By the second chapter, the patient is a Christian. Once Screwtape is done excoriating Wormwood for his failure, he moves on to the bright side. So the patient’s a Christian now? That sucks, but he can still go to hell. All they have to do is make him a shitty Christian.
This whole book is like that vase/two faces illusion, in that, depending on a basic assumption about how to view it “correctly,” you can take away two completely different conclusions. The first assumption is that C. S. Lewis was talking only about Christians and the Christian church, and that is the only valid way to take this. The second is that you can take “Christian” and “church” metaphorically. This is a fairy story about demons and angels. It uses classical images of Christian mythology, but so does Supernatural, Good Omens, Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet, Lewis’s own Chronicles of Narnia…
Lewis himself throws shade on the strict “authorial intent” approach later on in this book. Screwtape actually claims that whole school of criticism as one of their tools to replace real education with the junk food of pseudointellectualism. Demons, you’ll remember, fear readers who honestly engage with what they read. That leads to thinking and reflecting and seeing themselves as part of a bigger world, and that’s a slippery slope into honest-to-God morality. Obsessive focus on “what the author meant” traps meaning in the context of the past, which makes it feel dry and distant, rather than alive and present. This makes reading feel like a practice inaccessible to anyone but certain elite scholars. Hell wants fewer people will read, and it wants those who do to be preoccupied with their intellectual status, not deepening their understanding of the world they live in today.
But at the same time, if you completely ignore authorial intent, you can miss out on real impacts of the work. Take this passage, for example, where Screwtape explains how to use the church to disappoint the patient.
“Provided that any of those neighbors [in the church pew] sing out of tune, or have shoes that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. At his present stage, you see, he has an idea of ‘Christians’ in his mind which he supposes to be spiritual but which, in fact, is largely pictorial. His mind is full of togas and sandals and armor and bare legs and the mere fact that the other people in church wear modern clothes is a real – though of course an unconscious – difficulty to him.”
Evangelical and conservative Christians love to believe that atheists and agnostics people don’t have authentic reasons to reject the church. When I went to Bible study as a kid, the main concern of my pastors was how to overcome the impression that church was “uncool.” It saved them the trouble of confronting logical contradictions in their theology, or the damage they were doing to queer teens, or the fact that decent people often follow non-Christian religions and the idea that they’re all going to hell is the stuff of nightmares. All that would have forced them to take an honest look at the shortcomings of their own movement, and question how loving and truthful their own beliefs were. That sure would have been inconvenient. Much easier to believe people reject church for the same reason they reject sweater vests.
At the same time, who can’t relate to that low-grade disappointment on some level, whether or not they identify as Christian? If not your first time at some type of religious gathering, then your first time in college, your first political meeting, your first time going into any kind of group or club that promises to offer some new way to Have Life Figured Out. And you realize that of course they don’t. Sometimes there was false advertising, but more often you realize, belatedly, that it was you making absurd promises to yourself. You believed that somewhere out there was a group of magical, enlightened humans who never had a bad mood and hadn’t once farted in a crowded elevator. Eventually, either you leave, seeking your perfect humans elsewhere, or you realize that all that exists is just more people, trying to figure shit out. And when you’re finally mature enough to accept the latter, the real work can begin.
Or how about this passage, where Screwtape explains the weird strategic stalemate that both heaven and hell find themselves in.
“The Enemy allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every human endeavor. It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek… But also, remember, there lies our danger. If once they get through the initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.”
Again, there’s an opportunity for conservative Christians to nod and say, “yes, everybody who goes to hell deserve this, because they lacked the discipline necessary for the path to salvation.” It plays right into a belief that people who suffer deserve it, because they just didn’t work hard enough.
At the same time, sooner or later genuine maturity means braving boredom. That’s a universal human experience; Lewis brings up the analogy to learning Greek specifically because this dynamic plays out everywhere. When you decide “the church” is a metaphor for anything that helps you grow as a person, whether religion or activism or education or relationships, there is so much insight and encouragement to be found in this chapter.
One more example.
“One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate.”
I love that image. I love everything about the idea that ordinary humans, with all our personal failings and limited viewpoints, all our farts and misplaced wallets, yet joined together in the common goal of love and truth-seeking. I love the way it sets us up for the crash of our limited perception, and the way you just want to kick against the ugly picture Screwtape is painting, and see the beauty of humanity that makes demons tremble.
The real interest of the face/vase illusion isn’t in sticking to one interpretation or another. Rather, it’s in all the meta-thought that comes up when you realize both images exist. It’s in the awareness of how your brain creates meaning, in how other people’s brains create meaning, and in all the myriad pictures that potentially exist in the world.
This chapter resonates with me every time I read it, because of how long I struggled to find a social movement that truly did good in the world. In the end, I found it did not come with any one label. Not environmentalism or social justice or Christian or atheist or secular humanist or even witchy neopaganism. Rather, I learned to see people the way Screwtape does – to look past the clothes and the smelly community center basements and the crappy potlucks, and instead look at the impact they actually made. I learned to look for people who try to make goodness wherever they are, whether that’s raising awareness about pollution or shoveling their neighbor’s walkway or just trying to cut back on their drinking. It’s about seeing us not as competing factions, but as a multifaceted army spread across time, with the common enemy of our own worst selves.