Hell As a Bureaucracy

“We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement,” advised C. S. Lewis, “where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.”

Lewis wrote those words in his preface to the 1961 edition of The Screwtape Letters. Although Screwtape is, in one sense, a comical devil, Lewis never lets his readers forget what lies at the heart of hell: the self, with all its outcroppings of jealousy, bitterness, and backstabbing.

Yet his picture of hell is not what most would imagine. Instead, he compares it to modern bureaucracy. “I like bats much better than bureaucrats,” he mused. And you can bet he didn’t have any real fondness for bats.

Interestingly, I first ran across Lewis’s description of hell as a bureaucracy not in this preface (somehow its existence escaped me until recently), but in Ronald Reagan’s famous 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, the speech dubbed by some “The Evil Empire.”

Reagan quoted Lewis in the speech and referenced Screwtape in doing so. Yet I was puzzled at the time by the quote because I didn’t recall ever reading it in the actual letters. I was delighted, therefore, to come across it in this preface.

“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of ‘Admin.’” To Lewis, that was as close to hell as possible. He then expounded on that opening thought:

The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result.

But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.

Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.

Hell, Lewis opined, is a “society held together entirely by fear and greed.” The “whole organisation” operated on the principle of “dog eat dog.”

Everyone wishes everyone else’s discrediting, demotion, and ruin; everyone is an expert in the confidential stab in the back. Over all this their good manners, their expressions of grave respect, their “tributes” to one another’s invaluable services form a thin crust.

Every now and then it gets punctured, and the scalding lava of their hatred spurts out.

Lewis, of course, is doing more than merely painting his portrait of how hell functions; he’s sending out a warning to us who live in a world that often resembles hell.

How do we function? Are we, behind our impeccable manners and outward show of civility, undermining our associates secretly? Do we operate on the principle of “dog eat dog”? Does our thin crust of respect for others occasionally reveal itself as a “scalding lava of hatred”?

As always, Lewis wants us to examine ourselves, to look into our own hearts and, if we see anything there that has even the remotest connection with hell, to expunge it immediately.

We must live in a continual state of self-examination (not obsessive, but realistic) and an eagerness to repent of anything we see amiss. We want the fragrance of Christ to show in our lives, not the sulfurous odor of hell.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 2 Corinthians 5:17

Screwtape & Humility

In preparation for a class I will be teaching on The Screwtape Letters at a local church from January to April next year, I knew I needed to get a new copy of the book, as mine was falling apart from decades of use. I settled on the annotated edition by Paul McCusker.

I know I must have read sometime the preface Lewis wrote for the 1961 edition of his classic, but if so, it has escaped my memory. Reading it yesterday, I received a fresh reminder (as if I needed another one) of why I love reading Lewis.

His humorous self-deprecation is a hallmark of his overall view of his importance, and this preface highlights it.

While acknowledging that sales of the book have been prodigious, far beyond his expectations, he pokes a hole in sales figures, explaining that they don’t always mean what their authors hope they mean. “If you gauged the amount of Bible reading in England by the number of Bibles sold, you would go far astray,” he warns. And the same can be said for Screwtape, which he believes might “suffer from a similar ambiguity.”

“It is the sort of book,” he muses, “that gets given to godchildren, the sort that gets read aloud at retreats. It is even, as I have noticed with a chastened smile, the sort that gravitates towards spare bedrooms, there to live a life of undisturbed tranquility.”

Lewis then offers this little story:

Sometimes it is bought for even more humiliating reasons. A lady whom I knew discovered that the pretty little probationer [student nurse] who filled her hot-water bottle in the hospital had read Screwtape. She also discovered why.

“You see,” said the girl, “we were warned that at interviews, after the real, technical questions are over, matrons and people sometimes ask about your general interests. The best thing to say is that you’ve read something.

“So they gave us a list of about ten books that usually go down pretty well and said we ought to read at least one of them.”

“And you chose Screwtape?”

“Well, of course; it was the shortest.”

Later in the preface, Lewis contests the compliment often paid to him that the book must have been “the ripe fruit of many years’ study in moral and ascetic theology.” The compliment is undeserved, Lewis responds:

They forgot that there is an equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works. “My heart,”—I need no other’s—“showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly.”

Lewis’s genuine humility, in tandem with his witty, erudite style, fill his works with vitality no matter how often one reads them.

Lewis: Mere Survival Is Not the Goal

One of the traits I see in C. S. Lewis, and what makes his writings so endearing—at least from my particular take on life—is the way he can critique a predominant belief in society at large, yet do so in a manner that is not merely some kind of self-righteous invective.

He can skewer a prevailing untruth with winsome words that can make a person think seriously about the untruth’s inherent untruthfulness.

In his essay, “On Living in an Atomic Age,” Lewis aims at our will to survive, given this new threat that now hovers over us. Survival, Lewis explains, is not the highest good in itself. When we make it so, we miss the mark.

It is part of our spiritual law never to put survival first: not even the survival of our species. We must resolutely train ourselves to feel that the survival of Man on this Earth, much more of our own nation or culture or class, in not worth having unless it can be had by honourable and merciful means.

Was he referring to a survival-of-the-fittest mentality? Or was he aiming at pride, which can manifest itself in pride of country or pride in our success? Maybe we don’t have to choose one or the other. It’s probably both. He continues:

Nothing is more likely to destroy a species or a nation than a determination to survive at all costs.

Those who care for something else more than civilization are the only people by whom civilization is at all likely to be preserved.

Those who want Heaven most have served Earth best.

Those who love Man less than God do most for Man.

At every point, Lewis challenges priorities, exhorting us that God’s way is usually the opposite of the way we naturally think. When we put national survival first, we will probably end up destroying the nation through our myopia.

When we make saving civilization (however one may define that) our greatest goal, perhaps we doom ourselves to being uncivilized in the end.

When we focus entirely on the Earth (may I throw in here concerns about the environment that go beyond the basic Biblical mandate of stewardship?), we don’t serve the Earth best. Having a heavenly perspective does more for our earthly existence than exalting the Earth itself.

We can only love Man properly when we love God properly. Without the love of God inspiring our actions, those actions degenerate into humanistic drivel that accomplishes nothing eternal.

There will come a day, we are told, when all we see around us will be no more. But that’s just fine with me. That prophecy comes with a promise: there will be a new world that will never need saving.

We won’t be in survival mode. We will be in praise-and-worship mode forever.

Chad Walsh Meets C. S. Lewis

In last Saturday’s C. S. Lewis post, I related how Chad Walsh, an English professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin, turned from atheism to Christianity and how Lewis’s writings, particularly Perelandra, played a prominent role in his conversion.

This led Walsh to want to know more about his new favorite author. He wrote an article about him in The Atlantic Monthly but sought to make the thesis of that article into a book, explaining in greater detail how Lewis’s writings could reach religious skeptics.

This called for a trip to Oxford to interview his subject, which occurred in June 1948. Lewis, at first, had not encouraged Walsh’s effort, feeling he was not a proper subject for scrutiny at that time. “He had urged me to desist and devote my time to better subjects (such as some safely dead writer),” Walsh relates in the book, “but once he became convinced that I considered the study worth doing he wholeheartedly cooperated with me. He answered innumerable questions without evasion, and his friendliness did much to make my stay in England enjoyable.”

Writing to his wife, Eva, he told the story of his “first encounter”:

I went out after breakfast to shop. Came back at 10, and there was a note, asking me to call CSL at Magdalen. I called, and a deep, very English voice, said, “Is that you, Walsh?” He told me to come over to the college.

I did so, and by asking a succession of people found my way thru the maze of vault-like passages. Reached his sanctum—a two-room affair—and at last laid my eyes on CSL.

He greeted me warmly. He looks much like his pictures. A little more slender than I had imagined. A wrinkled gray suit, brown tie messily tied, scruffed black shoes. We chatted a while, then in about an hour’s time I got most of the info I need from him. He was very cooperative, as well as marvelous entertaining. . . .

He said, “I think you did a good job with those three chapters you sent me. But what are you going to write about in the other 17?”

They had a number of meetings, as Walsh questioned him thoroughly on his views. Almost from the start, they hit it off, and the relationship became more than interviewer with interviewee.

As Walsh happily recounted to his wife, “Reached CSL’s rooms at Magdalen a little after 10, & was warmly received. I soon finished with questions, so . . . we adjourned to the King’s Arms. . . . We talked of everything under the sun—when I parted I felt that we were hovering on the edge of really knowing each other. I think he takes a genuine interest in me, and really likes me—half as one colleague to another, half as father to son.”

Writing to Eva again the next day, he added, “Lewis is definitely old-fashioned in many ways. Nostalgia about the 19th c. Can’t see the possibilities in surrealist art that I think I see. Loathes the present British gov’t—‘those swine,’ as he frequently calls them.”

Before meeting Lewis for the first time, Walsh couldn’t figure out why the pictures of him on the book dust-jackets—“sad-eyed, world-weary”—didn’t seem to match the “wit and grace” he experienced in the books. “Only after I met Lewis did I see that the solution to the enigma was simpler than the theories I had been busy devising. He consented to pose for a couple of snapshots and I perceived that—like half of humanity—he stands stiffly at attention and freezes into impersonality when a camera is pointed his way. The picture on the dust-jackets resembles him about as much as a mummy resembles a living man.”

Walsh was most taken by what he called “the aliveness of his face,” both when he was talking and when listening. His “quick smile,” Walsh noted, could have been called “sweet” except for the feminine connotation of that word. It did not ring true for Lewis, who was “one of the most masculine persons I have ever known.”

It became obvious to the interviewer that his subject had very little regard for making carefully guarded statements. Concern for public relations was not part of his internal makeup. “I never detected him pausing to phrase a reply carefully for fear it might be used against him. If I mentioned prominent names he commented on them with matter-of-fact candor (whether favorably or no) and did not add that this was ‘off the record.’”

Neither did Lewis try to paint himself as an expert on every subject. Walsh witnessed genuine humility: “When I inquired his opinions on a vast variety of matters he answered with equal directness—though sometimes his response was simply, ‘I don’t know enough to have an opinion.’” Walsh’s conclusion? “It adds up to plain unselfconsciousness. . . . To the world outside of Oxford he is a famous figure. To himself he is an Oxford don who writes an occasional book in odd moments.”

That last line is quite an insight into Lewis’s conception of himself. He would probably be shocked by all the attention he has received since his death. Of course, from his current vantage point (since he is now more alive than ever), he probably knows.

Walsh did write his book, C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics. Next Saturday, I’ll offer a synopsis of its contents.

Note: this account of Walsh’s visit with Lewis is found in my America Discovers C. S. Lewis book, as just one example of what you can find there.

Chad Walsh’s Baptized Imagination

One of C. S. Lewis’s earliest American friendships was with Chad Walsh, a professor of English at Beloit College in Wisconsin. Like Lewis, Walsh traveled the road from atheism to Christianity, and Lewis helped him on that journey.

“In my case there was no childhood faith,” Walsh wrote in an account of how he eventually found the Christian path.

If I ever believed in God as a small child, no memory of the time remains with me. I regarded myself as an atheist from the moment I learned to read—and, indeed, pamphlet editions of Ingersoll, et cetera, were part of my earliest reading.

Why would a young boy be so attracted to a non-Christian worldview? Walsh, although ultimately placing the blame on his own stubbornness and pride, also pointed to a reaction he had to the community in which he was raised:

Undoubtedly my atheism was in part a revolt against the Fundamentalism of my home town—Marion, Virginia. . . . It was not a winsome faith, and I was in full agreement with H. L. Mencken about the superstitious backwardness of the ‘Bible Belt.’

He eventually escaped what he considered the confines of that small town and found the atmosphere of the University of Virginia more to his liking. There he didn’t have to worry about people shoving religion at him. He was free, he felt, but the freedom did not settle the bigger questions that began to crowd upon his mind. While he claimed to be a self-satisfied atheist, doubts crept in. “Is there such a thing as good or evil?” he often wondered. “Is there any meaning in life and the universe?” World events in the 1930s helped crystallize the answers.

The rise of Hitler in Germany, and the growing awareness of the actions of that regime, forced him to confront the problem of evil in the world. Walsh’s companions in atheism and/or agnosticism, when challenged by Walsh to come up with a response to what Hitler was doing, would provide excuses, albeit excuses that were actually consistent with their worldview.

Walsh recounts,

They agreed with me that the world was a senseless jungle. Very well, they reasoned, if the world is a jungle, it’s absurd to speak of right and wrong. Everything is relative. Hitler thinks he’s doing right to invade Poland and murder the Jews. Very well, it is right for him. It’s all in the way you look at it.

That response shook him. He knew he had to come to grips with the reality of evil.

Walsh’s second question, about the meaning of life and the universe, intruded more on his thoughts once he was forced to recognize that real goodness and real evil existed, and that there was a decided difference between the two. If everything was some kind of cosmic accident, what did that say about his personhood? Was he living an illusion?

His atheism was crumbling. He lived in a transition from atheist to Christian for a few years, trying to figure out what he should believe. It all came down to the person of Jesus Christ.

Walsh began reading the New Testament. What he found surprised him. He had preconceived ideas of Jesus as some weak character—the words “meek and mild” were stuck in his mind from childhood. What he saw in the pages of the Gospels was something different:

The man I encountered in the Gospels was a towering figure of strength; even his death was that of a man strong enough to accept death voluntarily. So I was up against the final question: What or who was Jesus?

Eventually, reason led to faith.

As I recount in my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, along the way, Walsh had begun to read some Lewis, and that helped him see the reality. But then he had an experience with one of Lewis’s books that absolutely transformed him.

A friend enthusiastically lent him a book she had just finished reading; she just knew he would love it. That book was Perelandra, the second in Lewis’s Space Trilogy in which the protagonist, Elwin Ransom, is transported to Venus to save an innocent world from falling into sin. Walsh was transported as well:

I quickly consumed it from cover to cover. I was struck first of all by the sheer beauty of the book. It transported me into a kind of Elysian Fields—or better yet, an unspoiled Eden, inhabited by the innocent and unfallen.

A second revelation was that, even though he had always been a science fiction fan, he had never read any science fiction like this, where it could be used as a “vehicle of great philosophic and psychological myth.” The third revelation, though, was the greatest of all:

Finally, and most importantly, in Perelandra I found my imagination being baptized. At the time I was slowly thinking, feeling, and fumbling my way towards the Christian faith and had reached the point where I was more than half convinced that it was true. This conviction, however, was a thing more of the mind than of the imagination and heart.

In Perelandra I got the taste and smell of Christian truth. My senses as well as my soul were baptized. It was as though an intellectual abstraction or speculation had become flesh and dwelt in its solid bodily glory among us.

Walsh then became the first person to write a book about Lewis. To do so properly, he knew he had to visit Oxford and interview him. That’s the tale I’ll tell in a Lewis post next Saturday. Please come back.

Did Lewis Dislike Americans?

I’ve come across people who believe that C. S. Lewis really didn’t like America or Americans. Dealing with that issue was one of the goals of my book, so I made sure I covered it in the very first chapter. It begins with this snippet from Lewis’s early life:

On the very first page of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis, author Alan Jacobs tells the story of a precocious “Jack” Lewis, probably no more than eight years old at the time, entering his father’s study to make this following pronouncement: “I have a prejudice against the French.”

Naturally, his father, Albert, wanted to know why his younger son would have such a definite opinion. The answer he received is perhaps an indication of the astute reasoning that would continue to be a hallmark throughout C. S. Lewis’s life: “If I knew why,” he calmly asserted, “it would not be a prejudice.” Early on, then, it appears that Lewis had a clear understanding of the unreasonable nature of coming to conclusions about people without evidence.

One perhaps might be excused for thinking Lewis had a dislike for America—and Americans—if all one had to go on were early statements prior to his conversion. Firsthand contact with Americans was minimal in his life until he became famous in America, during World War II. After that, though, as his correspondence with Americans became nearly a flood, one sees instead a man who treats people as individuals, and not as stereotypes. It is instructive to witness this metamorphosis over time and trace not only Lewis’s changing attitude toward America but also his impact on individual Americans.

As one studies Lewis’s voluminous correspondence, one notices the first mention of America appears in a letter just prior to his eighteenth birthday to lifelong friend and Belfast neighbor Arthur Greeves. As might be expected, given his later career as a professor of literature, Lewis indicates to Greeves that he is beginning to read some American authors, singling out Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom he admires. Yet he thought it a shame that someone of Hawthorne’s genius had to be an American.

When Lewis returned to Oxford after the war to resume his studies, he commented on the increasing number of Americans on campus, calling it an invasion. He related a story to his father about a professor who read a paper at a literary meeting and who acknowledged his effort wasn’t all that good; he thought he needed to apologize for even offering it. He had meant to publish it, he told the group, but felt it was so bad that he sent it to an American magazine instead. Lewis found that appropriately amusing.

All of these comments emanate from a pre-Christian Lewis. This doesn’t mean that his conversion necessarily changed all of his thinking about Americans, but slowly, over time, he got to know more Americans on a personal basis, and those views were tempered accordingly.

Although Lewis declined all invitations to visit America due to his personal circumstances, that did not mean he wasn’t attracted to some of what the New World had to offer. Sprinkled throughout his letters to Americans, one finds comments that reveal the longing of his heart to make the journey.

He was developing a new appreciation for the literary tastes of the American public, confessing to American correspondent Warfield Firor that he would love to visit the country where his own favorite book at the time—Perelandra—had been more enthusiastically received than in his native land.

The lean years after WWII saw Lewis on the receiving end of American largesse. Numerous American Christians who loved his writings and who heard of the shortages in his country, opened up their wallets and showered him with gifts—food, stationery, and assorted luxuries. Lewis was overwhelmed by their spirit of giving.

What irritated Lewis considerably was the reluctance of the British government to publicly acknowledge the help flowing from American citizens. In one of his few comments during his lifetime that praised the press, he informed another American correspondent, Edward Allen, that reports from the press were showing the British just how much they had the Americans to thank for their better standard of living.

If Lewis had harbored any lingering prejudices against Americans, this flood tide of giving after World War II gave him the basis for changing his earlier views. And by the way he communicated his gratitude, one may say with a great degree of certitude that his views definitely did change.

Perhaps the most fitting conclusion to this specific question of Lewis’s attitude toward Americans comes from Walter Hooper, who met Lewis in the last year of his life, and for a few months served as his private secretary. In an e-mail exchange I had with Hooper, he offered these thoughts:

Lewis himself drew my attention to another illustration of ignorance that needs unmasking. I forget where it is, but Jonathan Swift, the Irish writer, when asked if he liked or disliked the Irish, the English, the Japanese, etc. etc, pointed out that he didn’t know all the Irish people, so how could he possibly know where he liked or loathed them. Of course, like nearly everyone else, some Irish he liked, some he didn’t.

And so to Lewis, who I think must have liked many, many Americans considering that roughly three-quarters of his letters were to them. One of them to whom he wrote to for years, Mary Willis Shelburne, he provided with a pension, paid for by his American publishers. And as we all know, he married an American, and—hardly of similar importance—he made another his secretary.

My research pretty well laid to rest the issue for me. Lewis, as a young man, had a typical attitude toward the nation that seemed to be supplanting Britain as world leader. His conversion, coupled with increased contacts with Americans, led to a reversal of his earlier—and youthfully arrogant—views.

You can read about this in much more detail in my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact, by going to this Amazon page.

Affirming the Nashville Statement

Last week, more than 150 evangelical leaders met in Nashville to endorse what has been called the Nashville Statement, a concise affirmation of what the Bible teaches about sexual morality—doctrines long established and agreed upon throughout the history of the Christian church.

Therefore, they should not have been controversial. But we live in an America rapidly becoming intolerant of Biblical beliefs, especially in the area of sexual morality.

Sex before marriage has become commonplace, sexual relations outside the marriage covenant are looked upon mostly as regrettable but not necessarily sinful (that word has lost most of its meaning), and homosexuality is not only more accepted, it’s positively applauded by the secular culture-shapers in the media, both news and entertainment.

Sadly, even those who call themselves Christian have begun to succumb to the siren song of “follow the culture to stay relevant” and have shied away from the “sin” label for those involved in homosexuality.

Some have retaliated against the Statement, deeming it hateful, bigoted, and all the other negative terms that have lately been appropriated to describe anyone who takes a stand for Biblical morality.

Yet if one actually reads the Statement, one sees that it comes from a heart of compassion, clearly noting that God’s grace is sufficient to save anyone from a life of sexual impurity.

Anyone wanting to read the Nashville Statement can go to it here.

I do want to share some of the preamble because it lays out the basis for publicly making this Statement.

Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition. As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being.

By and large the spirit of our age no longer discerns or delights in the beauty of God’s design for human life. Many deny that God created human beings for his glory, and that his good purposes for us include our personal and physical design as male and female. It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences.

The pathway to full and lasting joy through God’s good design for his creatures is thus replaced by the path of shortsighted alternatives that, sooner or later, ruin human life and dishonor God.

The signers then ask these questions:

This secular spirit of our age presents a great challenge to the Christian church. Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ lose her biblical conviction, clarity, and courage, and blend into the spirit of the age? Or will she hold fast to the word of life, draw courage from Jesus, and unashamedly proclaim his way as the way of life? Will she maintain her clear, counter-cultural witness to a world that seems bent on ruin?

The Statement is saying that we are on the wrong path as a society and that we are in danger of spiritual destruction if we don’t return to the Truth.

C. S. Lewis, in a famous and oft-quoted passage in Mere Christianity, writes of being on a wrong path and what must be done when one realizes it. He also deals with the silly cliché that one cannot turn back the clock, as if whatever is happening now is automatic progress and to turn back to “old” concepts of morality is ludicrous. Lewis dares to differ:

First, as to putting the clock back. Would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do? But I would rather get away from that whole idea of clocks.

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.

Those in the so-called progressive Christian community have set out on a course that leads to spiritual destruction. They are not progressive at all; rather, they are simply hearkening back to the oldest sin in the world, first breathed in the Garden, when man was told he could decide for himself what is right and wrong and God can’t tell him otherwise.

Lewis concludes,

There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.

The Nashville Statement is a clarion call to go back—back to the Biblical standards for sexual morality. Our society is making a big mistake; we are on the wrong road. Sin is sin and must be called by its correct name. A return to Biblical fidelity is the only answer to the dilemma in which we find ourselves.