Life Has Never Been Normal: Lewis on War

World War I devastated Europe and decimated the male populations of Britain and France. C. S. Lewis served in that war, even though, having grown up in Northern Ireland, he wasn’t required to do so. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he doesn’t spend a lot of time describing his wartime experience, but what he does relate is striking:

The war—the frights, the cold, . . . the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet—all this shows rarely and faintly in memory.

It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and often seems to have happened to someone else. It is even in a way unimportant.

How can anyone have seen what Lewis saw and yet say that it was, in a way, unimportant?

He published his autobiography in the mid-1950s; prior to that, he had laid out his philosophy of the significance of war in an essay called “Learning in War-Time,” spurred on by those who thought the intellectual activities of the universities should cease during such a harrowing time. Lewis disagreed and offered this perspective:

War creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.

Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself.

If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.”

Life has never been normal.

I remember the first time I read that. It struck a chord deep within me. I, along with probably most of humanity, yearn for the normal. Yet what is ever really normal? We have in our minds the concept of normal (always peaceful, never disturbed by trials and tribulations, unceasing happiness—or at the very least, the avoidance of any genuine pain). Yet how often is that the case?

Lewis continues in that essay with a thought that is so commonsensical that it shouldn’t shock us, but the way he states it does give a jolt:

What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent: 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. . . .

Does it increase our chances of painful death? I doubt it. . . . Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God? I cannot believe it. If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable concatenation of circumstances would?

As we’re told in the book of Hebrews, we all have an appointment with death, it will happen only once, and afterward we face judgment before the Throne.

A few years after writing that essay, Lewis gave the world The Screwtape Letters and, in a different format, made the same argument. Screwtape scolds his trainee, Wormwood, for being so delighted that men have started another war. There is a danger to satanic plans in the midst of war, he warns him:

How disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless. In war-time not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever.

Screwtape, of course, is referring to living forever in this world. By God’s grace, though, we will live forever in the new heaven and new earth.

In the meantime, though, it would be best for us to take to heart that life has never been normal, is not now normal, and we will not awake tomorrow to the kind of normality our flesh seeks. Yet, with the Holy Spirit as our Guide and Helper, we can navigate this absence of normality (as we define it) and see God’s hand at work in all the abnormality we must face day by day.

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.

The Latest Fake Lewis Quote

I saw it on Facebook, so it must be true! And if it is in all caps with lots of exclamation points afterward, I can rely on its authenticity.

I trust those statements don’t reflect your perspective.

Why focus on that today? There’s a supposed C. S. Lewis quote floating around that people are sharing incessantly because it seems so apropos to our current political situation. We are told it comes from his classic work, The Screwtape Letters, and goes like this:

My dear Wormwood,

Be sure that the patient remains firmly fixated on politics. Arguments, political gossip, and obsessing on the faults of people they have never met serves as an excellent distraction from advancing in personal virtue, character, and the things the patient can control.

Make sure to keep the patient in a constant state of angst, frustration, and general disdain towards the rest of the human race in order to avoid any kind of charity or inner peace from further developing.

Ensure the patient continues to believe that the problem is “out there” in the “broken system” rather than recognizing there is a problem with himself.

Keep up the good work,

Uncle Screwtape

Then, to make it real official, it says it comes directly from Lewis’s book. It even gives a 1942 date. That should make you believe it for sure.

Now, I’m not saying there isn’t some truth in that “quote,” but I have major problems with anyone making something up and then attributing it to a famous author who said nothing of the sort.

What kind of person does that? The goal may be laudable, but the method is disgraceful. Ever heard of the ends justify the means? That’s never acceptable.

We should all keep in mind this cautionary word from Abraham Lincoln:

lincoln-quotes-on-internet

Screwtape’s “Advice”

Over Christmas, I re-read C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, both favorites of mine, although it has been quite some time since I sat down to read them through again. I marvel at how much one can always draw from them, no matter how often they are read.

Screwtape LettersOne of my favorite passages from Screwtape is found in Letter VII, where Screwtape instructs his junior devil, Wormwood, in the ways of deception, especially with respect to hiding the tempters’ existence. Here is his “advice”:

I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves.

Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism, and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics. At least, not yet.

I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, a belief in us (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy.

The “Life Force,” the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work—the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits”–then the end of the war will be in sight.

But in the meantime we must obey our orders. I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping the patient in the dark. The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in the mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.

This fits in nicely with what Lewis wrote in the preface to the book, where he said,

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.

Are you looking for some insight into how you need to avoid the traps set for you by satanic forces? Check out The Screwtape Letters; I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Lewis: Screwtape on Liberty

If one book can be said to have introduced C. S. Lewis to the world on a wide scale, it would be The Screwtape Letters. They are witty and full of insight, as a senior devil gives advice to a junior devil on how to tempt his human into disobedience to God—who was termed “the Enemy” in the book.

Lewis, though, says it was the hardest book he ever wrote, and I can understand why. He explained it this way:

Of all my books, there was only one I did not take pleasure in writing. . . . The Screwtape Letters. They 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.

Screwtape Letters 2Although he vowed never to repeat that exercise, he did, later, write another little treatise that is now commonly included in newer editions of Screwtape. He imagined Screwtape giving a speech at the “Annual Dinner of the Tempters’ Training College for Young Devils” and called it “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” In it, it’s obvious he still had the flair that produced the original. Take, for instance, Screwtape’s gloating on how mankind’s real enemy has subverted man’s desire for liberty:

Hidden in the heart of this striving for Liberty there was also a deep hatred of personal freedom. That invaluable man Rousseau first revealed it. In his perfect democracy, you remember, only the state religion is permitted, slavery is restored, and the individual is told that he has really willed (though he didn’t know it) whatever the Government tells him to do. From that starting point, via Hegel (another indispensable propagandist on our side) we easily contrived both the Nazi and the Communist state.

If you’ve never given The Screwtape Letters a try, why not now? Valuable insights await.