Saturday, October 23, 2004

Bearable Christianity

The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis, Read by Joss Ackland, HarperCollins Audio, 2002

C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece, The Screwtape Letters, is one of those classics that always haunt my lists of “great books” to one day get around to reading. It’s referenced frequently, most people I know have read it, a classic. That it was a sort of theological book didn’t help it move up the list any, even though I knew it was a sort of anti-theologica.

It was worth the wait.

I’ve had the good luck in life to find a book when reading it would be the most enjoyable or would have the grandest effect on me. I couldn’t abide Whitman when forced to read him high school, but late in college I gave him another chance and fell into his long, lusty lyrics like it was puppy love. Likewise Conrad, Twain, Shakespeare, and many others

Add to that this book. Had Screwtape fallen into my lap during my far angrier atheist days when I philosophically lashed out at the Catholicism I was raised in, I might have embraced it, but I’m certain to have missed its more delicious ironies. My thoughts and feelings toward Catholicism haven’t changed (nor my disbelief), but time has cooled the levels of sentiment therein.

For those not in the know, The Screwtape Letters is a one-sided epistolatory account of the endeavor to tempt a young man toward Hell. The book consists of letters from an older, established demon, Screwtape, to his novice nephew, Wormwood. They are full of diabolical advice and hellish patronization. Along the way, Lewis makes spot on characterizations of certain types, surprisingly accurate counterintuitive points, and amusing social commentary.

An example of a counterintuitive point I still question, however, is Screwtape’s advice that in order to keep people atheists make sure they don’t dabble in science. The motive here is that science gets people thinking of things one can’t touch. While there might be something in that, the majority of scientists I’ve read either don’t discuss their religion in their work, leaving me unable to comment on their souls, or they are quite proudly and adamantly atheist/agnostic.

When hearing Screwtape discuss the upcoming war and its opportunities to tempt, I at first thought Lewis suggested that pacifism or patriotism were equally likely to lead to atheism. That pacifism could lead to atheism is a bit ridiculous. Later reflection clearly discovered that it wasn’t pacifism leading to atheism, but rather pacifism becoming more important than religious belief, pacifism that religion is used to justify. The argument that patriotism could override religious beliefs is far more probable, far more frequently invoked, and far easier to square with Christianity as practiced today. The church idea of a “just war” is so much chin music. Lewis’ embrace of it here was a severe disappointment. In Jesus’ teaching, as I’ve come to understand them, there is no such thing as a “just war,” but there is a lot of turning the other cheek. I’ve always heard the man referred to as the Prince of Peace, not the Prince of Peace Except....

There is much made of pretense in the book. “All morals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be,” Screwtape writes at one point. Vonnegut made this same point bitterly, negatively in Mother Night. This ties in nicely to an unusual definition of gluttony. Most often, the word is defined at overabundance, overeating, piggishness. Yet Lewis frames gluttony as a love of appetite period, such as people he describes as “all I want types” (meaning, people who say “all I want,” as though it were just this miniscule thing, then proceed with a detailed, highly specific desire, and ultimately are disappointed because reality can’t match the dreams of appetite). For a man in this situation, vanity is used to fan the flames to gluttony, a man being lead to believe that he has found “the only” place in town that cooks a steak right, the only teashop that makes a proper cup.

What gives Lewis’ work its real bite and sting is its pricking of self-satisfied Christians. At each lesson Screwtape provides Wormwood, he demonstrates the side paths off of virtues that lead to the deadly sins. Gluttony, as shown above, is a perfect example of this.

When he discourses on lust, he crushes the nonsensical idea that one should marry under the passion of romance as the ideal of marriage, virginal Christians rushing to wed the first person for whom they feel lust. “Any sexual infatuation whatsoever, so long as it intends marriage, will be considered love,” he writes. He also grasps the underlying psychological hostility in a certain kind of sexual pity or sexual attraction/revulsion. “There is another type he desires brutally,” Screwtape, as read by Joss Ackland, purrs with menace, “and desires to desire brtually.” (This kind of woman, the kind desired for one reason, is perfectly summed up in the country song “Trashy Women.”) Lewis clearly comprehends the hell of a bad marriage entered into under misapprehended lust, and Screwtape clearly sees the ample opportunities for mischief of such a union. “The real use of the Infernal Venus is no doubt as prostitute or mistress, but if your man is a Christian and he has been well trained in nonsense about irresistible and all excusing love he can often be induced to marry her and that is very well worth bringing about.”

Pride, Lewis demonstrates, is the most widespread Christian fault, their pride in their humility or in their good works becomes worship of self. The worship of self takes many forms and Screwtape is ready to latch on to any opening. His discursions on humor as a tool to lead one into sin are rather fascinating. A clever person can make a good joke on morality, Screwtape tells his nephew Wormwood, but anyone can be flippant about it. To simply scoff is to avoid thinking about the issue — it is to consider yourself too good for the issue, too clever; to be fashionable is often more important than to be decent; to be considered amusing and flip is prized.

But there is real ironic pathos when Screwtape writes of love and God’s love for humanity, as he makes clear that believing God loves mankind is heretical in hell, then caps this doubt with this sentence which has an unexpected sadness about it: “Members of His faction have frequently admitted that if ever we came to understand what He means by love, the war should be over and we should re-enter Heaven.” The demons labor to discover the “real” reason why God made humanity, not believing the answer of love. But the paradox here is that they seek an answer that leads to conquest, though if they simply believed the answer they were given, that love is all you need, they would be admitted back into Heaven, forgiven, not that they would march in as victorious warriors.

The addition of “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” written years after the original work demonstrates a weakness in focus. Lewis had changed, gotten bitterer, fell out of the Screwtape frame of mind. His toast is less sly than the letters, more transparent. When listening to the letters, it is very easy to suspend disbelief and let the mind of the character open up to you; when listening to the toast, the author peeks through too much, the form of praising that which Lewis wished to condemn and vice versa is done rather less masterfully. As a result, it just feels forced, a product Lewis produced for a clamoring audience, rather than a piece of art produced by genius and inspiration.

Joss Ackland, CBE, delivers a wonderfully suave and slithery reading. He has a most wonderful organ in his voice, slippery, warm, then suddenly acid and biting. He delivers the name of his letter writing demon with such pleasure you’d think the name “Screwtape” delivered to him a spike of pure heroin. His reading adds to the pleasures of the book, his sinister bass the perfect hellish voice for such anti-theology.

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