St. Athanasius On the Incarnation | Book Review


There are three good reasons to read this edition of Athanasius’On the Incarnation.

First, the Introduction by C. S. Lewis is worth the price of the book. “There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by professionals,” he writes, “and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books.” He goes on to give reasons why that “strange idea” is a mistake, as well as to make the case for the importance of reading old books. “The only palliative [to modern prejudices] is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.” And, of course, he praises the translation itself: “I do not think the reader will find here any of that sawdusty quality which is so common in modern renderings from the ancient languages.”

The second reason to read this edition of On the Incarnationis the argument Athanasius makes. Athanasius is the bishop of Alexandria who led the fight for Nicene Christianity against the Arian heresy throughout the middle of the fourth century. It is from that fight he earned the moniker Athanasius contra mundum, “Athanasius against the world.” But On the Incarnationwas written prior to Nicea. It summarizes orthodox Christian teaching regarding the person and work of Christ. It breaks no ground theologically, which is why it is so valuable. It lays out clearly and compellingly what Christians continue to believe about the nature and purpose of Christ’s Incarnation. The only false notes I detected in the overall argument were when Athanasius offered a “refutation” of the Jews (Chapter VI) and Gentile polytheists (Chapters VII and VIII). Especially with regard to Jews, Athanasius’ refutation seemed directed at a Christian caricature of Jews rather than at fourth-century Jews themselves. And his refutation of Gentile polytheism in Chapter VIII, wherein he cited the decline of paganism and the rise of orthodoxy as proof of the latter, was too triumphalistic. Today, Alexandria is a majority-Muslim city. That doesn’t prove the truth of Islam.

The third reason to read this edition is its inclusion of the Appendix, “The Letter of St. Athanasius to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms.” I read the Psalms daily, and I resonated with nearly every word Athanasius offered in praise of routine Psalm-reading. He wrote: “Son, all the books of Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction, as the Apostle says; but to those who really study it the Psalter yields especial treasure.” Yes, it does.

So, five stars for this edition of On the Incarnation.

Book Reviewed
St. Athanasius On the Incarnation: The Treatise De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, trans. and ed. by a Religious of C.S.M.V, with an Introduction by C. S. Lewis(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. The edition I reviewed is no longer in print. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press newer editionof On the Incarnationincludes Lewis’ Introduction with a new translation of the work by John Behr. It does not include Athanasius’ letter to Marcellinus. It is also available with the original Greek textand new translation on facing pages.

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Review of ‘Peacekeeper’ by Christopher Bryan


PeacekeeperChristopher Bryan, Peacekeeper: A Novel (Sewanee, TN: Diamond, 2013). Paperback | Kindle

Peacekeeper is a supernatural thriller, and like all such thrillers requires a willing suspension of disbelief. If golems, demons, apparitions, the music of the spheres, and an imminent apocalypse aren’t your cup of fictional tea, don’t read this book. You won’t like it.

If, on the other hand, you’re a fan of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and That Hideous Strength, by all means, take a look. Peacekeeper draws inspiration from those books (and others) and tells an interesting tale about a diabolical plot to launch World War III and the people who try to stop it. It is the second volume of a trilogy that follows the police work of Detective Inspector Cecilia Cavaliere.

My general rule of thumb for evaluating popular fiction is simple: Was it written so well that I kept turning pages? By that rule, Peacekeeper mostly succeeded. Unfortunately, Chapter Nine introduced a supernatural element into this thriller at too early a point in the novel. Supernatural thrillers work by slowly uncovering the super in an otherwise natural setting. Given that the novel has eighty-one chapters, Chapter Nine’s “reveal” came way too soon.

But I still turned the pages…

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P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Christian Hedonism (Ecclesiastes 9:7–10)


God filled this world with many pleasures; it is your religious duty to enjoy them.

Now, I suppose that such an idea strikes some of you as slightly off kilter, as the kind of thing a Christian ought not to say. In 1 John 2:16 we read, “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.” Aren’t we supposed to avoid worldly pleasures?

Yes and no.

Yes, we ought to avoid pleasures that cause us to love anything more than God, whether they are food, drink, sex, or whatever. Pleasure becomes worldly when it leads us to violate the first and second greatest commandments: Love God, and love neighbor as self (Mark 12:28–34).

But no, avoiding worldly pleasures does not mean avoiding the pleasures that are present in the world. Remember, God created the heavens and the earth and everything in them, and when had done so, he pronounced all of them “good” (Genesis 1:3, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) or “very good” (1:30). Indeed, he “blessed” the first man and woman in precisely the one area that so many Christians associate with worldly pleasures, namely, their sexuality (1:28).

A Christian may take pleasure in everything present in God’s world, provided that he or she does so in the way God intended that pleasure to be experienced. The Preacher, in Ecclesiastes 9:7–10, counsels you to “eat your bread in joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart.” Not only so, but he goes on to say, “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life.” You can eat, as long as you do not become gluttonous. And you can enjoy sex—you ought to enjoy sex!—as long as it is with your spouse. All these pleasures are part of God’s will for you in this present age: “God has already approved what you do” and “this is your portion in life.”

But, of course, there are pleasures and then there are pleasures. The pleasures of this world are wonderful, but a better world is coming. As C. S. Lewis wrote in his essay, “The Weight of Glory”:

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Properly speaking, then, every Christian is—and ought to be—a hedonist, both in this life and in the life to come.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

Review of ‘The Pilgrim’s Regress: The Wade Annotated Edition’ by C. S. Lewis


The-Pilgrims-Regress-WadeC. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress: The Wade Annotated Edition, ed. David C. Downing (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014). Hardcover

First published in 1933, The Pilgrim’s Regress by C. S. Lewis is “an allegorical apology for Christianity, reason, and romanticism” (in the words of the subtitle). It was Lewis’s first Christian book, written over the course of two weeks (August 15–29, 1932) while Lewis stayed in Belfast with his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves. Lewis had converted—or perhaps, reconverted—to Christianity in either 1929 or 1930 (the date is disputed by Lewis scholars) after a long intellectual sojourn through various intellectual points of view. Elements of that sojourn find their way into the book, though readers should not assume that the book is strictly autobiographical.

The Pilgrim’s Regress is an allegory, self-consciously modeled after The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. In broad outline, it traces the journey of John from Puritania to the Grand Canyon, along the canyon to the North and the South, and then across the canyon with the help of Mother Kirk so that, after he retraces his earlier steps, he comes to the Landlord’s Castle at long last. Puritania is a legalistic and judgmental form of Christianity. The Grand Canyon is Peccatum Adae, the “sin of Adam,” which separates humans from God. The North symbolized arid rationalism, while the South symbolized undisciplined emotionalism. Mother Kirk is what Lewis would later call “mere Christianity”—as opposed to the doctrine of a specific denomination, the Landlord is God, and the castle is union with God.

As in Bunyan’s work, much of the action in The Pilgrim’s Regress revolves around John’s conversations with the proponents of various worldviews. In an Afterword to book’s third edition, Lewis wrote, “my own progress had been from ‘popular realism’ [i.e., naturalistic materialism] to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and from Theism to Christianity.” Broadly speaking, these isms mark John’s conversation partners throughout the book.

In that same Afterword, Lewis owned that the book’s “chief faults” were “needless obscurity” and “an uncharitable temper.” (Lewis wrote less of this latter fault than the former, so I’ll pass over his remarks about it here.) The obscurity arises, in part, from the intellectual currents of the early twentieth century that Lewis interacted with, many of which—such as Idealism—had already ebbed within a few years of the book’s publication. (By contrast, Lewis’s critiques of Nazism and Marxism were timely and prophetic.) It also arises in part from the way Lewis defined the word romanticism. For Lewis, the word referred to the experience of “intense longing,” where the “the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight.” Further, he adds, “there is a peculiar mystery about the object of this Desire.”

In later works, Lewis would use the German term Sehnsucht and the English word joy to describe this longing. (Hence, he titled his memoir, Surprised by Joy). He spelled out the logic of this longing in a famous sentence from Mere Christianity: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” It is this desire that propels John along the journey and which sustains him as the various worldviews attempt to explain away or subvert it. For Lewis, we should not oppose “desire” (romanticism) and “explanation” (reason) to one another, for they work together to bring the pilgrim to God. That is the whole point of his “allegorical apology” for them both.

Despite the clarity of Lewis’s basic insight regarding desire and reason, the obscurity of his references makes The Pilgrim’s Regress one of his most difficult books to read. That is why the Wade Annotated Edition of the book is such a boon to Lewis scholars and fans alike. Lewis himself annotated a 1935 printing of the book for a student named Richard Thornton Hewitt. That copy is one of the holdings of the Marion E. Wade Center of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, and the basis for this edition of the book. In addition to Lewis’s own annotations, David C. Downing has added “nearly five hundred page notes, including definition of unusual terms, translations from a half-dozen foreign languages, identifications of key characters, and cross-references to other works by C. S. Lewis,” as well as selected bibliographies of works by and about Lewis. I would not recommend reading any other edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress than this one, so helpful is it. Indeed, as I read the Wade Annotated Edition, I was astonished to see the many ways in which Lewis’s Christian rational romanticism was already formed at such an early stage. Downing consistently points out how Lewis expanded on themes first mentioned here.

Who, then, should read this book? As noted above, certainly Lewis scholars and fans. If you have read widely in Lewis but have not read this book, it repays careful study. It is Lewis in seed-form. Ideas present here will come to flower in his later books, whether apologetic, fictional, or biographical. The one group I would not recommend to read The Pilgrim’s Regress is people who have not read, or have not read widely in Lewis already. For them, it is better to start with the flower than the seed. Only after they see the full bloom will they have appreciation for the potential of the early germ.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘C. S. Lewis–A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet’ by Alister McGrath


C S Lewis McGrath, Alister. 2013. C. S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. Carol Steam, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

C. S. Lewis—Jack to his friends—looms large in the American evangelical mind.

On the one hand, this is surprising. A communicant in the Church of England, Lewis was generically orthodox but not specifically evangelical in theological or spiritual emphases. His closest lifelong friends were a homosexual Unitarian (Arthur Greeves) and a traditionalist Roman Catholic (J. R. R. Tolkien). And he drank and smoked prolifically, at one point having a barrel of beer in his rooms at Oxford for the use of his students.

On the other hand, Lewis’s influence on American evangelicals is not surprising. After World War II, American neo-evangelicals shook off their Fundamentalist separatism and irritability and began to actively engage culture with an eye toward changing it. Lewis—the Oxford don who wrote well-regarded studies of medieval English literature, well-written works of Christian apologetics, and well-loved children’s stories—modeled the kind of influence evangelicals wished to exercise on culture high, middlebrow, and popular.

Writing about Lewis is thus something of a cottage industry among American evangelicals, with new titles on this or that aspect of his thought or life appearing regularly. Alister McGrath’s new biography of Lewis is part of that cottage industry—though McGrath is a British evangelical—but nonetheless a welcome addition to it. The broad outlines of Lewis’s life have been sketched before, by Lewis himself (in Surprised by Joy) and by others. What distinguishes McGrath’s biography is the use he makes of Lewis’s collected letters, published in 2004 (volumes 1 and 2) and 2007 (volume 3) by Walter Hooper, Lewis’s literary executor. A careful reading of these letters leads McGrath to argue, against Lewis and Lewis scholars, that Lewis misremembered the date of his conversion to Christianity, placing it in 1929 when it actually occurred in 1930. Whether McGrath’s letter-based argument will win the day is an open question.

McGrath organizes his narrative of Lewis’s life in five parts: “Prelude” (1898–1918), “Oxford” (1919–1954), “Narnia,” “Cambridge” (1954–1963), and “Afterlife,” which focuses on the ongoing influence of Lewis, especially among American evangelicals. He weaves together Lewis’s inner world of ideas and outer world of circumstances into a warts-and-all tapestry. Those who have only read Lewis’s works—whether scholarly, apologetic, or fictional—may be surprised at some of the warts.

The two biggest surprises, at least to readers unacquainted with Lewis’s life, may be his relationships with two women, first Mrs. Jane King Moore, and then Joy Davidman. The former was the mother of Lewis’s deceased war buddy who was financially supported by him from the end of World War I until her death in 1951. The same age as Lewis’s deceased mother Flora, Mrs. Moore evidently filled a maternal void in Lewis’s life. (His relationship with his father Albert was strained through his adult life.) At some point, beginning perhaps in 1917, their relationship was also sexual, probably ending prior to his conversion. From 1930 until her death in 1951, she lived with Lewis and his brother Warren at their home, The Kilns, which was deeded in her name.

Joy Davidman was an American divorcee, ex-communist, and convert to Christianity, whom Lewis married, abruptly and without notice to friends, in a civil ceremony in 1956. The marriage began as a legal convenience, allowing Davidman and her two sons to remain in Oxford once their residence permissions expired. But it grew into real love. Indeed, the death of Davidman by cancer in 1960 brought forth A Grief Observed, Lewis’s harrowing account of loss.

I mention these two relationships in particular because evangelical readers of Lewis can be so impressed with Lewis’s apologetic for Christianity and literary imagination that they forget he was a flesh-and-blood human being, with all the sins and weaknesses of the race. We—I speak as an American evangelical—cannot idolize the man, which he wouldn’t have wanted anyone to do anyway.

By the same token, however, we shouldn’t discount Lewis’s real literary achievements. Lewis’s academic works—especially on Edmund Spenser and John Milton—can still be read with profit. His apologetic works still offer suggestive critiques of atheism and naturalism. And his fiction can still delight and instruct both children and adults alike.

I highly recommend Alister McGrath’s biography of C. S. Lewis. It humanizes the legend and contextualizes his achievements, but it doesn’t debunk him in the process. Lewis, being dead, can still speak—to American evangelicals and to others. McGrath’s biography gives his life and ideas an earthy voice for a new generation.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘C. S. Lewis–A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet’ by Alister McGrath


C S Lewis McGrath, Alister. 2013. C. S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. Carol Steam, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

C. S. Lewis—Jack to his friends—looms large in the American evangelical mind.

On the one hand, this is surprising. A communicant in the Church of England, Lewis was generically orthodox but not specifically evangelical in theological or spiritual emphases. His closest lifelong friends were a homosexual Unitarian (Arthur Greeves) and a traditionalist Roman Catholic (J. R. R. Tolkien). And he drank and smoked prolifically, at one point having a barrel of beer in his rooms at Oxford for the use of his students.

On the other hand, Lewis’s influence on American evangelicals is not surprising. After World War II, American neo-evangelicals shook off their Fundamentalist separatism and irritability and began to actively engage culture with an eye toward changing it. Lewis—the Oxford don who wrote well-regarded studies of medieval English literature, well-written works of Christian apologetics, and well-loved children’s stories—modeled the kind of influence evangelicals wished to exercise on culture high, middlebrow, and popular.

Writing about Lewis is thus something of a cottage industry among American evangelicals, with new titles on this or that aspect of his thought or life appearing regularly. Alister McGrath’s new biography of Lewis is part of that cottage industry—though McGrath is a British evangelical—but nonetheless a welcome addition to it. The broad outlines of Lewis’s life have been sketched before, by Lewis himself (in Surprised by Joy) and by others. What distinguishes McGrath’s biography is the use he makes of Lewis’s collected letters, published in 2004 (volumes 1 and 2) and 2007 (volume 3) by Walter Hooper, Lewis’s literary executor. A careful reading of these letters leads McGrath to argue, against Lewis and Lewis scholars, that Lewis misremembered the date of his conversion to Christianity, placing it in 1929 when it actually occurred in 1930. Whether McGrath’s letter-based argument will win the day is an open question.

McGrath organizes his narrative of Lewis’s life in five parts: “Prelude” (1898–1918), “Oxford” (1919–1954), “Narnia,” “Cambridge” (1954–1963), and “Afterlife,” which focuses on the ongoing influence of Lewis, especially among American evangelicals. He weaves together Lewis’s inner world of ideas and outer world of circumstances into a warts-and-all tapestry. Those who have only read Lewis’s works—whether scholarly, apologetic, or fictional—may be surprised at some of the warts.

The two biggest surprises, at least to readers unacquainted with Lewis’s life, may be his relationships with two women, first Mrs. Jane King Moore, and then Joy Davidman. The former was the mother of Lewis’s deceased war buddy who was financially supported by him from the end of World War I until her death in 1951. The same age as Lewis’s deceased mother Flora, Mrs. Moore evidently filled a maternal void in Lewis’s life. (His relationship with his father Albert was strained through his adult life.) At some point, beginning perhaps in 1917, their relationship was also sexual, probably ending prior to his conversion. From 1930 until her death in 1951, she lived with Lewis and his brother Warren at their home, The Kilns, which was deeded in her name.

Joy Davidman was an American divorcee, ex-communist, and convert to Christianity, whom Lewis married, abruptly and without notice to friends, in a civil ceremony in 1956. The marriage began as a legal convenience, allowing Davidman and her two sons to remain in Oxford once their residence permissions expired. But it grew into real love. Indeed, the death of Davidman by cancer in 1960 brought forth A Grief Observed, Lewis’s harrowing account of loss.

I mention these two relationships in particular because evangelical readers of Lewis can be so impressed with Lewis’s apologetic for Christianity and literary imagination that they forget he was a flesh-and-blood human being, with all the sins and weaknesses of the race. We—I speak as an American evangelical—cannot idolize the man, which he wouldn’t have wanted anyone to do anyway.

By the same token, however, we shouldn’t discount Lewis’s real literary achievements. Lewis’s academic works—especially on Edmund Spenser and John Milton—can still be read with profit. His apologetic works still offer suggestive critiques of atheism and naturalism. And his fiction can still delight and instruct both children and adults alike.

I highly recommend Alister McGrath’s biography of C. S. Lewis. It humanizes the legend and contextualizes his achievements, but it doesn’t debunk him in the process. Lewis, being dead, can still speak—to American evangelicals and to others. McGrath’s biography gives his life and ideas an earthy voice for a new generation.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Monday, May 9, 2011


This year is the 400th anniversary of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. Over at ChristianityToday.com, Mark A. Noll asks, “What would it have been like if the KJV had always been only one among several competing English-language versions of the Bible?”His answer:

When the KJV became the cultural and literary standard for the entire English-speaking world, it was easier to focus on the literary excellence of the translation without stopping to face the divine imperatives and promises that are any Bible’s primary reason for existence. The pervasive cultural presence of this Bible also made it easy to exploit scriptural words, phrases, images, and allusions for their evocative power, even when those uses contradicted the Bible’s basic spiritual meaning.

Yet even soberly considered, the immense good accomplished in and through the KJV is a marvel. When the KJV became the cultural and literary standard for the entire English-speaking world, the spiritual impact of the Bible was certainly enhanced because the scriptural message was carried far and wide via an all-pervasive cultural standard. The substance of divine revelation that lay immediately beneath the words of the KJV could also exert a dramatic public impact for good, precisely because this translation so dominated the English-speaking world.

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Over at Patheos.com, John Fea concludes an excellent four-part series on the Civil War as a war between two “Christian nations.”

  • Part 1: “One Nation, Under God, Indivisible”
  • Part 2: “God’s Judgment Upon the South”
  • Part 3: “The Confederacy’s “Christian Nation”
  • Part 4: “A Slaveholding Nation is a Christian Nation”

Fea’s conclusion is worth keeping in mind when you hear talk about America as a “Christian nation”:

As we’ve seen over the past four columns, by 1860 there were two visions of Christian America. Many Northerners believed that the national Union was sacred because it was created and blessed by God. Many Southerners argued that the Confederate States of America was a Christian nation because the Bible’s teachings were compatible with a southern way of life.

Throughout American history there was seldom a common understanding of what it meant to be a Christian nation. The Civil War is merely one example. This is certainly something to remember whenever we get the urge to talk about America’s so-called Christian roots.

If you like what you read, check out Fea’s America as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.

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C. S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design.

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The Arts & Faith Top 100 Films does not include The Mission but it does include The Story of the Weeping Camel. Something’s seriously wrong with this list.

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Who is the devil like? David Bentley Hart offers these thoughts:

  • “the sort of person you try your best to get away from at a party”
  • “A merciless real estate developer whose largest projects are all casinos.”
  • “Donald Trump—though perhaps just a little nicer”

Ouch. And, heh.

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“Faith unshaken by tornado.” Well, yeah. Psalm 46:1–3.

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“Bin Laden’s theology a radical break with traditional Islam.” That’s both true and good to know, although Mollie Hemingway has some questions.

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“Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” There Be Dragons, a new film about Opus Dei founder Josemaría Escrivá, gets a good review from Cathleen Falsani Possley.