Randy Newman is Senior Fellow for Evangelism and Apologetics at the C.S. Lewis Institute in the Washington D.C. area. Randy is the author of several books including Mere Evangelism which is the basis of the following interview.
Moore: What (or perhaps who) was the motivation that propelled you to write this book?
Newman: I speak and write about evangelism a lot and the important topic of pre-evangelism comes up most of the time. It’s absolutely crucial, I think, to reach our highly-secularized or spiritually-diverse world today. We have to start further back than “Would you like to know God personally?” More and more people, who might actually have some interest in spiritual issues, won’t be able to relate to that question. It’s too far from where they are or how they think. So, we need more and more skill at pre-evangelism, starting the conversation closer to where people really are. And I’ve always thought that C. S. Lewis did that better than just about anyone – certainly in Mere Christianity. So, I proposed the idea of writing a book about it and The Good Book Company liked that idea.
Moore: In the terrific book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, we find the following prescription for how a “conservative” like Burke can best convince a radical like Paine: We must not only articulate the truthfulness of an idea, but we must showcase its beauty. I would give us so-called Evangelicals high marks on defending the truthfulness of Christianity, but very low marks on demonstrating Christianity’s beauty. How can Lewis help us in this regard?
Newman: Lewis always thought in images and couldn’t write or speak unless he engaged people’s imaginations. Just read any part of Mere Christianity and note how often he uses analogies. In his writings, he didn’t just communicate, “You should believe this because it’s true” (although he certainly did do that) but he also conveyed, “Wouldn’t you like to believe this because it’s so good?” He wove in pictures of what it would be like to experience the gospel, not just believe it. He would convey that becoming a Christian is like stone statues becoming alive creatures or like someone waking up after a long sleep and realizing that he’s now awake or like turning full-speed astern or laying down your weapons or dozens of other emotionally moving images. He spoke of “sneaking past watchful dragons” through story or fiction so that people found themselves wanting to believe before their intellects could catch up.
Moore: Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain to address suffering in our world. He was a bachelor at the time. Later, when he lost his wife Joy to cancer, he wrote A Grief Observed. They are very different books. The Problem of Pain is a rather neat and tidy argument for why suffering exists while A Grief Observed is a messy and visceral cry for the kind of relief that does not seem to be coming any time soon. Do you think both books have something to offer the modern era, or do you use one more than the other in your own ministry?
Newman: Well, that’s a more complex question than just an either-or decision. First, I don’t find The Problem of Pain as neat and tidy as many people claim it is. I find an appropriate amount of complexity there. Second, Lewis did not originally intend A Grief Observed to be a book for other people to read. He meant it as a series of personal journal entries to help him process his own grief. That’s why it’s so raw. Friends convinced him that his scribblings could actually be helpful for other mourners, so he reluctantly allowed it to be published – but not with his name attached! He used a pseudonym. I’ve heard people say The Problem of Pain isn’t helpful because it’s merely intellectual, but I disagree. Both books, for me, form a great pair to wrestle with the intellectually-puzzling and emotionally painful issue of suffering.
Moore: We both grew up learning an approach to apologetics which marshals evidence to “prove” the veracity of the Christian faith. People like Lesslie Newbigin have shown (see Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship) that this notion is beholden more to Enlightenment categories than the historic “faith seeking understanding” approach of earlier Christians. How does Lewis remind us that rational arguments are necessary, but not completely adequate?
Newman: First, I must say that I have benefited from Newbigin a lot, especially his book Proper Confidence. But I do wonder if he goes too far away from valuing evidence or proofs. Yes, too strong of a reliance on logic or reason finds more support in The Enlightenment than in the Scriptures. But the Scriptures offer examples of a kind of evidence-based apologetics and appeals to arguments to support belief. Paul’s support of Jesus’ resurrection, in I Cor. 15 for example, reminds readers of the 500 eyewitnesses. “Go ask them” might be the unstated apologetic appeal at that point. There are other examples and Luke even the uses of the word “proofs” (Acts 1:3) at the start of his gospel. So, I don’t want to dismiss a lot of really great work apologists have done throughout the life of the church.
But, as you say, Lewis reminds us that rational arguments are not the only tool in our evangelistic toolbox. He wrote The Chronicles of Narnia as well as the intellectually rigorous non-fiction work Miracles. But let’s look to a higher authority for this kind of discussion than merely C. S. Lewis. The Bible contains rational arguments (like Romans) but gives lots of space to stories and poetry. The Scriptures engage us as whole persons through our many senses with diverse forms of writings.
Moore: In his famous “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?” argument, Lewis left out the Legend option. How big a blind spot is that omission?
Newman: I don’t think it was a blind spot. I think it was a matter of how much time he had for his 15-minute radio broadcasts that later became the book Mere Christianity. They had to edit his manuscripts rather drastically to meet time limitations as well as other factors. But we have accounts of how those broadcasts came to be and there’s evidence that he did want to include the “legend” component in that objection. (I document this in my book.) They just cut it for time. In brilliant Lewis-style, he wanted to explore the argument, “Maybe Jesus never claimed to be God and his disciples made all that stuff up.” Lewis countered with this quip: “The theory only saddles you with twelve inexplicable lunatics instead of one.”
I will add that Lewis may not be our best source of apologetics on the validity of scripture. He held some views that wouldn’t get him hired at solidly evangelical seminaries. But we have other apologists to help us there.
Moore: Lewis was not a systematic theologian. What do you think are some of the biggest problems with using Lewis as a theologian?
Newman: Theologians, by definition, must be thorough. They need to explore all possible questions and all possible implications of points made by Scripture. And thank God for the ways he has provided such brilliant men and women to equip his people over the centuries. But Lewis had a different calling. He was more of an apologist and evangelist (even though he might shy away from that term). By definition, evangelists narrow their scope of what they’re trying to do. They are trying to urge non-believers to budge from their unbelief and move more and more toward considering faith. Both theologians and evangelists play crucial complementary roles. But if we rely on only one, we weaken our efforts. Just like undervaluing any parts of the body of Christ causes lots of problems.
Moore: What do you hope your readers will gain from in reading Mere Evangelism?
Newman: More than anything, I hope they’ll feel encouraged to start gospel conversations with the non-Christians God has sovereignly placed around them. If the evangelism process can move incrementally, starting with conversations about books or stories or art or dozens of other topics that serve as clues about God, maybe they’ll take some steps in those directions. I also hope they might grasp that C. S. Lewis, while absolutely brilliant, was not a likely evangelist. He was an introvert who probably would have preferred to be alone with his books or at a pub with close friends. Engaging with strangers about the gospel didn’t really fit his personality. But look at how God used him. I hope my readers might imagine themselves being used by God in similar ways.
David George Moore is the author of the recently released Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians. Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians: David George Moore, Carl Trueman: 9781684264605