Q: What do Aslan, St. Francis, and medieval mystery plays have in common? A: The Incarnation.


A garden statue of Francis of Assisi with birds

This post from the final “Incarnation chapter” of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis begins to turn the corner from C S Lewis on the Incarnation to medieval treatments of the Incarnation.

Aslan

Aslan “comes on the Narnian scene already and always a lion; he did not become lion to save Narnia,” therefore he is not precisely a Christ figure.[1] Nonetheless, he is “an Incarnation”: he is earthy, embodied, powerful in his materiality, and also the son of the Great Emperor. It is only a year after his extended reflections on the Incarnation in Miracles: A Preliminary Study that he turns back to continue work on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In the chapter in Miracles on “the Grand Miracle” (the Incarnation), Lewis “speculates on a springtime coming to the whole cosmos as the result of Christ’s incarnation on earth.” “Aslan, the incarnation of Christ in Narnian terms, represents in Narnia what Christ represents on earth: the God of the Chosen People, the ‘glad Creator’ of nature and her activities.”[2] He revealed his intention in a letter to a girl who had asked about “Aslan’s other name”: Continue reading

C S Lewis: Why value our bodies? Because we can know God ONLY through the senses


The steeple of Macha church, built in 1911When modern Christians lose the wonder of the Incarnation, we lose also the wonder of our own humanity. We intellectualize and spiritualize the faith to the point where we forget a simple fact. That is, that we can know God ONLY through our senses.

Lewis insisted on this fact, and he tied it not only to the Incarnation (in writings such as his powerful sermon “Transposition”) but also to the New Creation. The bodies we will have in that new reality, he insists, will be not less, but more solid and corporeal than those we have now. There would be no Caspar-the-Ghost-like cloud-dwelling angelic afterlife for the Oxford don. In fact, compared to the solidity he believed we will have in the New Earth (and Christ already has at the Father’s right hand), our present bodies begin to look rather wispy!

The subjective side of the sacramental principle: We know Him only through our sense experience

Why is it so important that we affirm our embodiedness in our relationship with God? Because we receive everything we know about him through our bodies, our senses, our experiences. We have no other way to understand Him. Analogy is more than analogy: it is sacrament. To use a word Lewis used to title a key essay (to which we will return), it is “Transposition.” Continue reading

The Incarnation and the importance of the embodied life in C S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength


Cover of "That Hideous Strength"

In this post from my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, we look at the important lesson from Christ’s Incarnation that Lewis draws for us in his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength.

Another facet of the Incarnation that captivates Lewis is the way that it ennobles our humanity – even our very materiality. To try to abstract mind from body, spirit from matter is to commit the gnostic error and destroy (be false to) what we truly are as human beings. That Hideous Strength shows us in imaginative form how modern technocrats (the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments or N.I.C.E.) might try to eliminate that crucial materiality in a Gnostic quest for pure spirit. N.I.C.E.’s agents, in the attempt to eliminate the bodily—in fact, all biological life on earth—and retain only mind, lose their morality and their very selves. A sample of the dialogue gives a sense of the chilling vision at work here:

“And what is the first practical step?” [asks Mark Studdock to Feverstone, whom he is trying to impress in his effort to be counted one of the “inner circle”].

“Yes, that’s the real question. As I said, the interplanetary problem must be left on one side for the moment. The second problem is our rivals on this planet. I don’t mean only insects and bacteria. There’s far too much life of every kind about, animal and vegetable. We haven’t really cleared the place yet. First we couldn’t; and then we had aesthetic and humanitarian scruples; and we still haven’t short-circuited the question of the balance of nature. All that is to be gone into. The third problem is Man himself.”

“Go on. This interests me very much.” Continue reading

C S Lewis on the Incarnation: Theosis, “coming down and drawing up,” the Great Dance, and statues coming to life


Iconnativity

In this third post from the final chapter of my Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, I delve deeper into Lewis’s Incarnational theology and spirituality:

The Incarnation ennobles us, draws us up into God, and thus makes us our “best selves”

As well as pointing up our moral nature and demanding that we choose well, the Incarnation, for Lewis, performs an astounding work of drawing us up into the divine presence. Lewis launches into his key apologetic work Mere Christianity with this observation: “At the beginning I said there were Personalities in God. Well, I’ll go further now. There are no real personalities anywhere else. Until you have given up your self to Him you will not have a real self.”[1] This is a version of the classical Christian teaching of theosis, formulated by Athanasius, who said that “God became man so that we can become gods.” That startling language does not mean that we become what God is in his essence, but rather that we are re-attached to the divine life, which overcomes the death at work in us because of the Fall. He came to earth, to flesh, in order to lift us back up with him.

“Lewis has a couple of unique ways of describing the Incarnation. In Letters to Malcolm, he suggests that the Incarnation can be described as Heaven drawing Earth up into it. He asserts that when God the Son took on the human body and soul of Jesus, he took on with it the whole environment of nature—locality, limitation, sleep, sweat, aching feet, frustration, pain, doubt and death. Continue reading

C S Lewis on the Incarnation and human choice


choice-roads2

In this brief series of posts, we are looking at C S Lewis on the centrality of the Incarnation. Among other things, Lewis understands the Incarnation as a lens through which to see the importance of our own human choices:

Importance of human choice and human culture

Part of understanding and affirming the wonder of who we are as human beings, affirmed by the fact of the Incarnation, is being clear about ourselves as creatures capable of choice, who are responsible for the choices we make. Free will is a crucial part of Lewis’s anthropology and his case for hewing to the morality of the Old Western (Christian) tradition. Our wills are as essential, ordinary, and marvelous as our bodies. The choices we make on earth have transcendent, cosmic, divine (or infernal) consequences. Lewis loved Dante’s Comedia and appreciated Sayers’s take on that great poem. Sayers called it “the drama of the soul’s choice.” Drama. Acted out by humans in all their earthy but exalted embodiedness. Full of color, life, substance.

It may be fair to say that Lewis was a “Christian humanist” in this respect: our arts, sciences, cultural activities, and personal choices all contribute to heaven or hell on earth, and to our own salvation; many are “preparatio evangelii”–they lead us to God’s doorstep. In his essay “Christianity and Culture,” Lewis reflected: “[C]ulture is a storehouse of the best (sub-Christian) values. These values are in themselves of the soul, not the spirit. But God created the soul. Its values may be expected, therefore, to contain some reflection or antepast of the spiritual values.” Continue reading

How C S Lewis’s understanding of the Incarnation helped him–and helped him counsel others–in suffering


Crucifixion of Christ by Albrecht Altdorfer, 1526

Crucifixion of Christ by Albrecht Altdorfer, 1526 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this second post from the final chapter of my Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, I open the door to Lewis’s own incarnational spirituality:

The very fact that C S Lewis needed to see Christianity as satisfying not just to his intellect but also to his imagination shows us that he saw our full humanity as important in our faith. He had been taught well in that by the Romantics – Wordsworth, who he listed as one of the writers who most influenced him – George MacDonald – a true romantic who reveled in nature and its sacramental function, pointing to God. These predisposed the post-conversion Lewis to dwell lavishly, as the medieval authors he studied had dwelt, on the wonder of the Incarnation.

The Incarnation and Passion as ways God meets us in our suffering – and met Lewis in his

We will see how that fascination with the Incarnation – the enfleshment of the Creator God as a human being – emerged across his nonfiction and fiction writings. But it also gained a new and powerful meaning for him when he lost the love of his later life, his wife Joy. That Christ shared not only our humanity but our suffering helped Lewis get through that experience of grief: Continue reading

The Virgin Mary and the greatest thing we can learn from medieval Christians


Madonna of humility by Fra Angelico, c. 1430.

Madonna of humility by Fra Angelico, c. 1430. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The final, trumpets-and-cymbals chapter of my Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis explores a theme that I think can most benefit modern Western Christians, if only we grasp it. This is the opening bit, which starts with a biblical figure who modern Protestants regard with some nervousness as a symbol of Roman Catholicism–the Virgin Mary:

I was working at Christianity Today in the early 2000s, as managing editor of Christian History magazine. After getting a few issues under my belt, I hesitantly offered the suggestion that we do an issue on “Mary in the Christian Imagination.” Though the idea met with more support than I had feared (at that distinctively evangelical Protestant magazine), my art director did hazard the prediction that we would lose readers if we did the topic. Imagine my surprise when in the end, not only didn’t we lose any readers (that we knew), but we actually won the Evangelical Press Association’s award that year for best single-topic issue. This told me we’d hit a nerve with our evangelical Protestant readers. Apparently, there’s “something about Mary,” even for the descendants of Protestant fundamentalists. Continue reading