C S Lewis, Old Books, J C Ryle and Relevant Holiness

C S Lewis

On 22 November 2013 a memorial stone in honour of C S Lewis was unveiled in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey on the 50th anniversary of his death. He was given a place alongside the likes of Jane Austen, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Ted Hughes and William Shakespeare. He was, of course, the creator of The Chronicles of Narnia. Born in 1898 he studied classics and philosophy at University College, Oxford where he excelled academically and stayed on studying English literature and teaching philosophy. From 1925-54 he became a Fellow and Tutor at Magdalen College, Oxford teaching English and in 1954 he moved to Cambridge and became Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature until his death in November 1963.

His death, as far as the public was concerned, was overshadowed by two other deaths the same day, namely those of US President J F Kennedy and the novelist Aldous Huxley. But it can be argued that as far as global significance is concerned, C S Lewis with his Christian essays and books will have been the most significant of the three. For through huge book sales, he undoubtedly was a major factor in the growth of world Christianity in the second half of the 20th century. Translated into 40 languages The Chronicles of Narnia have sales figures of three million annually. And still selling well is Lewis’ Mere Christianity – his introduction to the Christian faith. This book in the words of Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project, is “the very best book to put in the hands of a young seeker who is trying to figure out if there is rationality for faith”. How we should thank God for the life and work of C S Lewis!

Reading Old Books

Personally, I came across C S Lewis early in life (and before he was so popular). For on going to my senior school in the early 1950s, aged 13, my entry form was introduced to Lewis by our Form Master who had just come down from Magdalen College, Oxford, where Lewis had been his own personal tutor. He decided we “entry-formers” should all have copies of Mere Christianity for our “Scripture Lessons”. The book did not make a great impact upon me at the time. However, much later in life I came to see the value of C S Lewis. I particularly found helpful the little book of essays and papers entitled, First and Second Things, containing an article written in 1944. It was headed On the Reading of Old Books. In my edition I have underlined the following paragraph: “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” This is one of the reasons why Lewis suggested that “after reading a new book” you should never allow “yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”

From then on I have tried to follow Lewis’ advice and, I believe, with benefit. It certainly has affected my own thinking. One of the first “old” books at that time that I read was Holiness by J C Ryle, the first Bishop of Liverpool, and a feisty evangelical leader in the Church of England in the 19th century. The book proves Lewis’ point as it highlights the mistakes of many in the churches in the late 20th and early 21st centuries particularly in ignoring “holiness” in the search of an ever illusive “relevancy” to win outsiders. This has been a regular call over the past year in the debates over gay marriage and women bishops. It seems to be ending up saying that unless the Church goes along with homosexual and feminist agendas, it will be irrelevant to modern people. But Ryle would argue that holiness is not, and cannot be, in opposition to true relevance. For what could be more relevant than providing bench-marks for evaluating these agendas and seeing what is destructive and what is constructive as regards individual and corporate well-being? Such is holiness. For it refers to the transcendent “other-ness” of God and his separation from sin and evil, and then to our being separated from evil and set apart for him.

But what practically is holiness? Well, here is a passage from that “old book” - Ryle’s Holiness, and a 12 point summary and good for an Advent spiritual health check (n.b. “man” in the following is, of course, generic and stands for “man” or “woman”; also scripture quotes are from the Authorized Version).

Ryle’s 12 points on holiness

1) Holiness is the habit of being of one mind with God, according as we find his mind described in Scripture. It is the habit of agreeing in God’s judgment, hating what he hates, loving what he loves, and measuring everything in this world by the standard of his Word …

2) A holy man will endeavour to shun every known sin and to keep every known commandment. He will have a decided bent of mind towards God, a hearty desire to do his will, a greater fear of displeasing him than of displeasing the world, and … will feel what Paul felt when he said “I delight in the law of God after the inward man” (Romans 7.22) …

3) A holy man will strive to be like our Lord Jesus Christ. He will not only live the life of faith in him, and draw from him all his daily peace and strength, but he will also labour to have the mind that was in him, and to be conformed to his image (Romans 8.29). It will be his aim to bear with and forgive others … to be unselfish … to walk in love … to be lowly-minded and humble … He will lay to heart the saying of John: “He that saith he abideth in [Christ] ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked” (1 John 2.6) …

4) A holy man will follow after meekness, longsuffering, gentleness, patience, kind tempers, government of his tongue. He will bear much, forbear much, overlook much, and be slow to talk of standing on his rights …

5) A holy man will follow after temperance and self-denial. He will labour to mortify the desires of his body, to crucify his flesh with his affections and lusts, to curb his passions, to restrain his carnal inclinations, lest at any time they break loose … (Ryle then quotes Luke 21.34, 1 Corinthians 9.27).

6) A holy man will follow after charity and brotherly kindness. He will endeavour to observe the golden rule of doing as he would have men do to him, and speaking as he would have men speak to him … He will abhor all lying, slandering, backbiting, cheating, dishonesty, and unfair dealing, even in the least things …

7) A holy man will follow after a spirit of mercy and benevolence towards others … Such was Dorcas: “full of good works and almsdeeds, which she did” – not merely purposed and talked about, but did … (Acts 9.36).

8) A holy man will follow after purity of heart. He will dread all filthiness and unclearness of spirit, and seek to avoid all things that might draw him into it. He knows his own heart is like tinder, and will diligently keep clear of the sparks of temptation …

9) A holy man will follow after the fear of God. I do not mean the fear of a slave, who only works because he is afraid of punishment and would be idle if he did not dread discovery. I mean rather the fear of a child, who wishes to live and move as if he was always before his father’s face, because he loves him …

10) A holy man will follow after humility. He will desire, in lowliness of mind, to esteem all others better than himself. He will see more evil in his own heart than any in other in the world …

11) A holy man will follow after faithfulness in all the duties and relations in life. He will try, not merely to fill his place as well as others who take no thought for their souls, but even better, because he has higher motives and more help than they … Holy persons should aim at doing everything well, and should be ashamed of allowing themselves to do anything ill if they can help it … They should strive to be good husbands and good wives, good parents and good children, good masters and good servants, good neighbours, good friends, good subjects, good in private and good in public, good in the place of business and good by their firesides. The Lord Jesus puts a searching question to his people, when he says, “What do you more than others?” (Matthew 5.47)

12) Last, but not least, a holy man will follow after spiritual-mindedness. He will endeavour to set his affections entirely on things above, and to hold things on earth with a very loose hand … He will aim to live like one whose treasure is in heaven, and to pass through this world like a stranger and pilgrim travelling to his home. To commune with God in prayer, in the Bible, and in the assembly of his people – these things will be the holy man’s chief enjoyments. He will value every thing and place and company just in proportion as it draws him nearer to God …

Conclusion

Practical holiness (or, as we might say, “Godly Living”) is relevant. It is also evangelistic, as Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5.15). So thank God for lessons from (good) Old Books.


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