Review: Beversluis

For our summer re-runs series, here is my review of the most serious challenge to C.S. Lewis’s apologetic, first published here in 2012.

Note:  This review was originally published in Mythlore: The Journal of the Mythopoeic Society105/106, Spring/Summer 2009): 168-70.

C. S. LEWIS AND THE SEARCH FOR RATIONAL RELIGION.  Revised and Updated.  John Beversluis.  Amherst, N. Y.:  Prometheus Books, 2007. 363 pp.  $20.00, pbk.  ISBN 978-1-59102-3.

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What Beversluis misses:

Surely one of the most controversial books in the history of Lewis studies was the first edition of John Beversluis’s C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, originally published by Eerdmans in 1985.  Billing itself as the only book-length critical study of Lewis’s rational apologetic for Christian faith, it concluded that none of his arguments succeeded.  Reviewing the first edition in Mythlore 43 (Autumn 1985), Nancy-Lou Patterson called it “as waspish a work” as it had ever been her “disagreeable task to review,” concluding that the faith, “including its reasoned elements” would survive the book (42).  Patterson was right: the first edition sometimes gave the impression that Beversluis thought accusing Lewis of a fallacy was equivalent to demonstrating that he had committed it.  Few readers who had appreciated Lewis’s apologetic works were convinced by Beversluis’s arguments.

Some people not convinced by Beversluis.
Some people not convinced by Beversluis.

Now we have a new revised, updated, and expanded edition.  It has already caused much exultation on atheist websites and much dismissive eye-rolling among Lewis fans.  Neither reaction is justified.

Beversluis has responded to his critics, continued his own thinking, and rewritten each section to the point that this version is almost a completely new book.  In the process, he has strengthened his presentation considerably.  While in the end I still find it mostly unconvincing, it does keep its promise to provide the strongest sustained critique of Lewis’s apologetic on the market.  As such it performs a valuable service.  Those who wish to continue using updated versions of Lewis’s arguments for Christian theism will have to get past Beversluis in order to do so with credibility, and their arguments will be stronger for the exercise.

C. S. Lewis’s Desk–photo by the author

 

Beversluis sets out to take seriously Lewis’s statement in Mere Christianity that he does not ask anyone to accept Christianity “if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it.”  Beversluis approves of Lewis for demanding evidence and wants to know if he has succeeded in showing that the best reasoning supports Christian faith.  Beversluis concludes that Lewis’s own best reasoning fails to do so.  While he examines several of Lewis’s arguments—the argument from desire, the moral argument for theism, the “trilemma” argument for the deity of Christ, the argument from reason for the self-refuting character of naturalism, Lewis’s theodicy, etc.—in great detail, his objections can be summarized in two points.  First, the “apparent cogency of [Lewis’s] arguments depends on his rhetoric rather than on his logic” (20).  Lewis was such a good writer that people are carried away by his words and do not notice the fallacies being committed under their cover.  Second, Lewis’s arguments are fallacious, and his besetting fallacy is the False Dilemma.  Lewis will say that there are only two (or three) choices, refute one, and thus seem to leave Christian theism standing in sole possession of the field; but in reality, there are other alternatives he has not considered, and the one he is rejecting is a straw man.

It should be immediately obvious to Beversluis’s readers that his first criticism of Lewis is valid only if, and only to the extent that, the second is upheld.  It is hardly a fault to write well unless that writing can be shown to be in the service of error.  The details of the second criticism will likely be debated in the journals for some time.  The question will be whether the additional alternatives Beversluis tries to posit do not in fact ultimately reduce to the set of choices that Lewis’s more incisive analysis had set before us in the first place.  In most cases, I believe that they do.

Why Beversluis misses the point so often and so badly?
Why Beversluis misses the point so often and so badly?

For example, Beversluis argues that Lewis’s refutation of moral subjectivism is vitiated by the fact that he treats it as a single genus, when actually “there are more sophisticated and nuanced versions that . . . cannot be disposed of so easily” (83).  The example we are offered is Hume’s theory of morals as based on human feeling, which Beversluis claims is not susceptible to Lewis’s “loose-cannon generalizations” (87).  Well, I think it is.  In fact, I think it can be doubted whether Hume’s view is properly a theory of ethics at all, as it has absolutely no answer to Lewis’s charge that subjectivist ethics is unable to account for the word “ought.”  When the philosophical jargon is stripped away from the allegedly “more nuanced” views, it is not clear at all to me that Beversluis has made his charge of False Dilemma stick rather than just muddying the water.  The other forms of subjectivism remain species of the genus.

C. S. Lewis

In the discussion of the Trilemma (“Lord/Liar/Lunatic”—not Lewis’s words, by the way), the alleged missed alternatives include the possibility that Jesus did not actually say or mean the statements on which the argument is based, and that a person could be mistaken about being God and still be a great moral teacher.  In the first case, Beversluis himself commits the fallacies of dicto simpliciter and ad verecundiam, telling us that “All mainstream New Testament scholars agree that the synoptic Gospels are fragmentary, episodic, internally inconsistent, and written by people who were not eyewitnesses” (123).  All?  That generalization has never been true, and it is less true now than it has ever been.  (See Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Eerdmans, 2006, as just one counter-example.)   Even if the “experts” were in fact unanimous, it would not make them right.  And surely one can be mistaken about a great many things, including one’s own identity, and still be a good moral teacher.  But we are asked now to believe that a person could wrongly think he is the Creator of the Universe, the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal Being who thundered from Sinai now incarnate in human flesh, and still retain any credibility on anything else he might say!  Beversluis argues that Jesus’ moral statements would still be true even if he were a lunatic; but this misses the point completely.  Lewis assumes the validity of the teaching; it is the credibility of the Teacher that is on trial.  To say the least, I do not find Beversluis’s “alternatives” to Lewis’s allegedly prematurely limited choices terribly impressive.

A Better Book about Lewis?

What my best reasoning tells me at the end of the day is that people who want to escape the conclusions of Christian theism can always find a loophole that will satisfy them.  John Beversluis is particularly good at doing so.  It does not follow that theism is false or that Lewis’s arguments for it are bad.  Whether you agree with me or with Beversluis about Lewis’s arguments, one thing is certain: the discussion is sure to continue.  I for one look forward to that.

Donald T. Williams

 Check out Dr. Williams’ new Lantern Hollow Press books at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), Reflections on Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012), and Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed. (Lantern Hollow, 2012).  Each is $15.00 + shipping. 

 

J. S. Bach rides through L’Enfant Plaza

I originally posted J. S. Bach rides through L’Enfant Plaza in March 2013, after riding twice through L’Enfant Plaza in one weekend, and for the occasion of J. S. Bach’s birthday. A cool subsequent discovery: The Washington Post article I referenced, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” inspired Son of Laughter‘s song “The Fiddler.”

This weekend I rode through L’Enfant Plaza.

There is nothing especially remarkable about riding through L’Enfant Plaza; many thousands of people did the same this weekend.  Not so many, though, had the music of Johann Sebastian Bach playing in their earbuds.  Maybe only one had Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita in D minor for solo violin playing in his earbuds. At least one did.

I’ve associated L’Enfant Plaza with Bach’s Chaconne ever since reading this fascinating article a few years ago. The article tells the story of how one morning, Joshua Bell played a free forty-three minute concert in L’Enfant Plaza, and hardly anyone noticed. One of the pieces Bell played in his concert to the deaf in L’Enfant Plaza was Bach’s Chaconne.

Much could be said about the article; it is worth a good read and not a little thought. What’s always fascinated me most about it, though, is this quote from Johannes Brahms about Bach’s Chaconne:

On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.

I won’t linger over Brahms’s first sentence, except to note hearty agreement. It’s the second sentence that interests me most here. For Bach did, after all, create the Chaconne – and creating it did not drive him out of his mind.

monument-to-johann-sebastian-bach-outside-st-thomas-church-leipzig-germanyYou may credit a number of things for keeping Bach’s boat from tipping over as he composed pieces of such magnificence that composing them would have overthrown Brahms. For example, Bach’s siring twenty kids gave the man’s domestic life plenty of heft, enough heft to provide a good ballast for him as he worked on the Chaconne – next to the demands of his wife and kids, the Chaconne probably seemed to Bach rather a light thing. Or you may look at the astonishing diversity of Bach’s genius – he was a brilliant composer, a formidable organist, and an expert in organ-building, among many other things – as something that kept him balanced and sane.

I attribute Bach’s sanity, though, to a few letters he wrote on most of his transcriptions. Bach began most of these with “J.J.” – Jesu, Juva (“Jesus, help”), or “I.N.J” (In Nomine Jesu).  He ended them with “S.D.G.” (Soli Deo Gloria – “to God alone the glory”). He opened with invocations, closed with dedications. Here the contrast between Bach’s thoughts and Brahms’s – “if I imagined that I could have created” – is as great as the contrast between Chesterton’s poet, who wants to get his head into the heavens, and Chesterton’s logician, who wants to get the heavens into his head. The one gets a good view; the other gets a bad headache. A sanity-killing headache.

Nothing kills creativity, or sanity in the midst of great creative exertion, like a creator’s interest in his own identity. A creator may create worlds – whole worlds of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings, for a small instrument, on one stave – but only so long as he is not busy creating himself, and not a moment longer. Here is the difference, not just between Brahms and Bach, or between Chesterton’s logician and Chesterton’s poet, but between the Serpent who ever provokes us to make names for ourselves, and the eternal Word of God, who rests wholly in the identity given Him by His Father, even as He creates and then renews the world.

Congratulations Erik and Melissa Marsh!!

Greetings all,

Today is a special and important day.  As this post goes up, two of our own will become one:  Erik Marsh  and Melissa Rogers will simplify things for us and become Erik and Melissa Marsh!

The pair of them are, individually, two of the most engaging, intelligent, and caring people I know.  Together, they not only fit better than just about any other couple I know, but I’m sure they will somehow transcend even their previous standard of awesomeness.  I’m sure they will only continue to grow in their love for each other and the Lord Himself.  I pray the future holds on the best for them!

Congratulations, Erik and Melissa Marsh!

Coming Back To Our Favorites: Why Do You Reread a Book?

Greetings, LHP Readers! After the holiday season, we are continuing our reposts on the best blog entries of 2013. This post was published by Melissa one year ago, a reminder of the best books we have read and we should keep rereading. This post has particular relevance to writers, for as we contemplate why books are worth rereading, we will hopefully apply the same criteria in our own writing.

Happy New Year, everyone!  And because new things terrify me, I am going to be reflective instead.  Reflective is deep, right?

Right.

books bookshelfI was talking with some friends about the joy that we take in watching some movies over and over and over again.  Some movies just keep coming back out when people come over for a visit.  Sometimes only a certain film will do for our particular mood.  Sometimes, a movie simply provides a comforting, familiar background to whatever it is we are doing: writing, grading, cleaning, studying, etc.

For me and many others, rereading books can provide a similar solace, although books are much less a social thing and can certainly not be read at the same time as writing, grading, cleaning, or studying (unless you are especially talented, that is).  So why do we reread books?   Or rather, why do you reread a favorite book?  Do you?  I know some people will read a book, and then they are done with it.  Some books aren’t worth a second read, to be sure.

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These are some of the things I want to explore a bit more.  In this post, I want to talk about familiarity.  I think that one reason for rereading a book for many people comes down to the fact that you know it.  A good book is a friend.  It tells you a wonderful story and it is a reliable source of excitement, joy, and interest.

Knowing the Ending

Some people don’t understand the appeal of rereading a good book, particularly if it’s a mystery or otherwise surprising toward the end.  Why read something when that initial surprise is gone?  What’s the point if you know the ending?

Honestly, knowing the ending never bothers me when I reread.  Perhaps it is because characters matter more to me than plot, but I don’t think that’s all of it.

Sometimes knowing the ending is a good thing.  It allows you to focus on enjoying the experience of reading, the pleasure found in a good turn of phrase, and the well conceived setting and characters in the book.  You don’t have to stress out about how it ends.  You might even take some pleasure (you cruel, cruel person) in knowing what your characters do not.  You know their fates.

Maybe that’s going a bit far.  I don’t know.  I find that knowing the ending when I start (so long as I discovered it for myself and it wasn’t ruined by someone before I got to it) doesn’t detract from a truly good story.  A good book is a good book and will be a good book every time you come back to it.

book reading in the park mabinogion
Perfect afternoon: book, tea, danish… and a megalomaniacal dragon named Napoleon.

Meeting Old Friends

The most comforting aspect of a good reread for me is that I feel like I am revisiting people that I have already gotten over the initial difficulties of meeting and getting to know.  I don’t know about you, but I find meeting new people very stressful: that awkward stage when you have already exchanged names and now wonder what you have to say… that moment when you find out something about the other person that shocks or annoys you… that moment when all you really want to do is to figure out a good way to part company… Okay, so I like people, but I don’t like the meeting bit.

But after the first read, the heroes and heroines become my friends.  I can enjoy the characters all the more because I know who they are.  And I can continue to develop that friendship with the character more the second (and third, and fourth, and fifth…) time around.

And don’t tell me they’re not real people.  They are.

book park readingI have one book that I read every year, usually in the summer.  The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett is historical fiction and my particular favorite.  Every time I read it, I am drawn into the story again.  I’ve read it over half a dozen times, but it doesn’t matter that I know every detail of the plot and I know what’s going to happen.  What I love is re-experiencing the main character’s adventure.  He’s an intimidatingly brilliant hero, but I feel like I know him pretty well by now, and I plan to keep renewing the acquaintance every year.

Next week, I think I’ll talk about what the experience of rereading can offer that is new, different, and ever-changing.  Because that’s important too, you know.

But in the meantime, what do you think about rereading books?  Do you enjoy it?  Does it lose some of its magic once you know the ending?  Do you feel connected to the characters or do they remain firmly affixed to the pages?  Or are there simply too many good books to spare time for a reread?

Best of LHP – On Writing: A Lesson in Vulnerability

Hello everyone! For the months of December and January, we would like to reintroduce some of our best posts that you may not have seen yet. This week will be Stephen Parish’s reflections on how reading Stephen King’s book On Writing impacted his own process. Without further ado, here’s On Writing: A Lesson in Vulnerability.

 

Stephen King On Writing coverFor my fiction writing class this semester, my professor asked for us to read Stephen King’s book On Writing, the famous author’s personal reflection on writing. Toward the end of his book, he discusses revision and its importance to the art of writing. But King implies something about revision, especially peer editing, that I have seen as a theme in my own writing, both academic and fictional. By giving his story to a peer, King exposes his flaws to the world, but he does so willingly so he can become a better writer and the story can become a better work of art. In a sense, King had to embrace vulnerability and correction to ensure the quality of his craft.

I too have learned to embrace vulnerability as a writer. Like King, I had to allow others to look at my work and comment on it with the understanding that they want to help me make it better. At first, I was angry that some people were so cynical toward my writing, especially the professors on my thesis committee or my peers in my fiction writing class; however, they truly wanted to make it better and help me improve by pointing out the flaws in my thesis and stories. So, I manned up and made the corrections. Now my thesis is a published work, and my stories are significantly improving.

Most people have an aversion to correction, no matter the capacity. Nobody really wants to hear he or she is wrong. But sometimes the best instruction we can receive from others is constructive criticism. Proverbs 12:1 states, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates correction is stupid” (NIV). “Stupid” here means brutish, foolish, irrational—essentially inhuman. I am not saying that anyone that does not take correction easily is foolish. No, taking criticism is hard sometimes, even by the wisest and most humble of people. But by opening up to others and accepting their correction, we show we love others by seeking improvement through a suppression of our own impulsive and prideful desire to grow in a vacuum. Through love, we put “childish things away,” as the Apostle Paul states, for children eschew correction and vulnerability, and transform into men and women ready to serve our Lord through our writing and our lives.