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For People Who Have Been There

Steve Brown quotes J’s former pastor:

My friend Lea Clower says that religion is for people who want to stay out of hell, and Christianity is for people who have been there.

-Steve Brown, Approaching God: Accepting the Invitation to Stand in the Presence of God, p. 85

Of course the good news of this, as his been said by others many times, is that this life is the closest to hell the Christian will ever face (and the closest to heaven the non-believer will ever experience).

Does the statement need defending? Maybe.

C.S. Lewis describes hell as a “ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self.” In another places, he says, “We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where every has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.” If you’ve tasted those things in your own life, you’ve tasted some of the poison that makes hell what it is. You’ve touched the edge of the flame. And it’s when you realize that that’s what it is – poison, flame – you’re just on the cusp of being ready to escape.

How do you escape? Realize that there’s already somebody there to whom you can scream for help. (See the previous post for an explanation on that one).


Natural Man Sees Shadows

If you think in terms of Paul on Mars Hill, man erects idols that are mere shadows of reality. These are monuments to an unknown god. They think by making an image they are making something concrete. They’re actually making something that has no true material existence. It’s a caricature, a parody, a shadow of something they don’t even know.

Now take this brief but loaded comment from Van Til on the state of humanity in sin:

From the point of view that man, as dead in trespasses and sins, seeks to interpret life in terms of himself instead of in terms of God, he is wholly mistaken. ‘From this ultimate point of view the “natural man” knows nothing truly. He has chains about his neck and sees shadows only’…

Scott Oliphant, the editor of Van Til’s book, comments:

Plato (through Socrates) describes people who are confined to a cave and who see shadows only. Eventually they begin to interpret the shadows as the true reality. The philosopher, on the other hand, is the one who escapes the shadows of the cave and thus ascribes true forms to reality. Similarly, the natural man sees shadows only and thinks that such shadows are the substance of true reality. He is never able to get to the basic truth of the matter.

The natural man sees shadows. Those shadows come through in natural man’s work. They come through in movies, novels, art, etc. They cast the shadows onto their canvases. They are common grace glimpses of truth that don’t put forth the actual substance of Christ. But those who have the Spirit see Christ even where natural man only puts forth and sees shadows.

For instance, you see a heroic act of self-sacrifice in a movie. It’s a shadow. And it’s all the natural man sees. Maybe it makes him emotional, but he still misses the substance – it all points to Christ as the ultimate self-sacrificer. That goes for stories of true love, of humility, and probably a good thousand other subjects. This is why Tim Keller has said that, for the Christian, every story is two stories and every song is two songs. It’s shadow and substance.

For more on this, see C.S. Lewis’ essay Transposition. I’ve written about that HERE.

-Quotes from Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, p. 196

“I live in so many centuries…”

I live in so many centuries. Everybody is still alive.

-Barry Hannah, Ray, p. 41

Hannah is dealing with the ‘age of confusion’ that was/is post-Vietnam America as he saw it. I’ve never read it, but there is a book about the artwork of Douglas Coupland (an author I really enjoy) that’s title carries the same idea. It’s called Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything.


The idea is also reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.

The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes” (Slaughterhouse Five).

The overarching sense of all of this is that everything for the modern American is jumbled up, misunderstood, confused, etc. There’s a lot more than that, but for the sake of this post, that’s all I’m talking about.

There is something instructive, however. In his great book, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton called Tradition the ‘democracy of the dead.’ Tradition means giving your predecessors a vote that is equally as valid as yours. C.S. Lewis made the point that books from the past are the only tool we have to check our own chronological-subjectivism (see HERE and HERE). Alister McGrath summarizes Lewis’ position by saying that reading old books “frees us from the tyranny of the contemporaneous” as it keeps “the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”

My point is that ‘living in so many centuries’ that everyone seems alive is not actually a bad thing. Confusion can be bad. Having a healthy relationship with history not so much. I feel like I know some dead people better than I know some of the living folks I talk to every day.

The Mark of Hell

Milton’s devils, by their grandeur and high poetry, have done great harm, and his angels owe too much to Homer and Raphael. But the really pernicious image is Goethe’s Mephistopheles. It is Faust, not he, who really exhibits the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self which is the mark of hell. The humorous, civilized, sensible, adaptable Mephistopheles has helped to strengthen the illusion that evil is liberating.

-C.S. Lewis, from the original preface to The Screwtape Letters

And that’s as good a definition of pride as I’ve seen: “…the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self…”

Aiming for Truth with the Imagination

The basis of art is truth, both in matter and mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less. St. Thomas said that the artist is concerned with the good of that which is made…

-Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p.65

This is pretty much in line with C.S. Lewis’ famous line that the imagination is the ‘organ of meaning.’ The imagination seeks to grasp for, and embody, truth through metaphors and story. The good stories still deal with the age-old issues relating to the truth of reality. This is a good quote to keep right next to Lewis.’

Are you cultivating an imagination bent on grappling with truth? Are you a metaphor-maker? Are you content to live with abstractions? The word, says Dorothy Sayers, always needs to become flesh.

Recent Reading: Tuck Everlasting

-Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting

I think that Resurrection (what ever it exactly means) is so much profounder an idea than mere immortality. I am sure we don’t just “go on.” We really die and are really built up again (C.S. Lewis, Reference).

I thought of that quote from Lewis several times as I read this book with my children.

What if you could drink from the fountain of youth and live forever? What if drugs could extend life beyond what we presently imagine? Those are compelling questions. And it’s the question below those questions that Tuck Everlasting really addresses. I happen to think it addresses it in a beautiful way.

Winnie is faced with a decision. I think she sides with C.S. Lewis. I hope I would too.