Concerning C.S. Lewis, Christian apologist (not theologian)

The mistake showed up in news reports so often that it almost became normal, which is the worst possible thing that can happen with a mistake. Over and over, journalists kept pinning the “theologian” label on the Rev. Martin Marty of the School of Divinity at the University of Chicago.

The problem, of course, is that Marty is one of the world’s best known church historians. In the world of elite academia, which is certainly Marty’s territory, calling a church historian a theologian is something like calling a quarterback a wide receiver, or calling a surgeon a dentist, or calling a drummer a guitarist.

Why do this? And, once the mistake is made, why not correct the error? Marty once told me that, no matter how many times he tried to explain this error to journalists, it just kept happening. The mistake lived on and on.

This brings me to a very interesting story that ran in The New York Times marking the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, who died the same day as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (Speaking of which, is there a story on the Lewis anniversary in your local newspaper today? If so, please leave the URL for us in the comments pages.)

Lewis, of course, was a man of many academic and literary talents. The Times story sought to capture that right up top:

LONDON – C. S. Lewis was a noted polymath: philosopher, theologian, professor, novelist, children’s writer, literary critic, lecturer. But he was not much of a poet.

Still, 50 years to the day after his death, Clive Staples Lewis, known to his friends and family as Jack, will be among the more than 100 people commemorated in some fashion in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner, alongside figures like Geoffrey Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare, the Brontë sisters, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Keats, John Milton and Ted Hughes.

Lewis, who died at a week before his 65th birthday, on Nov. 22, 1963 — the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated — will receive the honor of a memorial stone in the floor in the Poets’ Corner, a portion of the abbey’s south transept that contains graves, memorial stones and a memorial window.

Sigh. Once again, that “theologian” label is so easy to abuse. Lewis wrote a wide variety of books, but he never produced a single work of systematic theology or anything resembling work in that disciple. There is a good reason for this: Lewis was a skilled literary critic and professor of literature. He was not a theologian and, to my knowledge, never claimed that label. His Oxford colleagues would have loved taking shots at him for that.

Now wait a minute, some GetReligion readers will respond. Isn’t it right to call him a “popular theologian,” in that he wrote books that for general readers — as opposed to academic readers — served as works of “popular” level theology?

That may be true, if one accepts that people have redefined the word “theologian” and are using it in a way that would be quite offensive to theologians. I am not aware of Lewis ever accepting that label, either.

It is also confusing to see that error in the Times lede, since the an accurate label is later used in the story when talking about some of this more popular books, such as “Mere Christianity” and “The Problem of Pain.”

[Read more...]

Agnus Dei: Presbyterian hymnal fight makes news

Before we look at a news story from The Tennessean, a little background. Last week I read a fascinating piece in First Things about a particular kerfuffle in one denomination’s hymnal development. It began:

In his 1934 book, The Kingdom of God in America, H. Richard Niebuhr depicted the creed of liberal Protestant theology, which was called “modernism” in those days, in these famous words: “A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Niebuhr was no fundamentalist, but he knew what he was talking about. So did Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he named the kind of mainline religion he encountered in 1930s America: Protestantismus ohne Reformation, “Protestantism without the Reformation.”

Sin, judgment, cross, even Christ have become problematic terms in much contemporary theological discourse, but nothing so irritates and confounds as the idea of divine wrath. Recently, the wrath of God became a point of controversy in the decision of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song to exclude from its new hymnal the much-loved song “In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend.  The Committee wanted to include this song because it is being sung in many churches, Presbyterian and otherwise, but they could not abide this line from the third stanza: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied.” For this they wanted to substitute: “…as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.” The authors of the hymn insisted on the original wording, and the Committee voted nine to six that “In Christ Alone” would not be among the eight hundred or so items in their new hymnal.

What followed was a fascinating discussion of atonement theories and God’s love, featuring Protestants, Pope Benedict XVI and church fathers alike.

You could also read about this hymnal debate in Christianity Today and throughout the Christian press and blogosphere. It was huge news and a major point of discussion.

Everywhere, that is, except for in the mainstream media.

The thing is, as anyone who regularly worships God with the aid of a hymnal can tell you, liturgy and song are major issues. They define our relationship to God and our understanding of hymn. They convey the doctrine of the church with amazing efficacy. Martin Luther called music theology’s handmaiden. One of the most exciting stories of my church body’s recent history was the assembly, production and widespread acceptance of our latest hymnal, Lutheran Service Book “proclaiming the Good News of forgiveness, life, and salvation; celebrating Christ and all His benefits; giving voice to the people’s thanksgiving and praise”). Even if my church body’s worship wars aren’t quite as dramatic as other denominations, developing a hymnal used by millions is no small feat. I know a little bit about that story and it involved some hard-fought battles over theology and practice.

Some readers had noted the lack of mainstream media discussion about an interesting story from the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s hymnal development project. And it is interesting that 100% of all stories related to anything involving same-sex attraction are greenlighted for the front page of metro dailies (or so it seems) while a really interesting theological debate isn’t even covered.

So major props to The Tennessean for not just reporting the story but adding some helpful depth to it as well. It begins:

Fans of a beloved Christian hymn won’t get any satisfaction in a new church hymnal.

[Read more...]


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