A review of C.S.Lewis’s “Fern-seed and Elephants and other essays on Christianity”

Fern-seed and Elephants is a short collection of essays of C.S. Lewis in which he vigorously defends orthodox Christianity against a range of challenges in secular and modern thought, including the ravages of various stains of liberal theology to which he objected.   His gift is to make clear that which has been made needlessly abstracted, rescuing from needless obfuscation.

The essays are taken from previously published addresses, sermons and periodical pieces from 1945-1959.

‘Membership’ looks at what it means to belong to the Church, the Body of Christ, organically as art of a whole, as opposed to a unit as part of a collective.  He brings out how the individual, with all that makes it unique, finds its fullest expression when part of this larger organic community.  In accepting with humility ones place in an ordained hierarchy and larger scheme of thing, one becomes for the first time fully and gloriously alive, truly realising the self.  It’s a wonderful paradox.

‘Learning in War-time’ meets head on the kind of existential problem that studying, and learning an academic discipline may have brought in a time of national and international crisis here hearth and home is threatened.  Is such learning in this context futile and selfish?  Not at all, Lewis replies, reminding his hearers (this was originally preached) and readers that we always at all points of history are learning whilst acing he greatest existential challenge of all; one’s own mortality.  The fact that this has never made learning futile gives own pause and puts ‘learning in war-time’ in its proper context.

‘On Forgiveness’ neatly draws out the difference between asking God forgiveness and merely asking Him to excuse our behaviour.  Lewis rescues forgiveness from being merely a nice idea to reinstating it as the supremely uncompromising, massive and redeeming challenge it undoubtedly is.

In ‘Historicism’ Lewis asks to be excused from the train of thought that purports to understand history as a symphonic whole, with a full grasp of the underlying causes and effects.  He sensibly points out that fully grasping everything that happens in the world in the present at any given moment is impossible, or even our own lives, with their exponential complexities.  So how then can we hope to look into the past and read it with absolute confidence, declaring that we understand the forces that have shaped our past?

‘The World’s Last Night’ is Lewis’s own “An Inconvenient Truth.”  Modern theological thinking may seek to explain away end-time teaching in the Gospels, he says, but it remains and is unambiguous.  The curtain will come down, suddenly, and prediction is impossible.  Lewis rightly decries those who have tried to nail it down to a date and time as foolish and way off the mark.  It is meant to be unknown.  Our modern comforts and tendency to rationality balk at the idea of God suddenly invading Creation again, but Lewis tells us that, like the above on Forgiveness, that is the clear teaching and really there are no ifs and buts.

‘Religion and Rocketry’ debunks the notion that other life in the universe challenges basic Christian theological assumptions.  To challenge our own redemption and primacy to God, we need to know, are these alien races sentient as we are?  Have they had their own ‘fall’ from grace?  If so does their redemption have to copy ours?  The hypotheses that seek to form a challenge to Christianity collapse under their own weight.

‘The Efficacy of Prayer’ looks at petitionary prayer and the challenges that are posed if it is answered, or unanswered.  Lewis rightly points out that we can ask for things in prayer and are obliged to do so, but we are praying with humility to a supreme power and intelligence who knows what we need before we ask and knows what can and can’t be granted.  And yet still we are obliged to pray.  Why?  Lewis draws out the dance between free-will and omnipotence.  We ask because that is relationship.  Asking helps to redeem and transform.  And even Jesus Christ did not find a particular prayer answered in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Finally the titular ‘Fern-seed and Elephants’ looks at the tendency of some theological and academic thought of not seeing the wood for the trees.  In other words, in seeking to find elaborate truths between the lines of the Gospels, the stark simple truths those lines tell are missed.  And the assumptions on which such critical reductionist thinking draws are too vast to be borne.   To say with confidence that such and such a teaching of Christ is a backward projection of the Church is to say with confidence that you can read the book of the past as with ‘Historicism’ above.

My little synopsis of the essays above are just that, highly reductionist summaries, and I urge you to read these complex, intelligent and yet clear as spring water essays in their fullness.

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