Last week, I recorded an interview with a Christian radio station in Chicago. The subject was my book, “America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact.” I think it went very well. Here’s the program; lasts just over 40 minutes. Check it out for yourself.
After C. S. Lewis wrote his enormously popular Screwtape Letters, he often said he never wanted to go back to that style of writing, putting himself into the mindset of hell to explain heavenly things. But in 1959, sixteen years after Screwtape appeared in print in the US, he consented to pen an addendum of sorts to his famous book.
“Screwtape Proposes a Toast” was an article Lewis wrote for an American publication, the Saturday Evening Post. It took the form of an after-dinner speech by Screwtape to the Tempters’ Training College. It was just as witty and biting as the original.
The themes in the article showed up in earlier Lewis essays, particularly “Equality” and “Democratic Education,” but in an obviously different format. In one of the passages on equality, Lewis adds to what he said in the previous essay, illustrating that those who press the most for equality may actually have more pride than those we might suspect of that sin. Here’s how “Screwtape” puts it:
No man who says I’m as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did.
The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain.
The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept.
And therefore resents. Yes, and therefore resents every kind of superiority in others; denigrates it; wishes its annihilation. Presently he suspects every mere difference of being a claim to superiority.
Do you see what Lewis has done here? Normally, we think those who have everything are the ones most infested with pride. And certainly there is the temptation to lord it over others if you are capable of doing things well—are “superior” in some way.
However, looking deeper, Lewis sees that those at the bottom—whether it be in the social scale, in economic terms, or just in outward appearance—may be the ones with the greater pride problem. They seek to drag others down to their level out of resentment and/or bitterness. “We deserve more,” they seem to be saying, and make their own claims to superiority. They do it, though, in the name of “equality,” thereby making it acceptable, for who doesn’t believe in equality, right?
As always, Lewis offers insights well worth pondering.
Many readers of Lewis are familiar with a comment he made in his “Learning in War-Time” essay with respect to the importance of knowing history. As a historian, it truly resonates with me, and I was reminded of it again when I assigned the essay to my students last week. Lewis wrote,
Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.
A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.
In other words, we need perspective—historical perspective—to properly understand our own time and to, as he says, make us somewhat immune to the “cataract of nonsense” that emanates from our media. In Lewis’s day, that was mostly via magazines and radio; what would he say about the vast social media networks that exist now?
I have The Quotable Lewis, a very useful volume edited by Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, in front of me right now, and under the category of “Prejudice,” I discover that Lewis said something very similar in his Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature in a chapter on the poet Edmund Spenser. Here’s how he described the same concept in somewhat different language:
There is a great difference between rejecting something you have known from the inside and rejecting something (as uneducated people tend to do) simply because it happens to be out of fashion in your own time.
It is like the difference between a mature and travelled man’s love for his own country and the cocksure conviction of an ignorant adolescent that his own village (which is the only one he knows) is the hub of the universe and does everything in the Only Right Way.
For our own age, with all its accepted ideas, stands to the vast extent of historical time much as one village stands to the whole world.
A key message I always want to communicate to my students is that just because we are farther along the historical timeline, that doesn’t automatically mean we are smarter. Sometimes, the things we believe and the actions we take are more foolish than the beliefs and actions of those who came before us, and that it might be wisdom on our part to study them and find out what they have to offer us.
We are an arrogant age, thinking we know so much better than our ancestors, yet we are also a historically ignorant age. We have much to learn.
It doesn’t take C. S. Lewis too many words to get to the heart of an issue. Here’s an example from his essay “Cross-Examination”:
I believe that there are too many accommodating preachers, and too many practitioners in the church who are not believers. Jesus Christ did not say “Go into all the world and tell the world that it is quite right.” The Gospel is something completely different. In fact, it is directly opposed to the world.
Lewis, of course, was seeing the world as it was in his time. I often wonder what he would think and write if he were to see what it has become today. My conclusion is that the words above would be even more appropriate now.
We are awash with accommodating preachers who draw people into their churches with false messages of “prosperity” and “self-esteem.” And those churches are filled with practitioners who are not really believers in the true Gospel message.
The Gospel has always been in direct conflict with the world. Whenever we feel too at home here, we should enter into a self-examination.
In the survey I conducted in 2014 about how C. S. Lewis’s writings have impacted Americans, I saw how that impact was both intellectual and emotional, and how God used both to help people find Him.
On the intellectual side was this comment:
When I was an arrogant college student who believed only weak and/or stupid people believed in Christ, Lewis showed me beyond question that faith could make sense even to an intellectual. He awakened my spiritual imagination with his fiction and persuaded my reason with his nonfiction.
Another provided a more in-depth scrutiny of how Lewis dealt with the intellect:
Lewis’s works exemplify what I consider a Holy Spirit baptized intellect. Knowledge on holy fire. His ability to frame the issues in a succinct way and then address them with such extremely critical thinking skills provides a wonderful exemplar for Christians all over the world on how to not only be people of faith, but also engage our intellect (verbal and writing skills) to provide a “defense for the hope that is within us.”
His work, Mere Christianity, remains one of my favorite recommendations for intellectual unbelievers who are serious about weighing through claims of Christian faith. I believe many will either embrace Christ for the first time or reinforce their beliefs in Him through its reading.
Beyond the purely intellectual appeal, Lewis and his writings also have impacted the emotions and encouraged Christians in their various struggles. One woman was willing to share her personal struggles and how staying in touch with Lewis made a huge difference in her life:
When I walked away from my Christian faith during my twenties and early thirties, Lewis was one of the few Christian authors I still trusted and could stand to read. I was grieving, angry, and depressed, and when I reread The Chronicles of Narnia, the hope that shone through them was almost painful. Emotionally, it was as though a frozen and numb part of me began to regain feeling.
Some years later, a passage from The Screwtape Letters was instrumental in helping me realize that I’d been angry at the church when, in fact, the church had been my truest friends and best support through very dark days.
For those who completed this survey, there is no doubt that Lewis remains a source of spiritual strength and intellectual rigor for many American Christians. He has kept many from losing their faith while in college; his books continue to sell briskly more than half a century after he penned his last one; he has inspired children with his Narnia tales and introduced them to Christ in the form of a beloved lion; societies are springing up throughout the land devoted to the study of Lewis; and major Hollywood movies have attempted to put his vision and message into the mainstream of American entertainment. C. S. Lewis appears to be in America to stay.
All those essays by C. S. Lewis contain nuggets that can be missed when we focus only on his more famous works. For instance, in “The Efficacy of Prayer,” written in 1959, he provides many thoughtful insights:
Prayer is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person.
That’s a good starting place for any prayer: recognize who you really are in comparison to the One to whom you are praying.
Then there are the various aspects of our prayers:
Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine.
There’s a lot going on in genuine prayer; it’s not just seeking God’s favor with petitions:
In it God shows Himself to us. That He answers prayers is a corollary—not necessarily the most important one—from that revelation. What He does is learned from what He is.
We are tempted at times to try to use God to get things. The temptation is to value Him as the One who provides us with what we need or want. Instead, we need to value Him just for who He is. The “things” will disappear in eternity, but the relationship with Him is what makes heaven truly heaven.
Two of the courses I’m teaching this semester are particularly gratifying: one is on C. S. Lewis and the other on Whittaker Chambers. I’ve taught on Chambers for many years; this is only the second time I’ve offered the Lewis course.
Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I’ve written books lately on both men. The added blessing is to be given the opportunity to then take what I’ve researched and written about and offer it to the students.
In the Lewis course, we started with his autobiography, Surprised By Joy, and will be completing most of Mere Christianity next week. Along with the latter, I’ve had the students read Paul McCusker’s C. S. Lewis and Mere Christianity, which provides the historical background for his WWII BBC talks that eventually became the classic work.
Next we will turn to The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, The Abolition of Man, That Hideous Strength, The Last Battle, and A Grief Observed. Interspersed with those books will be a number of Lewis’s essays, thereby helping students get as broad an acquaintance with his thought as possible.
And of course I end with my book on how Lewis has impacted Americans. How could I omit that?
The discussion has been heartfelt as students reflect on not only what Lewis has said but how he has said it. The observations the students turn in to me after each reading assignment have been excellent; it warms a professor’s heart to see them interacting with what they are reading.
My Chambers course is small, but I like the coziness of a small class. I give them a history of communism in short doses, we read Chambers’s amazing autobiography Witness, along with some of his essays (kind of like the Lewis class), and mostly just sit and discuss what we have read.
Again, like Lewis, Chambers’s manner of writing is bracing and so personal that it stirs the mind and the heart simultaneously.
So, in the middle of a very busy schedule in which grading becomes a constant companion, I have oases that refresh and remind me why God has put me on this career path.
Being a professor can be discouraging at times, but what career doesn’t have those moments? I have been given a free hand over the years to develop unique courses that flow from what God has done for me; I offer them to the students in gratitude for His mercy (unmerited favor) and grace (strength to do His will).