You're Included

Roger Newell: Insights of C.S. Lewis

Dr. Newell and Mike Feazell discuss the theological insights in C.S. Lewis' fiction.

(31.0 minutes)
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Biography:
Roger Newell

Dr. Roger Newell is associate professor of religious studies at George Fox University in Oregon. He earned his PhD from Aberdeen University, working with James B. Torrance. He is the author of:
__   The Feeling Intellect: Reading the Bible with C. S. Lewis
__   Passion’s Progress: The Meanings of Love

For an edited transcript of all our interviews with Dr. Newell, click here.

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Click here for the first interview: Dr. Newell talks about Mary’s response to Gabriel’s announcement that she would give birth to the Son of God. He also discusss the importance of the Incarnation.

And here for the third: Dr. Newell discusses the relationship between theology and German history in the 20th century.

JMF: Thanks for joining us on another edition of You’re Included – the unique interview series devoted to practical implications of Trinitarian theology in today’s complex world. Our guest today is Roger Newell, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at George Fox University and author of Passion’s Progress: The Meanings of Love. Thanks for being with us again, it’s great to have you back. And you’re working on another book and you’re putting the final touches on it right now. Can you tell us about that?

RN: Yes, my concern is to try to try out the implications of Trinitarian Theology for how we read Scripture, and I found a wonderful guide in this with writings of C.S. Lewis, who has himself had to work through a lot of false starts of trying to respond to God, and he learned through the writings of George McDonald and through encounters with Christians, that he had sold Christianity prematurely as not a helpful way that he had to let go of as he grew up.

But he’d grown up in a rather legalistic Protestant environment in Northern Ireland and some of his experiences there had caused him to have this attitude. But to watch how he recovers and had his faith restored is …. and he’s so articulate, he explains it so well, then he applies it to the reading of literature, and I’m taking, I think, some of those lessons in trying to describe how one can recover an understanding of the grace of God and not just a conceptual understanding but a felt, emotional congruence with the truth – of which… and I think in Lewis and I think I’m… I just want to try to shed some light on that and show how his way of reading can help us to recover the meaning of what Scripture is all about.

JMF: Anything new on C.S. Lewis is bound to be flying off bookshelves, we’re gonna look forward to reading that. Now you deal in the book with The Chronicles of Narnia and how Lewis deals with judgment and with redemption and freedom and such issues through those stories.

RN: Yes, maybe just… the central part of our faith has to do with the judgment of God, which is surprisingly also where we meet God’s grace and certainly this is very clearly shown in the death of Jesus on the cross in which that is the judgment of the world and yet also that is where we encounter the grace of God at its most penetrating – and how can these two, how can judgment and grace – we tend to think of them as opposites – how can they come together and both convict us of our sin and also bring us healing and hope so that we aren’t simply just the victims of our failures, morally and every other way.

Lewis does, I think, a wonderful job of showing how the judgment of the children and of the scene of the very first novel about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is one of a moment of extreme judgment and also a radical intervention of grace, and this is something that he doesn’t forget about as he gets older and the last novel he writes, for instance, Till We Have Faces – once again, the climax of the book is you see this wonderfully talented but flawed woman who is now the queen of this Oldia Greek city state who is now ready to die, she’s an old woman and she has to come to grips with her entire life and how she came to power and how she treated especially her little sister, who is a beautiful woman and how, as she has to come to terms with the fact of how she really felt about… she has convinced herself that she’s been only loving towards her sister, but now she has to see herself as she really was, and this is part of her judgment, and this is a devastating experience when she finds the truth about how selfish her love was.

This is a great theme of Lewis in his book The Four Loves, also – how love can be… ironically selfish, in a way, you know, helping people can sometimes, because we love them, can actually be very selfish, and so what happens then, she has to figure out a way to face this truth. And yet the miracle of this judgment is also, she’s accompanied by grace. And that’s the hope. And Lewis’ sense is that in his career then as a writer about this amazing juxtaposition of judgment and grace and certainly, it seems to me that if we read the Old Testament carefully and see how the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New, that this is our hope too – that the judgment of God is not mutually exclusive from the grace of God and that’s our hope.

JMF: You reminded me, when you’re talking about how love can be misused, as it were, of another episode in one of Lewis’ books The Great Divorce. The woman who rode the bus up to heaven from hell and she is touring with everyone else but she’s the one who had devoted her whole life to just service – helping everybody in the family and doing work for them and… but was always angry because they’d never seemed to appreciate how much she did for them and how, what sacrifices she made for them and so on. Her expression of love was actually negative for her and for those around her.

RN: Yes. And Lewis has this image again in the Four Loves. He has Miss Fidget who worked herself tirelessly for her family and inadvertently wore her family out by trying to accommodate all of her care. And of course, as a pastor, I think of how many times I was involved in caring for people in ways that were maybe a lot more focused on my own role or my being a servant of God that became much more self-serving than I would like to admit.

But part of the healing process is taking that, so one can learn to see that so often, our love is a wounded thing and to be forgiven even of our attempts at love and so this is the radical hope of grace that even our virtue has to be forgiven, but that’s … there’s hope in that. That even at the places where we may seem to have a – like Karl Barth says that religion can be the place where human beings most fiercely resist or challenge God.

But we wear religious clothing and of course as a professional Christian, as a minister, you wear Christian garb and one of the great challenges of living faithfully is to learn that those clothes are simply that, and to learn ways to be neither rejecting of every effort to give and to show love, faith working through love on the one hand, but also to realize that anything that has validity in those acts of love and service of love, giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name or going and visiting a sick person, etc., always needs to be under the mercy of God and the grace of God that it won’t just be the self-serving sacrifice in some way to draw honor or attention to yourself and so that’s an important part of the lesson of, I think, an ongoing journey of leadership in the church.

JMF: Henri Nouwen’s book Wounded Healer gets into pastoral recognition of our own need like Hebrews talks about – the… priest like ourselves who are sinners too and accepting that, coming from that foundation as we serve and help others.

RN: And here’s a place where I think Trinitarian theology is very therapeutic for us just putting our lives back together is, when you begin to realize that at the very heart of who God is, that there is this perfect communion of giving and receiving love and that it’s this equi-poise of free unconditional giving and then this free responsiveness between Father and the Son in the Spirit from all eternity and we get to be included in that and brought into that and that means that my service then learns not only the art of giving gracefully but also the art of receiving gracefully, and this changes the dynamics, I think of a pastor and his flock, a teacher and their students and all the rest of it.

So it becomes more of a communion rather than identifying love or identifying (yes) love with just one side of that equation – giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name but also it’s so blessed when somebody, when you are thirsty and somebody gives you to drink and you don’t have to earn it, you just simply can receive it and look them in the eyes and say, “thank you.” And sometimes our families, our children, our spouses, our congregation, give us that wonderful gift if we are willing to receive it and not always having to be on the giving end. That’s a very humbling part of maturing, I think.

JMF: The whole communion, being part of that relationship, Father, Son, and Spirit, totally changes the pastoral/penitent or lay relationship… and you’ve touched on that to some degree, I don’t want to talk about this right now, we’ll get to it later, you’ve done work with, and working now on political theology in Germany from the ’30s up through 1989 and some of that plays into the relationship between leadership in the church and those that are being served. But before we get to that, I want to go back to the judgment scene in Lion, Witch and Wardrobe and get you talk about that a little bit more.

RN: Well, that’s maybe the central point in the Narnia series and probably weighing it because when you read the four Gospels, the death of Jesus is so central and so much focused and attention is paid to that. And it is a scene of the judgment of all humankind, and the cross is the climactic moment when the sins of the whole world are, as it were, judged. And the miracle is, is that is not simply just condemning the world and rejecting it, because God did not come into the world to condemn the world but that the world, through Jesus, might be saved.

So in the very moment of our deepest having to come to terms with our judgment, that our sins have put Christ on the cross, he has taken our place, he has come alongside us and he has spoken from the deepest place in our humanity, this word of hope and forgiveness so we can begin then, from the very bottom of our beings to begin to live a different kind of life, a response, a genuine response of thanksgiving and gratitude for this gift.

So there it is, and rather than like the scene in Narnia where the little boy Edmund deserves to be killed because of his betrayal of his family. At that very point of his most vulnerability and most sure being guilty, he’s rescued. There’s an intervention there that only later on in the story do you realize how costly this intervention is on the part of the great lion, Aslan. But there’s the hope, that even when Edmund is most guilty, and he finally has to face the kind of person he’s become, in doing that, he also discovers the depth of God’s meeting him and coming alongside him, not to condemn him, but to rescue him. That just changes the tone of everything. And that changes the tone of our lives, I think.

JMF: Aren’t we all … or don’t we all walk in the shoes, or take the journey of each of those characters as well. In other words, we’re all Edmund at one time or another, in one way or another – needing the grace of redemption. But we’re also all Lucy and Susan having to forgive, and we’re also Peter having to deal with that response to the betrayal and the anger of being the responsible one who has been thwarted and hurt by the betrayal. And all of us need the redemption that comes at that point.

RN: Yes. And that that highlights the fact that we don’t do this in isolation from each other. Or when I sin, or when I continually, maybe forget something – sins of omission as well as commission – that has consequences to my relationships of everyone, you know, friends, family, strangers, community and part of what takes place in theNarnia that’s so lovely is you learn how the children learn to forgive one another and learn to – what has happened vertically, begins to be experienced horizontally, in the way they learned to treat each other in a new way. And that’s the challenge of being a family of God, a communion of faith in the church and in our families – to practice the art of forgiveness. It’s the great challenge and hope of Christian living.

St. Augustine says something wonderful about the hope of trying to come to terms with the terrible challenges of even betrayal – the the greatest sins Augustine talks about how the one place where the gospel really addresses the frailty and brokenness of people is, that the church has the audacity to practice the forgiveness of sins. And that’s when you when you hear this preached and taught and lived out and it’s a costly thing, it’s not a simple thing. When a community catches the meaning of this, then you know the gospel of Jesus Christ is being preached and being lived.

JMF: You bring out in The Chronicles of Narnia as you used those as a springboard – the difference between a felt response and an obligation in terms of responding to God.

RN: Yes, I mean, this is an important part of it, isn’t it? I mean, the reason why life is so difficult sometimes is because we might know something we say in our head but in our hearts are not connected to where our head is, so how do we have a felt a-tune-ment as well as a cognitive… and this is again, one of the things, the gifts that I think Lewis brings to us in the Chronicles, and he helps to pull out what’s in the Gospels, but we’ve just grown by our Sunday School associations, he says, we’ve have this subtle turning of good news into “should” news and how do we recover that?

And so, how do you discover that the reality of thanksgiving and of forgiveness and of gratitude – that, and inheres in our response to God because this kind of grace has its natural inter-correlate – a response of gratitude. And that is the emotion that is most congruent with the grace of God. So whatever is getting in the way of that – fear, anger, or guilt – how does part of what I need to discover is where I feel like resistance is coming at me in this way, part of what I need to do is just open that up – whatever that is, whether it’s an anger, or fear, or guilt, and open that up and see what I’m going to find there at the bottom of that, isn’t just rejection and condemnation – but actually hope that even in my most unattractive, un-healed, un-loving part within myself, the grace of God will not reject me and turn away from me. But causes me to come clean on this so that I can begin to live in a new way – a way of being reconciled to God and to my neighbor and to my family and so on. Again, that’s good news. It’s not “should” news.

JMF: There’s a freedom that we have, that we don’t even realize we have, that you show in the course of Lewis unfolding the story of Shasta in A Horse and His Boy. Could you talk about that a little?

RN: Yes, it’s especially touching because the great thing in America, as you know, is freedom. We love freedom, and this is a country that prides ourselves on our commitment to freedom and liberty and so on. And one of the things that’s interesting about Shasta is he is a little orphan boy who’s grown up in a very kind of totalitarian hierarchical society in which freedom is not very available, but his whole desire is to become free, and so he’s on a journey to run away from where he’s an orphan in this not-very-nice culture of Calormen and to get back to Narnia, get back to freedom and to become free. And so he discovers, like I guess we all do, that becoming free he’s brought with him into Narnia a lot of slave habits of thought and a slave has certain qualities in which (that are internalized) which make a free response to people or free response to just life very difficult.

And the other irony of that story is the little girl he meets, that goes with him on this journey to freedom – to Narnia – is on that very opposite side of the political-economic spectrum. She’s a wealthy, aristocratic child and she’s being forced to marry somebody she doesn’t want to marry, so she wants her freedom, too.

But the two of them together then on this journey have to find out what freedom is really all about. And that means that she has to give up her attitudes of superiority and Shasta has to give up his attitude of inferiority complex which was always putting himself down and always feeling basically he’s not very worthy, and these are classic descriptions of a slave’s mentality. C.S. Lewis does an interesting study in words and he describes in his book a study in words, what are some typical attitudes of slaves, slave habits of thought – he takes this from Aristotle and some of the other ancient Greek writers, and one of the real dangers of growing up a slave and being in a slave-holding society is the sense of inferiority that you’re constantly pre-occupied with and therefore need to prove yourself or put yourself down or something.

And the other thing is the sense of, as a slave you’re typified as always looking after yourself. And this is actually a phrase in Aristotle – a slave is always thinking about just himself and not with the common good. And it’s interesting that part of what Shasta has to discover in what real freedom is, is not just constantly “what’s in it for me?” – the angle, you know, looking after number one, this kind of language, that’s actually a slave mentality. And part of his discovery of the freedom he has in Narnia is that he can begin to be healed of this self-preoccupation by having this deep sense of commitment to other people and by being bound to their welfare, now he has a freedom to be a different kind of person, not just the person who’s constantly looking for “what’s in it for me.”

And Aravis, the girl, discovers also the freedom to, not to look down on people – which is a terrible way to live, even it is a terrible way to live to constantly be looking up. But to look at people eye-to-eye and seeing them as humans and real people, just free citizens of Narnia, as it were, and to begin to relate to people in an entirely new way – this is tremendously liberating.

JMF: I think one of my favorite passages in, well, it is my favorite passage in all the Chronicles of Narnia, is the scene in The Silver Chair where in the depths of the underground realm of the green witch, the children are captured and the prince is captured and Puddleglum (a marsh character) is also there and she’s putting out some kind of a smoke that causes them to get drowsy and she’s telling them, even though they’re trying to find their way up to Narnia, up to the surface, and she’s telling them, there’s no such thing as the sun, and there’s no such thing as the upper world, and there’s no such thing as Narnia, and all of this is just a figment of your imagination – and this is the real world, and you need to stay here with me where, this is all there is.

And everyone is drowsy, they’re coming under the spell that she has kept the prince under, captured with, all this time, and Puddleglum finally, as a last desperate act, he sticks his foot in the fire, burns himself and he regains his senses and he remembers what is real, and he says, “Look, even if you’re right and there is no sun, and there is no Narnia, and there is no Aslan, I’d rather spend my life searching for those things than to live here in this place you call the real world.”

RN: Yes, I mean, that’s a wonderful confession of Lewis’ faith and belief that the bottom line is, that I’m going to live as a Narnian even if there is no Narnia, and makes me think, at least of Job in the Old Testament where it says, “Though God slay me, I will trust him.” And it makes me think of this strong affirmation of just trusting in God which comes in Romans, where Paul says, “Let God be true and every man a liar.”

Just there is a fundamental reality here that even if it isn’t popular, even if it’s been a camouflage and hidden and there’s smoke and mirrors everywhere telling you that all that really matters in life is whatever contemporary fashions are, either the materialism, or certain kinds of temptations that are played within our contemporary culture and they’re unavoidable, there is a fundamental reality that pierces through all that.

There is a great quote from Luther, he says, you know, “Faith doesn’t create God, or create this reality, faith sees what is there.” Seeing that which is invisible. But it’s there, and faith doesn’t create it. Faith is gripped by it, and this is the power of that inside of old Puddleglum, which is an insight and an experience that is very, very important for all of us.

JMF: It’s a mix of doubt where we need something like that to cling to and to hold on to because we all, if we’re honest, we all go through these periods of doubt and our faith becomes cloudy, and misty and weak and it isn’t a static thing where I have a strong faith and it just stays like that. It spikes and then it… looks like the stock market – seems to be today. But Lewis deals with that in a number of ways as you move through the Chronicles of Narnia.

RN: That’s right, and faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive. I remember Ray Anderson used to say “Faith grows on the narrow ledge of doubt.” That’s a lovely way of expressing that, and one of the things that’s very impressive about Lewis is how he continually has this deep honoring of people who ask tough questions. And one of his heroes is Puddleglum, who tends to look on the difficult, the dark side of life. But he’s not going to pretend that things are okay and you know, where you could say in the New Testament, one of our heroes of faith is Thomas because he’s not willing just to hear a feel-good story about the resurrection that isn’t real. And so he says, “Ok, you guys sound pretty happy, you seem pretty convinced that things would work out okay, but unless I can see, unless I can touch this risen Lord, I’m not going to, just for the sake of camaraderie or just for the sake of everyone feeling good, to go along with this.”

And the beautiful thing is, the disciples don’t say, “Well, get out of here, Thomas, you’re not one of us anymore because you’re being awkward here.” And on the other hand, he says, “I want to be honestly a follower of Christ, and I don’t want to pretend I don’t have these doubts, but I don’t want to leave you guys, but I’m here with you.” And then it’s in that context then that the risen Christ appears to Thomas. And he doesn’t scold Thomas or anything, he just meets with Thomas and then he says, “Blessed are those who don’t have this privilege that you have, Thomas, but your questions are not bad questions.” And the only bad questions, and that when we do have doubts, I think, it’s just the bad side of that is when we cover them up or try to pretend.

And Augustine has this wonderful prayer that we sing in some of these Taize songs, “Let not my doubts and my darkness speak to thee Lord, let your light shine upon them.” So we open them up, we don’t hide them away. We allow them to surface that they need God’s touch also. And they need to be open. So many wonderful questions are in the New Testament, and so like even Mary, you remember we were talking about Mary, last time, and Mary asked the toughest questions that anybody has ever asked about the virgin birth, she asked them. And she asked them not in a casual way but in a very honest and heartfelt way, you know, “How can these things be?” And she doesn’t hide those things, and that’s to her credit, and that means that she’s really engaging God with her deep self, not just a superficial self.

JMF: Do you have a working title for the book?

RN: Reading the Bible with C.S. Lewis. He is the dialogue partner, and he provides the, I think, a style or a way of being receptive and open that I try to apply both to some things he addressed and then some issues that we have to deal with now in more contemporary situations. But something like that, yeah.

JMF: We look forward to reading it. I’d hoped we get to the political theology of Germany, but it looks like you have to come back for that. So hopefully, we’ll see you again.

RN: I hope so. Thank you.

JMF: We’ve been talking with Roger Newell, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at George Fox University. Thanks for being with us, I’m Mike Feazell for You’re Included.

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