JRF’s #2 – Fern-seed and Elephants (and Other Essays on Christianity) by C.S. Lewis

Ok.  I know I got carried away with this one.  There were just so many quotable quotables!  I promise to try and shorten these reviews from now on.

This book is a collection of essays and papers by Lewis I picked up in a second hand bookstore in England about 10 years ago and never got around to reading until now.   As with all of Lewis’ writings that I have read so far, while I find myself disagreeing at times, I always am challenged and edified by the thoughts of this brilliant Christian thinker.

Here is a “brief” overview of each essay:

  • Membership: Lewis explains that being members of the Body of Christ is something radically different than the “unity” so eagerly sought and so energetically peddled by the world. Unity in the worlds’ eyes is more properly identified as uniformity. Being a member of the living Body of Christ is more than being a homogenous unit in a collective. Lewis reminds us that being “members” of Christ’s Body isn’t being a “member” of a club but being a “member” in the sense of a body part – “what we should call organs, things essentially different from, and complementary to, one another.” He explains that the beauty of the Body of Christ comes exactly from the fact that we are all different from each other, not exactly alike, yet all in submission to, in love with, and united to and by the head which is Christ. He explains that it is the love of Christ for us, and not any inherent man-centered source, that gives value and true equality to the members of His body. In a very counter-cultural (even for today’s churches) statement he says:

“It is idle to say that men are of equal value. If value is taken in a worldly sense – if we mean that all men are equally useful or beautiful or good or entertaining – then it is nonsense. If it means that all are of equal value as immortal souls then I think it conceals a dangerous error. The infinite value of each human soul is not a Christian doctrine. God did not die for man because of some value he perceived in him. The value of each human soul considered simply in itself, out of relation to God, is zero. As St Paul writes, to have died for valuable men would have been not divine but merely heroic; but God died for sinners. He loved us not because we were loveable, but because he is Love. It may be that he loves all equally – he certainly loved all to the death – and I am not certain what the expression means. If there is equality it is in his love, not in us.” P. 20-1


“True personality lies ahead – how far ahead, for most of us, I dare not say. And the key to it does not lie in ourselves. It will not be attained by development from within outwards. It will come to us when we occupy those places in the structure of the eternal cosmos for which we were designed or invented. As a colour first reveals its true quality when placed by an excellent artist in its pre-elected spot between certain others, as a spice reveals its true flavor when inserted just where and when a good cook wishes among the other ingredients, as the dog becomes really doggy only when he has taken his place in the household of man, so we shall then first be true persons when we have suffered ourselves to be fitted into our places.” p.23

one more:

“…we have in our day started by getting the whole picture upside down.  Starting with the doctrine that every individuality is ‘of infinite value’ we then picture God as a kind of employment committee whose business it is to find suitable careers for souls, square holes for square pegs.  In fact, however, the value of the individual does not lie in him.  he is capable of receiving value.  He receives it by union with Christ.”  p.24

  • Learning in War-time: Lewis speaks to Christians who were struggling with the decision of whether or not to continue their studies while WWII was raging.

“…every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant.  He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology…The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.”  p. 27

“The work of Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord.'”  p. 32

“The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable.”  p. 36

  • On Forgiveness: Lewis compares/contrasts God’s forgiveness with our forgiveness of others.

“…the trouble is that what we call ‘asking God’s forgiveness’ very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses…there are two remedies for this danger.  One is to remember that God knows all the real excuses very much better than we do.  If there are real ‘extenuating circumstances’ there is no fear that he will overlook them…the second remedy is really and truly to believe in the forgiveness of sins.  A great deal of our anxiety to make excuses comes from not really believing in it: from thinking that God will not take us to himself again unless he is satisfied that some sort of case can be made out in our favor.”  p.40-41

“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”  p.43

  • Historicism: In this essay, which is the longest and my least favorite, Lewis takes to task “the belief that men can, by the use of their natural powers, discover an inner meaning in the historical process.” (p. 44).  While Lewis makes an exception for “divine revelation”, he basically says that it is folly to confidently discern the ultimate meaning and purpose of historical events because we are not privileged to all of the facts.

“a single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded”  p. 55

“‘The important parts of the past survive.’  If a historian says this (I am not sure that most historians would) he means by ‘importance’ relevance to the particular enquiry he has chosen.”  p. 56

“The philosophy of history is a discipline for which we mortal men lack the necessary data.  Nor is the attempt always a mere waste of time: it may be positively mischievous.  It encourages a Mussolini to say that ‘History took him by the throat’ when what really took him by the throat was desire.  Drivel about superior races or immanent dialectic may be used to strengthen the hand and ease the conscience of cruelty and greed.”  p 59-60

  • The World’s Last Night: This essay explores the importance of and the reasons for the tragic neglect of the doctrine of the Lord’s imminent return.

“It seems to me impossible to retain in any recognizable form our belief in the divinity of Christ and the truth of the Christian revelation while abandoning, or even persistently neglecting, the promised, and threatened, return.”  p. 65

“This passage (Mark 13:30-2) and the cry ‘Why hast thou forsaken me”‘ (mark 15:34) together make up the strongest proof that the New Testament is historically reliable.  The evangelists have the first great characteristic of honest witness: they mention facts which are, at first sight, damaging to their main contention.” p. 70

“Women sometimes have the problem of trying to judge by artificial light how a dress will look by daylight.  That is very like the problem of all of us: to dress our souls not for the electric lights of the present world but for the daylight of the next.  The good dress is the one that will face that light.  For that light will last longer.”  p 84-5

  • Religion and Rocketry:  An amusing and interesting essay on the effects that the discovery of extra-terrestrial life would possibly have on our theology.

“Each new discovery, even every new theory, is held at first to have the most wide-reaching theological and philosophical consequences.  It is seized by unbelievers as the basis for a new attack on Christianity; it is often, and more embarrassingly, seized by injudicious believers as the basis for a new defense.  But usually, when the popular hubbub has subsided and the novelty has been chewed over by real theologians, real scientists and real philosophers, both sides find themselves pretty much where they were before.”  p. 86-7

“No creature that deserved Redemption would need to be redeemed.” p.88

“I have wondered before now whether the vast astronomical distances may not be God’s quarantine precautions.” p.93

  • The Efficacy of Prayer: Self explanatory.

“The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that is may or may not be granted…Invariable ‘success’ in prayer would not prove the Christian doctrine at all.  It would prove something much more like magic – a power in certain human beings to control, or compel, the course of nature.”  p.97

“Simply to say prayers is not to pray: otherwise a team of properly trained parrots would serve as well as men for our experiment”  p.98

“As for the lady who consents to marry you – are you sure she had not decided to do so already?  Your proposal, you know, might have been the result, not the cause of her decision. ” p.99

  • Fern Seed and Elephants: One of the best defenses of the historical-grammatico hermeneutic I have read.

(responding to Bultmann’s claim that ‘…the tradition of the earliest Church did not even unconsciously preserve a picture of [Christs’] personality.  Every attempt to reconstruct one remains a play of subjective imagination.’)  – “So there is no personality of our Lord presented in the New Testament.  Through what strange process has this learned German gone in order to make himself blind to what all men except him see?”  p.109-110

“These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves.  They claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.”  p. 111

“Once the laymen was anxious to hide the fact that he believed so much less than the vicar: he now tends to hide the fact that he believes so much more.”  p. 125

About JRF 157 Articles
A broken sinner saved by the gracious work of Jesus Christ. Husband to the greatest woman of all time. Seriously. Father of 4. I enjoy surfing, SCUBA, basketball, and exploring. I also like to read and write and want to get better at both.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.