News from the Tennessee Valley Religion

Rev. John Bush

Faith filled with wonder, amazement

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien taught together at Magdalene College, Oxford. Before his conversion to Christianity, Lewis was a rationalist. Tolkien was a firm believer, a Roman Catholic. One evening in the fall of 1931, they were walking together along the banks of the River Cherwell, talking about the relationship between story and faith. Lewis contended that story was worthless because it is not "fact."

Tolkien disagreed. "Look at those trees," he said. "We say the word 'tree' and think only of some vegetable organism. We look at stars and have in mind a ball of inanimate matter moving on a mathematical course. But the first people to use those words saw things differently." He reminded his companion of the ancient Celts who had walked the path centuries earlier. To them, he said, the world was alive with mythological beings. The stars were living silver bursting into flame in response to some eternal music. The sky was a bejeweled tent, and the Earth beneath it was the womb from which all living things emerged. And they were not wrong, Tolkien insisted.

He went on to suggest that Lewis was stumbling over Christianity because he wanted it to be an abstract system of thought when, in fact, it must be heard as story if it is to tell us its truth.

I have recounted this conversation many times in sermons and speeches, especially since the popular media have discovered the men's wonderful stories.

The conversation was an important one in C.S. Lewis' spiritual journey, and perhaps it holds a key to ours as well. Within only a few days Lewis wrote a friend that he could, in fact, affirm the Christian faith, and had come to that place as last by being converted to the power of its story.

For the rest of his life, C.S. Lewis would concentrate on giving us mysteries of grace like "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." His religious imagination would be stirred again and again by the exercise of story and faith, where mystery could be accepted as normal and where faith could be tried on for size within the safe context of a coherent but alternative world.

That is the way it has always been with biblical religion: always joining history, geography and narrative, repeating a story that is anchored in the context of specific people and places. Ours is an undeniably historical faith, rooted in the reality that God has actually come among us, taking specific form and circumstance.

Faith like that is always full of amazement and wonder. How often during our recent celebration of Christmas have Christians read the scripture that those who witnessed nativity "were amazed," shepherds, Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna.

Amazement and wonder are appropriate human responses to evidences of God's grace among us. I hope we never lose the capacity for such wonder. Perhaps now, a few weeks after the Christmas hullabaloo, we might find time to discover again what it means to be amazed.

The Rev. John Bush of Decatur, interim pastor of Birmingham First Presbyterian Church, is one of several ministers writing religion columns for THE DAILY. For more information, call Melanie Smith at 340-2468 on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.

John Bush Rev. John Bush

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