The Screwtape Letters: Twenty-Six Through Thirty

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2018. The schedule is online.

We’re almost done. Next week’s readings will be very short indeed. You might even want to finish them off now — they will take you a few extra minutes at most.

These passages caught my eye this week:

In letter 27, the demon says of humans

…their kind of consciousness forces them to encounter the whole, self-consistent creative act as a series of successive events. Why that creative act leaves room for their free will is the problem of problems, the secret behind the Enemy’s nonsense about “Love”. How it does so is no problem at all; for the Enemy does not foresee the humans making their free contributions in a future, but sees them doing so in His unbounded Now. And obviously to watch a man doing something is not to make him do it. (Letter 27, pages 264–265)

I like this, but I’m not sure I agree with it completely. The last half I’m definitely on board with. The first half makes me hesitant. God rested on the seventh day, but Lewis makes the demon say that all of human history is the continuation of the act of creation. There’s a beautiful insight hidden in there, but I think the way Lewis worded it falls outside the bounds that Scripture permits. I’d be more comfortable with something along these lines, “Of course they can find an unbroken series of causes leading up to the condition they desired — the Enemy saw their request being made simultaneously with His answer to their prayer manifesting two weeks later even as He began forming the conditions that would lead to its answer a month before they even became aware of their need. There is a sense in which it is all Now to Him.”

Now that I’ve offered some writing advice to Lewis, I’m off to give some investing advice to Warren Buffet. But first, the next missive (letter 28).

Lewis has Screwtape offer a complaint about humans and time.

How valuable time is to us may be gauged by the fact that the Enemy allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth. It is obvious that to Him human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life. We are allowed to work only on a selected minority of the race, for what humans call a “normal life” is the exception. Apparently He wants some—but only a very few—of the human animals with which He is peopling Heaven to have had the experience of resisting us through an earthly life of sixty or seventy years. Well, there is our opportunity. The smaller it is, the better we must use it. (Letter 28, page 268)

Clearly, Lewis believes that infants and children go to heaven. I share this belief. As David said of his dead son in 2 Samuel 2:23, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”

Elsewhere in the letter we see that this ticket to heaven for the young is so frustrating to demons that they sometimes endeavor to keep us alive, but I think that’s not quite right. After all, John 10:10 informs us that the enemy comes to steal, kill and destroy. Nonetheless, Lewis is on to something here.

This last excerpt (from letter 29) is my favorite for the week.

This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy’s motives for creating a dangerous world—a world in which moral issues really come to the point. He sees as well as you do that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky. (Letter 29, page 270)

This, this, a thousand times this. Act with courage. It takes courage to stand for Christ at Stanford. It takes courage to forgo a pleasure and risk giving offense because of a deep conviction. It takes courage to tell your friends certain truths.

Something that encourages me (literally encourages me — puts courage into me) is to reflect on this: Revelation 21:8 tells us that the cowardly are the first group thrown into hell. It’s a sobering thought.

And this related point at the end of the letter speaks directly to what I see as one of the chief failings in modern culture:

For remember, the act of cowardice is all that matters; the emotion of fear is, in itself, no sin and, though we enjoy it, does us no good. (Letter 29, page 271)

So many people today confuse feelings with action. For instance, they often seem to believe that feeling bad about something is the same thing as opposing it. “I saw those pictures of starving children and I felt bad. I should tweet about how horrible hunger is.” Do you know who is actually opposed to hunger? The people who send money or spend time to combat hunger.  On the last day, Jesus is not going to say, “As you felt it for the least of these, so you felt it for me.” Allow your feelings to inform your choices, but do not confuse the two.

Be a person of action and hell will hate you.

Enjoy the last little bit of reading!

The Screwtape Letters: Twenty Through Twenty-Five

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2018. The schedule is online.

This week we’re looking at letters 20 to 25. Two passages caught my attention this week.

I was struck by how contemporary Lewis’s comments on sexual temptation in letter 20 seem, even though he wrote this book nearly 80 years ago.

We have engineered a great increase in the licence which society allows to the representation of the apparent nude (not the real nude) in art, and its exhibition on the stage or the bathing beach. It is all a fake, of course; the figures in the popular art are falsely drawn; the real women in bathing suits or tights are actually pinched in and propped up to make them appear firmer and more slender and more boyish than nature allows a full-grown woman to be. Yet at the same time, the modern world is taught to believe that it is being “frank” and “healthy” and getting back to nature. As a result we are more and more directing the desires of men to something which does not exist—making the role of the eye in sexuality more and more important and at the same time making its demands more and more impossible. What follows you can easily forecast! (letter 20, page 243)

It was indeed easy to forecast, but now we need merely look around. Sexual dysfunction plagues our society. A study that appeared this week (Pornography Use and Marriage Entry During Early Adulthood: Findings From a Panel Study of Young Americans in prepublication) found that “higher levels of pornography use in emerging adulthood were associated with a lower likelihood of marriage by the final survey wave for men, but not women.” Lewis called it.

The other passage which stood out to me was from letter 21, and I confess it struck uncomfortably close to home:

Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered. Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him. It is the unexpected visitor (when he looked forward to a quiet evening), or the friend’s talkative wife (turning up when he looked forward to a tete-а-tete with the friend), that throw him out of gear.… They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen.… The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon his chattels. He is also, in theory, committed a total service of the Enemy; and if the Enemy appeared to him in bodily form and demanded that total service for even one day, he would not refuse.

That is so true. If God asks for fifteen minutes, I’ll give it to Him gladly regardless of what I am doing. But if someone chats with me for fifteen minutes while I’m trying to get a task done, I become impatient and irritable. Yet Jesus clearly said “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). I need to change.

Anyway, that’s some of what I got from this week’s readings. Only two weeks of reading remain!

The Screwtape Letters: Thirteen Through Nineteen

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2018. The schedule is online.

Lewis is on such a roll! This week we’re looking at letters thirteen through nineteen, and insights abound. I fear that if I don’t constrain myself I’ll just cut and paste all of the text.

I’ll limit myself to two excerpts from Lewis along with some brief commentary on them.

The great thing is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it; that is often an excellent way of sterilizing the seeds which the Enemy plants in a human soul. Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will. As one of the humans has said, active habits are strengthened by repetition but passive ones are weakened. The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel. (Letter 13, page 223)

Wow. I had forgotten Lewis said this. This is so good! The author to which Screwtape is alluding is Joseph Butler and you can see the source of the quote at Lewisiana.

Lewis is driving at this: the longer you mean to do something the less likely you are to do it. So get off your good intentions and do something you know you are supposed to do. Obedience unlocks insight. The more you do the more you will understand and then the more opportunities for obedience you will have. It’s a virtuous cycle.

You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character. Some talents, I gather, he really has. Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be. No doubt they are in fact less valuable than he believes, but that is not the point. The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue.…  The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things. (Letter 14, page 225)

This reminds me of Romans 12:3, where Paul teaches us: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.”

That verse alone would change Stanford if it was taken seriously. “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.” Instead, Paul says, think of yourself with sober judgment. In other words, self-awareness and honesty lay the foundation for humility. Don’t overestimate your competence but also don’t downplay it. And when you evaluate yourself soberly, do it “in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” I take that to mean that instead of subjectively comparing ourselves to others, we should measure ourselves against the objective standards of God’s Word and ultimately against the person of Jesus. That’s a whole sermon, though, and that’s not the point of these updates. I just want to remind you that Lewis has some amazing insights and encourage you to finish the summer readings strong!

The Screwtape Letters: Six Through Twelve

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2018. The schedule is online.

This week’s reading (letters six through twelve) was simultaneously short and full of insightful observations.

A few of Lewis’s comments stood out to me:

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. (Letter Nine, page 210)

Lewis is spot-on here. Pleasure is a gift from God. As James 1:27 reminds us, “every good and perfect gift is from above.” Truly internalizing this is transformative. The pleasures of God are premium, grade A stuff. It is true that Satan is a skillful knockoff artist, and this means that the opportunities he lures us with can seem as good as (or even superior to) God’s pleasures at first, but at the end of the day they are still knockoffs. The pleasures they produce don’t last. Hebrews 11:25 calls them “the fleeting pleasures of sin.”

The upshot: few things disrupt Satan’s schemes for your life like a fierce love of wholesome pleasure. One of the best ways to resist temptation is to be full of godly joy.

Moving on, letter ten seems especially helpful to Stanford students.

[When trying to impress new, sophisticated friends] he will be silent when he ought to speak and laugh when he ought to be silent. He will assume, at first only by his manner, but presently by his words, all sorts of cynical and sceptical attitudes which are not really his. But if you play him well, they may become his. All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be. This is elementary. (Letter Ten, pages 212–213)

Boom! Not much to add to that except pray for all the frosh heading to Stanford in a few weeks.

Also of relevance to the Stanford culture:

But flippancy is the best [source of laughter] of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. (Letter Eleven, page 217)

Again, little commentary is needed. You will find it worthwhile, though, to pay attention to the things that are simply assumed to be false by your community. What Lewis calls flippancy is an indication that there might not be solid arguments against the opinion being mocked. Internet culture is especially prone to this sort of superficial commentary. Social media, in particular, incentivizes it. There may very well be good reasons that your community believes what it does about the good life, the problems facing society, the true religion, and right-thinking politics… but perhaps there are not. Seek out the non-flippant opinions before you allow the juvenile banter to sway you unduly.

Anyway, I hope you derived as much benefit from this week’s reading as I did. Enjoy the book!

The Screwtape Letters: Preface and the First Five Letters

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2018. The schedule is online.

This week we begin our final summer bookk, The Screwtape Letters. Before I give some thoughts on this week’s reading, I have some general observations.

On to the main course:

Demonic correspondence in a hellish bureaucracy is a genius idea for a book and I assumed it would have been fun to write, but Lewis said “Of all my books, there was only one I did not take pleasure in writing.” The Screwtape Letters “were dry and gritty going. At the time, I was thinking of objections to the Christian life, and decided to put them into the form, ‘That’s what the devil would say.’ But making goods ‘bad’ and bads ‘good’ gets to be fatiguing.” (source)

I’m glad Lewis put up with the fatigue. The result is tremendous. Let me begin with one of my favorite quotes from the book (from the preface):

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

This paragraph has special meaning to me as a Pentecostal. Some corners of the Pentecostal world seem to believe there is a demon behind every headache and traffic jam. But much of our society has a hard time acknowledging that there is anything demonic about something as overt as Satan worship. There is a more sensible position which Lewis here describes and which the Apostle Paul modeled: Paul was comfortable with the spirit realm and demons recognized that he was a force to be reckoned with (Acts 19:11–16), but he did not obsess over it. He was not an easy man to distract. Once a demon was harassing him, but it took several days before it got on Paul’s nerves enough for him to respond to it (Acts 16:16–18). Strive to be like Paul — deal with the demonic realm without becoming consumed by the demonic realm.

In the first letter, Screwtape writes to Wormwood about how modern trends have made demonic work easier:

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 waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.

Reading this paragraph reminded me of the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau. He once famously answered a question about his cabinet composition by saying, “Because it’s 2015!” This is the kind of thing Screwtape is talking about. It’s the kind of answer we have been conditioned to respond to, and so it’s the kind of answer a skillful politician gives.

Later in the same letter, Screwtape makes a good point about science:

Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists. If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don’t let him get away from that invaluable “real life”. But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is “the results of modem investigation”.

I’ve ministered at Stanford since 2002, and in my experience mathematicians and students of the hard sciences have an easier time embracing the gospel than do students of the social sciences or the humanities. In part, it seems to me, it is because social scientists tend to look for answers that “explain away” whereas hard scientists tend to look for explanations. 

The final sentence, though, is the real kicker. We assume something is true because a lot of people keep saying it and thereby mistake repetition for reason. When someone tells me “the Bible is full of contradictions” I often discover they don’t have any to offer. They’re not lying — they are merely repeating something they have heard so often that they assume it must have a solid foundation.  Sometimes there’s more cognitive dissonance, such as when someone assumes the sexual revolution has been a net positive for society. In that case my interlocutor is usually ignoring or discounting evidence they have personally observed. But again, they’re not consciously lying. The sexual revolution is nearly always presented as progress, and people assume that there must be something to that since it keeps getting repeated.

I am not saying we should mistrust the consensus of experts who are speaking to us about something we have no knowledge of. Deferring to expert consensus is an excellent heuristic, except when the consensus conflicts with something we know. In that case we humbly return to the evidence and think things through again, with openness to the idea that we might be wrong but so might the experts. Here’s the rub: when it comes to things like morality and religion we will almost always have some direct knowledge which we need to consider. And especially with subjects like morality and religion we need to remember that both the experts as well as ourselves have powerful motives to not think things through all the way. All that to say: trust the experts, but not too much. Furthermore, don’t assume our cultural consensus is the same thing as the expert consensus. If that was always the case, we wouldn’t need experts!

I’ll content myself with sharing one final quote from the reading, this one from Letter Four:

It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.

Distraction is one of the chief enemies of spiritual growth, and we live in an age that is full of it. Sustained and slow thought is one of the chief instruments in our transformation. If Lewis is right and one of the infernal legion’s goals is to keep you distracted and prevent you from focusing, let that inform your use of apps and the internet. Just a thought.