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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The more things change...

In 1956, a very unusual wedding took place. The groom was C.S. Lewis, the author of the Chronicles of Narnia books as well as many other works of Christian fiction and apologetics. He was nearly 60 years old, and had never before been married. The bride in the hospital bed next to him was a 40-year-old American divorcee to whom he had, in the eyes of Great Britain, been married for quite some time. It's not unlikely that you've heard this story before; it was written about by Lewis himself after her death a few years later from bone cancer several years later, and the story, under the name "Shadowlands", has been made into a movie twice.

It turns out that the woman in this story, Joy Davidman/Gresham/Lewis, was an amazing thinker and author in her own right. I learned this when, out of curiousity, I checked the catalog at the library to see if anything she had written was in the collection. Sure enough, there was one book, These Found the Way: Thirteen Converts to Protestant Christianity, which contained her autobiography up to a few years before her divorce from Douglas Gresham (his story is in the book as well), and a book she wrote called Smoke on the Mountain: An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments. I checked out both (they were so old that the library had them in storage!) The former, which is a compilation of the life stories of a number of people who came to Christ later in life (Joy and Douglas had previously been atheists and Marxists), really opened my eyes to some of the ideas and attitudes of Christians midway through the 20th century. Joy's chapter especially stood out to me, not only because it was the part of the book that I initially checked it out to read, but more importantly because she wrote with passion and emotion that I didn't feel in the other authors' chapters. I was hooked!

But even though her chapter in that book knocked my socks off, the idea of reading a book about the Ten Commandments sounded dry at best. In fact, for that very reason I had left both books on my "to read someday" lists for quite some time before I finally requested them. Frankly, I thought that her book about the Ten Commandments was going to be BORING. But boy, was I wrong! Smoke on the Mountain is anything BUT boring. It is interesting, challenging, and amazingly current... especially considering it was first published in 1953!

Joy takes each of the Ten Commandments, one chapter for each, and examines it in historical context to try to determine what the command might have meant to the original listeners... ancient Arabs, recently freed from slavery, wandering around in the wilderness. They didn't think the same way you and I do. As someone from the middle of the United States, I don't even fully understand the mind of a modern inhabitant of the Middle East, much less one that lived over 3000 years ago. Joy does a great job of providing that background, and then translating those ideas into a modern context.

The fact that her interpretations hit amazingly close to home proves, however, that people haven't changed as much in the nearly 60 years since her book was written as you might expect! Ms. Davidman, a Jew by nationality but (by this time) a Christian by religion, thought things through thoroughly and reached sometimes startling conclusions. For example, in the chapter on "graven images" (idolatry) she brings a hypothetical individual through several levels of idolatry... from a non-churched worshipper of things like the nice television in his living room, to a church attender whose idol becomes the idea that he can "save the world" through buying a TV for the youth room at his church, to a person who sees the church not as an instrument of social change, but as something that is valuable in and of itself.

"And I [the hypothetical person who has made this journey] am still an idolater," Joy Davidman writes. "I have fallen into the last and subtlest trap; I bow down to wood and stone, in the shape of a church building. Through regular attendance, through handsome financial contributions, through raising the minister's salary and redecorating the altar and improving the organist's technique and encouraging the foreign missions, I expect to be saved. To put it bluntly, I have forgotten that the church itself is not God."

Have you ever thought that your church itself might become an idol to you? I never have before, but that is a pretty interesting perspective on why ministers and church volunteers become burned out. They are serving their idol, and idols are cruel taskmasters.

How about the prose-poetry of this passage about giving up your own desires and plans and "loving the Lord your God with all your heart": "...we fear that if we give up the self nothing will be left of us but a dry, empty husk like a dead snail shell. It seldom occurs to us that the Holy Spirit is only waiting until the self is out—waiting to rush in and fill us with luminous splendors. Throwing away the self is like squeezing the water out of a half-drowned man's lungs, not because you want his lungs empty but because you want the air to get in so that he can live. For the self is asphyxiating and killing us; the only air we are designed to breathe is God."

Have I squeezed enough "self" out that the Holy Spirit can fully enter in? Well, I hope I've squeezed enough out that He feels comfortable as the central figure of my life, but I know there's always more work to do. There's always just a little bit more heart to love the Lord with! Joy Davidman's way of expressing spiritual truths is often as much emotional as intellectual, and I like that a lot... it makes the whole thing so much more vivid and memorable. It's the reason I liked the book. It's the reason I wanted to share it with you here!

I had to give the book back to the library (after renewing it the maximum two times and letting it go overdue a couple of days!) but I plan to buy a copy of it for my own library and study each chapter for a whole week. It's available in paperback from and from (if you insist on a hardback copy, you may wind up paying "a little" more!) The ideas are startling and potentially life-changing. I highly recommend it!

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