I have just read C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra again for probably the 4th time, but the first in about 20 years. As before, it leaves me feeling a little breathless, a bit dazed, but this time for different reasons. I recall when I first read it, I found it interesting in the way one finds a puzzle interesting. In fact, large sections I did not care for at all. It is not a book of fast moving and exciting plot developments. It contains long sections of expository dialog. It even has rather extensive pieces of pretty florid oratory. Much of the action is not action at all but descriptive passages of Ransom’s (the main character) observations of Perelandra (or Venus). But within all that is woven some astounding theology. Strangely enough, this theology, and the way Lewis expresses it, is what makes it so compelling, forceful and ultimately heartening to me.
The novel is essentially a thin veneer of narrative, covering over and holding together a fairly wide ranging essay on metaphysics and theology. In it he performs a sort of theological thought experiment. What would happen if God created another world and placed another Adam and Eve in it? Would they be tempted? Would they fall? And what happens if they do not fall? And what could it all mean anyways?
In Lewis’ own spiritual autobiography (Surpised by Joy) he talks about his first experiences with Joy when he heard the old Norse Sagas and was transported by this feeling of “Northerness” that came out of those tales. Much of the power of Lewis’ work for me arises from his ability to transmit that feeling to me in his writing. I can’t put my finger on it, but there is something about his writing that sets up a powerful vibration deep inside. It’s like the best sermon, the one you go to church on Sunday morning hoping to hear every Sunday. It’s the sermon that opens up the Word in ways that not only help you to understand it in new ways, but to feel it.
I have known people that are hard core theology wonks. I like to read their blogs, in fact. They revel in tightly constructed argument (in the philosophical sense), the minutiae of sources, and mastery of the subtle shades terminology. I am not one of those. I just don’t have the patience for it.
I also have known people who don’t have the chops to be a true wonk, but they sure like to play with it, for the sheer joy of it. These I call the theology geeks. Like a kid with a video game they can banter about the “big questions” forever nonstop. I am closer to being a geek than a wonk, because there is at least a bit of joy and fun in it. But I’m not really a geek either. I like answers more than questions.
I am more like a musician. No…that’s not right either. I am more like the educated and appreciative audience. I am the one who sits in the mezzanine and cries for the beauty of the aria. I am the one who stands at the end of the concert, not because everyone stands, but because my heart is about to explode for the joy inside me. For I think that what I really want out of theology is not knowledge or mastery…it is beauty.
Lewis always claimed that he was no philosopher or theologian. Perhaps he was right. Although to my ear his work seems plenty rigorous (meaning his essays like The Abolition of Man, or Miracles), I am not an especially good judge of what is the most rigorous argument. Lewis was perhaps more of a theological musician. He found a way to express truth about the One True and Living God in words, but musically. The scales of his music came straight from the Word. He played his melodies on pen and paper.
The wonks and the geeks tend to be too much in love with the mechanics of the thing. A music wonk would want to know how to tune the instrument to the perfect 800 mhz pitch. The geek would want to see how fast he could play just to show he could do it. My love of music is much more childish and earthy. I simply love the music the way it makes me feel. I love music for what it does for my heart. It lifts me, it carries me. It touches my heart, and opens me up. It lights my world differently. I can see better by it.
When I read Lewis I know the mechanics and structure of good theology are there, but that’s not what appeals to me. When I read Lewis, he helps me to love God more. I hear God more clearly. I see him more vividly. And I want to give myself to Him more completely.
To put it another way, Lewis’ writings are like the sermon you always hope to hear on Sunday morning. That sermon (that ideal of sermons) leaves you not only seeing and understanding God more, but loving Him more. When we love more truly and more deeply, we surrender more truly and more deeply. It is not with our minds alone the we comprehend God. As it is written:
“thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.”