There's a Trick of the Light I'm Learning to Do

This is a collection of songs I wrote and recorded in January - March, 2020 while on sabbatical from ministry. They each deal with a different aspect or expression of the Gospel. Click on the image above to listen.

Three Hands Clapping

This is my latest recording project (released May 27, 2019). It is a double album of 22 songs, which very roughly track the story of my life... a sort of musical autobiography, so to speak. Click the album image to listen.

Ghost Notes

Ghost Notes
A collections of original songs I wrote in 2015, and recorded with the FreeWay Musical Collective. Click the album image to listen.

inversions

Recorded in 2014, these songs are sort of a chronicle of my journey through a pastoral burn-out last winter. They deal with themes of mental-health, spiritual burn-out and depression, but also with the inexorable presence of God in the midst of darkness. Click the album art to download.

soundings

soundings
click image to download
"soundings" is a collection of songs I recorded in September/October of 2013. Dealing with themes of hope, ache, trust and spiritual loss, the songs on this album express various facets of my journey with God.

bridges

bridges
Click to download.
"Bridges" is a collection of original songs I wrote in the summer of 2011, during a soul-searching trip I took out to Alberta; a sort of long twilight in the dark night of the soul. I share it here in hopes these musical reflections on my own spiritual journey might be an encouragement to others: the sun does rise, blood-red but beautiful.

echoes

echoes
Prayers, poems and songs (2005-2009). Click to download
"echoes" is a collection of songs I wrote during my time studying at Briercrest Seminary (2004-2009). It's called "echoes" partly because these songs are "echoes" of times spent with God from my songwriting past, but also because there are musical "echoes" of hymns, songs or poems sprinkled throughout the album. Listen closely and you'll hear them.

Accidentals

This collection of mostly blues/rock/folk inspired songs was recorded in the spring and summer of 2015. I call it "accidentals" because all of the songs on this project were tunes I have had kicking around in my notebooks for many years but had never found a "home" for on previous albums. You can click the image to download the whole album.

blogs I follow

random reads

Readings, 2020

Readings, 2020
Paradise Lost, John Milton

Adorning the Dark, Andrew Peterson

The Soul of Shame, Curt Thompson

Cure for the Common Life, Max Lucado

Halos and Avatars, Craig Detweiller, ed.

Fool's Talk, Os Guinness

Brendan, Frederick Buechner

The Screwtape Letters

Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis

The Pilgrim's Regress, C. S. Lewis

Becoming Whole, Brian Finkert and Kelly Kapic

Real Sex, Lauren Winner

Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis

Voyage to Venus, C. S. Lewis

That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis

Screwtape Proposes a Toast, C. S. Lewis

Postcards from Narnia (III): The Lion, the Witch and the Atonement


I have often thought it was a bit surprising that contemporary, North American Evangelicalism embraced C. S. Lewis as enthusiastically as it did.  He could very well be one of the most frequently quoted writers in Evangelical sermons (just the other day, in fact, I was visiting a church and the preacher gave Lewis a quote and a nod).  When I informally poll people on books that were formative in their spiritual formation, Lewis is often top of the list.   A few years back, Focus on the Family produced a dramatized reading of the complete Chronicles of Narnia, to help evangelical families better focus on God.  Shoot, even John Piper quotes him generously in Desiring God, and John Piper won’t quote just anybody.  A good friend of mine once called C. S. Lewis “the Evangelical patron saint of the imagination.”

This is all well-deserved, in my mind.  There was something about this man’s work that rang true, and shone clear, and lingered sweetly on the palate.  He had a way of putting things succinctly and arrestingly; he often left you saying “but of course!” before you even knew what you were assenting to.   His fiction, especially, was vivid and engaging and uniquely imaginative.  I don’t begrudge him his place in the Evangelical heart for one minute. 

I’m just a little bit surprised by it, is all.

I say this because when you read the breadth of his work, he often covers ground that most conservative North American Evangelicals would find a bit disorienting, to say the least.  They certainly would have a generation ago, anyways, back when C. S. Lewis’ name was still in the process of becoming a household word.  He toys with the idea of purgatory in The Great Divorce (toys, but never lands on it); he more or less comes out as a theistic evolutionist in The Problem of Pain; he wonders out loud about the very real possibility of salvation apart from Christ in The Last Battle; he more-or-less rejects the “perseverance of the saints” (i.e. the doctrine of once saved always saved) in The Screwtape Letters.

To be clear, in pointing these things out, I am not trying to state my own view on any of these issues, which would take many blog posts each to cover.  I’m only saying that none of these positions reflected the Evangelical party-line back in the late 50s and early 60s when C. S. Lewis was planting the flag of Narnia firmly in the territory of Evangelical affections.  Which makes the authority he holds today a bit surprising.  In the aforementioned sermons that quote Lewis, often just referring to him is enough to settle the homiletical issue in question.  You don’t even have to give the quote, you can just say something like, “And like C. S. Lewis says, after all, God is not a tame lion...” and that usually says it all.

One of the more prominent examples of this—conservative Evangelicalism’s embrace C. S. Lewis despite his apparently heterodox position on many conservative Evangelical sacred cows—is seen in the sacrifice of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

In case you’ve not read the book, or forget, here’s the nutshell:  the boy Edmund, a first-class stinker all round, betrays his brother and sisters to the White Witch, because he’s eaten some of her enchanted food and wants more.  Aslan rescues Edmund from the Witch’s clutches, but the Witch demands that Aslan surrender Edmund back up to her, as her rightful property.  Interestingly, Aslan acknowledges the Witch’s claim on the boy, but rather than losing Edmund, he gives himself in Edmund’s place.  The Witch kills Aslan, thinking she’s won, only to have Aslan come to life again the next morning, resurrected and victorious.

Here's the crucial exchange where the Lion and the Witch settle Edmund's fate:
"You have a traitor there, Aslan," said the Witch. Of course everyone present knew that she meant Edmund. But Edmund had got past thinking about himself after all he'd been through and after the talk he'd had that morning. He just went on looking at Aslan. It didn't seem to matter what the Witch said.

"Well," said Aslan. "His offence was not against you."
"Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?" asked the Witch.

"Let us say I have forgotten it," answered Aslan gravely. "Tell us of this Deep Magic."
 "Tell you?" said the Witch, her voice growing suddenly shriller. "Tell you what is written on that very Table of Stone which stands beside us? Tell you what is written in letters deep as a spear is long on the firestones on the Secret Hill? Tell you what is engraved on the sceptre of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea? You at least know the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill."

"Oh," said Mr Beaver. "So that's how you came to imagine yourself a queen - because you were the Emperor's hangman. I see."

“Peace, Beaver," said Aslan, with a very low growl.

"And so," continued the Witch, "that human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property."

"Come and take it then," said the Bull with the man's head in a great bellowing voice.

"Fool," said the Witch with a savage smile that was almost a snarl, "do you really think your master can rob me of my rights by mere force? He knows the Deep Magic better than that. He knows that unless I have blood as the Law says all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water."

"It is very true," said Aslan, "I do not deny it."
"Oh, Aslan!" whispered Susan in the Lion's ear, "can't we - I mean, you won't, will you? Can't we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn't there something you can work against it?" "Work against the Emperor's Magic?" said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again.
Maybe you can see where Lewis was going with this?  He always denied that he was writing allegory per se, but he was a Medievalist, and probably meant that in the technical sense of the word “allegory.”  It’s not near so linear as Pilgrim’s Progress, to be sure, nor so blunt as Everyman, nor so cumbersome as Romance of the Rose; granted.  But in a looser sense of the term, this has allegorical signification oozing out the pores.  To say the Witch is the Devil, Aslan is Christ, and Edmund is sinful humanity does no violence to the narrative. 

If that’s the case, it bears noting that the operative theory of the atonement here—which seems to be a Narrative Christus Victor—is actually quite different from the standard Evangelical presentation of the Gospel, which has tended to emphasize Penal Substitution almost exclusively.  A bit of glossary may help here:  a “theory of the atonement” is a way of explaining how Christ’s death on the cross was a saving event—how the cross saves.  The Christus Victor theory of the atonement (Latin for “Christ the Victor”) focuses especially on the idea that Christ won an unexpected and decisive victory over Sin, Death and the Devil when he died on the cross, paying our ransom and freeing us from their power.  The Penal Substitution theory of the atonement focuses on the idea that Christ stood in as our substitute, taking the punishment for our sins in our place on the cross.  Historically, Evangelicals have emphasized Penal Substitution, almost to the exclusion of all other theories of the atonement, in their traditional explanations of the cross.

If you’re only a Narnia fan and not a theology fan, you may be wondering what’s the big deal?  So let me point out that in Penal Substitution (at least in most traditional expressions of it), the debt of sin is owed by sinful humanity to God himself, and the punishment (again, in most traditional expressions of it) is God’s own just judgement on sin.

In Christus Victor, however, the cross is not about paying a debt, but paying a “ransom.”  Ransom, of course, is paid to a captor to free a captive, and in most Christus Victor theories of the atonement (at least among the Church Fathers, whom Lewis read and knew), the ransom was paid not so much to God himself as to the enemy of our souls, the very real White Witch: the satan.  The cross is an unexpected victory over Satan, because Satan believed he won in killing Christ only to be defeated the third day when Christ rose again.

If Christ did indeed pay a debt he did not owe to pay a debt I could not pay, the question here is, to whom did he pay the debt?  To God, or to the devil?  Penal Substitution has a clear and unambiguous answer to this question:  the Cross is God’s gracious means of satisfying God’s own righteous wrath towards sin.  Christus Victor is less clear:  the Cross is God’s gracious plan to pay our ransom and defeat our captor, freeing us from his power.

Like I’ve said, North American Evangelicalism has traditionally defaulted to Penal Substitution (though this is changing: these days Christus Victor, Scapegoating, and Moral Influence are all becoming predominant atonement motifs in Evangelical theology, but Penal Substitution is still, probably ascendant in most popular level gospel presentations).  This is why it’s interesting to me that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has earned such a sacred place in the Evangelical imagination, because Lewis’ theory of the atonement here is not Penal Substitution.  Not exclusively, anyways, nor even especially.  Aslan is paying Edmund's debt to the White Witch, who, in the allegorical world of Narnia,  has a real claim on the boy’s life (a claim granted her by the “Emperor over the Sea,” sure, but that raises other thorny theological issues about the relationship between God and the satan that wouldn’t make for good bedtime reading....)

Personally, my predominant atonement motif focuses on the recapitulation, a theme that comes from ancient theologians like Irenaeus and is comfortable with both Penal Substitution and Christus Victor working side by side.  But that's another post for another day.

For today, let me just offer two humble "so what's" to this close reading of the operative atonement theology in the allegorical world of Narnia.  First: you can't think too seriously for too long about what happened that day on the Stone Table in Narnia, before all sorts of difficult questions bob to the surface: to whom was my debt owed, really?  Did the satan really have any legitimate claim over anything in the Creator's world?  And if so, how and why?  There are no easy answers to any of these questions, but they make for some good wrestling. Growing Christians would do well, I think, to take a round on the mat with them once in a while, if for no other reason than for the exercise.

But second:  it's more than just exercise.  How we explain the cross, as Christians, is intricately related to how we understand God—who he is, how he loves, how he is sovereign over the world, what his heart is for humanity and what his plan is for the creation.  Whether you land with Lewis on this one or not, having an operative theory (or operative theories) of the atonement and being able to articulate it (them) well, is crucial if we want the message of the cross to permeate every aspect of our lives.  If we are determined, like the Apostle Paul once put it, to know only Christ, and him crucified, this is not optional theology.

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