Posts Tagged ‘religion’

the screwtape letters cs lewisC.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters – which consists of epistolary advice from the senior demon Screwtape to a junior demon Wormwood on the damnation of  a human soul – is frequently described as a satire. But I don’t see any satire at all in The Screwtape Letters.

What I do see is a brilliant and generous exploration of human nature, a miniature portrait of Britain as the Phoney War comes to an end, and some of the most perfect prose you are going to find in English.

Satire uses exaggeration and intensification to criticize a person, idea, institution, or social convention that has power by making it look ridiculous. Satirizing demons is difficult because if you don’t believe in them as metaphysical beings (ie, you don’t believe they exist), then there is nothing to criticize.

If you do believe in devils, then you are likely to regard Lewis’ Screwtape as utterly convincing rather than ridiculous. Metaphysical evil is self-exaggerating and self-intensifying after all. And Screwtape’s bureaucracy and banality, twenty years before Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, offers readers who reached the age reason before the close of the twentieth century, a highly plausible picture of hell.

But The Screwtape Letters offers much more than an original demonic voice, satirized or not. Its greatest achievement – and I think, real purpose – is its comprehensive depiction of the human character in all aspects.

Screwtape is, of course, interested in exploiting human vice, vanity, and pettiness to achieve his goals, so these get full treatment. But he is also interested in neutralizing human virtues because these are weapons that counter the work of demons.

The emphasis is on religion and the work of religious devotion throughout, but Lewis’ insights are so universal they are likely to please readers of any religion or no religion at all – except for those diehards who are dissatisfied with any book that does not exactly confirm their particular convictions; and for such folks I recommend reading very few books or none at all. At best, you’ll be wasting ninety-five percent of your time. Why bother?

Screwtape considers the sources of domestic harmony and disharmony; sexuality, love, and married life; the foibles of social interactions in all its forms; the hybrid animal and spiritual nature of humans (under the theory of “undulation”); the character of Christianity and other trends of thought; the temptations of the world; and more.

Perhaps my favorite letter is on the nature of human laughter and joy because many good things in life, many pleasures, are gifts Lewis believes God wants us to embrace. In a few pages, Lewis explores, “Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy” with an economy and incisiveness that should provoke jealousy in any writer except that admiration overwhelms envy.

Lewis’ Screwtape associates Joy with Music and says “something like it occurs in Heaven – a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience” which he as a demon detests. Joy and laughter are “a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell” according to Screwtape.

Toward the end of the book, World War II, which has always been hovering at the edges of The Screwtape Letters, comes to the forefront as the German bombing campaign of Britain begins and the unnamed young man who is the focus of Wormwood’s intentions joins the war effort. Here it was impossible for me to think Lewis’ wasn’t speaking from his own experiences fighting in the First World War, and he does a masterful job making us feel the quality of that time in England.

Finally, there is Lewis’ writing. I could praise it, but I will simply give you an example of Screwtape at his most caustic, and let you decide. Screwtape discovers that Wormwood has allowed his young man to fall in love with a Christian girl, and this is Screwtape’s reaction:

I have looked up this girl’s dossier and am horrified at what I find. Not only a Christian but such a Christian – a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouse-like, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss. The little brute. She makes me vomit. She stinks and scalds through the very pages of the dossier. It drives me mad, the way the world has worsened. We’d have had her to the arena in the old days. That’s what her sort is made for. Not that she’d do much good there, either. A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) who looks as if she’d faint at the sight of blood and then dies with a smile. A cheat every way. Looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth and yet has a satirical wit. The sort of creature who’d find ME funny!

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Marcella Pattyn, Last of the Beguine

Marcella Pattyn, in a photo published in the April 27 issue of “The Economist”.

Can 800 years of Western History — can the history of all human experience — find a home in a single life?

If so, then that life belonged to Marcella Pattyn, last of the Beguine, who died on April 14 and for whom an obituary was published in The Economist.

The Beguines were trying to be modern women long before there were modern women.

Their communities appeared in the Low Countries during the early 1200s. The Beguines were expected to commit themselves to chastity, faith, and charitable service, although they were not nuns and took no vows. They were also expected to read, study, support themselves through profitable labor, and choose the rules they would follow in their communities.

The church and the men of the time didn’t like women outside their understanding or control, and sought to bring them under thumb, using tools that included prosecution for heresy and the stake.

So the Beguines were an early example of the great program of human freedom, agency, and independence which has been the work of the West, fitfully and all too imperfectly, for centuries as well as the inspiration for a typical opposition to that freedom.

As a young woman, Marcella Pattyn wanted to devote herself to the service of her Christian god, but no order of nuns would take her because she was nearly blind and the first Beguine community she tried sent her home after a week. The Economist reports Marcella still wept over these rejections in her old age. Some wounds are so deep we carry them for life.

But Marcella did find a Beguine community that accepted her, and there she showed an irresistible determination to pray, to be useful, to comfort the sick (which she often did by playing the banjo and accordion), and to live with an exuberance that did not consult the tastes or expectations or opinions of the world.

It seems to me Marcella’s wounds and her exuberance were paired; that her pain and joy were equal blessings, and that they must be praised and embraced equally or not at all.

At the end of her life, she was alone — a condition both emblematic and universal — although she was celebrated by the town in which she lived for being the last of her kind. Now she’s gone and Marcella lives only in memory. When those memories die, too, what will become of Marcella then?

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Gilead Marilynne Robinson What is the purpose of fiction? If it is to imaginatively engage its characters – and by so doing strengthen the reader’s ability to empathize with real people – then Marilynne Robinson’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gilead succeeds brilliantly.

The novel takes the form of a long letter written by John Ames, a Congregationalist minister living in a small Iowa town during the 1950s, to his young son.

Ames, who is in his mid-seventies and suffering from a fatal heart condition, wants to leave his child a record of his life and a way for the boy to remember him after he dies.

Gilead is filled with the aching beauty that the jacket copy of every other novel promises, but few in my experience actually deliver. Robinson voices Ames’ great and genuine love for his son, and his sorrow at leaving him so soon, with a simplicity and directness founded on total conviction. Robinson doesn’t seem to have created John Ames. She seems to have been angelically possessed by him.

Robinson brings equal beauty and conviction to Ames’ expressions of his love for the Iowa prairie and his life in Gilead, even during the long decades of loneliness between the death of his first wife and child in his youth, and the second family he begins as an old man.

For those who think that a little bit of aching beauty goes a long way, Gilead also serves up a heaping portion of plot like a hearty Midwestern meat loaf.

This plot includes the story of his second marriage to Lila, a woman half his age who appears one Sunday in Ames’ church for the service.

She returns every week and Ames falls ridiculously and helplessly in love with her – ridiculously (he thinks) because he is an old man and helplessly because he can see of no way to approach her consistent with his moral convictions. So his relief and gratitude are immense when Lila tells him one day, “You ought to marry me.” What the town and his church think of this marriage is an interesting silence in Gilead.

Another plotline in the novel are the stories of John Ames’ grandfather and father. Ames’ grandfather was a fiery preacher and abolitionist who believed slavery was so great an evil that it justified violent opposition, and who fought with John Brown and with the Union Army. Ames’ father was an ardent pacifist, and the conflict between the two men extends into John Ames own lifetime and forms part of his story.

Most prominently, however, is the story of John Ames (Jack) Boughton, John Ames’ god-son and a child of his best friend. Jack is a charming ne’er-do-well who returns to Gilead after a many years absence.

Jack torments Ames by reminding the preacher of his inability to love the man who carries his name, by making Ames’ fear that his wife and child will fall victim to Jack Boughton after his death, and by provoking his jealousy.

All these storylines are presented episodically by Robinson. So readers who enjoy novels which present conflicts, development them through rising action, and bring them to resolution – the “I can’t wait to find out what happens next” model – may find Gilead slow. I found it enthralling from beginning to end.

Some readers may also find John Ames’ sometimes lengthy discussions of Christian theology dull. These discussions are perfectly consistent with a bookish minister educated in the early 20th century who has a great deal of lonely time on his hands. I liked them but I have a semi-professional interest in theology.

Related Content to Gilead.

I think those readers who enjoyed Gilead for its “aching beauty” will like Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I also think they will enjoy Colette’s My Mother’s House, which I wrote about here.

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I told kiwiskan (she has nice photos of New Zealand) that I would post this Wordle of the Christian Gospels. I used text from the internet that had a RSV feel to it and that looked right with spot-checking, but I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the whole. Here’s the Wordle:

Wordle of the Gospels of the Christian Bible | Peter Galen Massey

That the word “Jesus” really pops was no surprise to me. That the word “one” pops did surprise me. I had to look far harder than I liked to find the word “love”.

At least “hell” does not make an appearance as far as I can tell. That may be a disappointment to more conservative believers. They seem quite keen on the fiery pit, and are always declaring almost everyone is going there, excepting themselves (neat trick, that). I hope they will bear up under the disappointment. The word “evil” makes a small appearance as a consolation.

By the by … Josh at the Cognitive Turn first introduced me to Wordles through a post on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. You can read the post here.

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Fans of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels value the scenes where Jack and Stephen are playing music in the great cabin of a ship or having particular conversations, like this one which considers the feathers of a paradise bird:

Stephen said, ‘Have you every contemplated upon sex, my dear?’

‘Never,’ Jack said. ‘Sex has never entered my mind, at any time.’

‘The burden of sex, I mean. This bird, for example, is very heavily burdened; almost weighed down. He can scarcely fly or pursue his common daily round with any pleasure to himself, encumbered by a yard of tail and all this top-hamper. All these extravagant plumes have but one function – to induce the hen to yield to his importunities. How the poor cock must glow and burn, if these are, as they must be, an index of his ardour.’

‘That is a solemn thought.’

H.M.S Surprise, pg.259, Norton paperback edition, 1991

HMS Surprise by Patrick O'BrianIt seems strange, at first, that this should be so. The Aubrey-Maturin novels recount the adventures of Jack Aubrey, a British naval captain, and Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan naval surgeon, naturalist, and intelligence agent, during the Napoleonic wars.

The series is full of battles, storms, shipwrecks, spycraft, political intrigue, the scientific discovery of new species, social manners, and problematic relationships between men and women.

And yet, both O’Brian and his fans always return to the quiet scenes between Jack and Stephen playing music or talking, as they are in the passage above. Why?

The reason has to do, I think, with the consolations literature offers us.

Good books have many uses. They are a pleasure and a comfort. They offer a hedge against loneliness. For centuries, readers have found their own thoughts and feelings in literature, and in finding these have been reassured that they are not alone and unknowable in this world.

And good books console us by offering a permanence to characters we love that we cannot find in the lives of the people we love outside of books.

Not all literature offers this consolation. It is no relief to know that Lear is always at the British camp near Dover, howling with the lifeless Cordelia in his arms, or that Antigone is always hanging in the cell to which Creon condemned her, dead by her own hand. Tragic works of literature offer us many things, but consolation is not one of them.

For consolation, a book must offer us characters who are convincingly human, not simply credible or familiar, and who engage our sympathies through both their virtues and their faults.

The book must also give these characters moments if not of happiness, then of peace and ease, because this is what we wish for ourselves. Among all our troubles and suffering, I think we all want – and believe we deserve – moments of at least modest contentment.

But we cannot stay in these moments or keep the people we love with us in them. Time moves. Circumstance and age separate us, further and further, until death makes the separation final and our only hope becomes reunion in another world; which many of us picture as being much like this one, except that hunger and violence and suffering and disease and death are banished.

Which makes heaven or the Summerlands or the after-life (or even reincarnation in the Indian religions) very much like the passages in the books we love.

Elizabeth Bennet will always be sparkling after dinner in the drawing-room at Netherfield, getting the best of and bettering Mr. Darcy, as alive today as the first moment she was written. Timofrey Pnin will always be playing croquet on the lawn at Al and Susan Cook’s summer house or discovering that Victor’s beautiful glass bowl is not broken after all. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin will always be playing music while the wake of the Surprise stretches away behind them.

In this world, that is consolation indeed. Perhaps not enough. But I’ll take it.

Related “Aubrey-Maturin Series” Posts

My post on the best “Aubrey-Maturin” novels

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Warren Jeffs, the head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, was convicted of sexual assault in August 2011. During the trial, he made a motion for Judge Barbara Walther to recuse herself because God said she should.

To support this motion, God showed up in the courtroom to testify. Here is the transcript:

TIPSTAFF: State your name.

GOD: God.

TIPSTAFF: Occupation?

GOD: Deity.

TIPSTAFF: Legal residence?

GOD: Everywhere.

JEFFS hisses: That’s Buddhism!

GOD: I beg your pardon. Heaven.

TIPSTAFF: Ah, put your hand on Yourself, I guess. Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help You … You?

GOD: I do.

JUROR screams out: Why did you give my Aunt Bertha cancer?

GOD: I never.

JEFFS: Woohoo! Mistrial!

JUDGE WALTHER: Sorry, Mr. Jeffs, no dice. Shall we continue. Mr. God, did you really tell Mr. Jeffs that I should recuse myself?

GOD: No. Why that bozo thinks I’m his lap dog is beyond me.

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