August 12, 2020

A Lesson From St. Jack: Holding on to All Things


“He demonstrated for me and convinced me that rigorous, precise, penetrating logic is not opposed to deep, soul-stirring feeling and vivid, lively- even playful- imagination. He was a “romantic rationalist.” He combined things that almost everybody today assumes are mutually exclusive: rationalism and poetry, cool logic and warm feeling, disciplined prose and free imagination. In shattering these old stereotypes, he freed me to think hard and write poetry, to argue for the resurrection and compose hymns to Christ, to smash an argument and hug a friend, to demand a definition and use a metaphor.”
-John Piper on C.S. Lewis, Don’t Waste Your Life, pg 19.

I’m rereading Don’t Waste Your Life for my men’s group, and this paragraph has been on my mind for a couple of days.

We often read analysis of the continuing influence of C.S. Lewis among Christians. Piper suggests that he found in Lewis’s writings the resolution of a number of tensions that thoughtful Christians experience. Even beyond Lewis’s writings, his own life demonstrated an authentic attempt to move beyond predictable polarizations to a kind of lived-out “mere Christianity.”

Those of us who work in Christian communities that combine one tradition with an openness to others are familiar with the kinds of tensions Piper inventories. My experience of moderating a group blog with representatives of many different traditions has done the same.

The fact is that we are fiercely defensive about what appeals to us, what we like, the choices we’ve made and the way we see things. Even those of us who are mature and should know better tend to act as if our preferences are the true will of God and the only way God will work in any circumstance. This is, of course, ridiculous, but even worse, it’s painful as it works out in our communal and interpersonal experiences.

Of course, what sounds rhetorically attractive in Piper’s writing proves to be more difficult in real life. Lewis had comparatively little interaction with other Christians, often living an almost hermit-like existence. For Lewis, mere Christianity was often the avoidance of making choices, not the actual resolution of opposites.

Still, Piper is on a very important tract in the matter of spiritual formation. He is suggesting something that much modern psychology- both secular and religious- resists. Do logicians write poetry? Are debaters huggers? Is expositional accuracy and devotional piety really possible in the same Christian?
Frankly, few of us are C.S. Lewis or John Piper, but I believe there are some ways we all can and should respond to these “both/ands.”

1) We can remember that all these “opposites” exist in God and are revealed in Jesus. In all these things, the Spirit of God is at work, and Jesus is being manifested to the world and in the church.

2) The Bible speaks to us in all these ways and about all these things. We can’t say that debaters are worthy servants and huggers are soft, useless compromisers. We won’t understand the Bible if we can’t embrace law and grace, love and justice, contextualization and holiness. Overemphasis and lack of balance are constant possibilities, but we won’t escape them by further imbalance, distortion and prejudice.

3) All of these things are necessary in the mission of the people of God and their witness to the world. If we become lobbyists for exposition, but condemners of art and poetry, we are distorting Christian concepts of truth and beauty. We must preach and work, debate and pray, counsel and evangelize, listen and talk, worship God and serve people.

4) Every Christian may not be able to resolve these tensions in experience, but we can seek to appreciate all of them. The “balkanization” of the Christian community seems to have no end, and Christians glory in portraying themselves as a “this, but never that” community. True Christian community will be a place where logic and poetry are both valued by those who would find it impossible to enjoy both.

One of the most interesting tensions in Lewis was the combination of intellectual confidence and personal humility. He knew how to have deep convictions, but he also knew how to live as a person for whom the treatment of the gardener or a friend’s aging mother was the true test of character.

Lewis could criticize traditions and he could refuse to discuss them, but he was never uncharitable. He wrote children’s books, poetry, literary criticism and lay theology. He wrote, debated, preached, did radio programs and answered thousands of letters. All over the world, Christians of various denominations identified with him and recognized Christ in his work.

What is embodied in the one person of Lewis should be embodied in the body of Christ as a whole. All of us need to seek after the appreciation and resolution of opposites in our spiritual experience through the power of the Spirit and the presence of Jesus.

Church growth advocates have sometimes erroneously suggested that the identity process requires choices of “this, not that” in things like target audience, musical preference and worship leadership style. Pragmatically, this is wise and workable, even necessary. But spiritually, it is disastrous. While we cannot literally be all things to all people at the same time and in the same way, we can pray that the fullness of Christ and the Godhead itself will be present in the people of God in all they are and do.

St. Jack, anyone?


  1. It’s funny how all “sides” love and claim Lewis.
    Here’s the hard thing: even in our Christian “tolerance,” if you will (and by tolerance, personally, I don’t mean universalism or even inclusivism, but a wider denominational inclusion, or having my opinion on minor doctrinal issues but still thinking that others may be just as right as I am, or that neither of us is completely, or perhaps at all, right), by our “tolerance” we still exclude a group of Christians. Actually, a rather large group. And that’s what makes this whole thing hard. And then there’s the question of when do you leave a church and when do you decide to try and live with these Christians who may even hurt you in these “theological debates.” Heck, some have started a new church under this idea of “tolerance,” but in so doing, have rejected a church.
    This is not meant to be a critique of you at all. On the contrary, I struggle with these issues because this is exactly where I live. I want it all.
    I’ve read Severe Mercy, and it made me jealous. Can I move to Oxford in the times past and just sit at Jack’s feet?

  2. This is an excellent example of why I have such an admiration for Piper.