Shadowlands is a 1993 biographical film about the relationship between the Oxbridge academic C. S. Lewis and the American poet Joy Davidman, her tragic death from cancer, and how this challenged Lewis’ Christian faith. It is based on an 1985 television production and an 1989 stage adaptation of the same name. The original television film began life as a script written by Brian Sibley and Norman Stone, and Sibley later wrote the book: Shadowlands: The True Story of C S Lewis and Joy Davidman. For Lewis, his entire life it would seem is the story of someone slowly but surely journeying from the shadowlands into the light.
As a child, growing up in a working class environment in the late 40s and early 50s, we had very little of the ‘creature comforts’ that we enjoy today. We didn’t have a car, or a telephone, or central heating, or even a refrigerator, leave alone a television – all the things my grandchildren take for granted today! At one time we lived in just two rooms, on the top floor of an Edwardian house in Ealing, with a shared kitchen and bathroom – and I mean a kitchen with a bath in it which we shared with the man who had the other room on that top floor?! As children, we made our own entertainment – playing out in the street and green spaces or clambering over bombsites (in ways children cannot safely seem to do today). As families we listened to the radio, visited friends and relations, enjoyed a singsong around the piano. We read lots of books – mostly borrowed from the local library – and when I was too young to read books by myself my father always read or told me a bedtime story. Quite often he would illustrate these stories by making shadow pictures on the wall simply using his hands and the light of the bedside lamp. He was very good at this and I would often fall asleep re-living the adventures in the shadowland he had created – a shadowland which in my dreams I became part of. Sometimes this shadowland was a happy place, sometimes it was a place of adventure, sometimes it was scary … but in every case it was not real. It was a place where – as a young boy, and an only child to boot with all the loneliness of being an only child – I could escape from reality.
All that was over 60 years ago. Julia and I now live in a nice home with all the mod cons and I don’t need someone making shadow pictures on the bedroom wall in order to go to sleep at night. I still love reading, however, and always have at least one book on the go at any given time as well as several books of a more academic nature that are part of my ‘stock in trade’ as a Baptist Minister and On-Line Learning Tutor for Spurgeon’s College. Over the years, however, I have come across a number of people who, for one reason or another, choose to live in shadowland. I think of those I have met whilst visiting psychiatric units who have taken on a completely different persona to their real one – seeing themselves as kings or queens or even as Jesus or the devil? I think of a young woman I knew several years ago who flitted in and out of a fantasy world she created for herself which sounded so real that people, who did not know of her condition, were completely taken in by her? I think of many other people I know to whom the world a particular TV ‘soap opera’ is more true than life itself, and still others whose live in a world totally governed by their ‘daily horoscope’?!
Of late I have become more aware of just how many of us professing Christians also live in the shadowlands rather than in the substance of what it means to be ‘a man or woman in Christ’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). My thinking this way came about as a result of our daily readings in Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. Back at the beginning of July, when Julia and myself were about to embark on a nine week camping holiday in France, we decided to take a copy of Dick Lucas’ commentary on Colossians and Philemon with us to use as a basis for our daily devotions. Nearly four months later we are still working our way prayerfully through Colossians a little bit at a time. Although somewhat dated we have found Dick Lucas’ exposition of this Letter very helpful and it has stimulated a lot of thought, discussion and prayer. We were particularly taken by a couple of verses where Paul exhorts the Christians at Colossae: ‘Don’t let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to religious festivals, or New Moon celebrations, or Sabbath Day observance – these are only a shadow of things that were to come, the reality or substance is found in Christ’ (Colossians 2:16,17).
The Christian Church in Colossae – a one time leading city in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) but by the time of Paul’s Letter, a second rate market town – was probably planted by Epaphras, one of Paul’s friends and associates, c.57 AD. Initially the church at Colossae grew numerically and spiritually under Epaphras’ ministry but eventually began to struggle as a direct result of the introduction of spurious ‘new teaching’ into the church. We cannot be one hundred percent sure exactly what this ‘new teaching’ was, although we can make an educated guess from Paul’s comments in this Letter to the Colossians – written in response to Epaphras’ cry for help. The probability is that there were actually various strands of ‘new teaching’ creeping into the church at this time – introduced either by ‘visiting teachers’ from elsewhere or church members who had ‘bought into’ spurious teaching somewhere else and brought it back to the Colossian Church with them?! Each strand of ‘new teaching’ had gathered its own group of adherents. There were the Ascetics, who claimed that to be a ‘true Christian’ one had to abstain from certain foods and drink – probably meat and alcohol?! Then there were the Judaisers, who claimed that to be a ‘true Christian’ one had to revert to certain aspects of the Jewish Law – strictly observing the main Jewish Religious Festivals, and the Sabbath Day, for example?! And then there were the Gnostics (from the Greek ‘gnosis’ meaning ‘knowledge’) who claimed that to be a ‘true Christian’ one had to be initiated into a ‘deeper mystical experience or knowledge’ which only they could impart – they were rather ‘new age’ in many ways, into New Moon Festivals and the worship of angels, etc. All of these strands were spurious because each of them in some way or other took away from the uniqueness of the Person of Jesus Christ, and the sufficiency of his saving work on our behalf!
Paul’s measured response to the introduction of these various strands of spurious ‘new teaching’ into the Church at Colossae is fascinating. He does not deny the need for abstinence and self-discipline in the Christian life – he speaks elsewhere of our need to ‘crucify the flesh with its passions and desires’ (Galatians 5:24) and uses the illustration of the dedication of a soldier, the discipline of an athlete, and the diligence of a farmer (2 Timothy 2:3-13). He does not deny the fact that as Christians we remain under God’s Law – he tells us elsewhere that whilst we are no longer under the Law of Moses (which he describes as ‘the law of sin and death’) we are still under ‘the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:2) i.e. we are not free to do just what we like but are now under the direction of the Spirit of Christ who indwells us. He does not deny that for Christians there are deeper experiences of God to be entered into – in a thinly-veiled reference to himself he speaks of a spiritual experience of being ‘caught up to the third heaven’ (2 Corinthians 12:2) – but would concur with Peter that these are simply the fruit of that which God has already imparted to us in conversion – ‘By his divine power God has already given us everything we need for life and godliness’ (2 Peter 1:3). The problem was, for too many of the Christians at Colossae, that because they had been deceived by spurious ideas they had turned away from trusting in Christ, and Christ alone, for salvation and sustenance for day to day living, and instead were trusting in ‘Christ plus’ – Christ plus asceticism, or Christ plus legalism, or Christ plus mysticism?! Pretty soon, however, their particular ‘ism’ took over so that their prevailing message – instead of being Jesus Christ – became asceticism or legalism, or mysticism?! They had bought into these various ‘isms’ on offer in the vain hope that they would ‘soup up’ their Christian experience. But in actual fact the reverse happened, and they lost all the benefits of trusting in Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone, for salvation in all its fullness and spiritual power and sustenance for day to day living. Because they took their eye off the ball they missed the goal completely. I am reminded of one of C H Spurgeon’s insightful sayings: ‘I looked to Christ, and the dove of peace flew into my heart. I looked to the dove of peace, and it flew away again!’
As Paul tells us here, all these things – asceticism, legalism, mysticism – even at their very best ‘are only a shadow … the reality or the substance is found in Christ’ (Colossians 2:16,17). Paul contrasts the ‘shadowy world’ of ethereal things with the ‘real world’ of spirituality reality. The word he uses here for ‘substance’ is the ordinary Greek word for ‘body’ – in other words spiritual reality is to be found in the Person of Christ, and in Christ alone! All these other things – these various ‘isms’ – belong to the shadows – shadows cast by the Person of Christ. Some of these ‘isms’ may have had a value at one time – those pertaining to the Law of Moses, for example – in that (as Paul tells us elsewhere) they acted in some ways as ‘a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ’ (Galatians 3:24). Nevertheless even in that sense they were at best but ‘a shadow of things to come’ (Colossians 2:17). Furthermore not all these ‘isms’ that belong to the shadowy world had value – some ascetic practices and mystical views were totally counter productive. For Paul, all of these ‘isms’ were irrelevant in the light of Christ’s coming!
‘What has all this to do with us today?’ you may ask. Well, quite a lot actually! I am constantly amazed at how ‘up to date’ the Bible is. The situation existing in the Colossian Church c.57AD is not that much different from many local churches today in the UK in the 21st century. I am not concerned so much about the various ‘heresies’ that have troubled the Church down through its history – on the whole we have been pretty good at dealing with those – as with the sheer proliferation of ‘add-ons’ that seem to have invaded the Church in recent years, and the vehemence with which adherents advocate their own particular slant!? Vegetarianism, teetotalism, legalism, moral-ism, Calvinism, Arminianism, Pre-millennialism, various forms of Pentecostalism, Restorationism, Zionism … and countless other ‘isms’ abound within today’s Church. And it is not just the Universal Church that contains such a variety of views. More often than not they are also found within any local church of a reasonable size. Adherents of all the views listed above can be found in our own church in Dorchester, and it was equally true of my previous church in Beckenham.
I am not saying that some of these views are necessarily wrong – indeed some of them may have considerable merit – although personally I am always wary of any movement (sacred and secular) that ends in an ‘ism’?! Even the Calvinist preacher, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones was concerned that ‘Calvinism’ had become a ‘system’ and described himself as a ‘Bible Calvinist not a System Calvinist’?! My own roots are in Reformed Faith, and I am also indebted to the Pentecostal Movement, so I am not saying that all of these facets of faith are without merit. No, my chief concern is the way in which, like the Colossians, any of these particular slants can adulterate the Gospel and even rob Jesus Christ of his pre-eminence if we are not very careful!? Thus our message becomes ‘Christ and vegetarianism’ or ‘Christ and being teetotal’ or ‘Christ and our evangelical version of the Jewish Talmud’ or ‘Christ and Opposition to Gay Marriage’ or ‘Christ and the Five Points of Calvinism’ or ‘Christ and How the New Church Movement Alone Has Got It’ … and so on and so forth. Once again there may, or may not be, some justification for these views, but so often ‘the tail ends up wagging the dog’ so that the particular ‘add on’ becomes the dominant feature rather than Jesus Christ?! Thus over the last few years I have been on the receiving end of some strident lectures (I can put it no other way) from some Christians on ‘the evils of drink’ or ‘how the country is going to the dogs because of gay marriage’ or ‘why I need a new anointing of the Holy Spirit’ or ‘how the only acceptable view on the death of Christ is limited atonement’ or ‘why God has finished with the historic churches’, etc., etc. Just recently I was in a prayer meeting where a very devout person prayed most vehemently that ‘God would smite all those Christians who were not Zionists!’ I’m glad to report that I am still alive at the moment!
When the celebrated Baptist Preacher C H Spurgeon began his ministry at New Park Street Chapel (later to become the Metropolitan Tabernacle) London in 1854, his first words were these: ‘I would propose that the subject of the ministry in this house, as long as this platform shall stand, and as long as this house shall be frequented by worshippers, shall be the person of Jesus Christ. I am never ashamed to avow myself a Calvinist; I do not hesitate to take the name of Baptist; but if I am asked what is my creed, I reply, “It is Jesus Christ!” My venerated predecessor, Dr Gill, has left a Body of Divinity, admirable and excellent in its way; but the Body of Divinity to which I would bind myself for ever, God helping me, is not his system or any other human treatise; but Jesus Christ, who is the sum and substance of the Gospel, who is himself all theology, the incarnation of every precious truth, the all glorious personal embodiment of the Way, the Truth, and the Life’.