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Tuesday, May 1 2012
So Is Joel Osteen Right? What Is a Christian, Anyway?
In 1943 England, when all hope was threatened by the inhumanity of war, the Oxford don C. S. Lewis was invited to give a series of radio broadcast talks over the BBC addressing the key tenets of Christianity. Over half a century later, these radio broadcast talks, which would be published as three books, would subsequently be combined to become the twentieth-century masterpiece known as Mere Christianity.
In the coming weeks we will be looking at some of the vintage passages from Mere Christianity which speak so powerfully to our own day in a culture where both religious and irreligious zeal are both equally embraced.
Lewis sought in Mere Christianity to set forth the core beliefs of Christian orthodoxy, and to reject the boundaries that divide Christianity's many denominations. He also embraced what many have referred to as a "muscular" Christianity, a faith not so much about the emotions as the intellect and mind. I'm reminded of the observation of Anthony Burgess years ago in the New York Times about the writings of Lewis, where he observed that, "C. S. Lewis is the ideal persuader for the half-convinced, for the good man who would like to be a Christian but finds his intellect getting in the way."
In his Preface to Mere Christianity, Lewis observes that many people may object to his use of the word Christian to mean one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity. He writes:
"People ask: ‘Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?' or ‘May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some who do?' Now this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every available quality except that of being useful. We simply cannot, without disaster, use language as these objectors want us to use it."
He then shows by the history of another, less important word, gentleman, how meanings can easily be confused. He observes: "The word gentleman originally meant something recognizable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone a ‘gentleman' you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not a ‘gentleman' you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman...A gentleman, once it has been spiritualized and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word."
With brilliant clarity, Lewis then turns to the word, Christian, in it's classic, historic sense: "We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts 11:26) to ‘the disciples', to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles...There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were ‘far closer to the spirit of Christ' than the less satisfactory of the disciples. The point is not a theological or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian."
This issue is as relevant as Joel Osteen's recent pronouncements concerning the faith of Mitt Romney. What do you make of Lewis's argument about the meaning of the word Christian? Why is this an important point in our public discourse today? Your thoughts are welcome...
If you would be interested in being part of a weekly conference call series I am hosting on the key ideas of Lewis's Mere Christianity, please email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
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