Because of my vocation and interests, I spend quite a bit of time in conversations and classroom discussions about the Bible and the works of C. S. Lewis; and there has hardly been one of them I did not find interesting. As one might expect, there’s a lot of agreement, disagreement, and learning from one another. I’ve certainly learned from others and can only hope they have benefited from any contributions I made.
A remark that inevitably comes up in such conversations is something along the lines of “He certainly did not mean that!” At this point the conversation always goes a little sideways, at least for me, because we are no longer discussing what was said. We are now discussing the reader’s opinion.
Now I grant that opinion and interpretation are important in understanding. And one always wants to be cautious about being definitive on an interpretation. But at the same time, one should also be slow to deny what someone said simply because you don’t agree with it or like it.
For instance, Lewis opens his essay “What Are We To Make Of Jesus Christ?” this way, “‘What are we to make of Jesus Christ?’ This is a question, which has, in a sense, a frantically comic side. For the real question is not what are we to make of Christ, but what is He to make of us?”1
Upon reading that opening, it is not uncommon to hear someone respond, “We all know there are a lot of different beliefs in the world. Not everyone believes in Jesus Christ. Lewis certainly can’t mean that everyone is going to have to deal with Jesus Christ.” But such a response assumes that Lewis was ignorant of world religions or that he was taking literally what Jesus meant metaphorically. Such assumptions reveal a serious lack of familiarity with Lewis’ knowledge and academic depth.
Then there is this famous statement from John 14:6, “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” And again people respond, “Well, certainly Jesus didn’t mean what he said. At least not literally.”
By the time such conversations are over, it seems Lewis and Christ meant the exact opposite of what they said. It makes one wonder why they just didn’t say what they meant.
In his book Miracles, C. S. Lewis anticipates such a response. He writes,
“Some people when they say that a thing is meant ‘metaphorically’ conclude from this that it is hardly meant at all. They rightly think that Christ spoke metaphorically when he told us to carry the cross: they wrongly conclude that carrying the cross means nothing more than leading a respectable life and subscribing moderately to charities. They reasonably think that hell ‘fire’ is a metaphor — and unwisely conclude that it means nothing more serious than remorse. They say that the story of the Fall in Genesis is not literal; and then go on to say (I have heard them myself) that it was really a fall upwards — which is like saying that because ‘My heart is broken’ contains a metaphor, and therefore means ‘I feel very cheerful.’ This mode of interpretation I regard, frankly, as nonsense. For me the Christian doctrines which are ‘metaphorical’ — or which have become metaphorical with the increase of abstract thought — mean something which is just as ‘supernatural’ or shocking after we have removed the ancient imagery as it was before.”2
One fun response to such word games is to turn the tables on the critic and to interpret their “Well, he certainly did not mean that” to mean “Wow, that’s strong stuff! I better think about it.”
“The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” – John 6:63.
- C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1970) 156.
- C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1960), 78-79. Italics in original.