Anglicans can connect their Christian faith with a fractured world through the themes of longing, beauty, and story, according to an Oxford professor addressing a major theological conference of lay and clergy leaders seeking the renewal of biblical and orthodox Anglicanism.
“We long for something that this world is unable to satisfy,” The Rev. Dr. Alister McGrath explained. “It is only when we relate to God that we find that sense of joy, peace, for which we have been created.”
McGrath, who serves as Andreas Idreos Professor of Science & Religion at the University of Oxford, was one of seven speakers presenting at the Mere Anglicanism Conference January 26-28 in Charleston, South Carolina. Mere Anglicanism is the kind of rare event that attracts a cross-section of participants from both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in North America, as well as overseas Anglicans. It was well attended, selling out the 965-seat Charleston Music Hall weeks in advance.
Themed “Telling a More Beautiful Story: Lessons from C.S. Lewis on Reaching a Fractured World” the 2023 conference featured theologians and Lewis scholars elucidating lessons from Lewis’s life and works that can inform telling the Gospel story with beauty, truth, and goodness.
Topics included longing and the imagination, the importance of Scripture, friendship, lessons from the Narnia stories, and dealing with suffering.
A Response to Beauty
“Truth may convince people, but beauty attracts people,” McGrath insisted on the conference’s opening night. “Beauty doesn’t need to be argued: you show people beauty and they respond to it.”
In drawing from Lewis’ book The Weight of Glory, McGrath noted that many people have a sense that beauty is leading them to something, “It is a painter.”
“It’s not just about seeing beauty, it’s about getting caught up in it – to be part of it,” McGrath explained. “We’ve got to break the spell that materialism has over our culture. We have need of a stronger spell, telling a better story.”
The Oxford professor argued that often unchallenged, unquestioned narratives take hold, but that personal stories can become part of a greater story, as seen in the tales of the Pevensie children in Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia.
McGrath pointed to Lewis leaving atheism “by God’s grace,” and then using that experience of prior atheism in service of God. This, he proposed, was something that only Lewis could do, and Christians can recognize their own significance in making substantial, intellectual arguments for faith based upon their personal stories.
Theological orthodoxy is the basis of renewal and growth, McGrath insisted, and our stories show us how orthodoxy works rather than just telling us what it is. Faith, he described, is like a window that lets a person see a garden on the other side, bringing purpose and significance.
“It is how we see something,” McGrath said of faith. “Christianity captures a story and makes sense of all the other stories that we tell.”
Shortcomings and Scripture
Lewis’s viewpoints were also met with critique as well as acclaim at the conference.
Wheaton College President Dr. Philip Ryken, one of three speakers from the Evangelical institution, addressed Lewis and the scriptural foundation for apologetics, including Lewis’s view of regeneration.
Ryken identified what he viewed as several of Lewis’s shortcomings.
“Lewis placed inspiration of Scripture on a continuum of several other degrees of literary inspiration,” Ryken noted. “This underestimates the unique origin of Scripture.”
Lewis expressed discomfort with scriptural inerrancy, and he doubted or denied that some books were historical in the way that some Evangelicals hold: parables, he wrote, may extend to Jonah or Job.
“The stories where historicity matters are those where it is plain,” Ryken relayed of Lewis’s view. The author wrote of “sacred fiction” – myths to make readers feel that something of “great moment” is communicated.
But, Ryken noted, Lewis believed that Christian doctrine should always be seconded to Scripture, and that the Bible is real and true but must be read as literature.
Lewis for Today
Contemporary Christians have a great deal to learn from Lewis, even if they aren’t in full agreement with him, argued several conference speakers.
Boston College Professor Emeritus Dr. Peter Kreeft noted that the “crisis of the present moment will always loom largest, like the closest telephone poll,” but that Lewis rejected the idea of universal progress, a form of “chronological snobbery” that he found to be self-defeating.
Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics Director Dr. Amy Orr-Ewing examined Lewis’s response to the question of how can a loving and peaceful God exist with the pain and suffering in our world?
Magdalen College Professor Dr. Simon Horobin looked at the shared fascination of Lewis and Tolkien for dragons, and how Lewis as an author let Christian elements “bubble to the surface” rather than dropping tracts in.
Dragons and Christian themes arose in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader character of Eustace Scrubb, who does battle not with a dragon but with the greed in his own heart – and loses to become a dragon himself, only to be redeemed and transformed by the lion Aslan.
Wheaton College Professor Emeritus Dr. Jerry Root spoke on Lewis’s use of imagination in apologetics, while Oxford professor and Lewis scholar The Rev. Dr. Michael Ward considered lessons for the Church from C.S. Lewis today.
Lewis approached the beauty of the Christian story with reverence, Ward assessed: “If a story becomes all sweetness and light, it becomes saccharine.”
There is pain, Root noted, in being divorced from our sins, and the “un-dragoning” of Eustace Scrubb in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is emblematic of this. Aslan painfully pierces the character’s dragon skin with his claws, skin that Eustace cannot remove himself. Only then is he made “a different boy” beginning to be cured for the better.
These themes are explored in the same book as King Caspian frees slaves on the Lone Islands.
“It is better to be a beggar for Christ’s Righteousness than a slave to sin,” Ward explained of Lewis’s tale.
Note: The entire conference was recorded. Videos of each session will be made available in the coming weeks by conference organizers and I will provide links here to view them upon their release.