The baby logic of C. S. Lewis: Jesus was either mad, bad, or God

The baby logic of C. S. Lewis: Jesus was either mad, bad, or God

A popular way of thinking about God among evangelical Christians is C. S. Lewis’ forced choice strategy: Jesus was either mad, bad, or God (pp 52-53). Chuck Colson, Nixon’s hatchet man, was sentenced for obstruction of justice. He spent seven months in prison, and there become an enthusiastic evangelical Christian.  It was this choice between mad, bad, or God, he said, that convinced him to become a Christian (Silliman, p 120). 

What does Lewis mean?

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse . . . . But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (Lewis, p 52)

Right away the equation of madness with thinking you’re a poached egg, while amusing, biases the question. It assumes that there is only one degree and type of madness, total bonkers, and that madness today looks like madness then. What if Jesus was neither mad, nor bad, nor God? Why are these the only three choices? What if Jesus were mad in a way that was a socially recognized, even acceptable, form of deviance?  

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Around the time of Jesus, there were a number of men running around Judea and the Galilee claiming to be the Messiah predicted in Jewish scripture. After the Dead Sea Scrolls were finally published (in the late 1980s), Israel Knohl wrote The Messiah Before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  There he refers to the “son of God” text, one who would be “great over the earth.”

These are exactly the terms in which the archangel Gabriel described Jesus in the annunciation to Mary (loc 789-790).

He would be “the son of God and son of the Most High.” (loc 793-794)

Michael Wise has made a similar argument in The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Jesus, also based on the Dead Sea Scrolls. His point, like Knohl’s, is that the idea of the suffering servant of God would have been available to Jesus during his lifetime. It was not a subsequent invention. If this is so, then Jesus could have been filling a socially recognized role, badly needed during the turmoil following Herod’s death (4 BCE). 

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I read these Christian evangelical novels so you don’t have to. But maybe you should.

I read these Christian evangelical novels so you don’t have to.  But maybe you should.

Evangelical novels are not a niche market.  This Present Darkness, by Frank Paretti, is included among PBS’s “America’s 100 most-loved books,” selling over five million copies ( The Shack, by William Young, sold over ten million copies.  It was the top paperback trade fiction seller on The New York Times Best Seller list for almost two years. The Shack is currently published in forty-one languages (Silliman).  The Left Behind series has sold 65 million copies. Desecration, book nine in the series, was the best-selling book in the world in 2001.

They are not quality literature, and I don’t judge them by their literary merit, but by their relationship to Christianity.  First, I’ll summarize each book; then I’ll say in what way each conveys a different but equally disturbing picture of Christianity.

The Shack

The story is fairly straightforward.  Mack’s youngest daughter, Missy, is kidnapped and murdered.  In deep despair and religious alienation, he receives a note from Papa, his wife’s name for God.  Mack goes to the shack where Missy was murdered, and there he meets God.  God, it turns out, is a large black woman who recalls the stereotype of a southern mammy, a warm good-hearted maid who cared for children in the south.  The Holy Spirit is an Asian woman who shimmers, whose boundaries are never quite clear.  Jesus wears a construction worker’s belt, and—no surprise—is a carpenter.

Some theologians have objected to this portrayal of the Trinity since Peretti’s God emphasizes that there is no hierarchy among them.  Each has his or her own role, and together they make a whole (Roach).  This is not my objection.

By the end of the weekend with God, Mack is restored to wholeness, “The Great Sadness,” has lifted, and he is ready to get on with his life.  The conclusion also introduces some doubt about Mack’s experience.  It turns out that on his way to the shack he was in a serious automobile accident and in a coma for several days.  It was while in a coma that he had his encounter with God.  Mack’s friend Willy actually (so the novel says) wrote the book.  The protagonist is thus curiously at a double remove from the events of the book.  In this regard the novel deserves praise.  Its actual author, Young, understands that an account can be fictional while stating a deeper truth.  Fiction isn’t a lie; it’s a suspension of disbelief.

So what’s the problem with the book

God is a grief counselor.  His job is to help Mack feel better about himself.  This view of God is no surprise.  It seems to be what most Americans expect of God.  The philosopher Charles Taylor writes that in the modern era there has been a “revision downward of God’s purposes for us,” so that now there are “no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing.”  People seek spiritual fulfillment not in transcendence over self, but in the realization of their best selves, and they want that realization to happen now (Taylor, p 18; Silliman, p 35).

Mack doesn’t go to God pleading for fulfillment.  Both share the assumption that this is what God does.  That Mack might, four years after Missy’s death, be concerned with the grief of other parents who have lost children, that he might share his loss so that others could learn from his experience: possibilities like these are not considered.  Nor does he seem more open to other teachings of Jesus, such as love of neighbor.  The relationship between God and Mack is strictly personal, as though Mack were seeing a therapist.  Not even the comfort of a reunion between Mack and Missy in the afterlife plays much of a role.  It’s all about how Mack can be fixed now.

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