Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Screwtape Letters, Ch. 1 and 2

I picked up The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis) to supplement my reading this morning. I haven't read it since I was in high school, and I always love going back to a book full of wisdom to see what will jump out at me that I didn't take note of the first time or that I have since forgotten. Here are some observations from the first two chapters. For those unfamiliar with the premise of the book, it is a series of letters written from one demon to another, his nephew, on the subject of tempting humans. It is written from their perspective and so refers to God as "the Enemy" and the devil as "Our Father Below." The chapters are short but packed full of insight into the human condition and spiritual life and realities.

The first thing that struck me was that the tempters know what is true themselves, at least, in a twisted sort of way. I had been under the impression that they were always trying to persuade humans to believe what they believed, but that's not the case. They try to keep humans from God, but they themselves know that there is a God and that he is powerful, etc. They are trying to keep people from the truth, not persuade them to believe in what demons believe in, because even they acknowledge the existence of God (and shudder, James 2:19). So what they're trying to sell fits into a different category and I'm not sure what to call it. I don't think it's a positive thing like "belief in x," but more of a negative thing like "any way of living or believing that does not acknowledge God." As long as that criterion is met, they would probably be happy, because, no matter what kind of life a person lives, in the end that determines who has victory over a person's life. Their job is distraction and distortion...

In a passage on p. 2, the uncle Screwtape says:

By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient's reason; and once it is awake, who can forsee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favour, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it 'real life' and don't let him ask what he means by 'real'.

Here is a fascinating passage. Screwtape goes on to relate the story of a man he tricked out of thinking about deeper issues by getting him to go eat lunch instead. He's distracting people from the unseen with what is seen and felt. But the problem with that for people is that what is seen is temporary and what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor. 4:18). "Real" life, our surroundings, can be deceiving.

Another example of the difference between the seen and unseen occurs on p. 5 when Screwtape talks about the church:

One of our greatest allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate...

How often do we forget the true image of the church or trade it for the image we see on Sunday mornings?

He goes on in this chapter to describe the people in the church, their faults and areas of inadequacy to the human eye, but also their appearance to him, "you may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy's side" (p.6). In this book, and in The Great Divorce, Lewis does an excellent job at contrasting the reality that is seen with the eye to the eternal reality. In The Great Divorce, there is a section describing a seemingly ordinary woman, who in heaven is completely transformed, or rather, revealed in her true form of beauty and grace. We are at a great disadvantage when it comes to seeing things as they really are. We cannot recognize "great warriors" when they sit in the next pew.

My favorite section from the first two passages touches on some of the themes I've been exploring in this blog, namely, discipline and getting where you want to go. Lewis calls it "the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing." Here is the section:

Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman. The Enemy allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every human endeavor. It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing. The Enemy takes this risk because He has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His 'free' lovers and servants-- 'sons' is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to 'do it on their own'. And there lies our opportunity. But also, remember, there lies our danger. If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.

God doesn't force us. He leads us to the path and then the rest is up to us. Perhaps it takes a little longer, but there are lessons for us along the way-- the lessons of hard work and the lesson Lewis points out-- less dependence on emotion. That's a big one I need to learn. Sometimes emotion can't be trusted and it just needs to be put aside. I wish there were an easy way to do this. God's goal in this is our freedom. How interesting.

Tune in next time for chapters 3 and 4, or, go pick up the book yourself and read it along with me. It's quick in the reading, but provides thinking material to occupy hours and hours...

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