Frank Johnson

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One of the most interesting and often discussed friendships of the 20th century was the bond between J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings cycle, and C. S. Lewis, the writer behind The Chronicles of Narnia and of many books defending and explaining the Christian faith — notably titles like “The Screwtape Letters” and “Mere Christianity.” Both of these Oxford professors wrote books in their respective fields of Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Lewis) and of Philology (the study of language and languages, Tolkien).

Lewis credited a particular walk with Tolkien down a lane in Oxford, England, as a turning point in his quest for spiritual truth. Tolkien was a most unlikely candidate for friendship with Lewis, since Lewis had a predisposition against both Papists (Roman Catholics) and Philologists (the study of language). Tolkien was both. But as they walked along, they were discussing Lewis’s respect and admiration for the great myths of the Norse Gods. They agreed that such stories had power to shape the imagination and also the life. But what, suggested Tolkien, if one of these great stories, the myth of the Dying God, might actually have happened in human history, that the story told in the gospels of Jesus of Nazareth was myth become fact. The power of the story would be even greater because now it was not rooted only in the imagination, but now anchored in the flow of human history.

Lewis related in “Surprised by Joy: the Shape of My Early Life” a stunning event that took place one day in his early years as a lecturer in Philosophy and English at Oxford: “Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. ‘Rum thing,’ he went on. ‘All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once’” (p. 216). Lewis reports that this was a devastating blow to his contrived unbelief. Myth become fact, indeed!

This is exactly what Christians claim happened in the dividing line between the centuries, what separates the Common Era from Before the Common Era: it is the coming of Jesus Christ. Those of us who still prefer the more Christian designations of B.C. (Before Christ) and A. D. (Anno Domini, in the year of the Lord), are more conscious and less in denial about what really happened to the world when Jesus was born. The great stories of other cultures, perhaps understood as echoes sounding out from the great voice that had spoken through that most unlikely megaphone, the manger in Bethlehem, were now finding their historical expression. The God Who had created all else outside of himself had humbled himself to such an extent that he not only shared the human nature of those made in His image, but he then went on to “taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9) and conquer death once and for all in His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1ff). For Christians, this is our celebration of Christmas. Merry Christmas, indeed!

Frank R. Johnson is the pastor of Chestnut Street Baptist Church.

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