The Courage to Listen

Now that we have Reformation Sunday behind us, Halloween comes into view (actually, Halloween has been sidling up to us since Labor Day – stores now have their Christmas wares in the aisles). This time of year I always break out our CD of the “Focus on the Family Radio Theatre” dramatization of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Voiced by the superlative Andy Serkis, Screwtape delivers what amounts to a 4-hour monologue. We do meet Screwtape’s nephew, the “junior tempter,” and hear from this nephew’s “patient” (the human he is charged with leading to hell), the patient’s girlfriend, and assorted other minor characters, but basically for 4 hours the show belongs to Screwtape. The production remained quite faithful to the original, with one small-yet-significant deviation (more on that below), so the listener is treated to almost pure, unadulterated C.S. Lewis.

Which struck me as kind of odd when I loaned this CD several years ago to my Moody Bible Institute friend. She listened to it, loved it, and returned it bubbling with praise. Knowing that I am Catholic, she managed to get in a sly “You should really listen to this CD – it touches on a lot of important points!” I already had listened to it, having read the book 15 years earlier when I was a Protestant, which I had told her previously, but she doesn’t listen. Lewis, an Anglican, does make some very important points in The Screwtape Letters. He addresses the notion of Heaven and hell, the importance of our day-to-day choices, and the battle that is being waged for each person’s immortal soul – all staples of Catholic teaching for 2,000 years, of course. My Moody Bible Institute friend likes Lewis because he was a “Christian” (not a Catholic). Lewis, however, while not Catholic, was also not an Evangelical; he was an Anglican, and as an Anglican he made a few other very important points in The Screwtape Letters, points which should make Evangelicals uncomfortable to the point of squirming….

Lewis’ demonic protagonist takes aim, for example, at the congregational system of worship, the gathering together of likeminded folk to worship God. Screwtape points out how efficiently this system works to further the cause of Hell:

…if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches….

Screwtape is praising what Bryan Cross at the blog Principium Unitatis has termed “ecclesial consumerism,” the approach to worship fueled by our 21st-century American shopping instinct. Many Christians appraise a church based on how the worship service makes them feel. If it “leaves them cold,” if the congregation is not perceived as friendly, if the makeup of the congregation is too old, too young, too white-Anglo-Saxon, too “ethnic,” if the sermon is too long, too short, too serious, too funny, too erudite, too simplistic, if the children’s program isn’t dynamic, then they shop around till they find a church that feels “just right.” This Goldilocks approach to one of the most serious decisions a person can make delights Screwtape. What he loathes is the “parochial system,” because it brings together all types of folks who wouldn’t chose to rub shoulders if it were up to them. He explains the difference:

In the first place the parochial organization should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires. The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction. In the second place, the search for a “suitable” church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil.

Churches in the Evangelical scheme of things are congregational, groups of likeminded people who “call” their own pastor, a pastor who fits their pre-existing religious beliefs and preferences. To have a pastor assigned to your church is unheard of. Imagine what a pastor like that might teach – maybe a Biblical doctrine with which the congregation did not agree! The congregational system works for Evangelicals because in every way the individual believer calls the shots, and if you believe that that’s what Christianity is all about – just me and Jesus! – then the congregational system is the only system you’ll be comfortable with.

Screwtape mentions, too, what a good thing it is if a pastor does not feel bound by any “cycle of readings” such as exists in the Anglican church and the Catholic. Since all Anglicans and Catholics (as well as Lutherans and Methodists) read the same prescribed Scripture passages on a given Sunday no matter which town or country they are in, the pastor is forced to preach on subjects that might not suit his fancy. Screwtape points out how lovely it is when a pastor can be encouraged to choose out his own texts and then induced to preach his own little cycle of “the same fifteen sermons” over and over, thereby ensuring that his congregation never hears anything that might startle them. Anyone who has sat under the teaching of the same pastor for 10 years recognizes that little cycle. Each human being has his comfort zone, and each human being must be forced to venture outside his comfort zone; hence the cycle of readings. Yet only the “inspiration of the Holy Spirit” is allowed to influence a pastor’s choice of sermon topics under the congregational system. Oddly, the Spirit seldom inspires anyone to depart from their 15-sermon cycle.

Lewis not only disagreed with Evangelicals on church government, but on doctrine as well. He believed in Purgatory, as the postmortem experience of the junior tempter’s “patient” confirms. Screwtape describes the scene as the dead man enters the presence of God: “Pains he may still have to encounter, but they embrace those pains. They would not barter them for any earthly pleasure.” Those “pains” are purgatorial, and Lewis elaborated on this idea in his best-known apologetic work, Mere Christianity:

“That is why He warned people to ‘count the cost’ before becoming Christians. ‘Make no mistake,’ He says, ‘if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away. But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect–until my Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with Me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.'”

Lewis took Hebrews 12:14 seriously, as do Catholics – hence the belief in Purgatory.

These are but mere details when compared to the very premise of The Screwtape Letters. The entire basis of the story is that a person can lose his salvation. The junior tempter’s “patient” becomes a Christian – no matter, Screwtape opines, we can still win him for “our Father below,” and when in hell he will just be that much more amusing for having espoused Christian beliefs! When the Catholic Church teaches the same thing – that Christians must die in a state of grace in order to be saved, Evangelicals throw up their hands in horror. When they read The Screwtape Letters…, well, this is C.S. Lewis and he was a Great Christian, so he simply isn’t saying what he appears to be saying. My Moody Bible Institute friend recognized none of this when listening to the radio dramatization – all she heard was solid Evangelical teaching. As I said, though, the production was very faithful to the original – except for something the producers felt compelled to add….

One of Lewis’ biographers, A. N. Wilson, has asserted: “If the mark of a reborn Evangelical is a devotion to the Epistles of Paul and, in particular, to the doctrine of justification by faith, then there can have been few Christian converts less Evangelical than Lewis.” I believe that the Focus on the Family producers may have felt a little of this when they wrote the script for their radio theater. From an Evangelical point of view, this story needs a little help. The Screwtape Letters contains no overt “altar call,” that staple of Evangelical presentations according to which every public assembly must be concluded by offering those present the opportunity to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Lewis preferred the more subtle approach of allowing God to work through the story he had written. The Screwtape Letters, as a work of Christian fiction, was written to make people think. Since the point of the radio production was less to make people think and more to get people to make a decision for Christ, a small scene has been added in which the human characters (engaged in what Screwtape terms “intelligent Christian” conversation), smack the listeners over the head with the Gospel message, lest they miss it. This addition was necessary from an Evangelical point of view, since Lewis in his carelessness left this out:

“Surely the only way to God is through faith, faith in Jesus Christ!”

This addition, to anyone not of the Evangelical persuasion, really clangs, and it aptly demonstrates the Evangelical appropriation of Lewis for their own ends. While he would never have argued against the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ, Lewis did not succumb to the typically Evangelical predilection for turning everything into a sermon ending in an altar call. I believe this is the spirit in which the remark “there can have been few Christian converts less Evangelical than Lewis” was made. Lewis was a Christian, yes – there is no doubt about that – but, an Evangelical? Not by a long shot. He was an Anglican who believed in purgatory and praying for the dead (he prayed for his beloved wife after she passed away), he went to confession, he insisted on the necessity of perseverance as opposed to a once-saved/always-saved theology, and on the possibility that someone who did not have the opportunity to learn about the One True God might still possibly be saved (as evidenced in the final book of The Chronicles of Narnia).

What I think is at work here is the Evangelical tendency to try to cram the theological views of any highly regarded individual into an Evangelical nutshell. Evangelicals would be very uncomfortable with the real C.S. Lewis, but here again they have fictionalized “Jack” just as they have accepted a fictionalized version of Martin Luther. They are pleased and proud to have these men solidly in the Evangelical camp and love talking about these great Christians – who between them held a number of doctrines diametrically opposed to the ones preached by Evangelicals, doctrines such as baptismal regeneration, the sinlessness of Mary, Purgatory, prayers for the dead, confession, and the necessity of final perseverance. These doctrines, when espoused by Catholics, are anathema, and to some are a sign that Catholics cannot be Christians. When espoused by Luther or Lewis, these doctrines are … overlooked. If, as the saying goes, courage is what it takes to sit down and listen, then Evangelicals have been pretty cowardly with regard to the theology of their heroes. If these men are Christians, then so are we Catholics. If Catholics are not Christians because of these doctrines we embrace, then neither are Luther or Lewis.

Evangelicals just love talking about Martin Luther and about C.S. Lewis. Listening, though, really listening to Luther and Lewis, and hearing what they are actually saying, is not something Evangelicals are ready to do. Listening is just not an Evangelical forte.

On the memorial of Sts. Simon and Jude Thaddeus

Deo omnis gloria!

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