Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Sixteen, with Guest Writer!

All of Wormwoods efforts to make the Patient unchaste fail when he falls in love with the wrong sort of girl; a virginal, raised in the church bastion of holy spirituality. Chapter Thirteen is nothing but Screwtape chewing him out for his failure, while Chapter Fourteen gets into how to redeem the situation. They have failed to get church out of the Patient, so now its time to think of how to corrupt its influence.

Screwtape is a particular fan of using academia and politics to muddy religion. In the first place, he believes that academic study of Jesus can only produce an image that is contrary to the man who is taught in the Bible, and who therefore can only confuse the devotion of the modern Christian. Politics is a more difficult thing, as on the one hand, Christianity affecting politics he thinks is potentially deadly, but on the other hand, when Christianity becomes only an excuse for a particular political stance, the faith itself is diluted to the demons’ advantage. The two combined, the “Christianity and Social Cause” and the “Historical Jesus” phenomenons, can be used to great affect by Wormwood.

Chapter Fourteen is another one that is largely about Christians to Christians, and so I have very little to fairly say about it myself. However, some of his comments made me think my friend Rebecca might have some thoughts from a more liberal Christian perspective. In addition to being a fantastic human being, she is in the process of becoming an Episcopalian nun. She has her own blog about the journey here.

The following has been edited from a Skype conversation we had after I gave her the chapter to read. There was a lot of tidying up to do, as neither of us are exactly experienced interviewers, but we worked together on the result and I think it reflects the clever points we were trying to make at the time quite well.

Lane: What did you think?

Rebecca: I found it really thought provoking. There was some stuff I liked, some I really disagreed with, and a lot that made me think.

Lane: That’s my impression of the Screwtape Letters in a nutshell.

Rebecca: I agree, first of all, that the “border-line between theology and politics” is a very messy place, and definitely a difficult one to traverse, if you’re a person of faith.

Lane: Yeah. I think you have to agree with that one, even if you traverse it on a different trajectory than Lewis does.

Rebecca: Also, I loved this part: “The earliest converts were converted by a single historical fact (the Resurrection) and a single theological doctrine (the Redemption) operating on a sense of sin which they already had-and sin, not against some new fancy-dress law produced as a novelty by a “great man,” but against the old platitudinous, universal moral law which they had been taught by their nurses and mothers. The “Gospels” came later and were written not to make Christians but to edify Christians already made.”

We try to learn from the Bible, but it wasn’t really written for that, I don’t think

Lane: Interesting. Can you clarify?

Rebecca: I can try! Easiest bit first: the observation that the Gospels were written to Christians who already believed. They’re… as I see it, not rule books but histories to us today. (And that’s not always a popular view, but it is a very Episcopalian one, i find.) So, we can learn from them in a broad sense, but the point of the Bible isn’t “read this and it’ll convince you”. It’s a record of who we’ve been as a religion.

Lane: Interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way.

Rebecca: Like I said, I don’t think that’s a popular view. But think of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians; They are Paul’s ideas, and I’m sure he prayed about them, but they’re also very specific to his time and place. He personally knew the people he was writing to. I do think his views on gender roles are shitty, especially applied to today. But I also think that he wasn’t writing to us, and if he had been, he might have said some different things, because we’re a different church with different needs and different faults. If we accept that his writing is divinely inspired, well, that’s easily in line with the belief that God meets people where they are. What I am called to is not what you are called to. What the church in Corinth needed to shape up is not what we need to shape up. One of Paul’s letters includes a request for somebody to (and I’m paraphrasing) pop his cloak in the mail. “You know, the red one… that I left last time I visited.” I don’t see people rushing to recover the cloak and send it on. These are very clearly letters to actual people he really knew. They were saved because they’re important church history and some of the stuff he says is good and worth learning from, but they’re also personal letters.

Lane: I didn’t remember that verse. That’s really funny

Rebecca: Shockingly, that doesn’t come up in church. There are some very ordinary parts of the Epistles. [So I agree with] the idea that Paul’s writing is to teach people who are digging in deeper, rather than to be the basic stuff that converts somebody. “Women should be silent in church” is sure as hell not converting anybody I want to share a pew with. But we learn about the old church by studying why Paul said that (that’s another discussion) and about ourselves by deciding how to live out such a thing- from literally to not at all. And Lewis is totally right that in the very earliest days, people were converted on the strength of “There was this dude- Jesus of Nazareth- and you should hear the amazing things he did. Hey- God will take you to heaven. You know that? God actually loves you.” Which, if you find a church that interprets that in a universal, loving way, is a really powerful thing. And also an incredible weapon in many hands.

Lane: Good weapon or bad weapon?

Rebecca: Bad weapon! “God loves everybody- and you make him sad.” Is basically the most awful thing a church can say and too many of them do.

Lane: Gotcha. So, does that sum up the “ooh, that was a good point” stuff?

Rebecca: Yeah. The whole “Historical Jesus” thing… I had a bunch of thoughts on that.

Lane: That was that part that really made me think, “I should get Rebecca’s perspective.”

Rebecca: Before we start that- I liked that he referred to other great minds as being sent by God to remind people that there’s goodness and light in the world. That’s right in with my own philosophy.

[quote; “For humans must not be allowed to notice that all great moralists are sent by the Enemy not to inform men but to remind them, to restate the primeval moral platitudes against our continual concealment of them. We make the Sophists: He raises up a Socrates to answer them.”]

Anyway, first of all, he says “The documents say what they say and cannot be added to.” I hate that argument. You know what that’s like? It’s like Tumblr, where people just go, “You suck, educate yourself!” Like there’s only ever one way to view each issue and *obviously* if you’re not a *complete moron* you’ll see it “the right way” which is, naturally, their way, and disagreement just means you’re deluded and stupid, because you could never possibly have your own opinion on the exact same facts. So, no, the documents do not “say what they say” that simply.

Lane: I just broke out into a grin, because wouldn’t Lewis be the worst tumblrite ever?

Rebecca: The worst!

Lane: He would be the master of the “wake up sheeple” flame war. That’s a recurring problem I’m having with him. He doesn’t like to consider that people who disagree with him are not necessarily wrong.

Rebecca: So here’s what I think. A few things are very clear- “Jesus is the son of God, sent down here by God, God incarnate.” The resurrection is pretty clear, too. He died, he rose. Some of it is just stated facts, but plenty is not. How you interpret Jesus feeding the 5,000 is entirely up for debate. There is no “lesson” there except that Jesus can do very cool stuff and that he wanted to share dinner. Water into wine- is another one with no great lesson. I mean, he just quick-fermented grape juice for a wedding reception. So, whatever Lewis thinks the Bible “clearly says” about Jesus, he’s wrong. And he lists the “reductionist views” people hold (holy quotation marks, I really hated this part) as though that’s somehow a bad thing. People do understand Jesus differently, and those views are not new! They don’t go in neat cycles. Jesus as a rabbi has always been the view held by some people. Jesus the social-justice activist is another one, and a very prevalent view. So, there’s no putting aside interpretation and getting the “real, correct” Jesus out of that. We all bring our own baggage to the story of Jesus of Nazareth, and that influences how we view him. Heck, look at art- he’s so frequently depicted as a light-haired white dude. I really like the view of him as looking very normally middle-eastern. The idea that Jesus might get stopped by airport security is comforting to me. Jesus himself said, “I come not to bring peace, but a sword”. He wasn’t Buddy Christ- in *my* reading, Jesus asks us to do things that so far humanity has found totally impossible. Loving each other, being forgiving, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor. But lots of people are very comfortable without making any big changes to get those things done.

I don’t get the impression, from Lewis, that he’s comfortable with Jesus being multi-faceted. He thinks that whatever Jesus was (according to Lewis) that Jesus was probably very easy to understand. I don’t think so. I think even as a human, he had some really rough spots. He was God incarnate, but he was human while he was here. He never really caught on in Nazareth, because they’d all known him when he was a kid. He got mad at people who were using the temple to do business. If flipping tables and yelling at people isn’t an extraordinarily awkward scene to imagine, I shudder to think what your social life must be like. We all think, “oh, he was obviously in the right and totally righteous” and we’re not uncomfortable with that story at all. But imagine if you had to watch that go down!

Lane: So, in short, you think Lewis has a very simple idea of who Jesus was, and doesn’t want to consider any other angles. So when people turn to psychology and history and archaeology to try to deepen their understanding, he dismisses them, because he doesn’t want to challenge his own ideas about who Jesus may have been.

Rebecca: Yeah, that’s exactly what I think. I can go on at length about my view of Jesus, but I bet Lewis’s view was super different. And we got those ideas from the exact same book.

Lane Brown: Yeah. If I may jump in for a bit, I was bothered in general by the attitude that in this one area, academia is absolutely forbidden to add its voice. That there’s just this mystical understanding that is complete and if you consider looking anywhere else for improved understanding, that urge is from the devil. Lewis talks a good talk about logic and knowledge and real study, but then when it comes to logic or education that disagrees with him, he will say, “well, obviously this is the bad sort of education that gets in the way of good old fashioned common sense.”

Rebecca: “Good old fashioned” usually is code for “I’m putting my fingers in my ears now.”

Lane: Pretty much.

Rebecca: See also “old-fashioned family values.”

Lane: I suppose it’s not surprising that the sort of Christian who practically venerates him is also the sort with this attitude towards education and learning; good up to a point, that point being where it challenges what we already think.

Rebecca: Yeah- he has good things to say, but I’d venture that he’s very uncomfortable with change and any pushback against authority.

Rebecca: The other thing I think is that different people really do just see different things in the Gospels, and that’s okay. I don’t think that’s inherently wrong. If you’re Christian, there’s a basic expectation that you will believe in Jesus the Son of God, God incarnate, who rose from the dead, but if you need the story of Jesus who fucked shit up when people were being shitheads, that’s a lens that gives you power? I think that’s okay. If you’re me, and you need Jesus who knew what it was like to try really hard and love everybody and hang out with the unpopular kids, that’s okay. If you need Jesus who will be perfect and strong and always there for you, and who always has the exact right answer there in scripture and was never vulnerable even on the cross, that’s okay. I think Jesus can be all these things, and can mean different things to different people, according to what people need. I think Jesus is bigger than the letters Paul wrote, and bigger than Luke’s memory of everything after the fact. He was lots of things while he was alive, and if your reading of Scripture takes you in a different direction from me, maybe that’s because you need a different kind of support or something different to believe in. I think Jesus is big enough to handle all that. We can have these conflicting views and all be Real Christians ™ and all be real followers of Jesus Christ, and all be good people. We don’t have to need the same thing or find the same thing when we go looking. And *that* is my truest objection to Lewis’s idea that Jesus was a static character.

Lane: Where there any other parts that you wanted to respond to? Other thoughts that were provoked?

Rebecca: The question of why to believe, and what’s a valid reason to believe. That actually rang kind of true with me- the question of whether to believe because you believe, or because you can get something out of your belief. I think there’s something wrong with deciding, in an academic way, to practice a religion because it’ll get a result you want. I don’t actually think that constitutes real belief.

Lane: Aka, why I really hate Pascal’s Wager.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m not a big fan, either. It’s a very cold, calculating thing. Not good for religion or for the individual. I mean, I certainly am not going to question the people at church every week. That’s absolutely a matter for your own conscience, why you practice a religion. But I think if you really do believe, there’s just this knowledge in you that what is true is true. Some people take that and bludgeon the people around them with that knowledge they have. Whereas I tend to feel like, “I know this to be true. And I am equally certain that you know it to be false” and then I piss everyone off by not having a problem with that. [A mutual friend] said something once about how, for her, Jesus is the answer to the question she’s asking. But if you’re taking a different metaphorical test, you may get a different answer. And to me, that’s something God understands and He just goes on loving everyone regardless. I also think God touched off the big bang, so I’m not ever going to be fun at fundamentalist parties.

Lane: Well, that depends who you’re asking. To me you’re loads of fun at fundamentalist parties.

Rebecca: Hahaha right up until we both get clocked with Bibles and thrown out

Lane: We will wear our bruises proudly.

Rebecca: Let’s maybe have our own parties.

Lane: Yeah, for me part of the reason I don’t follow a religion is that for me, I was raised in an extremely fundamentalist and frankly ridiculous sort of religion, and when I had faith, that was what I had faith in. When that faith was broken, I looked at other religions, and other types of my own former religion, and on a moral/philosophical level they made various levels of sense to me, but that was not the same as having faith. Then I got into atheism and questioning whether faith was even something I needed to be a good and complete person, and I came to the conclusion that no, I didn’t, and the only thing I could do at that point that had any integrity was cop to being an atheist.

Rebecca: I have a blog post coming about that

Lane: I will so be plugging your blog.

Rebecca: Back on topic, I think that one of the reasons I stayed faithful was that the God who I was brought up to know was gentle and loving, and I went to a church where it was okay to ask questions and bust myths if you found them. And if you were doubting, that was okay. I took it all in and believed it the way kids believe what they’re told, and as I got older I started doing some of my own reading, and thinking, and praying, and basically forming a relationship with God (which feels hokey to say, thanks junior high Revivals!).

Also, I want to make it really clear that when I say that I don’t think you just “decide to believe for Reasons” I’m not denigrating people who are doubting and want to believe and are struggling with that. That’s normal, and acceptable, and I’m in no way looking to run that down. I think that’s different from coming at belief with a thing you want accomplished. “I’ll believe because Jesus was pro-social justice” is very different from somebody who wants to believe because belief makes sense to them in whatever indefinable way belief does.

It’s hard to be in that position of wanting to believe and trying to hear God and connect with God and feel God’s presence and love. Whereas practicing religion with an end goal, without worrying about your relationship with God, does seem problematic.

Lane: Yeah, I think I liked that point as well, even without something similar in my life to relate to it. It seems to me, though, that as an atheist, the last thing I should be saying is, “I think you should really believe because you believe, not because you think Jesus has good shit to say and that Christianity furthers your particular crusade,” because I’m not part of that group anymore, so who the hell gave me a vote?

Rebecca: I get one, though, and I think if your cause has nothing to recommend it but “God says!!” and you sticking your tongue out, it’s proably a shitty cause.

Lane: I suppose in a similar way I think you should be an atheist because you really don’t have faith, not because you believe that atheism is the way of the future, for example.

Rebecca: Don’t be atheist to be edgy.

If your cause really is good, people of all faith traditions and no faith tradition at all will see that it’s good, because the world is full of good people who want good things for this place. You won’t have to scare them with hell to get them to do good.

Lane: Or convince them that hell doesn’t exist to get them to do good.

Rebecca: Yup!


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