Worship & the Future of Apologetics: Recovering the Vision of Lewis and Tolkien

John Burtka:

tolkiencslewisIn the past decade, a large number of Christian media outlets have dubbed C.S. Lewis as the “patron saint of American evangelicals.” For those who keep a close eye on Christian culture, this title– and the irony it presents– will not come as a surprise. The excitement surrounding Lewis’ work continues to grow and few can deny his articulate and moving presentation of the Gospel. Following in the footsteps of Lewis, other 20th century British authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton have also taken the evangelical imagination captive. For some evangelical leaders, the influence of these 20th century authors is problematic given their sometimes controversial theological convictions. It is not my purpose to give a three-point sermon on why these British authors were not evangelicals. My purpose, rather, is to address a particular aspect of their Christian faith which was central, nay, the very source and summit of these apologists piety, without which, Narnia and Middle Earth could not exist– I am speaking of worship. More than Lewis’ love of medieval literature or Tolkien’s love of philology or Chesterton’s love of journalism, it was their union with Christ in worship that formed their theological imagination. And from this theological imagination came a platform for apologetics that has been effective in reaching millions of souls with the Gospel of Christ. If we evangelicals want to appreciate, appropriate, and perhaps, imitate the creative capacity of these literary giants when articulating the Gospel to our own culture, then we must first understand how significant a role worship played in forming our favorite authors’ Christian worldview.

 

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For Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton, the world in which they lived did not pale in comparison to the fantastic world created by their pens; to the contrary, the stories they told were sub-creations of a greater cosmic narrative where they were active participants in a world much more fantastic than their fantasy. And this active participation in the cosmic narrative was indeed much more active than most Christians might think. Perhaps we need to hearken back to the Apostle’s Creed:

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic Church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and life everlasting. Amen.

In English, the phrase sanctorum communio is translated as “communion of saints,” but it also means “communion of holy things,” as inspired by the liturgical prayers found in the Apostolic Constitutions of the fourth century. The holy things referred to in the Creed signify the total sum of spiritual and material goods shared in the Church today and by the earliest Christians in Acts 2:14 (ie. Apostle’s Teaching; Fellowship; Breaking of Bread; and Prayers). Yet, among them, the “breaking of bread,” or the Lord’s Supper, is preeminent because it provides the chief means by which the others are fulfilled. By participating in the body and blood of Christ, the Church becomes united with all Christians, from all times and places, who have united themselves with Christ in Sabbath-day worship. That Christian unity comes from the Lord’s Supper is evident in the Scriptures when the Apostle Paul teaches, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17). Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church is made “catholic” in the Lord’s supper and becomes one communion of saints dying with Christ for the “forgiveness of sins,” rising with Christ for the “resurrection of the body” and partaking in the present reality and eternal hope of “life everlasting.” These creedal truths affirm the goodness of the created order, the purpose of our physical bodies, and the power of the Kingdom of Heaven bursting into the Church every Sabbath day. And it was these truths which formed the vision of Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton as they gave a defense of the Christian faith to a hurting world.

Tolkien offers the most vivid example of these theological convictions in his letter to his son:

“Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament…. There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death. By the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste- or foretaste- of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires. The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion.”

800px-Map_Middle-Earth_A_Part_of_the_ShireFor Tolkien, “the true way of all your loves on earth” is found in union with Christ through participation in the Lord’s Supper. For it is there that deep yearnings and passionate movements of human relationships become lifted up with Christ into the heavenly realms and take on an eternal nature. It is through the communion of saints in the Lord’s Supper that the friendships, romances, and families of this earthly life are given divine natures and take on incorruptibility. Outside of our union with Christ in the sacrament, all hope of lasting relationships with our brethren and with Christ is extinguished. Where does the simplicity of hobbits, magic of Gandalf, mystery of Strider, beauty of Galadriel, majesty of Theoden, immortality of elves, wisdom of Ents, and warmth of the Shire get its beauty and relevance to our lives? These people, places, and stories find their meaning in the Lord’s Supper where there actually exists a love stronger than death and a “taste- or foretaste-” of our heavenly Shire where we will all return one day to feast with our Lord and all the faithful departed.

Lest we think this is only an archaic remnant from a Catholic past, let us turn our attention to the conclusion of C.S. Lewis’s essay, “The Weight of Glory,” where Lewis explains his relationship to other Christians in light of his relationship with the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper:

“Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object present to your senses.”

Communion-Cup_BreadAt first glance, the weight of Lewis’ first claim might go unnoticed given the sweetness of his second claim. However, in his first claim, Lewis actually says that the sacrament is equally or perhaps more holy than our neighbor. Can a piece of bread be more holy than our neighbor? Skeptics might be tempted to qualify this statement as a superstitious relic from Lewis’ formation in medieval literature; however, such a reading misses the mark by failing to grasp the integral role of sacramental theology in Lewis’ thought. The reason that Lewis calls his neighbor holy is because in receiving the body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, Lewis’ neighbor actually becomes, as affirmed by St. Augustine, what he is– a living member of the Body of Christ, the Church. The real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper means the real presence of Christ in the Church, in our Christian neighbor. In light of this understanding, it is evident why Lewis considers his neighbor to be so terribly holy. If we begin to see our brothers and sisters for what they truly are- the body of Christ on earth, Christ’s very presence in this world- how might this change our treatment of one another? And how would this change our approach to evangelization or questions of theodicy? Do we see how this holistic understanding of Christian worship, as most fully consummated in the Lord’s Supper, makes sense of how God uses the material gifts of the world (bread and wine) to nourish our physical bodies as we feast with Christ in the Kingdom of God every Sabbath-day? This portrait of Christianity is what so powerfully inspired the apologetics of Lewis and Tolkien. It was their sacramental vision, grounded in the Lord’s Supper and the communion of saints, that combined for such compelling “fairy stories” which told the truth of Christianity.

Apologetics needs sacramental theology. Our union with Christ in the Lord’s Supper is the heart of our fellowship with God, each other and the very world itself. Without it, explanations of the Christian faith will be true in a rational sense, but fail to meet the fullness of our human needs because hearts and bodies will be cast aside. Jesus Christ came as flesh and blood in the Incarnation, and we need his flesh and blood to sustain us for our salvation (John 6:54). Mankind has an innate hunger for Christ, a “God-shaped vacuum” as Pascal puts it, and without the bread of heaven, the Church is starved and our presentation of Christ to the world disfigured. If we hope to learn one thing from our “patron saint” and his holy friends, it is that the source and summit of Lewis and Tolkien’s Christian faith flowed from their life-giving experience of worship where they were united to Christ and his Church in word and sacrament. Their fairy stories were so human because their Gospel met the totality of human needs- head, hands, and heart. It is time that we evangelicals embrace the robust theology of these authors who we rightly admire and re-appropriate their sacramental vision within our evangelical churches. The life of the world, and the future of apologetics, depends upon it (John 6:51).

 

Image above, right: “A Part of the Shire.” Drawing by Christopher Tolkien (the author’s son) for an early edition of The Fellowship of the Ring.

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