his aim is to remind us that we are here and now, that God is here and now, that this God makes total demands of us, and that therefore we must choose to bow the knee or to bow up, to surrender and join our wills to God’s or to resist his will and insist on our own way. In short, Lewis is ever and always attempting to clarify for us the nature of the Choice. (31)
It is both fascinating and convicting to see Rigney demonstrate this point again and again.
Applying Biblical Rigor
Knowing that his greatest living influences are John Piper and Douglas Wilson (both avid Lewis fans and creative theologians in their own right), I wasn’t surprised at Rigney’s biblical rigor or his Reformed theological orientation. (I share the influences and the orientation, and seek to imitate the rigor.)
Indeed, Rigney is at his best when he is providing solid exegetical grounding for Lewis’s popularized renderings of the faith. His chapter on “Good Infection and Good Pretending” is superb in this regard, as he shows how what seems like a call for hypocrisy (pretending to be like Christ) is actually Lewis’s way of describing the Protestant (and Pauline) distinction between justification and sanctification (71). (This section also contains a helpful discussion of duty in the Christian life that channels Piper into a more biblical, balanced, Lewisian direction. 76-77)
With regard to biblical rigor, Rigney is also not afraid to hold Lewis’s feet to the fire, especially on the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. In fact, the book would be worth owning simply to read Rigney’s discussion of penal substitution in chapter 3. As many are aware, Lewis presents a massive stumbling block for his evangelical fans in Mere Christianity when he describes his impression of penal substitutionary atonement like this:
According to that theory, God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, so God let us off. Now I admit that even this theory doesn’t seem to me quite so immoral and so silly as it used to, but that is not the point I want to make…
Not exactly a flattering way to describe a reality which evangelicals consider to be the heart of the gospel.
Rigney rebukes Lewis’s description as “crude and misleading.” But he doesn’t settle for mere rebuke. Instead, he holds an imaginary conversation with Lewis in which he asks him a series of probing questions designed to show that Lewis is not nearly as cavalier about “theories” of the atonement as he thinks he is.
He then goes on to show that despite Lewis’s seeming dismissal of it, “the substance of penal substitution is present in Lewis’s own work” (64). Unlike most of his contemporary colleagues, Lewis defended retributive punishment and embraced the biblical teaching of God’s wrath toward sin—which together make it hard to avoid some form of penal substitution if people are to be saved. But most movingly, this reality can be seen in the story of Aslan and Edmund, where, in Lewis’s words, “a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead.” In the words of Donald T. Williams in his similar book Deeper Magic, “Lewis was often better at portraying the atonement than explaining it” (66n43).
Sell your shirt to buy the book so you can read this section (but only if you’re really strapped for cash—otherwise just buy it).
Pulling Punches (?)
On at least one point, I thought Rigney was a little too easy on Lewis. I almost hesitate to mention it, because I don’t want to be unfair. So let me try to be as careful as I can.
With regard to divine sovereignty and human freedom, Rigney is clearly a Reformed compatibilist. His teaching post at Bethlehem College and Seminary as well as his chapter “The Author and his Story” in The Things of Earth would make that clear even if this book didn’t. But it does.
Moreover Rigney clearly recognizes that he and Lewis are not fully together on this. For example, responding to Lewis’s standard libertarian claim that God gave man free will because “a world of mere automata could never love and therefore never know infinite happiness,” Rigney judges this to be “a failure of Lewis’s imagination. Lewis can’t imagine a world of perfectly free creatures that had no possibility of going wrong, and therefore, such creatures must be impossible” (127n13). He then goes on to give the standard Reformed counter-examples to this claim, namely God and the glorified saints. In another instance, he argues that Lewis’s interpretation of Romans 9 is “truncated at best” (126n10). So Rigney is clearly not trying to claim Lewis for the Reformed camp, however much we might wish to have him.
But at times I got the sense that Rigney was trying a little too hard to find an underlying consistency in Lewis’s statements that probably isn’t there (136). He rightly notes that the versions of Calvinism Lewis rejected were often straw men rejected even by Calvinists (130). He further notes that Lewis often described his own conversion in language that sounds for all the world like “sovereign grace” (131-132). For these reasons, he often refers to a “tension in Lewis’s view,” which I suspect is actually a contradiction.
Perhaps Rigney is simply trying to be charitable and find as much common ground as possible. That I can appreciate. But I also think that Reformed Lewis fans run the risk of committing the same well-meaning error toward Lewis that Lewis charged the medieval scholastics with in his book The Discarded Image. Citing their bookishness and love of systemizing (two things we Reformed folk share with them), Lewis notes that the Medievals were so reverent toward their ancient books that they found it hard to believe they contained anything contradictory. So in essence, they applied the analogy of faith to uninspired writings.
All the apparent contradictions must be harmonized. A Model must be built which will get everything in without a clash; and it can do this only by becoming intricate, by mediating its unity through a great, finely ordered, multiplicity. (p. 11 of The Discarded Image)
An excessive charity toward Lewis can lead us to do the same thing.
I agree with Douglas Wilson that “there will be times when we are tempted to write off something in Lewis as a simple contradiction, when we are the ones who have not thought very deeply about what we are saying.” Still, the “all things” that “love believes” clearly doesn’t include the inerrancy of Lewis. Plus I also felt that Wilson was guilty in that same essay of making Lewis sound more Reformed than he was. Perhaps I’ve simply carried this same feeling over into Rigney because I know how much he has been influenced by Wilson.
At any rate, this is a hard balance to strike, and it’s easy to criticize when you’re not the one having to strike it. So let me be done with this potentially misguided gripe and encourage all mere Christians to take up and read. Joe Rigney has given us a treasure trove of good theology that will bend our brains, inspire our imaginations, and shape our habits. May it sell by its thousands, and be read by its tens of thousands.
(Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book.)