Last week I used a quote from a book I had not read in forty years. I found the quote, but not in the place in the book where I was sure I would find it. My search reminded me of the story told and why I ought to read it again. “A Severe Mercy” is, as my torn dust cover says, “a real-life story full of wonder and hope.” Sheldon Vanauken recounts the years in the mid-1950’s he and his wife Davy were graduate students in Oxford. They meet new people, many of them, surprisingly, Christians, befriend C.S. Lewis, then teaching at Oxford, and in God’s time make their own commitments to Christ and the ways of the Kingdom.
The severe mercy of the book’s title is a phrase given by Lewis in a letter to Vanauken following their return to the U.S. and Davy’s untimely death from a rare infection.
I re-read “A Severe Mercy” this week and was taken by Sheldon Vanauken’s story of their conversion. Well-read, intellectual, sophisticated, Sheldon and Davy had early on dismissed the possibility Christian faith playing a part in their lives. But new friends and Lewis’ care and wisdom began to challenge that early dismissal of Christ.
Separately, but wonderfully together, the Vanaukens came to Christ. We were now Christians. Davy, perhaps had got used to it. But I – I a Christian! I, who had been wont to regard Christians with pitying dislike, must now confess myself to be one. I did so with shrinking and pride. Indeed, I felt a curious mixture of emotions: a sort of embarrassment among my more worldly and presumably non-Christian friends, some of whom would have accepted my becoming a Buddhist or an atheist with less amazement, and a sort of pride as though I had done something laudable – or done God a favor. I was half-inclined to conceal my faith, and yet it seemed to me that if I were to take a stand for Christ, my Lord, I must wear his colors.
Well-read, intellectual, sophisticated, the Vanaukens did not come to Christ because it seemed like a well-read, intellectual, or sophisticated thing to do. Of course – and really, of course – it was by God’s grace and his grace alone.
Apologetics is that branch of Christian thought that gives reasoned argument for the core doctrines of the faith. Among other things, “apology” for the historicity of resurrection and the miraculous, the necessity of the Creator, and the reliability of Scripture.
I’m glad for apologetics, though not much drawn to the science of them. Lee Strobel fans, be kind to me, but I don’t find The Case for Christ compelling, mostly just simple responses to the simplistic criticisms of shallow secularists.
Before his conversion as he reconsidered the faith he had rejected at an early age, Sheldon Vanauken penned these words in his journal: The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy their certainty their completeness.
Well-read, intellectual, and sophisticated, Vanauken was not reasoned into the Kingdom, he was drawn into it by the joy, certainty (and, yes, a reasonable certainty), and completeness (their lives made sense) of his Christian friends.
We might call what Vanauken experienced the apologetic of Christian community.
In the same journal entry where he commends the apology of Christian joy experienced in community, Vanauken also writes, But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians–when they are somber and joyless when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.
On Sunday those of us in worship at LPC will begin to consider what argument, what apology, we might present the world of the well-read, intellectual, and sophisticated. Or the confused, hurting, and sad. Or the mostly satisfied who wonder if maybe there might be more.
What apology to we offer to those around us?
See you Sunday.