Saturday, December 20, 2014

Toward Perfection

You’ve seen the bumper stickers. “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” True as that may be, the public posting of the sentiment on the read end of a car has always rubbed me the wrong way. For one thing, I usually suppose that the person proclaiming this message is trying to preemptively ask the following driver to forgive all thoughtlessness and lack of skill. Indulgences for the postmodern age!

But apologies and byte-size theological statements don’t let Christians off the hook. We’re to shine as lights in the dark world. Outsiders should see our good deeds and glorify God. No, Christians aren’t perfect. But we should strive toward perfection.

Having almost finished my plan for the year, I’ve had a lot of time for off-list reading recently, and two of the books I’ve read in the last couple of weeks have a lot to do with Christian behavior. In the first, Susan Howatch’s Ultimate Prizes, Neville Aysgarth drinks heavily, swears, lies, sees his wife as a prize, and falls in love with another woman as soon as he has “won” the first. The problem is, Neville is an Anglican priest. In fact, he uses his ordained status as a rationalizing cover story in speaking to himself and to others. “I’m a clergyman; I don’t drink,” his first-person narration tells his readers as he pours his third whiskey of the evening. “Clergymen don’t commit adultery,” he avers to the man with whose wife he essentially committed adultery.

Neville eventually has to shed the mask and confess, and then he has to come to terms with his family history and upbringing. If these actions had worked quickly and neatly, it would have been very good for Neville, but it would have been very bad for the realism of the story. Without giving too much away, let me just say that I’m looking forward to the next book in the series. I should also mention that Howatch uses this frank story of immorality to present the most interesting, evangelical theological discussions I’ve read so far in her Starbridge series.

The second book is Alister McGrath’s biography of C. S. Lewis. I had read that Lewis fans wouldn’t like the book because it exposes his sins, most notably in suggesting a sexual side to Lewis’s association with Mrs. Moore, his friend’s mother. When I mentioned this aspect to the friend who recommended the book to me, he replied defensively, “Well, but he wasn’t a Christian yet!” The book goes as far as documentary evidence can take it in the direction of seeing some Freudian perversion in the relationship. And it details the undeniable pattern of lies Lewis fed to his father during his college years and beyond. But sure enough, the immorality all clings to Lewis’s preconversion years.

I don’t know about other fans, but this Lewis fan actually liked seeing some of the life that Jesus saved Lewis from. I appreciated the candid look at Lewis’s decades-long situation as housemate of Mrs. Moore; thinking of the C. S. Lewis who authored Mere Christianity, in reading about his life before (as for instance in Lewis’s own Surprised by Joy), I had always interpreted the arrangement innocently, so McGrath showed me a new possibility. But by the end of the book, I wanted a reassessment of this new assessment, because the popular teacher of strict Christian morality continued to live with Mrs. Moore after his conversion, and her daughter never saw anything improper. Lewis had promised his friend Paddy Moore that he would care for his mother if anything happened to her, and then Paddy died in the Great War. Maybe there really was nothing more to it than the faithful fulfillment of a moral promise by a pre-Christian.

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