Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Hell on Earth

I can't think of any good way to start this other than to say that C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, in only a few days' time, has hit me like no other book has. Accordingly I'll try to be as analytical as I can, with the caveat that I'm still sorting out what I actually think.

The Screwtape Letters is exactly what its title purports it to be, letters from a high-ranking demon of Hell, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood, a journeyman tempter of human souls who is presently (in the 1940s) in the process of tempting a young Englishman away from God.

The book's ingenuity is immediately apparent. Being written from the perspective of a denizen of Hell, it thus provides a view into "diabolical" thinking, which by its nature is an inversion of righteousness, making the book a rare example of Christian irony. Understanding it can be a slippery task, for as Lewis notes in the Preface, "Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle," but that only enhances the book's irony, the way it illuminates through shadow, and how what isn't said is as important as what is. This amounts to no less than an articulation against (and therefore, for) The Good Life.

The Hell portrayed is not built on the usual forbidden pleasures. Far from it. They are to Screwtape and Wormwood but enticements to lead their quarry astray, with the end goal being an existence of sullen drudgery and discomfort, separated from God by being separated from all that is natural and joyous:

As this condition becomes more fully established, you will be gradually freed from the tiresome business of providing pleasures as temptations..... You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday's paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and out-going activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at least he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, 'I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.

Here is where Lewis' theology, though leaden with miracles and the Resurrection and other such pratter, is most robust. It offers not magical thinking, but a frame with which to view one's experience in order to live as best as one can. The Good Life is ultimately what Screwtape seeks to thwart. Thus God can be seen not as some vague father figure or even a properly existing entity, but as an abstraction, an allegory, that embodies man's best qualities, Love chiefest among them, to provide an example to which one may aspire.

It's powerful, powerful stuff. Yes, there is enjoyment to be had seeing the world through a demon's eye, which is doubtless the reason most people are drawn to the book in the first place. But taking to heart its implications, one can only stop and bring everything about how they live into question. Nevermind eternity and the afterworld, at best a conjecture: if this life is all that we have, then Hell, the only Hell we can know, is the strangling of potential and the waste of precious, precious time. Again, these words, leaping out in dire warning:

I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.

My original plan for looking at The Screwtape Letters was a relatively brief examination of C.S. Lewis' ideas, with a straightforward conclusion that he is wrong on the fundamental issues of theism and Jesus Christ, but had some good things to say regardless. Yet the book has exerted a strange hold on me: after going through it once I started on it again, with pen in hand to nail down what it's saying and what I want to say. It's stayed in my head, and its ideas swirled such that I actually had trouble getting to sleep last night. I'm not really happy with how this piece turned out, simply because I'm having great difficulty putting into words the ideas churning in my mind.

I still find the details of Lewis' Christianity unconvincing; but the broad strokes--that God and the Devil are concepts representing the best and worst of humanity--are deeply compelling. I don't know if that makes me a theist, or even a Christian even. But The Screwtape Letters has shaken me like nothing I can think of. I'm anxious to see where this new line of inquiry may take me.

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