Swallowing the Camel

In 1959, Kenneth Carey invited C.S. Lewis to address the students of Anglican Theological College, Westcott House. Carey served as principal of the college and he would later become Bishop of Edinburgh. The subject of the talk was to be a response to the recent book by Alec Vidler called Windsor Sermons.

Vidler’s talk “demythologizes” the Gospels, spinning them into a dance with modernity. Lewis, according to The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 2, thought it “quite incredible that we should wait nearly 2,000 years to be told by a theologian called Vidler that what the Church has always regarded as a miracle was, in fact, a parable.”

In the paper that he presented to the students at Wescott House (titled “Fern-seed and Elephants”) Lewis said:

A theology which denies the historicity of nearly everything in the Gospels to which the Christian life and affections and thought have been fastened for nearly two millennia – which either denies the miraculous altogether or, more strangely, after swallowing the camel of the Resurrection strains at such gnats as the feeding of the multitudes – if offered to the uneducated man can produce only one or other of two effects. It will make him a Roman Catholic or an atheist.  (Collected Letters, Vol 2, 1076-77)

The last line is a quip to Vidler who was a Catholic and very much one who embraced modernity to the point of question. Lewis was not shy in asking, especially given the range of Vidler’s influence as editor of the monthly journal Theology and author of a number of books. Lewis contributed work to Theology and this provided for natural correspondence with Vidler, at least by the late 1930s, so their relationship was long-winded. Yet, there is a temperance in Lewis that is not, for example, in Chesterton who calls out his heretical friends will a bolstering yell (Letters to Malcolm is one example as are The Collected Letters).

For Lewis, the death and resurrection of Jesus is the completion of that “black and scarlet cord” (as he says in a letter to Arthur Greeves) that weaves in and out of myth. This is a subject that Lewis embraces as a central interpretation of God revealed in the world. It also provides the assurance of our own resurrection.

Orthodox believers keep the Saturday before Palm Sunday as “Lazarus Saturday.” It’s perhaps because Lazarus’s story is anchored with Jesus’ own journey to Jerusalem in the Gospel of John. In fact, the religious leaders were out to find both Jesus and Lazarus since the crowds were collecting in larger and larger mass to celebrate (and use) Jesus as a result of the profoundness of resurrection. The Sanhedrin wanted both of them dead.  “‘What are we accomplishing?’ they asked. ‘Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation'” (John 11:47-48).

In the episode at Bethany, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). 

Lewis echoes Paul’s words in I Corinthians 15:12 when he writes to a friend, “Whatever you hold about the blessed in the state of separation, the resurrection either makes some change in it or none. If none, why does it occur? If change, then either for the worse or for the better” (Collected Letters, Vol 2, 217).

Believing in the resurrection is “swallowing the camel.” Without it there is no Son of God, only a dead Jesus, and the sting of death that haunts a life which cannot be lived more abundantly. If modernity reasons out the miraculous and it is here that one hinges their hope, perhaps there are bigger things to swallow than camels.

You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. – Jesus, Matthew 23:24

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