On the Critical Missing Piece from the Best Part of Gary Selby’s Earthy Spirituality: C. S. Lewis and Incarnational Faith

I am about to defend my Ph.D. thesis on the “spiritual theology” of C.S. Lewis as part of a larger research project on Lewis and the spiritual life. I am on the lookout, then, for books and articles about Lewis and spirituality, discipleship, and theology. One book that dropped the day I submitted my thesis is Gary Selby’s Earthy Spirituality: C. S. Lewis and Incarnational Faith. I gave the book a four-star rating on Goodreads, and it is pretty well done overall. Nicely written, thoughtful, balanced, personal, and brief, Earthy Spirituality is accessible for readers with a basic knowledge of Lewis and a desire for a healthy Christian life. It is less systematic than Joe Rigney’s Lewis on Christian Life and less biographical than Devin Brown’s A Life Observed, but it is a fuller treatment than more focussed treatments like John Bowen’s The Spirituality of Narnia or Will Vaus’ The Hidden Story of Narnia.

There are weaknesses in the book. Like many other books about Lewis, meaningful dialogue with what others have written is pretty rare. While this kind of book is meant to have pretty thin endnotes and his primary reading is pretty good, Selby walks over ground that others have covered. I would also like to see Selby press in on Lewis a little, offering correction and enhancement of his ideas (as Rigney does), rather than this excellent re-presentation. And, personally, I am yearning for more detailed academic books on Lewis. I do understand, though, the need for this popular-level one and am pleased that he wrote it.

On a deeper level, there are two related things missing in Selby’s argument. Selby is arguing that there are two features to a healthy spirituality that we see in Lewis: consciousness and choice. Both of these are about our activity, our awakening to self and other and then our action based on that choice. I am part of the same Christian movement as Selby (the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement), and what he misses is the critical gap in our community’s teaching: “Our highest activity must be response, not initiative,” to quote Lewis in The Problem of Pain. The emphasis on God’s action, grace, the model of the cross, and the initiative of God in our response is far too understated in Earthy Spirituality (as it is in our church). In missing this element, we have once again an evangelical book on spiritual life weighted on the things we do.

Personally, I wish American Christian teachers today followed St. Paul’s pattern, where the first part of the letter is about Christ and the cross, grace and relationship, while the latter bit is about how we respond—really, for Paul, how the Spirit energizes and equips us to live in community and before the world. In focussing on the last bit, Selby is also missing what I think is critical in Lewis’ understanding of spirituality—a topic I have to come back to another time.[1] There are moments when the Methodism in our movement and within evangelicalism needs to be filled out by fuller understanding of Providence, grace, and the Holy Spirit.[2]

While I don’t want to downplay the problem evangelicalism has with what I just talked about—and how it disturbs me to my core—I want to emphasize how much I like about this book. Before I was more than a couple of pages into Earthy Spirituality I knew what Dr. Selby was doing. He is offering a critique of evangelical thinking about faith, working to supplant a “bleak fantasy” or “negative spirituality” of evangelicalism with a holistic, vibrant, joyful, sensual, incarnational spiritual life suggested to us by Lewis. Selby wants his fellow believers to enjoy a “spirituality of red beef and strong beer,” where pleasures, when practiced consistently can help us “cultivate a virtue of hope.” Selby argues that Lewis

“presents a way of living well, a way of living that embodies the Christian message as truly good news. And whatever else is true of our lives, we who claim to follow God, the glad Creator, ought to be known as people who live well” (end of Introduction).

Part of the problem is that American evangelicals are not known in their society or in the rest of the Western world for being people of pleasurable joy who live well. This is, I believe, at least partly because of the upsidedownness of our approach to Christian discipleship I mention above, i.e., our focus on our action, our cultivation of virtue. But Selby quite rightly challenges a negative approach to Christian life among evangelicals, where pleasure is suspect and lives are lived in dislocation, in fear, and in a dreamless slumbering. His focus on an “earthy spirituality” is a smart way to build a bridge between readers of C.S. Lewis and the spiritual principles that these readers haven’t brought into their lives.[3]

So “well done!” to Selby. The twin rails of consciousness and choice upon which the book travels makes for a pretty effective presentation of Lewis’ invitation to a healthier, more rewarding spiritual life.

My absolute favourite chapter is “Ch. 7: Those We Have Hitherto Avoided: Spirituality and the Other.” Selby argues convincingly that encounter with the “other”—people who are different than us—is not merely a healthy aspect of Christian discipleship. More than that, in developing the traits of curiosity, empathy, and humility in a strong reading of Out of the Silent Planet, Selby wants us to

“see how deeply Lewis believed that crossing boundaries is the secret to our growth as persons. As “obedience is the road to freedom” and “humility the road to pleasure,” unity within diversity is “the road to personality.” It is only as we embrace the Other, as we learn to savor the “almost fantastic variety of the saints,” that we become fully the persons we were meant to be” (end of ch. 7, quoting Lewis’ essay “Membership”).

Although Gilbert Meilaender made this same argument in The Taste For The Other in 1978, Selby clearly and compellingly presents this argument for diversity to American evangelicals—a community that needs immediate repentance and deep transformation in how it has lived as neighbours with people that are different in ideology, belief, religion, race, culture, and expression. I was so excited as I read this chapter, all the while seeing how Selby’s notes on Out of the Silent Planet and Lewis’ essays overlapped with my annotations. And as I knew that Prof. Gary Selby had written a book on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—himself a Christian theologian who understood how essential diversity is to spirituality and Christian social life—I was excited to see Selby turn to the practical application at the end of the chapter.

And there I was crushed with disappointment. After a challenging and hopeful argument about diversity, Selby provides a short section about how there are many different kinds of people at church, people that we sing with and with whom give and receive encouragement. His metaphor of the church as a rock tumbler is creative, where grit and water combined with movement and time turn ugly pebbles into beautiful stones. But what a missed opportunity! As a married, white, well-educated male evangelical professor, with C.S. Lewis’ argument for diversity complete, Selby had the opportunity to address Christian attitudes toward race, culture, gender, class, and family. The church bit is fine, but it is a terribly weak finish to a strong chapter.

It’s true, others are doing this well. Scot McKnight’s A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together has made some impact, but it is just a small pebble of resistance again the mainstream of evangelical fear of others—which is, of course, disobedience. And, if St. John is right, this fear or “other” is evidence that Christ’s love has not infiltrated into our community (1 John 4:18).

Moreover, returning to the reason for Selby’s book—to challenge Christians who have false views of spirituality to see the hopeful possibility of lives lived well before the watching world—I must ask these critical questions: Will American evangelicals ever be known for “living well” until people who are different are safe within church walls? Will Anglo-American evangelicals be admired without racial reconciliation? Will evangelicals show goodness to the world as long as our lives echo the consumeristic greed of the world—a greed that ignores the needs of the world and ways God’s creation needs to be cared for? Can American evangelicals ever be a witness as long as they enthusiastically and uncritically support a President who equivocates in the face of white supremacy, who revels in separating children from their families at the border, who consistently insults opponents and makes up facts when he wants, and who has said such terrible things to and about women that I can’t in good conscious repeat them here? At the heart of all of this is Selby’s challenge to Christians that they should embrace the “other,” but in the end he pulls the punch that is so very needed in this round.[4]

Note that I am not saying that my individual brothers and sisters in Christ are unloving, or that political and social choices in America are easy. I am saying that as a community we are in an altar-call movement of evangelical history, where we must repent of our unneighbourliness, fear, hostility, and world-allegiance and embrace an incarnational, creational, cross-shaped biblical path of discipleship—what Selby calls an “earthy spirituality” as we see it in Lewis’ works. So this is the glaring hole in a great chapter within a good book. It is the gap, however, that tempts me to despair.

[1] I.e., it’s my PhD thesis I have spent six years working on!

[2] The tension is all throughout Earthy Spirituality, but an example is this statement: “In a sense, Ransom’s entire journey [on Malacandra]—and the secret of all that came to him as a result—was simply a succession of choices to open himself up to each new encounter, each new experience” (ch. 7). Not, it was not “simply” a series of choices, but something much more complex, problematic, and divine. Ransom is summoned, after all—and his critical and disastrous disobedience is that he did not answer the summons. The complete transformation of Ransom by the end of Perelandra is certainly not just “a succession of choices,” but his apotheosis and divinization is the process of being transformed by Maleldil while doing the task that is before him. Choice and Consciousness are critical, but there is Cross-Transformation behind these that’s missing.

[3] Why readers miss that is a topic that I address in my thesis and something I will talk about another time. Basically, though, it’s because when people read Lewis’ theological books, his apologetics, and his fiction, they aren’t looking for the “tang” of what spiritual life is about. Selby is trying to turn our heads to “spirituality,” but American evangelicals resist this language, despite the work of people like Eugene Peterson. Devin Brown uses “spirituality” only once, and Joe Rigney doesn’t use the term at all—even though his book is a systematic work of spirituality. Presumably, his (conservative Reformed, evangelical, or fundamentalist) readers simply won’t connect with the term. This gap is pretty intriguing.

[4] More pointedly, given his skill and experience, I don not know why Selby did not choose to talk about the problems with gender equality in America, or the whole issue of immigration, which is super complex, or racism which is something that continues to haunt the American Story from beginning to now, or even the threat of intellectual diversity which is coming not from the right, but from leading left thinkers who wish to extinguish anyone who disagrees. Why is that not there?

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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11 Responses to On the Critical Missing Piece from the Best Part of Gary Selby’s Earthy Spirituality: C. S. Lewis and Incarnational Faith

  1. robstroud says:

    Praying for (and not at all doubting) a successful defense!

    Like

  2. danaames says:

    To your footnote 4, I think American Evangelicals consider would a book like Selby’s to be addressing “spirituality”, but those other topics are not seen to fall under that category – they are aspects of “politics”, not “spirituality”. They don’t see any connections between them.

    Break a leg!
    Dana

    Like

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    However close that “about to defend” is, good wishes for it (or, I hope it had gone well)!

    Good to follow the link to your 2012 piece, as well, which I do not remember having read.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “Selby clearly and compellingly presents this argument for diversity to American evangelicals—a community that needs immediate repentance and deep transformation in how it has lived as neighbours with people that are different in ideology, belief, religion, race, culture, and expression.”

    As you say, what a pity he didn’t follow up on this with a critique of conservative evangelicals’ attitudes to other religions, LGBTQ2SIA people, and women. A missed opportunity for sure.

    I would imagine (but I don’t know for sure) that conservative evangelicals would be uncomfortable with words like spirituality.

    I think Orthodox Christians critique evangelical theology of salvation on the basis that it is about the individual response to the crucifixion, rather than a collective and social response. It also overemphasizes the crucifixion at the expense of the Harrowing of Hell and the Resurrection, which in Orthodox theology are all a unified event. Steve Hayes would be the expert on all of that, of course. (I doubt that most evangelicals have even heard of the Harrowing of Hell, but there is an Anglo-Saxon carving of it in Bristol Cathedral, England. And it’s mentioned in the NT somewhere.)

    Congratulations again on the successful viva!

    Like

    • I’m not sure why “spirituality” is uncomfortable, except perhaps because of associations. It is a fuzzy word, I know. I do like the word “discipleship,” which has connotations of apprenticeship in it, but to me it is too weighted on what the person does and not enough of the spirit’s formation. Nothing’s perfect, of course, but I try not to get lost on terms.

      Yes, the Western church as a whole could learn from the east about community, peoplehood, etc. And it is always easy to separate the cross from the resurrection, but when Paul says “Christ died” he uses that as a hyperlink to the whole Gospel story. Paper is cheaper today, so perhaps we should emphasize new life more.

      I wish that Dr. Selby went further on diversity. I wished he tackled race because that’s his expertise, but there are other kinds of diversity. Frankly, I suspect that American evangelicals are pretty far away from embracing LGBTQ+ folks. However, I increasingly hear of people stepping out to talk about safety, rights, neighbourliness, and the like, which I take to be an important step. After all, if we love diversity (as I do), then intellectual, religious, and ideological diversity is part of that. (I say as one speaking to a pagan!)

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think the word spirituality is uncomfortable to different people for different reasons — for me it’s too much emphasis on the spiritual side of the equation and not enough on embodiment. I would imagine evangelicals being uncomfortable because they might associate it with the new age or even Paganism (note capital P, which CS Lewis accorded us, bless him).

        It’s a shame that this author didn’t discuss race and racism. It’s a huge issue right now. And I’m sure you’re right about acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ people. Though that’s moving in the right direction. A top evangelical in the UK stated his support for same sex marriage a couple of years ago, which was huge.

        Definitely long past time for Christians in general to accept being one religious option in a plural space, and to engage respectfully with other religions including Pagan religions.

        I very much appreciate your love of diversity — one of the reasons I enjoy your blog so much.

        Like

        • In my view, Evangelicals–and progressive social activists too, but that for another day–Evangelicals are far too sensitive about the Guilty By Association problem. “Spiritual” is a good historical, biblical word, regardless of how it’s used. Eugene Peterson kept it, saying that people still get the sense of immanence and transcendence in the word. True, I think.
          Thanks for the comments. Gilbert Meilaender’s book on Lewis, “The Taste for the Other”, is all about Lewis’ love of diversity and otherness. I wish that Christians read Lewis more.

          Liked by 1 person

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