Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Reflective Reviews: John Beversluis' "C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion," Part 1

I first heard of John Beversluis via John Loftus, who had recommended his material on his own blog. I found a rather intemperate remarks by Beversluis on such matters as textual criticism, and determined that his work would warrant a review at a later date.

That date has now arrived as the Ticker offers the first in a series called Reflective Reviews, in which I interact with, comment on, and as required, rebut material from current books of interest in apologetics. Our subject for the first Reflective Review will be Beversluis’
C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion. (Hereafter, CSRR.)


Beversluis is a professor of philosophy at Butler University, and by his own confession, an apostate from Christianity. Appropriate to that, this book has had two editions – one by a Christian publisher, one by an atheist publisher.
There are a few chapters of CSRR we will discuss, although we will also skip many that are outside my scope of knowledge.

Preface and Introduction

In addressing this portion of CSRR, I should begin with some reflections on my own perceptions of Lewis, which offer a rather strong dichotomy, even as Beversluis does.

On the one hand, I cannot help but feel a deep kinship with Lewis, not just as an apologist, but as someone who evidently shared the same unique (and unusual) personality profile (see
here). Even on the surface, one can see plenty of similarities between Lewis and I otherwise. He had his creative side with the Narnia series and his sci-fi trilogy; I have mine with the Annals of Hearthstone. He was, as Beversluis indicates, forthright in his opinions; obviously, I am as well.

These and other things Beversluis notes as characteristics of Lewis – his forthright honesty, his practices of answering mail personally, his indications that one should believe based on evidence, his assumption of the role of a translator, his independence from authority – are quite typical on the INTJ. Even his disinclination to provide a “personal testimony” for the Billy Graham organization [26-7] fits in with this, as it does with me (though I have come up with further, more rational and contextual reasons for rejecting the practice than Lewis did). On the other hand, I long ago recognized that Lewis was, as Beversluis says, a popularizer. [17]

To that extent, I would regard him in the same vein as Josh McDowell, not someone who could be regarded as a “last word” on any argument. I would perhaps recommend Lewis’ works as food for thought for the reader, a place to get started, though these days I would prefer to recommend other authors instead. I would not use Lewis’ books as sources. And like McDowell, Lewis has unfortunately gotten a reputation as a “finisher” when he is not (though unlike McDowell, he would want to make it clear, I think, that he was not one).
To that extent, I think Beversluis is aiming at a static target 10 feet in front of him with a Gatling gun. As I said of The Jury Is In some time ago, they’re not addressing the best arguments, and they need to do so. Beversluis claims that “even when Lewis’s arguments are formulated more rigourously…they still fail” [11] but after seeing his comments on things like textual criticism, I have serious doubts that Beversluis would be able to distinguish what a “more rigorously formulated” argument would be in certain subject areas. However, to determine whether this is so will be one of the points of this Reflective Review.

In sum, however, I count myself neither an admirer nor a detractor of Lewis. He served a purpose in his time and place, but his apologetics works, in my view, reflect something from which we have rightly moved on.

The Basis of Critique

Beversluis indicates that a chief characteristic of Lewis is that his rhetoric is much stronger than his arguments, and that is what makes him seem more persuasive to readers. I can neither agree nor disagree. I consider myself immune to rhetoric; the selection from “The Weight of Glory” that Beversluis offers as an example [21], and which others, as he says, described as “the best sermon” they have ever heard or read, is the sort of thing that would have me rapidly scanning the text looking for the point, if not moving on entirely to something else. I suppose it could be said that the typical INTJ is like this -- fully capable of delivering acres of seasoned prose while not being able to stand it much from others. It is the “ham actor” quality in us that does this.

In any event, we will also be on the lookout for whether Beversluis is correct in his evaluation, at least in the chapters we will discuss.

Chapter One: Lewis as Christian Apologist

Lewis was an evidentialist apologist, of course. But to be quite frank, he was often outside his field of knowledge unawares. This was not entirely his fault. Many of the insights now available would have been unavailable to him in his time and place. Not surprisingly, then, some of the reputed faults of Christianity which Lewis acknowledged, and which Beversluis highlights (27), reflect this:

Lewis was particularly embarrassed by Jesus’ reputedly erroneous predictions of his own return.
I might well have been too, had I not discovered the preterist alternative.

Lewis called the Gospels ”episodic, clumsily written,” and lacking “in all sense of climax.”
Perhaps that is so as they are written in modern English; but that is for good reason. The Gospels were the product of an oral culture, and in that regard, as scholars like Shiner have shown, the Gospels are well suited to their tasks. All except perhaps Luke, initially, were intended to be presented to an audience that was largely illiterate. The “episodic” nature of the Gospels – which is also characteristic of Greco-Roman biography, a genre into which the Gospels fall – is a reflection of the oral nature of that social world. What Lewis finds clumsy in print was quite graceful when presented by mouth by a competent narrator. (For more on this, please see my material on oral tradition in Trusting the New Testament.)

Lewis answered the “pagan copycat” claims of his day by agreeing with them, in essence, and saying that God set out early signs of what would come via the pagans. This line of argument, however, is fruitless, and should be abandoned, as the alleged “anticipations” offer no real parallels. (See on this portions of Shattering the Christ Myth.)

Additionally, Lewis’ conceptions of “faith” [29] are quite anachronistic. There is no “Faith-B” in reality (“a religious state of mind”). “Faith –A” (“a settled intellectual assent”) comes closer to the real definition, but still fails to capture the essence of loyalty that pistis communicates. These flaws are one of the reasons I think Lewis has outlived a good chunk of his usefulness, even as a popularize. They would also be examples of things that there are more “rigorous formulations” of available, that a critic like Beversluis would be obliged to address if his critique veered into one more of Christianity than of simply Lewis himself.

Chapters 2-4 are about Lewis’ theistic proofs, and that subject is beyond my scope. In noting this, however, I am not saying that a more competent party might not be able to mount a more rigorous defense of Lewis’ basic arguments. I simply do not know.

We’ll return next time with a look at Chapter 5.


  1. Troll comment from "jefflberg" has been deleted, though if he has the courage, he can come see us on TheologyWeb, where his comment has been posted in the November 2010 Screwballs thread.

  2. Let me say that Lewis is my favorite author. And you are a very close second (within the genre of an essayist, maybe). I fell in love with your writing style around 2001 when I was a freshman at Columbia Bible College. I credit your website as one of the reasons I got behind in my studies! God has used both you and Lewis so tremendously to 'renew my mind' that my debt to you is incalculable. That being said, I just wanted to clear up some helpful criticisms you had of Lewis, because, since you're still alive encountering the latests trends in scholarship, you're on the shoulders of more giants than Lewis.

    On the pagan copycat thesis: I've used both yours and Lewis' method in dealing with this. With yours, I completely agree that there are no genuine parallels. When you get down to detail, there's just an ocean of difference between the concept of Christ's dying and rising and all the other pagan gods' dying and rising. But then the Lewis part of my mind still wants to point out that there is still a 'dying and rising' motif. And it is peculiar and strange that this 'dying and rising' motif is written all over the world in the form of pagan myths. It does seem like God has given us hints, birthpangs of the 'true myth' to come, that the pagan myths are unfocused gleams of the divine reality that shined forth with Christ's dying and rising.

    I see it like this. Lewis' line of thought might not be good to use a positive apologetic, but more as a negative one, where you could say, "Well, assuming Christianity is true, these pagan myths don't do much to falter my belief." Yours might be the better of the two in being a positive apologetic. What do you think?

    The concept of faith: I have to be very careful here because I am a modern and the ancient Bible writers were not. Lewis' line on faith is a hangover from Kierkegaard who, if anything, outlined what faith is for the modern individual. I'm forced to agree with you that 'pistis' doesn't carry a lot of the meaning that Lewis says it does; I just find myself agreeing, because he describes so well what I, as a modern, feel in my experience of having faith. It raises the question of whether it might be possible to allow the idea that God might enter the consciousness of a modern individual by faith differently from a collectivistic ancient. But I am so hesitant to do this because I am a laymen, not a scholar, and because I know you have made the aquaintance of scholarship on faith, not - so it seems - Lewis.

    In all, I agree with you. Lewis was a popularizer, a modern, whose expertise was English Literature, not Bible scholarship, even though his intuitions in this regard were better than average. He is quick to admit that he is a layman, and that's why I love him, because you feel like you're talking to an intelligent conversationalist, humble, who leads you more informed sources, all the while giving insightful commentary of his own. I can't tell you how many times I've found in his Letters where he points out to people books on the issues that would be helpful for them, because he admits he isn't an expert.

  3. I can go with what you say above re a positive/negative apologetic on the copycat thesis.

    Re faith: It would be a hard sell for me to accept that, given that modern individualism is such a recent and rare mutation, so to speak. It seems to assume a sort of cultural imperialism, as though God would change the rules just for us; though He has said He shows no favoritism.

    I appreciate the remarks on Lewis -- he was a good INTJ. :)

  4. Good point. But isn't there still condenscension in God choosing to be a collectivist among collectivists? I'm assuming God did this so they could understand. Or, maybe it's just natural for Jesus to do this from his human nature. But would you say it's possible that if God chose to be incarnate among modern individualists, God would become one for the same reasons? Then, if collectivism was the late bloomer, wouldn't collectivists have to go through the same problems as the individualists? I would agree, though, that we find the meaning of a concept based on how it would be used in its social context. If the individualist's meaning isn't in line with the one based on social context, it's pretty clear the individualist's meaning is inaccurate. Would you say that for us to experience what faith really is, we have to become collectivists, and the Church should be formed based on that social model?

    In that case, modern indivudalism sucks! It's blinding us to Biblical truth. It's so annoying, because my consciousness is indivdualistic; it's my only mode of consciousness. I don't know how else to see the world. All my spiritual experience has been through that mode. I feel shortchanged. Is becoming part of a Church the first step toward getting rid of this?

  5. >>>But isn't there still condenscension in God choosing to be a collectivist among collectivists?

    I wouldn't say so, because God is a prime example of a collectivist union (the Trinity). I think collectivism is our "natural" state -- after all, even in individualism, it turns out we express our "individualism" most frequently by leaving one group to join another.

    >>>Would you say that for us to experience what faith really is, we have to become collectivists, and the Church should be formed based on that social model?

    I'd say we certainly have to behave more like them to get the experience on target.

    >>>Is becoming part of a Church the first step toward getting rid of this?

    Maybe a church in a collectivist society...sigh.

  6. I'm more a Chesterton fan, although I suppose he suffered from some of the same weaknesses.

    I'm an ISTJ for what it is worth.