I wish I had paid more attention to a section of Perelandra when I was a kid growing up in the church. Perelandra is the second book in C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy. In it the hero, Ransom, is transported to an unfallen world where he fights a demonized character seeking to make this world fall like earth had. The novel needs more story and less philosophy, but one part struck me as profound.
In Chapter Six, Ransom complains about a kind of presence on the planet that he at first found intolerable. He describes it as feeling there is “no room.” He says whenever he felt like asserting his independence “the very air seemed too crowded to breathe.”
As a church kid, I sometimes felt suffocated. Sometimes all the rules felt like a lead blanket crushing my spirit. The pressure to conform, to be a good little church kid, was stifling. Legalism and judgmentalism sucked the air out of the room. Church tradition could render the gospel as dull as dirt.
I did find solutions as a teenager. First, I read the Bible for myself and tried to do it. Second, I met some Jesus freaks who were former drug addicts and joyously in love with Jesus and not embarrassed to say so. In fact, I was embarrassed that I was so timid about sharing Jesus. Third, I watched my parents live out their faith in hard places with difficult people.
C. S. Lewis, however, is not talking about this kind of churchy suffocation. He explains:
But when you gave in to the thing, gave yourself up to it, there was no burden to be borne. It became not a load but a medium, a sort of splendour as of eatable, drinkable, breathable gold, which fed and carried you and not only poured into you but out from you as well. Taken the wrong way, it suffocated; taken the right way, it made terrestrial life seem, by comparison, a vacuum.
A completely different solution is needed for this kind of suffocation: surrender. Perelandra was unfallen and crowded with the presence of God. And taken the wrong way or refused, God’s presence could be oppressive. But surrendered to the presence was life itself.
As a church kid, I experienced both kinds of suffocation. I sometimes accused the good kind of being the bad kind. At times I resisted the voice and presence of God and wanted nothing more than to get out of that stupid meeting. I would say to myself, “I hate church and all the stuffy church people.” To be honest, with only a few exceptions, most of the people were not stuffy or phony. Many were just small-town folks with silly double-knit suits and bad haircuts trying as best they could to follow Jesus.
Around age sixteen I gave into the good kind of suffocation and began taking deep gulps of God’s Spirit. It was wonderful. I led Bible studies at the high school and helped start a coffee house that ministered to teens and street people in our small town. In the years since then, I have encountered both kinds of suffocation again and again. But I have learned to say yes to one kind and no to the other. I have discovered that saying yes to God’s presence and Spirit cracks the other kind of suffocation wide-open. That too is a delight.
It is not just church kids that need to be honest about which kind of suffocation we are resisting. All the political strife in the church has given many reasons to walk away from faith in Jesus. But we desperately need to be honest about whether we are walking away from the phoniness of religion and legalism or the unbearable presence of God pressing us to forgive others, love others (even church people), and surrender to the love and will of God.
Covid-19 and the isolation it has imposed may tempt us to practice our faith free from the mess of fellowship and church. Living free of the problems and opinions of other church people can be invigorating for a while. But there is a presence of God that we will only experience as we gather as the body of Christ, a temple of living stones filled with God’s Spirit.
It is a suffocating Presence if resisted, but “breathable gold” for those who surrender.