Would We Have Been Friends? John Piper/Tim Keller contra C.S. Lewis/George MacDonald
I’m not sure he (George MacDonald) was a Christian.
I don’t consider George MacDonald a Christian author.
I turned with loathing from the God of Jonathan Edwards.
I quietly closed the book—I was just stabbed.
—Piper’s reaction to MacDonald’s rejection of Edwards.
There are three dialogues about C.S. Lewis worth the watching between John Piper and Tim Keller. The initial and longer dialogue ponders the “Influence of C.S. Lewis” on the lives of Piper and Keller (it’s just over 10 minutes) and the second and shorter dialogue reflects on “When (Seemingly) Opposites Meet” (a few seconds more than 5 minutes). The dialogues are not particularly profound or far reaching, but both men agree that C.S. Lewis (when read and understood within their framework and worldview) is a substantive Christian academic and thinker. It is the third and final interview in which Piper and Keller’s Neo-Calvinist colours are abundantly revealed and their misread of the fuller catholic Anglican way of Lewis clearly brought to the fore.
The third dialogue between Piper and Keller about Lewis is called “Would We Have Been Friends?” (about 5 minutes). It is in this dialogue that some rather startling things are said about Lewis (in an appreciative way) and C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald in a more worrisome way and manner. The first two dialogues, as I mentioned above, are very much booster and cheerleading comments about Lewis. The latter dialogue is more of a knocker. Why is this case? The fact that Lewis dared to hold George MacDonald high as a mentor and teacher disturbed both Piper and Keller. Why is this so?
Piper and Keller pondered, earlier in the dialogue, how their view of the Bible (and its authority) would be different from that of Lewis—Lewis was no inerrantist—this has offended many reformed and conservative evangelicals-Lewis’ views of Jonah, Esther and Job were certainly not of the literalist and historic bent. But, there is more. Keller made it clear that MacDonald was “not just Arminian” (a nasty position for Calvinists) but “he was Pelagian” (even worse it seems). There is this tendency within the Calvinist tradition (which often equates itself with authentic and genuine Christianity) to demonize Pelagius and Arminius. The conclusion that follows is this: Calvin, and the Calvinist approach to the Bible and the Christian tradition, is the true one----those who question or oppose such a position are either not Christian or have an inadequate understanding of Christianity. The fact that Lewis and MacDonald (even more so) were not Calvinists does raise the ire and dander of Piper and Keller (and their tribe and following).
It is somewhat significant to note that there is an important form of the evangelical heritage that is not Calvinist and reformed, but the merging and linking of Calvinist reformed theology and evangelical thought has tended to dominate and define the modern Neo-Sanhedrin. Donald Dayton has given much of his life to exposing the fallacy that evangelical equals both Calvinist theology and republican politics. The fine festschrift for Dayton, From the Margins: A Celebration of the Theological Work of Donald W. Dayton (2007) is a must read for the dissenting and countercultural evangelical read of the way the Neo-Sanhedrin have defined the authentic Christian and evangelical way and marginalized those that dare to question such a read of the Bible.
The Calvin-Augustine-Bible family tree has often subordinated, distorted or misread the Erasmus/Arminian-Eastern Fathers/Pelagius-Bible line and lineage. It need not be either-or—there is a healthy polyphony in which a fruit bearing dialogue can yet occur between these two vital Christian traditions (and the different voices within each of them).
My wife (Karin) and I met 40 years ago this summer (1975-2005) and the centrepiece of our reading throughout much of 1975 was George MacDonald’s 2 volume publication by Eerdmans in 1973 of The Gifts of the Child Christ: Fairytales and Stories for the Childlike. Needless to say, Karin and I were nurtured by MacDonald before we met and have been sustained by his writings since then. We have recently returned from a trip to the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur and Redwoods Monastery in northern California in which I was doing further research on a forthcoming book on Thomas Merton. We stopped on our way home in Portland and had a lovely and engaging meeting with Barbara Amell (founder in 1993 of the main George MacDonald journal in the United States, Wingfold). Barbara is a walking encyclopedia of George MacDonald lore, legend and publications—needless to say, MacDonald is a complex and nimble thinker.
Tim Keller suggested in the dialogue with John Piper that “Lewis was too generous” in his views of MacDonald—as mentioned above, Keller questioned whether MacDonald was even a Christian—a rather harsh position and judgemental stance to take. I might ask, by way of conclusion, if Lewis was most generous in his appreciation and affirmation of MacDonald, do Keller and Piper, in reality, really understand who Lewis actually was (other than what they think he was)? Lewis was a catholic Anglican (with all the breadth and richness that such a worldview entails), and it was such a catholicity that made him open to the best of classical thought and the inviting beauty of the compelling joy of MacDonald. Lewis and MacDonald were certainly not reformed or Calvinist even though evangelicals of a reformed bent have walked the extra mile to claim him as one of their own.
Would Piper and Keller have been friends with Lewis and MacDonald? I rather doubt it—I suspect, though, Lewis and MacDonald would not have taken the position, as did Piper and Keller, Pharisee-like, “Thank God, I am not as them”. The tent of faith is, indeed, large and expansive—it is silly, counterproductive and pointless to exclude those of good faith of which Lewis, MacDonald and Keller-Piper are part of the larger communion of saints.