Archive for the ‘Christian theology’ Category

“Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller reviewed

7 April 2009

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. Thomas Nelson Publishers (2003), 205 pp.

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

I first heard about this book about three years ago when several of my friends were reading it.  They recommended it, but I didn’t get around to reading it until a friend obligated me by giving me a copy.  Anyway, the book is basically a memoir that contains lots of autobiographical material, and its subtitle, “Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” is apt.

Like most memoirs, the book lacks a clearly stated central thesis or argument to push; Miller prefers to relate his own experiences and observations and seems happy to raise questions and get his readers thinking.  For instance, he raises the question “Why would God want to call Himself father when so many fathers abandon their children?” (His own dad played very little role in his life, as he explains.)  He proffers no suggested answers for his question—which is a very good one—and humorously remarks that “all the vocabulary about God seem[s] to come from ancient history, before video games, Palm Pilots, and the Internet.” (4)  One quickly realizes that Miller has a good sense of humor and it comes across well throughout the book.  (And in his other writings too. On his website, he says he’s going to use the money from his next book, which “might be the greatest book ever written,” to go into space.)

One of the book’s main themes, and the closest it comes to having a thesis, comes up early, when Miller is recounting his thoughts about the genocide in the Congo.  He writes that “Nothing is going to change in the Congo until you and I figure out what is wrong with the person in the mirror.” (23)

The problem is not a certain type of legislation or even a certain politician; the problem is the same that it has always been.  I am the problem. … The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest. … True change, true life-giving, God-honoring change, would have to start with the individual.  I was the very problem I had been protesting.  I wanted to make a sign that read “I AM THE PROBLEM.” (20)

Miller says there is nothing more progressive than embracing the fundamental idea that the problem in the universe lives within us.  He develops this idea throughout the book.

Another major theme is the need for authenticity, or the need to be genuine, which is often hard to achieve in our society which emphasizes appearance so much.  He says that “Everybody wants to be fancy and new.  Nobody wants to be themselves. … If there was a guy who just liked being himself and didn’t want to be anybody else, that guy would be the most different guy in the world and everbody would want to be him.” (29)  Elsewhere he diagnoses one problem with our culture:

I think we have this need to be cool, that there is this undercurrent in society that says some people are cool and some people aren’t.  And it is very, very important that we are cool.  … The problem with this is that it indicates there is less value in what people believe, what they stand for; it only matters that they are cool.  In other words, who cares what I believe about life, I only care that I am cool. (105)

He laments that “even our beliefs have become trend statements.  We don’t even believe things because we believe them anymore.  We only believe things because they are cool things to believe.” (107)  He goes on to say that true belief requires commitment and costs something, as opposed to the cheap, trendy variety.  He adds that if you believe something passionately, regardless of what it is and whether it is right or wrong, people will follow you, “because they think you know something they don’t, some clue to the meaning of the universe.” (109)  That’s one reason why believing things that are true is so important.  He adds that “if we believed the right things, the true things, there wouldn’t be very many problems on earth,” like the genocide in the Congo. (107)

Donald Miller (b. 1971)

Donald Miller (b. 1971)

Much of the book details Miller’s adventures among people who are not only not Christians but are actively suspicious of them.  He discusses his time at Reed College, which is known for its secular and libertine culture.  He and others from the school’s small Christian community set up a “Confession Booth” on campus during the annual Bacchanalia.  The twist was that they confessed to the students who came in, not vice versa.  They apologized for not living up to the message of Jesus and for ways in which Christians have historically not been very Christlike.  His observations from the time he spent with the hippies in the woods are also interesting. One passage I found very powerful concerned a student at Reed College who had a speech impediment and a question that Miller fielded from someone asking how he could deal with all the immorality at the school.  He writes that

I never thought of Reed as an immoral place, and I suppose I never thought of it as an immoral place because somebody like Nathan can go there and talk like Elmer Fudd, and nobody will ever make fun of him.  And if Nathan were to go to my church, which I love and would give my life for, he would unfortunately be made fun of by somebody somewhere, behind his back and all, but it would happen, and that is such a tragic crime. (224-5)

He describes his experiences living alone and living with a group of other guys, saying he finds it “interesting that God designed people to need other people.” (154) Miller stresses community a lot throughout the book.  He describes hell as “a place where a person is completely alone, without others and without God,” (171) which contrasts with Jean-Paul Sarte’s view that “hell is other people.” (226)  He says that “the words alone, lonely, and loneliness are three of the most powerful words in the English language. … These words say that we are human; they are like the words hunger and thirst. But they are not words about the body, they are words about the soul. … Other people keep our souls alive, just like food and water does with our body” (152)

Miller stresses love for others, not coincidentally, just like Jesus did.  He writes “I think love is a bit of heaven,” (cf. his description of hell) and says that when he was in love “there was somebody in the world who was more important than me.” (151) He stresses that we shouldn’t love others in order for them to like or love us, or in order to get anything whatsoever from him.  He said he hated the idea of befriending people in order to get them to go to his church—but he liked the idea of loving people just to love them, with no other motives attached. (135)  The passage on page 150 which concludes the 13th chapter is also informative on this topic.

Towards the end of the book Miller deals just a bit more directly with the topic of God and our relationship to the divine.  “It comforts me to think that if we are created beings, the thing that created us would have to be greater than us, so much greater, in fact, that we would not be able to understand it.” (201)  He says that in the face of such “big beauty” we have two choices: terror or awe; he recommends the later, adding “I don’t think there is any better worship than wonder.” (204, 206)

Don Miller suggests, but rarely directly states, a lot of good questions in the book, mostly concerning how the church has screwed up, is marginalizing itself, and is detracting from what should be its very powerful—and important—message.  But sometimes I wish he’d come out and be a bit more straightforward with criticisms and critiques.  Still, this is a good book for anyone, Christian or not, to read in order to have their view of what Christianity is and can be shaken up just a bit; it’ll keep people thinking.  The book is a light read; his writing style is conversational (as demonstrated) and humorous; the book doesn’t deal with deep metaphysical or theological topics; it is very practical.  It’s also short, at just 205 real pages, so few will have excuses.  Especially if a friend gives them a copy.  Recommended for anyone who wants an introduction to the new emergent movement within American Christianity.

“The Consolation of Philosophy” by Boethius reviewed

6 April 2009

The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. Penguin Classics. Victor Watts trans. 164 pp.

The Penguin Classics edition shows Philosophy talking to Boethius while Fortune turns her wheel in the background

The Penguin Classics edition shows Philosophy talking to Boethius while Fortune turns her wheel in the background

The Consolation of Philosophy is a fairly well-known little work.  Wikipedia has good background information on it and it’s author, Boethius.  He was a sixth century Roman patrician who’d lost the king’s favor and wrote the book while in prison in 524 or 525 awaiting execution and musing on his fall from grace.  Though a Christian, he drew on classical themes and motifs for the work, which is fundamentally a theodicy.

The book is a dialog between Boethius and Philosophy, who is personified as a woman and contrasted with Fortune (cf. the image of Wisdom as a woman and Folly as a harlot in Proverbs—the work isn’t wholly uninformed by the Christian tradition).  Boethius, who had previously served as Consul and in other high positions while he had the king’s favor, complains to Philosophy that he had “never been moved from justice to injustice by anything.”

You and God, who has sowed you in the minds of wise men, are my witnesses that the only consideration to impel me to any office was a general desire for good.  This was the reason why I had no alternative but grimly to resist evil and why in the struggle to defend justice I have always been indifferent to the hatred I inspired in men who wielded greater power than mine—an indifference inspired by the knowledge that I had freely followed my conscience. (10)

He feels betrayed by Fortune, which had previously blessed him with respect and success.  “I cannot deny the speed with which I rose to prosperity.  It is the very thing, in fact, which makes me burn with grief as I remember it.  In all adversity of fortune, the most wretched kind is once to have been happy.”  Philosophy consoles him that Fortune hasn’t changed her attitude towards him, she is the same as always: changeable.

The author goes on to examine the things that he had lost and why he ought not to lament his dispossession of them.  He looks at wealth, and how people who pursue it above all else never have enough and end up serving their money and stuff rather than vice versa.  “No good thing harms its owner … but wealth very often does harm its owners.” (36)  Power likewise is not the summum bonum; it doesn’t bring happiness or safety, but frequently the reverse.  His insights on those topics is good, but I most enjoy his analysis of fame:

Just think how puny and insubstantial such game really is.  It is well known, and you have seen it demonstrated by astronomers, that beside the extent of the heavens, the circumference of the earth has the size of a point; that is to say, compared with the magnitude of the celestial sphere, it may be thought of as having no extent at all. … This is the tiny point within a point, shut in and hedged about, in which you think of spreading your fame and extending your renown, as if a glory constricted within such tight and narrow confines could have any breadth or splendour. (41)

I can’t help but wonder if Carl Sagan was thinking of that passage when he wrote Pale Blue Dot.  Beothius further comments out that

Many men have been famous in their time but their memory has perished because there were no historians to write about them.  And yet the very histories are of little use when like their authors they become lost in the depths of time which make all things obscure. … If you think of the infinite recesses of eternity you have little cause to take pleasure in any continuation of your name. (42)

He then analyses the good, identifies it as the summun bonum that all people desire and are drawn to, and identifies it with God.  These passages owe much to Plato and need little explanation for anyone familiar with his concept of the good.

The passages in the work on the problem of evil (or the problem of undeserved suffering) are interesting.  He states the problem quite well:

The greatest cause of my sadness is really this—the fact that in spite of a good helmsman to guide the world, evil can still exist and even pass unpunished. … But there is something even more bewildering. When wickedness rules and flourishes, not only does virtue go unrewarded, it is even trodden underfoot by the wicked and punished in the place of crime.  That this can happen in the realm of an omniscient and omnipotent God who wills only good, is beyond perplexity and complaint. (85)

Later, he calls the problem of evil “the greatest of all questions, a question that can never be exhausted.”  He says that “when one doubt has been removed, countless others spring up in its place, like the hydra’s heads.”  While the statement of the problem is excellent, The Consolation hardly the definitive solution.  Philosophy answers Boethius much as God answered Job out of the storm: “It is because you men are in no position to contemplate this order that everything seems confused and upset. … It is not allowed to men to comprehend in thought all the ways of the divine work or expound them in speech.  Let it be enough that we have seen that God, the author of all natures, orders all things and directs them towards goodness.” (106, 109)  As for suffering that the good endure, “in the very short space of a human life, nothing can be so late in coming as to seem to the mind long to wait for, especially as it [the mind] is immortal.” (97)

Another image of the Wheel of Fortune, from a 15th century manuscript

Another image of the Wheel of Fortune (Rota Fortunae), from a 15th century manuscript

But Boethius goes beyond this; he offers arguments that all things, both those apparently good and those apparently bad, are for the better, because “all fortune whether pleasant or adverse is meant either to reward or discipline the good or to punish or correct the bad. … [therefore] all fortune is good.” (111)  While there is a bit more to his argument, it is unconvincing and few readers will accept his claim that “evil is [only] thought to abound on earth. … if you could see the plan of Providence, you would not think there was evil anywhere.” (110)  The arguments he adduces to prove the nonexistence of evil are sophistical and detract from what preceded them.

The last matter dealt with is divine foreknowledge as it relates to free will, a topic which I normally find it useless to discuss, an opinion that Boethius does nothing to modify.  The penultimate sentence of the work reminds me of the verses appended to the end of Ecclesiastes: “Avoid vice, therefore, and cultivate virtue; lift up your mind to the right kind of hope and put forth humble prayers on high.”

The Penguin Classics edition contains the 1960s translation by Victor Watts, who adds a 26-page introductory essay that provides context and interpretive help for The Consolation. The poetic passages that intersperse the dialog parts don’t seem particularly skillful, and only a few lines stand out for their beauty, images, or form.  I don’t particularly recommend this edition above any other, but the work as a whole is well worth reading for anyone familiar with classical philosophy.

“Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. I: 1905-1931” reviewed

3 April 2009

The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. I: Family Letters: 1905-1931. Edited by Walter Hooper. Harper Collins. 983 pp.

Volume I of III

Volume I of III

At 983 pages, excluding the helpful biographical appendix, this is a pretty big book—and it’s just the first of three volumes of C. S. Lewis’s collected letters.  The man wrote a lot and this volume contains 95% of the extant letters that he wrote between 1905, when he was seven years old, and the fall of 1931, shortly after his conversion to Christianity.  While tedious at places, it contains interesting biographical details and accounts of his early life and reveals an impressive intellect and strong personality.

Much of the material is, of course, quite quotidian.  One letter, sent from school in January 1915 to his father, says “Yes; I did change my socks. No; there are no holes in my shoes. Yes, thanks, I have plenty of warm underclothing.” (101)  Almost half of the letters in the first 200 pages were sent to his father and until he became a fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford requests for funds were a staple of his letters, along with itemized lists of expenses for which the money was needed.  His father, a solicitor, once apparently suspected Jack (as all of C. S. Lewis’s friends and family members called him) of cheating him out of about £1 and Lewis wrote a point-by-point letter arguing that the charge was illogical and contrary to the facts;  it was  probably more than what was called for (see p. 135-6).

The author’s mother died when he was ten and when reading his letters to his father, one wishes to have the other half of the conversation and to know more about just what sort of relationship they had.  Lewis wasn’t above pointing out how smart he was.  To his father he says he  “often wonder[s] how you came to have such a profound and genuine philosopher for your son, don’t you?” (85).  They often debated abstract matters, Lewis once claiming that “no further disputation is possible after my crushing and exhaustive demonstration” (93) and elsewhere that “one of these days you will come round and ‘see my point'” (213).  These seem likes things one would write to an equal, not a parent.

Probably 90% of the letters in the first third of the book are either to his father or to his lifelong best friend, Arthur Greeves, with whom he shared many interests in music and literature.  Lewis similarly thought he won all of the arguments with Arthur: “How funny that I always prove everything I want in argument with you but never convince you! … be good and talk sense the next time you do me the honour of arguing with me” (129-130).  Of course, their relationship was very close and their philosophical conversations were vigorous but never mean spirited.  Some of the most interesting exchanges they had concerned religion and Christianity.  Lewis was, of course, an atheist from the age at which he was first able to form his own beliefs and make his own decisions and Arthur was a Christian, though he played relatively little direct role in Lewis’s later conversion.  The two best letters to examine for Lewis’s beliefs at this period are the ones to Greeves dated 12 October 1916 and its follow up dated 18 October of the same year.  To quote the former at length:

You ask me my religious views: you know, I think, that I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best.  All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name are merely man’s own invention—Christ as much as Loki. …

… Superstition of course in every age has held the common people, but in every age the educated and thinking ones have stood outside it, though usually outwardly conceding it for convenience.  … ones views on religious subjects don’t make any difference in morals, of course. A good member of society must of course try to be honest, chaste, truthful, kindly etc: these are things we owe to our own manhood & dignity and not to any imagined god or gods.

Of course, mind you, I am not laying down as a certainty that there is nothing outside the material world: considering the discoveries that are always being made, this would be foolish. Anything MAY exist: but until we know that it does, we can’t make any assumptions.  The universe is an absolute mystery: man has mad many guesses at it, but the answer is yet to seek.

Lewis also pointed out how ideas of God evolved throughout the Hebrew scriptures from a tribal diety to a universal one (206) and often took opportunities to tweak Arthur, for instance pointing out that another person is “a rather violent athiest, so I suppose I shall meet him by ‘the fiery, flaming flood of Phlegethon” (240).

Lewis in 1947

Lewis in 1947

These disagreements notwithstanding, Lewis and Greeves had much in common.  Many of their letters involved planning visits to each other, and discussing the good times they enjoyed in each other’s company.  And it is almost disconcerting the vast number of books that Lewis mentions reading in his letters and the analysis he brings to them, frequently recommending works to Arthur. Lewis was not found of Thucydides, who he called “a desperately dull and tedious Greek historian” (145)—an assessment I disagree with—and also disliked Cicero and Demosthenes.  He did, however, enjoy The Histories of Herodotus, who he said pleasantly combined both history and romance (284), and also recommended The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (447).

The volume also contains a smattering of references to historical events, such as the appearance of Comet Halley in 1910 (14), the Battle of Jutland (204), and the 1918 influenza epidemic (416, 430, 442).  Regarding World War I, Lewis echoes the sentiments of his tutor, William Kirkpatrick (the inspiration for the Professor in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe) and wrote in 1914, when the war was only three months old, that

one of the most serious consequences of this war is what Kirk calls ‘the survival of the unfittest'[.] All those who have the courage to do so and are physically sound, are going off to be shot: those who survive are moral and physical weeds—a fact which does not promise favorably for the next generation.

(Lewis would follow his older brother, Warnie, into the army and was injured in combat.)  Anyway, Lewis seemed to be something of an elitist, which is perhaps easier to understand if one remembers his privileged upbringing and education.  For instance, he criticizes a list of the 100 best books, saying he “abominate[s] such culture for the many, such tastes ready made, such standardization of the brain” (581) and elsewhere praises aristocrats for “having tradition in [their] outlook” and rues “the influx of commercial democracy” (746).  But a few months later he writes that “the aristocracy was not a bit better than the plutocracy that has replaced it” (772).  And while he evinces some disdain for socialism in several letters (see pp. 441 and 544), he wrote Arthur in 1917 saying “I am a bundle of contradictions, but I must say socialism does interest me.”

When you think of the way labourers in the factory live at home,—men & women slaving from half past five in the morning to six at night at hard, monotonous work in hideous rooms full of shrieking machinery year after year, with never a moments pleasure except when they are drunk (and you can’t blame them) it really does make you feel that the whole thing is wrong. Are you ashamed to think of us], blessed prigs, with our books and music and little grumbles about nothing, dawdling along … while half or more than half the people are slaves.  As much slaves as ever there were in Rome, their only liberty being to starve when the torture becomes unbearable!

Like all of us, C. S. Lewis was a product of his own time.  Thus, some of his letters from this period seem to reflect some of the racial views held by many of the time.  When writing to his brother who was serving in the Army in Sierra Leone, Lewis wrote “What a queer thing that black man … is: he’s been there as long as anyone else and has never adapted on quarter of a step.  Perhaps the really strange thing is that others have” (538).  Elsewhere, he refers to “an atrocious little blackguard of a French nouveau riche boy with negro blood in him and the manners of a swine” (613) and is critical of Chinese culture (see pp. 710-11 & 720n).

Magdalen College, Oxford, where Lewis was a fellow while many of these letters were written

Magdalen College, Oxford, where Lewis was a fellow while many of these letters were written

He was also not entirely comfortable around women, again probably because of his upbringing (his mother died in his childhood, he had no sisters, and he attended all boys schools).  For instance, when he was “bothered” into teaching a class of young women he writes to his father that teaching “girls, if one considers only their faculties, … might seem an easy task.  But then they would be reading for the same exams as the men: and that being so, the ‘weakness of the sex’ (assuming that they are dunces) would make the proposition all the tougher” (598).  He also wrote that “as a general rule, women marry their tutors,” but he wasn’t worried because in his class “the pretty ones are stupid and the interesting ones are ugly, so it is alright” (667).  As an Oxford don, he said he “did [his] duty” in voting for a resolution that “the university has a right to remain predominantly a men’s university” and was happy that it passed, being concerned that Oxford might become “the women’s university” and Cambridge “the men’s university” (702-4).  He also comments that “that mixture of Northern respect and Oriental suppression” is “not a bad answer” to “the female sex” (771).  These are all views which we would not be likely to entertain today.  However, he did say that women write very good novels (910).

Speaking of Lewis’s views of women somewhat naturally raises another topic dealt with in his early letters: sadism. Most fans of his work probably have no idea that Lewis entertained sadistic fantasies.  To quote from one of his biographies, C.S. Lewis: Creator of Narnia by Michael White,

In a letter written in January 1917 Lewis begins to explain that he is writing the letter on his knee and this seemingly innocent comment leads him on to a discourse on whipping and spanking.  He declares: “Across my knee … of course makes one think of positions for whipping: or rather not for whipping (you couldn’t get any swing) but for that torture with brushes … very humiliating for the victim”  Soon he was signing his letters to Greeves “Philomastrix” (“lover of the whip”) and detailing gruesome fantasies involving Arthur’s younger sister, in which he whipped her “for the good of her soul”.  In other letters he described a particularly beautiful girl he had seen in Oxford and what pain she would have suffered if she had received only half the torment he had inflicted on her in his imagination. (p 47)

Arthur later scribbled through incriminating passages in the letters, but those passages are restored (and noted) in the volume presently being reviewed.  In 1931, Lewis wrote Arthur “I am now inclined to agree with you in not regretting that we confided in each other even on this subject, because it has done no harm in the long run—and how could young adolescents really be friends without it?”  (Incidentally, Arthur was homosexual and, presumably, indicated some of his fantasies to Jack.)  At the time, Arthur indicated concern about confiding such details to paper, but Lewis wrote “if any person did read out letters, he would be an ill-bred cad & therefore we shouldn’t mind what he say” (274).  Hopefully he would except the present reviewer and his audience.  The material is certainly salacious, but I wouldn’t characterize it as “gruesome” as White does.  In any event, after considering some possible sources of Lewis’s interest, the biographer points out that that as an adult Lewis was somewhat embarrassed by his interest and

As far as anyone knows, Jack’s attraction to sadism never strayed beyond his own imagination, but no one will ever know what went on behind closed doors later in his life.  For the eighteen-year-old at least, these sadistic musings went no further than that: onanistic fantasies and bravura to impress Arthur. (p 48)

Anyway, some of the most interesting letters occur near the end of the collection, around Lewis’s conversion to theism in 1929 and ultimately to Christianity in 1931.  The roots of his conversion, which are familiar to anyone who read his autobiographical Surprised By Joy, are evident in his earlier letters.  For instance, in 1916 he wrote Arthur saying “I know quite well that feeling of something strange and wonderful that ought to happen, and wish I could think like you that this hope will some day be fulfilled.”  And to another friend, Leo Baker, in 1921: “beauty seems to me to be always an invitation of some sort & usually an invitation to we don’t know what.”  Though an atheist from the time he could form his own views until about age 31, Lewis was never a materialist, the main species of atheist that one sees these days.  He always seemed to sense that there was a “more” or something beyond the purely material, and that is was ultimately lead him to theism and Christianity, a journey described in his highly recommended Surprised By Joy and hinted at throughout the present volume.

This probably explains the interest he entertained in his 20s in the occult and magic, which he called “the burning subject” of the time and that it was difficult to obtain even enough evidence to disbelieve (543).  He said that he had “no doubt” that some people could see the future (640) but that astrology was “all rot” (597).

Some of the best passages come from his own self examinations, where he identifies his main sin as pride—which he calls “the mother of all sins”—and that he also experiences lust, wrath, and envy.

What I feel like saying … is “things are going very, very well with me (spiritually).”  On the other hand, one knows from bitter experience that he who standeth should take heed lest he fall, and that anything remotely like pride is certain to bing an awful crash. … Yet as long as one is a conceited ass, there is no good pretending not to be. (877)

He confides to Arthur that

I catch myself posturing before the mirror, so to speak, all day long. I pretend I am carefully thinking out what to say to the next pupil (for his good, of course) and then suddenly realise I am really thinking how frightfully clever I’m going to be and how he will admire me.  I pretend I am remembering an evening of good fellowship in a really friendly and charitable spirit—and all the time I’m really remembering how good a fellow I am and how well I talked. (878)

He says that fighting pride is like fighting the Hydra, which grew a new head every time one was cut off: once you stop one line of prideful thinking one is tempted to be proud of doing so.  The argument will be familiar to those who’ve read Lewis’s popular works, like Mere Christianity.  He also discusses his attempts to cultivate “the blessed sense of charity, so rare in me,” writing about an experience after Christmas Eve service in 1929, when he could view “even my worst enemies in college [as] funny and odd rather than detestable” (852).

The editor takes the opportunity of Lewis’s conversion to Christianity to bring the volume to a close, and I must say I am interested in obtaining its sequel.  I am especially interested in seeing how his views and outlook may or may not change as a result of his new religious views.  I also expect that theology will be a much more prominent subject in the two later volumes, once he becomes a well known theologian and apologist.  This volume, which you have gotten only a not particularly representative sample of in the above, is good in its own right, but is only recommended for those already familiar with C. S. Lewis’s popular works, especially Surprised By Joy, who want to learn more about the person behind them.

“The Normal Christian Life” by Watchman Nee

3 February 2009

The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee. (1957). 292 pp.

Originally published in 1957, The Normal Christian Life is based on a series of sermons given by Watchman Nee, a Chinese Christian (see his Wikipedia article) in 1938-9. It was edited by Angus Kinnear, since Nee had been in a Chinese prison on trumped up charges since 1952; he would die in jail in 1972, just before his scheduled release. The Hendrickson Christian Classics edition has a nice introductory essay that provides this context and other biographical details on Nee.

The best portions of the book come early. Nee draws a distinction between sins (lowercase and plural) and Sin (uppercase and singular). Sins are bad things that we do; Sin is an attitude or view which leads us to commit sins; this is a distinction also drawn by contemporary theologian Marcus Borg in his writings. Nee writes that it is not enough to simply receive forgiveness for bad things that we’ve done; we also need personal transformation (to use a term that Borg does) so that we won’t simply keep committing new transgressions. We must stop being greedy, petty, selfish, fearful, angry, impatient, and all the rest.

I also liked Nee’s definition of salvation, which is rather non-standard: “[Salvation] relates not to our sins nor to the power of sin, but to the cosmos or world-system. We are involved in Satan’s world-system. To be saved is to make our exit from his world-system into God’s” (55). He uses Noah and his family as an example; their salvation was “not so much that they were personally not drowned, but that they were out of that corrupt system. That is salvation” (56).

Watchman Nee

Watchman Nee (1903–1972)

Much of the rest of the book didn’t strike me as very useful; he doesn’t argue from first principles but from a number of assumptions that he never defends or explicitly state; insofar as I don’t share those assumptions—about the nature of the Bible, how atonement works, and what God is like, among others—I didn’t find the central argument of the book very compelling. (One example: the author assumes the idea of Original Sin and its inheritability.)  The book never deals with the concept of love—the most important concept in Christianity; indeed, I’m not certain the word even occurs anywhere in the book.

Nee begins the book by asking “What is the normal Christian life? We do well at the outset to ponder this question. The object of these studies is to show that it is something very different from the life of the average Christian.” Unfortunately, the book leads one to think that the problem that many of us have is that we try to do things, whereas we should really just sit back passively somehow and focus our efforts on believing that God will make everything work out okay in the end. Some of this comes close to the position of the Word of Faith movement and almost superstitious.   Finally, the portrait of God that Nee draws is one of a capricious deity that is always poking and prodding people, pushing them around and pulling the rug out from under them in order to manipulate them into doing good. God, as is often the case when the substitutionary theory of the atonement is assumed, comes across as rather punitive and blood-thirsty, a matter not particularly helped by Nee’s frequent and casual use of the term “the blood.”

This raises another problem.  Nee frequently falls into using jargon indiscriminately, often throwing around terms like “the blood”, “the cross”, “reckoning”, and “carnal power” without pausing to define them . One should always be suspicious of someone who doesn’t make his or her points in plain language (see “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell) and here one is forced to question exactly how much real meaning is in some of Nee’s statements; the vagueness of the terms allows many of his claims to mean almost anything the reader wants.  Often, the opaque terminology makes it is hard to derive any meaning from the text at all. Consider the following passage:

The Scriptures declare that we are “dead indeed,” but nowhere do they say that we are dead in ourselves. We shall look in vain to find death within; that is just the place where it is not to be found. We are dead not in ourselves but in Christ. We were crucified with him because we are in him. (p. 48, emphasis original)

Or another:

Unfortunately, in presenting the truth of our union with Christ, the emphasis has too often been placed upon this second matter of reckoning ourselves to be dead, as though that were the starting point, whereas it should rather be upon knowing ourselves to be dead. God’s Word makes it clear that “knowing” is to precede “reckoning.” (p. 38, emphasis original)

I have conversed before with people who use such language and I’ve no doubt that many will find these sorts of statements inspirational and purposeful.  That’s fine so far as it goes, but it’s not clear to me that he’s actually saying anything or conveying any real meaning.  It’s so easy to read what you want into what he’s saying that there’s not a lot that you can read out of what he’s saying.

Beyond those problems the fairly short book is easy to read.  Nee frequently uses anecdotes about his personal experiences, usually conversations he’s had with others, and illustrations involving everything from factories, light switches, putting sugar in tea, and buying books to help make his points. Readers may want to have a Bible handy when reading, as Nee often refers to and uses as background scripture passages without reproducing them in the text.  You can learn more about The Normal Christian Life by checking out its Wikipedia page.

Not recommended—especially for people without a solid grounding in theology—albeit not without value.