Tuesday, September 08, 2015

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis (Book Review #71 of 2015)

A Grief Observed
I read this famous book about mourning in an attempt to find a Christian theology of mourning. Given the expectation of heaven, should Christians mourn? If so, what and how?  I followed it with what is essentially the atheist's version of this book - Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God by Greta Christina in order to explore the atheist's philosophy of death. The two reviews should be read in parallel.

A prerequisite for this book has to be watching The Shadowlands, for which Anthony Hopkins should have won an Oscar for his outstanding portrayal of Lewis. The movie shows the bittersweet romance between Lewis and Joy Gresham (played by Debra Winger). The details of Lewis' life and the conflict he faced falling in love with, marrying, and then losing Gresham to cancer are quite moving. I had always wondered "What happened next?" How did Lewis get along with his stepson? How did they mourn together (or separately)? This book gives the answer.

The second foreword was written by Douglas Gresham which outlines his perspective and the difficulty he and Lewis had in dealing with the loss together, both were left to mourn differently and separately. Lewis initially published the book under a pseudonym, but it was too easy to discern his writing. He gives insight into his parents that is great.

One takeaway from this book is what not to say to a grieving person. There is a time to remind them of theological truths but in the moment it's insensitive. "Sorrow is not a state but a process," and it's important to remember this. (Perhaps every Christian should read On Death and Dying?). Even worse are the unbiblical things people say (and sing in hymns) like "we'll meet again on that golden shore." Where is the "golden shore" in Scripture? A person sharing these common statements thus errs twice. Lewis does focus on what is in Scripture, the promises of God, and how He works.

He rails against those of weak faith, or no faith, who think God cannot possibly wish them to feel pain. "How could God do this if he loved me?" Lewis responds by asking "Have none of them ever been to a dentist?" Don't fall into the error of putting our desires ahead of God-- God does things for His glory. Romans 8:28 tells us that He is working all things for His glory and our good (if we are His) but he is King and knows what that "good" for us is.

Nonetheless, Lewis has a strong desire for assurance that his wife is in heaven. He knows the promise of Scripture but has no way of knowing whether she is truly there and he wish he had some. I have observed this to be universal among people I've observed mourning.

As vividly portrayed in The Shadowlands, "we don't want grief but we want that love which it stems from and necessitates." It is impossible to have the love without the grief, loving someone means being vulnerable to hurt by that person. All of us are here temporarily, loving someone or something means you have to eventually let it go.

Lewis echoes the psalmists in holding up praise for God as a possible solution to the sorrow. Remembering the goodness of God and the he loves us and focusing on His promises in Scripture and being thankful for the good gifts he gives seems to be the biblical prescription.

A very good statement: "Approaching Christ as a means and not the end is not to approach him at all." Saving faith is that which comes to Jesus for who He is and not what He does for us (I'm paraphrasing both Lewis and John Piper here). The communion wafer is a poor representation of what we want to be unified with, just as in all things in the Christian life we see Christ through a glass, darkly (1 Cor. 13:12). But Christians alone can mourn with hope (1 Thess. 4:13).

There are also a few apologetics toward those who do not believe in an afterlife. Lewis was extremely well-read in multiple languages and his wife was quite astute in literary knowledge as well. It's a good reminder that C.S. Lewis had countered plenty of atheistic arguments with pure logic, and it's sad that many of the "new atheists" have not read them. His faith survived, and was perhaps strengthened, by what he learned through this "process" of mourning.

I give this book 5 stars out of 5. It is written as an overflow from the heart but with a discipline of mind and a focus on right, biblical truth.  It is not a complete theology of mourning, but it is amazingly heartfelt and real. I would give it to any Christian in mourning.

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