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That Hideous Weakness

Nate Wilson kicked off our friendship with a bang. When he came to his first Hutchmoot the first thing he did was hand me a first edition of Till We Have Faces, which is possibly (depending on the weather) my favorite  C. S. Lewis book. He didn’t know it was my favorite, which made it an even sweeter gift. Last year I headed up to Moscow, Idaho, to teach at a workshop at New St. Andrews and Nate gave me yet another most excellent gift: a first edition of That Hideous Strength, the final book of the Space Trilogy. I had only read the first two (thanks to Kevan Chandler), and couldn’t really imagine book three outshining the sweep and wildness of Perelandra.

One thing is clear: opinions abound about That Hideous Strength. I know of no other Lewis book that polarizes like this one. I’ve talked to quite a few people who never finished it, others who finished it but didn’t like it, and still others (like Nate) who claim that it’s Lewis’s finest work. Well, I just finished it. And while the book as a whole may not have blown my mind like Faces, and while it took me longer to read than any other Lewis book, its effect on me was undeniable for a number of reasons.

There’s a word that’s given me a lot of trouble in the last few years. A word that we tout a lot around here. It’s a word that’s easy to use and hard to embody, a word that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and a word that, thanks to Dr. Steve Guthrie, I’m just now beginning to realize represents a great deal of power. That word is chartreuse. I dare you to say it without shuddering at its import!

But seriously: the word is community. I’ve called the Rabbit Room “an experiment in community,” and at Hutchmoot we talk about carrying whatever light we encounter back into our communities. I’ve lauded the way the community of Christians here in Nashville has shaped my life and work and ministry. The Local Show is (hopefully) a way to plant community seeds. Community, community, community. I mentioned Steve Guthrie—he’s a brilliant dude, a professor at Belmont University who helped launch the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St. Andrews University in Scotland. I’m about halfway finished with his book Creator Spirit, and in chapter four he lays out a brilliant case for the way the Holy Spirit is embodied in us through singing and music—particularly the way singing brings about the “Oneness” of the church. He writes:

“Those filled with the Spirit . . . listen and respond to one another in songs, hymns, and spiritual songs. As they sing, they gain experience in hearing one another; they learn to move in time and in harmony with those around them. They are reminded that the new humanity in Christ includes voices other than their own—voices of different quality, timbre, and register, to which they must tune their own song. . . In song we learn and enact a kind of mutual submission in which we do not lose, but discover, our voices.”

We learn submission and humility, losing ourselves even as we become who we’re meant to be. Our own voice finds its best home when it is joined with the great chorus. If you’ve ever been to the Behold the Lamb concert at the Ryman and sung “It Is Well With My Soul,” you know what I’m talking about. That’s Oneness in the Spirit. That sounds great, right? Then why, you may ask, is music in the church one of the most divisive issues in recent history? You could say the same thing about baptism, about communion, about marriage, Guthrie points out.

“Perhaps the fact that we can so easily produce examples of this sort suggests that these practices wound and cause division not despite but because of their power to create community. Bread and water, song, and physical intimacy bind us to one another, but they bind us together in all of our woundedness and in all of our power to wound.”

If he’s right, if these beautiful and sacred means of Oneness are at the same time so historically divisive, then maybe it’s because Satan hates them. Maybe he attacks us in these particular ways because he knows that honest, humble, Gospel-centered community is a powerful enfleshment of God’s Kingdom here on earth. Few things gratify the forces of darkness like the destruction of Christian community.

That Hideous Strength, like so much of Lewis’s writing, helped me to see not just the sin but the sin behind the sin. Mark and Jane Studdock, the main characters in the story, are constantly beset by the temptation to lean away from the light and toward the darkness, away from humility and toward status, away from submission and toward self-preservation. Mark, who has always longed to be a part of an Inner Ring, is seduced by what he would probably call community: an elite group of scholars and power-players in a sort of shadow organization called the N.I.C.E. The whole organization—which, it turns out, is bent on the destruction of the world—is arranged to make a person feel as though he is comfortably “in” one circle of trust while at the same time uncomfortably “out” of an even deeper one. Everyone in the N.I.C.E. speaks in vagaries, pretentiousness hangs in the air like smoke, and it all wakes in Mark a mad desire to do whatever must be done to move deeper into the “community.” Once they get their claws into him he’s on a crash course for utter destruction. Part of the book’s brilliance is the mounting, pervasive dread one feels while reading of Mark’s slow and steady seduction by the N.I.C.E.

I won’t tell you how it ends, but as I read it I recognized something hideous lurking in my own heart. I recognized how cowardly I can be in certain situations, like when I pretend to know what’s going on and I really don’t, or when I say things that don’t mean much of anything because I’m trying to maintain some percieved even keel in a conversation, or when I choose to speak to this person instead of that person because they seem to be on the “inside” of something, or even the perverse satisfaction I feel when I’m on the backstage list at Some Important Person’s concert. All of this is a false and destructive form of community—a faux community. True community is Oneness in the Spirit—it’s a unity of Jew and Gentile, black and white, cool and uncool, artist and plumber, old and young, all singing their own part in one glorious song.

That’s what we want the Rabbit Room to exemplify. If you’re reading this and you think there’s some secret we all know that you don’t, or that you’d be happier if you could hang out with the Right People, or if we’re purposely structuring things to keep you out, then rest assured that we’re all knuckle-headed and glorious men and women fumbling about in the palace of this great paradox: by Christ’s mercy we see that we’re beggars at the door, and by Christ’s mercy we discover that we’re children of the King—wonder of wonders, there’s a seat reserved for us at the feast.

This year at the Ryman concert, one of the special guests said to me, “Thanks for letting me in, man.” And because of That Hideous Strength I had the presence of mind to say, “This is the Church. We’re all ‘in.'”

That’s a song worth singing.

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