Feast of St John Maximovitch, Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco
EVEN THOUGH C. S. Lewis was probably the most popular Christian writer of the 20th century, no one (least of all he himself) would consider him a biblical scholar. His academic specialty was literature, not Bible. Nonetheless, because the scriptures were important in his life, he wrote about them often, most explicitly in Reflections on the Psalms, but in many other places as well. However, he had very little respect for modern academic scholarship on the Bible, once claiming that “the undermining of the old orthodoxy has been mainly the work of divines engaged in New Testament criticism.” One of the chief offenders on this topic whom he called out by name was Rudolf Bultmann.
If you asked anyone in the know to identify the most powerful voice in New Testament studies in the 20th century, no doubt they would answer, “Bultmann,” a scholarly force to be reckoned with. But Lewis was not intimidated. He took Bultmann to task on his reading of the gospels, his opinions about Jesus, and his rejection of the supernatural worldview of the early Christians, which Bultmann labeled “myth.”
The two men never met, and it’s likely that the German scholar never read anything Lewis wrote. But they still have a fair amount in common, in addition to the impact they made on Christian thought. When they were growing up, both loved literature and music. As adults, both were committed to their faith and to living it to the fullest possible extent in the world. In their writing, both were fascinated by the interplay of the Bible, myth, and Jesus Christ, and both worked on those ideas extensively—but with very different results.
Bultmann lobbed a bomb into the field of biblical studies in April 1941 when he delivered the essay “New Testament and Mythology.” He most famously proclaimed, “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits,” and “especially the conception that men can be tempted and corrupted by the devil.” Bultmann’s solution to this problem was to deny the myth of supernatural meddling in the world while simultaneously attempting to preserve the main message of Jesus’ preaching, the Kingdom of God, and its impact on the individual Christian.
The very next month, in May 1941, Lewis published his first installment of The Screwtape Letters, an imaginative correspondence between the demons Screwtape, a middle manager in the bureaucracy of hell, and Wormwood, his protégé in the delicate art of temptation. The book tells the story of the demonic battle for a human soul so convincingly that some readers thought it was a work of nonfiction. It’s not, but it certainly does voice Lewis’s firm conviction in the reality of “the New Testament world of spirits” that Bultmann denied.
For Bultmann, ‘myth’ was primitive science. And myth and modern science were opposites; where one lived, the other must die. Wherever myth appeared in the gospels, it had to go—to be demythologized. How else could modern people take Christianity seriously?
The young Lewis could not have agreed with this more, and the older Lewis could not have agreed less. As a teenage atheist, Lewis dismissed Jesus as one dying and rising god among the many, and all of them as a pack of lies. With a little help from his friends, however, and especially J. R. R. Tolkien, he came to a new understanding of myth: God had used it to prepare the way for true myth, myth became fact, Jesus Christ. The supernatural not only could, but had broken in. If it could do so in the incarnation, how could one deny at least the possibility of angels and demons vying for souls?
The workings-out of these ideas to no small degree shaped their authors’ legacies. The Screwtape Letters brought Lewis to the attention of the wider English-speaking world, and Bultmann’s name is bound to this day, for better or worse, to the concept of demythologization. The war between their respective nations ended in 1945, but their intellectual skirmishes about myth and its role in Christian theology continue to this day.
Leslie Baynes is Associate Professor of New Testament and Second Temple Judaism at Missouri State University.