The BBC are currently broadcasting this old C.S. Lewis work as its book of the week. With an actor reading his words aloud, we hear his imagination of how devils might correspond as they work, via invisible suggestion, to persuade humans to be evil and “not Church goers”.
That is, “not church of England in the 1950s churchgoers”, it seems. Lewis allows himself to toy with his critique of the Church of that era and with the nature of the human ego, our weaknesses and our misunderstandings of what constitutes virtue. It is clearly supposed to be a worthy attempt to evangelise his belief in churchgoing as a virtuous part of a Christian life that we should all endeavour to pursue. It also echoes his lack of a wider world understanding of the psychology and roots of religion, and concentrates on the insulated world he inhabited. I can remember my vicar father enthusing about its merits and, as a child, enjoying the Narnia books and wondering what was this other “Grown up” book by the fantasy writer.
That is the rub. The Screwtape letters illustrate precisely the nature of the fantasy of the majority of the religious: that there actually is some point in personifying a theistic God, with its traits of interference in a planned human centred world, with equally personified devils as the counterforce. As such it feels to me now to be a childish fantasy.
As soon as someone dares to put this type of fantasy down in developed plot form, the holes in it seem so obvious to me that the edifice of the Biblical stories falls alongside. The pattern-making human being made, and makes, gods wherever he springs from. The middle eastern Gods were accompanied by the fantasy of a life in a temporal post death ego-based manner, typical of a despairingly fearful, self conscious and naive human tribe. Seeing how these stories have all been constructed, it is a little like dissecting a time travel movie, where they blur right over the “paradox” of interfering in your own past… it soon falls apart under scrutiny but the audience is generally carried along by pace and some flashy trompe l’oeil tricks. For equivalent distractions in the Church one can read:- Tradition, architecture, ceremony and repetition.
Eventually as a teenager I saw the Biblical analogies of Lewis’ Narnia chronicles, his thinly veiled racism and anti-Islam stance via the characterisation of the Talmorenes – and realised that my childhood adventure stories had a rather crude agenda. Hearing the Screwtape letters now, I cannot help but think that the datedness is, yet again, a key factor that exposes the weakness of those “original” redeemer stories that emerged from a primitive middle east. They have mysteriously been allowed to retain a dominant position in the arena of exploration of the numinous but these crude theist institutions are revealed as a prop for the deluded as soon as they are properly exposed to a modern world where dogma just doesn’t cut it.
The Screwtape letters sits cosily among the Sunday hats and flower arrangements, and miles away from an adult discussion of the nature of consciousness, time and a non material universe, that I feel drawn to discuss away from this church.