I was raised as a fundamentalist Christian (I got better). For those fundamentalists who don’t think the Bible is the only book you ever need, C. S. Lewis is perhaps the most popular apologist. Having particularly heard The Screwtape Letters constantly praised all my youth, when I saw it in a charity shop, I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about.
The Screwtape Letters are a series of letters from the demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood (a diabolical version of a guardian angel) about the man that Wormwood has been assigned to lure to the clutches of Hell. Screwtape’s letters – we never see Wormwood’s responses – lecture the young demon on ways to corrupt the man.
A disaster happens early on: The man becomes a Christian, and the two demons must race against time to lure their victim back into the fold. It’s actually rather a lot like this Chick tract but better written – though, of course, that’s not saying much: researchers have discovered that, in comparison to Chick, it only takes the output of one monkey typing on a typewriter to at least seem like the works of Shakespeare. This has proven a problem with experiments in infinite monkeys, where the poor metaphysical researchers trumpet their monkey’s reconstruction of The Tragedy of Ejsbwv, Ffhvs of HSafas, only to discover that that is not, in fact, by Shakespeare.
Well, let’s look at the actual book.
It’s done as a series of 31 letters. The first sets out the theme of what is to come: Thanks to the work of demons influencing the culture:
Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false”, but as “academic” or “practical”, “outworn” or “contemporary”, “conventional” or “ruthless”. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t wate time making him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous – that t is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.
The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the enemy’s own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He has been shown for centuries the inferior of Our Father Below. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?
Evidently, in C.S. Lewis’s world, materialism – read atheism – is illogical, and only seems rational if you are being actively tricked by demons. However, the Bible, with its virgin births, miracles, self-contradictions, emphasis on faith, not proof – and all the rest, is perfectly logical, and awaking someone’s reason is a sure way to send someone to Christianity and Heaven.
However, Lewis is in control of reality for the purposes of this book: In the next paragraph he details how an atheist was nearly saved from Hell when rational thoughts began to arise in his mind, but luckily, the demon was ale to get him to put off thinking about it until after lunch.
How did the demon then save him from being saved?
Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paoer, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man’s head when he was shut up alone with books, a healthy dose of “real life” (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy( was enough to show him that all “that sort of thing” just couldn’t be true. He knew he’d had a narrow escape and in later years was fond of talking about “that inarticulate sense of actuality which is our ultimate safeguard against the aberrations of mere logic…
That’s right. Newspaper sellers and buses: A surefire way to prevent someone from using logic. Lewis appears to be arguing that even the slightest connection with reality leads to the abandonment of all logic – and that logic inevitably leads to Christianity. Lewis himself, of course, is completely out of touch with reality, and so is an excellent Christian apologist.
But this isn’t the stupidest argument to be found in this book. Oh, goodness me, no! He argues that:
* People should marry people they aren’t in love with, simply to avoid having sex outside of marriage.
* If you think you don’t need to kneel when you pray, you are being tricked by demons: The position of the body is crucial to getting the soul ready for communion with God.
* God allows millions of infants to die in childbirth in order to protect them from the temptations of the world, and snap them up to heaven, safe from demons.
* Evolution is evil, because it looks to the future, which is unlike God’s eternity, being unproven and uncertain. Don’t look at me to explain that one:. It’s part of a Fauxlosophic narration about how the present and eternity is where mankind’s attention should be, only looking to the future enough to prepare for it today what is needed for later. Because the future is uncertain, but eternity is.
* Historians, English departments and the historical method were created by demons in order to prevent people reading ancient texts uncritically, which might let them find the ancient wisdom that would point them towards God. Instead, people are encouraged to look at the sources, the reasons for the text being written, and the author’s reasons for writing it, which protect them from any truths contained in the manuscript.
In short, propped up in Lewis’ dry writing, we have the most patent of patent nonsense disguised as an academic discussion. Lewis’ writing style does a decent job of concealing how stupid many of his arguments are: For instance, rhetorical tricks used in cold reading such as making a lot of either-or statements that seem very specific, but actually cover most of the spectrum of possibility. If the reader identifies with one of the possibilities, Lewis’ descriptions of human nature seems a lot more accurate, and since they don’t know any of the materialists or atheists Lewis bashes constantly, they’re more likely to accept Lewis’ views of them as true.
This book really is a disappointment. I used to enjoy Lewis’ Narnia books. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is actually a rather nice modern-day Odyssey, and you no more need to believe Christianity to enjoy it than you need to believe the Greek myths to appreciate the Odyssey. Of course, any discussion of Narnia needs to mention The Last Battle – which noone likes: Sure, the ending’s pretty well-written, but it appears that Lewis spent all his time writing a good description of Heaven, and so was unable to fill the rest of the book with anything more than bashing evolution, atheism, rationalism, and Muslims, while derailing the character arcs of all the characters from the previous books and making everyone idiots, so that they’ll submit to slavery and persecution simply because they’re told God says so.
…Of course, given Bush’s regime and the last few years in America, maybe that last isn’t so far off. Pity Lewis evidently thinks that’s the correct reaction to being told God says so.