Originally posted July 2005
To the librarians whose names I can’t remember now, who happily helped a small child find and devour each eagerly awaited, newly arrived Narnia book.
Also to the tiny handful of wonderful, thought-provoking, and truly religious people who recommended this book to me. It took a while for me to get to it, but you were right — it was worth it. Thanks to all of you.
From what I’ve been told and read, Lewis was a renowned social commentator for his times. I’d have to disagree slightly with that assessment, as I feel many of his clever, gently pointed observations apply just as well today as they did then. True, there are a few references which I feel are now dated (such as his commentary on evolution being a distraction from the truth), but they are very few, and they do not detract from his overall message — which is, I believe, just as fresh and pertinent today as then.
That being said, his book did not speak to me on a purely Christian basis. I don’t consider myself a christian in the modern sense; if anything I self-identify as a relaxed agnostic. I’ve experienced nothing in my life which I can accept as incontrovertible proof of a deity or deities, but I’m relaxed enough about it that I’m in no rush to die and find out for sure. I have a basically anthropological view on deities, in that they are most usually a glorified form of the culture’s social ideals.
As a consequence, I also don’t feel morality needs to be handed down from, say, a scary father figure in the sky. I feel true morality comes from within, rather than being a fearful obedience — and, of course, I know everyone’s mileage varies, and that’s fine with me. Thus, there were parts of Lewis’ story I did not identify much with. What I found fascinating, however, was how much of it did resonate for me, and with which I felt an instant empathy.
I’m not referring to the up-front textual message of the book here, of course — it is purportedly a series of letters from a demon, advising another on techniques to successfully tempt a human into turning from god. I refer instead to the subtext I received when I tried turning the textual, “demonic” advice on its metaphorical head.
I found there a message of hope, kindness, generosity of spirit, and love, which I found truly attractive. Considering some of the more unpleasant christian polemic I’ve read through my life, it was wonderfully, refreshingly attractive to read Lewis’ views on what true Christianity is.
Through a glass, darkly
Indeed, the book was quite absorbing. More than once I found myself thinking, “Wait… what was that again?” and going back to carefully re-read a thought-provoking or complex sentence — or even the entire paragraph again, for context.
Also more than once I felt that amused ping of recognition, seeing people I’ve known who call themselves Christians, in Screwtape’s descriptions of tempted humans. I also had a small laugh of recognition during the letter where Screwtape describes the uses of Fashion, in particular during the segment stating:
“We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is in least danger, and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. …
Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm….”
Keeping in mind this is a demon describing how to best separate humans from the deity, I couldn’t help but grin at, “…and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.” Hoisted by our own cultural petard, I see.
I also found Lewis’ attitude towards the clergy interesting. For example, at one point Screwtape refers to a “sound old vintage Pharisee (italics his)” in a toast. One might initially believe this was a bit of anti-Semitism, but it’s clear from the lovely description this is a “vintage” made up as much from the clergy of both christianity and other religions as it is from actual Pharisees:
“Types that were most antagonistic to one another on earth. Some were all rules and relics and rosaries; others were all drab clothes, long faces, and petty traditional abstinences from wine or cards or the theatre.
Both had in common their self-righteousness and the almost infinite distance between their actual outlook, and anything the Enemy [i.e. Heaven] really is or commands. The wickedness of other religions was the really live doctrine in the religion of each; slander was its gospel and denigration its litany.”
I’ve read far too many diatribes against other groups and religions to be able to take seriously those who make hatred against others their religion. When asking questions is huffily equated by the cleric to disobedience to god, when simply disagreeing is grounds for excommunication, when doing anything differently than the cleric has dictated somehow makes you the anti-christ… well, frankly I think there’s more insecurity than deity in clerical squawks like those.
I very much enjoyed Lewis’ subtly humorous dismissal of these sorts. As he himself quotes of Luther in his preface, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.“