Saturday, September 25, 2010

When Christian Leaders Break Public Confidence

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

A Commentary:

There are always a great deal of really important news stories developing not only on a daily basis, but on an hourly basis in our country and around the globe. The cumulative effect can be quite depressing when one considers the human suffering involved from either "natural disasters," unforseen accidents, or the murderous aggression of human beings toward one another, on both the personal and collective levels. Wars, terrorist attacks, ethnic and social tensions that break out into violence; political parties and ideologies endlessly clashing; "human rights" violations, or the abuse and suffering of poor and defenseless persons, including innocent children. It all seems rather endless. At the other end of the spectrum of noteworthy news, there is always the "soap opera" world of Lady Gaga wearing a dress made out of meat at a public event; or Paris Hilton's or Lindsey Lohan's latest drug bust and rehab meltdown. (Some people are famous ... for being famous). The entertainment world provides us with almost "comic relief," or at least some meaningless distractions that allow us to catch our breath before the next hard-hittiing story breaks into our lives. Of course, we also suffer from "disaster fatigue," that can leave us desensitized to that very human suffering that occurs on a daily basis.

Somewhere in between those two drastically-distant poles of the tragic and the farcical, we find some news stories that have a resonance beyond the actual "facts," because they raise other significant issues that influence our perception of either prominent individuals and/or established institutions. The sordid affairs of a multi-millionaire golfer who betrayed his wife are not socially significant in and of themselves - and perhaps "none of our business" - but the issues of "role models" for younger children and adolescents; of the moral delusions of "entitlement" for the "rich and the famous;" and even the media madness surrounding such a story have some importance, for example. So, I place the latest sex scandal involving a prominent Christian minister into this middle category of noteworthy news, less for its intrinsic interest - just more sordid details that may leave one morally nauseous upon reading about them - than for its repurcussions on how the American public perceives "organized religion" and its key representatives.

If you haven't heard or read of it yet, one of the most well-known Christian figures on the contemporary American religious landscape is the Atlanta pastor, "Bishop" Eddie Long. Megachurch Christianity is not on my interior radar screen, so I admit to being ignorant of "Bishop" Long's status, though I do recall being vaguely familiar with his name. He is the pastor of a 25,000 member church in Atlanta! (I understand that he was the "officiating pastor" at Coretta King's funeral, and this should give us some indication of his high-level status). Since this megachurch claims to be Baptist, I am surprised that he carries the title of "bishop," for Baptists have never accepted the office of bishop. Be that as it may, Pastor Long, a vociferous opponent of homosexuality, is being sued by three young men who have accused him of basically paying for their sexual services while they were in their late teens by an ongoing avalanche of gifts and privileges. The suit claims that Pastor Long turned these "spiritual sons" into sex servants (who were "of age" at the time).

As a recent commentator on the radio said: When high-level public personas - especially politicians, entertainers, sports figures and, alas, popular religious figures - are engaged in a battle with sexual temptation, sex always wins. As of today, Pastor Long has asked for "patience" as he prepares to refute these "ugly charges." Since initial denial is the invariable response these days to allegations of sexual misconduct, such denial is often met with skepticism. Perhaps if he publicly said: "There is no sex" he may be able to gain some precious time as he prepares his defense (and as we re-open the debate on the meaning of "is.") However, before we once again proclaim: "How the mighty have fallen," we need to hear from Pastor Long himself and take a careful and dispassionate look at the allegations.

As we await the unfolding of this case, it does raise the issue of how the American public perceives religious figures placed high on a public pedestal, or how it perceives what we call "organized religion." Clearly, there is a huge demographic group - skeptics, agnostics, atheists, anti-Christians - that gleefully anticipate the deflation of such figures, and who rejoice proportionally according to the ugliness of the story. The cries of "hypocrisy," and the indictment of organized religion as the cover for unsavory manipulation of persons and the cynical accumulation of money will now circulate as long as this story has any staying power. That is to be expected, and as long as these stories are true, such comments are deserved, though made with more delight than genuine concern for all involved - including the victims. Another group will collectively shrug its shoulders and wink with an "I told you so" attitude, that also asks: "What did you expect?" or "You aren't actually surprised, are you?" There may be some who spend time on this story and are genuinely concerned precisely about the public perception of Christianity and religion in general. Such sordid scandals erode public confidence in religious leaders and their trustworthiness. This is "bad news" for all Christians at some level. For many, it justifies their reluctance to enter into a Christian community; or even further it raises questions about the very reliability of the Gospel message. Why join up with all of those sanctimonious, judgemental hypocrites, since all religion claims are bogus?

From my perspective, I do not understand how sexual temptation and sexual scandals in any way touch on the question of whether or not Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah and Son of God! These sad incidents offer a commentary on fallen human nature and the power of temptation, but should not in any manner undermine the integrity of the Gospel. That may just remain an excuse for lazy, indifferent and careless thinkers to avoid the deeper questions of life and its meaning posed by the Gospel, or not to engage in that haunting question from the Gospels, asked by Jesus Himself: "Who do people say that I am?" Fallen Christians do not mean that the Gospel is somehow untrue. At the end of history, perhaps only a "little flock" in the wilderness will remain loyal to Christ, but that does not mean that He is no longer the Lord of history and the cosmos.

Yet, these same sad incidents reveal just how much responsibility Christian leaders have to maintain public confidence in the over-all integrity of the Christian faith. How many of the "little ones" from within the Church can be hurt or disappointed by the scandalous behavior of their leaders, even driving them away from their communities in despair. Think for a moment of the unending turmoil within the Roman Catholic Church due to the many sex-abuse cases that have become public knowledge. This is just as true for our own Orthodox Church which is not exempt from such scandal. The Apostle Paul understood and anticipated this when he spoke to those who "aspired to the office of bishop;"

Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. He must manage his own household well ... morever he must be well thought of by outsiders, or he may fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (I TIM. 3:1-4, 7)

If "Bishop" Long is indeed guilty as charged, then he obviously lost sight of the Apostle Paul's exhortation to potential leaders in the Church. Now those on the "outside" can mock and deride to their hearts content. Again, this effects more than the responsible, fallen person. A sense of betrayal and scandal can overcome an entire community and lead to embarrassment, anger or discouragement. The "weaker" members may fall away. There is no sense in hoping that Pastor Long is guilty or not guilty. What is, is, and it will be disclosed in the end. If guilty, then there is one more blow to the public integrity of Christian leaders, and perhaps to the perception of the integrity of the Christian Faith, and the consequences are what we all have to live with.

Fr. Steven

Monday, September 20, 2010

Inscribing the Cross in our Hearts

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Extol the Lord our God. Worship at His footstool, for it is holy!" (PS. 99:5)

The Feast of the Elevation of the Cross is behind us, as yesterday we celebrated the Leavetaking. Yet, we should bear in mind, that in addition to the many feasts or commemorations that bring the Cross before us for both interior reflection and outward veneration, the Cross is never absent from our lives for a day. As Orthodox Christians, we wear crosses; we make the sign of the Cross over ourselves throughout the day; and we fast on Fridays in honor and remembrance of the Cross as concrete examples of our awareness that "through the Cross joy has come into the world." We are a "Cross-conscious" people. When, in the providence of God, we must be a "Cross-bearing" people - either individually or collectively - this is all meant to strengthen us in the time of our testing. In fact, if our "worldview" does not have the Cross at its center, than it can hardly be described as Christian. It is precisely the schizophrenia of doing one thing in church, and then living by a set of different principles once we leave the church, that undeminds our Faith and witness to the world.

Of course, we do not contemplate the Cross in isolation from the Resurrection of Christ. We do not tear the seamless robe of the paschal mystery that holds together the Cross and Resurrection of our Lord, distinct as those two "events" may be in the economy of our salvation. For the Cross without the Resurrection would devolve into a stoical stance before human suffering, at best; and eventually become an unhealthy cult of that very same suffering, at worst. (Although, I am convinced that without the Resurrection, we would not even know about the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. He would have, to borrow the harsh phrase, disappeared into the "dustbins of history"). The Apostle Paul wrote that the Lord Jesus "was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification." (ROM. 4:25) This formulation is the equivalent of a short creedal confession of Faith from the earliest days of the Church, embedded in the New Testament. In his great testimony to the Church's earliest Tradition, the Apostle Paul wrote with further elaboration:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. (I COR. 15:3-5)

We capture this perfect integration of Cross and Resurrection expressed so powerfully and joyfully in the New Testament, in the hymn that accompanies our veneration of the Cross in the Church:

Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy Resurrection we glorify.

Although never losing sight of the sufferings of the Lord on the Cross, the Feast of the Elevation brings to mind the victorious nature of the Cross; or rather the paradox that through the Cross our Lord was victorious over sin, death and the devil. "I call Him King, because I see Him crucified," St. John Chrysostom joyfully cried out. In a remarkable passage from his classical work On the Incarnation of the Word of God, St. Athanasius the Great witnesses with great eloquence, spiritual insight and exegetical skill, the more cosmic and universal dimensions of the Cross of our Lord:

But if any honest Christian wants to know why He suffered death on the Cross and not in some other way, we answer thus: in no other way was it expedient for us, indeed the Lord offered for our sakes the one death that was supremely good. He had come to bear the curse that lay on us; and how could He "become a curse" otherwise than by accepting the accursed death? And that death is the cross, for it is written: "Cursed is every one who hangs on a tree." (GAL. 3:13; DEUT. 21:23). Again the death of the Lord is the ransom for all, and by it "the middle wall of partition" is broken down and the call of the Gentiles comes about. (EPH. 2:14) ... Again, we see the fitness of His death and of those outstretched arms: it was that He might draw His ancient people with the one arm and the Gentiles with the other, and to join both peoples together in Himself. Even so, He foretold the manner of His redeeming death: "I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men to Myself." (JN. 12:32) Again, the air is the sphere of the devil, the enemy of our race, who, having fallen from heaven endeavors with the other evil spirits ... to keep souls from the truth and to hinder the progress of those who are trying to follow it.... But the Lord came to overthrow the devil and to purify the air and to make a way for us up to heaven ... This had to be done through death, but by what other kind of death could it be done, except by a death in the air, that is, on the cross? ... Fitting indeed then, and wholly constant was the death on the cross for us; and we can see how reasonable it was, and why it is that the salvation of the world could be accomplished in no other way. Even on the cross He did not hide Himself from sight, rather, He made all creation witness to the presence of its Maker.
(St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, 25, as quoted in Fr. Thomas Hopko's essay, "The Tree of the Cross.")

The ultimate divine revelation to the world was that of the Father, revealing His love for the world through the outstretched arms of the Lord on the Cross - a crucifying love pointing toward to the crucified One. And this crucifying love was "perfected" by the Holy Spirit. For Christians, there are no prophets bringing a further revelation to the world following the Cross - and Resurrection - of the Lord. As expressed by Fr. Thomas Hopko in his talk, "The Word of the Cross:"

Beyond the Cross there is nothing more that God can do.
Beyond the Cross there is nothing more that God can say.
Beyond the Cross there is nothing else to be revealed.

If we can only inscribe the Cross in our hearts in addition to wearing a cross, or signing ourselves with the cross; then that revelation will be incarnate in each of us and a revelation to the world.

Fr. Steven

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Cross Implanted in the Center of Our Lives

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Let all the trees of the forest rejoice, For their nature is sanctified by Christ who planted them in the beginning, And who was Himself outstretched on the Tree. At its exaltation today we worship Him and glorify Thee.
(Canon hymn from the Matins of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross)

At last Sunday's Divine Liturgy, the "Sunday Before the Elevation of the Cross," we heard the inexhaustibly rich passage from the Gospel According to St. John that contains the verse:

"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (JN. 3:16)

This verse, of course, is embedded in the Anaphora Prayer of the Liturgy, so that we hear it constantly as reminder, synopsis and actualization of the love of God that imbues the entire New Testament. In biblical language we could say "Woe to anyone who hears this verse with indifference!" At every Liturgy are hearts can truly be "lifted up" to the Lord - perhaps even soar heavenward - when we hear of how God "so loved the world." No matter what is happening in the world, or in our own personal lives, we are reassured that ultimately the love of God will place us in the indescribable realm of eternal life, safe from the dangers of the world and saved from sin and death.

Interestingly, in some versions of the New Testament, these words are ascribed to Jesus directly; though in many others - including the RSV - they are ascribed to the evangelist as a kind of theological commentary on the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus recorded in 3:1-15.

When we celebrated the Feast this week, we declared the Cross to be the "invincible trophy" by which we are granted victory over our "adversaries." Historically, this hymn is referring to military victory over the enemies of the Christianized Roman Empire that we now call Byzantium. The Empire was surrounded by "enemies" and endlessly attacked. The soldiers of the Empire were inspired by the Cross carried in battle as they put their hope in Christ for victory. For good reasons this may sound to us today as being very anachronistic, if not terribly sinful. We can only wince at some of the deadly excesses of battle unleashed upon the "enemy" by Christians fighting under the sign of the Cross. We may judge that as we choose, but singing this hymn today we need to recognize our "adversaries" as the many demonic thoughts and temptations that assail us in our daily "spiritual warfare." When those adversaries capture our minds and hearts, then we betray Christ through the sinfulness we are led into. The sign of the Cross is our "weapon" in this spiritual warfare, because it was through the Cross that Christ overcame the "power" of sin, the devil and death:

He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them through him (Or in it, that is, the Cross - COL. 2:15).

The "wisdom of the world" did not uncover the truth of the Cross, for that same "wisdom" would hardly seek truth where it was believed that only a "stumbling block" (scandal) and "folly" were to be found. (I COR. 1:23) The "foolish wisdom" of the Cross could only be revealed by God, and then accepted in faith as the means of our salvation:

For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (I COR. 1:25)

The Cross must therefore remain at the very center of our lives and in the expression of our Orthodox Christian Faith, for otherwise we will "suffer" the consequences of that loss in terms described by Fr. Thomas Hopko:

When the tree of the cross is removed from the center of our lives we find ourselves cast out of paradise and deprived of the joy of the communion with God.

Yet, the fruit of that cross-centeredness is also ably described by Fr. Hopko in an inspiring manner:

But when the cross remains planted in our hearts and exalted in our lives, we partake of the tree of life and delight in the fruits of the Spirit, by which we live forever with our Lord. Rejoice, O Lifegiving Cross!

Today the Cross is exalted and the world is sanctified.
For Thou who art enthroned with the Father and the Holy
Spirit have have spread out Thine arms upon it,
And have drawn the world to the knowledge of Thee,
O Christ.
Make worthy of divine glory those who have put their
trust in Thee.
(The Hymn of Light at the Matins of the Feast)

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Screwtape Insights III

Dear Parish Faithful,

I would like to continue with a few more passages from C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. If you recall, Screwtape is advising a younger, inexperienced demon on how to subvert the newfound faith of a young Englishman (called "the patient" by Screwtape). The deeper purpose is to destroy the soul of this young man so that he will be condemned to an eternal existence with "Our Father Below." One of the opening letters reveals some general strategies on how to distract a new churchgoer with the flaws and unappealing habits of his fellow-worshippers. This will keep his mind away from "the one thing needful:"

",,, When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want him to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like 'the body of Christ' and the actual faces in the next pew. ... Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.

Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman. The Enemy allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every human endeavour. It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing. The Enemy takes this risk because He has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His 'free' lovers and servants - 'sons' is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them. He leaves them to 'do it on their own.' And there lies the opportunity. But also, remember, there lies our danger. If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.

I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the people in the next pew afford no rational ground for disappointment. Of course if they do - if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with the squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner - then your task is so much the easier. All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question 'If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?' You may ask whether it is possible to keep such obvious thoughts from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won't come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favorable credit-balance in the Enemy's ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these 'smug,' commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can."

Your affectionate uncle

Does anything sound familiar? St. Paul assures us that if we know the mind of Satan, we can combat him effectively.

Fr. Steven

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Scewtape Insights II

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Here is the concluding paragraph from The Screwtape Letters that I shared yesterday as part of a longer meditation. It is an interesting "commentary" by the devil Screwtape concerning longevity of life and its meaning. It may help to recall that C. S. Lewis wrote this book during the height of WWII when young men, especially, were dying by the thousands on a daily basis. He was attempting to put all of this into a much greater perspective - that of eternity.

How valuable time is to us may be gauged by the fact that the Enemy allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth. It is obvious that to Him human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life. We are allowed to work only on a selected minority of the race, for what humans call a 'normal life' is the exception. Apparently He wants some - but only a very few - of the human animals with which He is peopling Heaven to have had the experience of resisting us through an earthly life of sixty or seventy years. Well, there is our opportunity. The smaller it is, the better we must use it. Whatever you do, keep your patient as safe as you possibly can,

Your affectionate uncle

Once again, an interesting twist, where "long life" has its own dangers and cannot be viewed as an automatically good thing in the light of the drama of sin and redemption. These insights, together with those in the body of the letter from yesterday, regardless of their "source," are a challenge to what I would call our contemporary sense of "entitlement" to a long, full, and relatively healthy life. If we don't make it to the current life expectancy, we will feel "cheated" or complain of how "unfair" it all is. (Just how, why, or by whom we are privileged with this sense of entitlement remains unanswered). And many, if not most, people today view that entitlement to an autonomous life that only includes "this world" as the arena for its duration. The Christian form of this position is to cling to the same expectation, but to then expect God to let us into heaven - however reluctantly we leave this world behind - because we have been "good persons." C.S. Lewis is telling us that perhaps it is all a bit more complicated than that.

Somewhat related to that:

As the expression has it, we were "channel-surfing," I believe, last Sunday evening. We paused at the Emmy awards and all of the "beautiful people" that filled the auditorium celebrating themselves and their wonderful accomplishments. We paused at the giving of the Emmy to something like "best drama/movie" of the year (HBO, I believe). The film was a dramatization of the life of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, aka, "Doctor Death." Considering the source of this awards ceremony, I thought to myself, "Of course, how could this film not be chosen!" Be that as it may, what I then saw had something of a surreal quality to it. There was Dr. Kevorkian himself in the front row and arising to receive a standing ovation from his blissful admirers! It was not as if the audience were applauding a great humanitarian who saves lives. They were "celebrating" a notorious figure who takes lives as the champion of "physician-assisted suicides" for many years now. As a "martyr" to his "cause," he was soaking in this recognition with evident delight. In my mind, this rather "in house," brazen display of support for a "pioneer" in the field was actually a display of the moral vacuity of the participants. Apparently, I am living in totally different universe.

My final reflection was something like this: Was I peering into an auditorium full of secularists and atheists whose motto in life is essentially "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die" (and if we get rich and famous in the process, all the better); for we can then turn to "Doctor Death" and his like when the limitations of old age, a serious sickness and the prospect of the least bit of "suffering" makes life not only unendurable but absolutely meaningless? Such a "physician" can help such people "check out" and return to the oblivion and nothingness from which they emerged. The "sympathy" and "compassion" evoked by supporters of physician-assisted suicide cannot cover up the thorough-going nihilism operative at the deepest levels.

The careful reader of the above may think that I have just contradicted myself, or perhaps that I am guilty of creating a "double standard" of sorts. In the passage and brief commentary on The Screwtape Letters I appear to be following C.S. Lewis in challenging the common notion that a long life is always the best, and that we must be realistic about the presence of death and how it sweeps away countless people in their infancy and youth, often to their eternal advantage. In the short piece on Dr. Kevorkian, I seem to be saying that we must cling to life at all costs regardless of its "quality," and not make a decision to end it by turning to the more blatant forms of euthanasia. I am not sure that this is a clear contradiction.

In the first instance, C.S. Lewis is writing as a Christian believer and I, of course, share his faith. His comments, and mine to follow, must be placed in the context of accepting God as our Creator, and that God alone is the Lord of the living and the dead. And, of course, that Christ is our Savior. Lewis may be reminding us that we must not despair in the face of early and painful deaths, however much these may be in tension with our more conventional views concerning life. This may work for the salvation of many. For all of life and death is in the hands of God. The brevity of life does not reduce that life's meaningfulness, for God created us for an eternal existence in His presence. Underneath the cynicism of Screwtape, Lewis is offering the Christian vision of hope.

Dr. Kevorkian lives, thinks and practices in what can only be termed an atheistic or nihilist universe. This is at its core a dark view of life. For him, our "biology" is everything. When that fails us, the only "dignified" thing to do is to accept that fact and then end our lives which have outworn their usefulness or short-lived purpose. "Active euthanasia" makes sense within such a worldview. As Orthodox Christians we need not cling to "biological existence" at all costs. For we are more than our biology. We need not arrest the dying process with a desperate use of every available technological and medical means. In that light, we can truly die with dignity. But we will not practice active euthanasia which is saying that suffering is meaningless and devoid of any redemptive value. We do not hasten a process that may still have an uncertain outcome. Ultimately, we do not "play God" in what only can amount to a horrible and wretched caricature of the role of God as the Creator, Sustainer, and Judge of life - and death.

Based upon the context and the worldview that informs the above texts and events, I hope to have avoided a seeming contradiction.

A final fragment:

My XU students' responses to the opening day class question: "What is the Orthodox Church?" seem to suffer from an ever-increasing blandness. However, here was an interesting response that I cannot quite figure out:

"A branch of the reformed Church originally influence by Greece. Many different types."

Fr. Steven

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Screwtape Insights

Dear Parish Faithful,

On Sunday, August 22, our Church School-oriented Summer Reading Club met for group discussions of the various age-appropriate books that were chosen and assigned. Participation was somewhat down from previous years but, as always, it proved to be a very enjoyable afternoon session. We would like to thank the Zidarescus for hosting this event. I am certain that our Church School students are avid and capable readers, but this ongoing Summer Reading Club does have them commit to a particular book chosen for its moral and ethical insights into life. I have consistently remained the group leader for the high school students. In recent years, we have read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury; To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; and The Forged Coupon by Leo Tolstoy (we thought that Tolstoy's War and Peace would be pushing it for a summer book). This past summer, we turned to C. S. Lewis and his well-known book The Screwtape Letters. Classified as a work of "Literature/Religion," this work of Lewis' continues to fascinate readers since its appearance in 1942. To make things simple, here is a synopsis of the book taken from the blurb found on the back cover:

This classic has entertained and enlightened readers the world over with its sly and ironic portrayal of human life and foibles from the vantage point of Screwtape, a highly placed assistant to "Our Father Below." At once wildly comic, deadly serious, and strikingly original, C.S. Lewis gives us the correspondence of the worldly-wise old devil to his nephew Wormwood, a novice demon in charge of securing the damnation of an ordinary young man. The Screwtape Letters is the most engaging account of temptation - and triumph over it - ever written.

The balance between the "wildly comic" and the "deadly serious" is a good part of the reason why The Screwtape Letters remains so effective to this day. On one hand, life is a "human comedy" precisely because of our very human flaws and weaknesses, through which we make ourselves look foolish and reduce some of our actions to a level deserving of laughter. When a good comedian - those, in my opinion, that shade toward social satire - digs below the surface and brings these foibles to life in an exaggerated manner, we laugh the laughter of recognition. It is much less crude to laugh at our own expense than to laugh at the expense of our "neighbor." In fact, when we can on occasion laugh at ourselves, we can then recognize our own foolishness and flaws, with the opportunity of overcoming these traits based on self-knowledge. Many such passages in The Screwtape Letters provoke the laughter of recognition. As the reader, you will find yourself saying: I react in just that petty and foolish of a manner when facing what amounts to be petty temptations. How ridiculous!

Yet, on the other hand, life is a "deadly serious" drama of sin and redemption; of the struggle between good and evil; of choosing God ... or nothing. Cliche or not, our eternal destiny is being worked out on a daily basis. For the Christian, that is a deadly serious matter. We are engaged in a battle to maintain the integrity of our humanity so as to avoid the dehumanization that eventually pervades a mind and/or society that believes in nothing in particular, let alone the reality of God. This is the basis of tragedy; when a work of literature or philosophy will trace the tragic course of a life overwhelmed by circumstances, poor moral/ethical choices, "inner demons," etc. It is nothing short of tragic when a life that has great potential - every human life created "in the image and likeness of God?" - is squandered by the above factors. For the Christian, that usually means being overcome by temptation and "losing one's soul" in the process. To begin life in an ascending arc toward becoming more fully human (by drawing increasingly closer to God), but ending life in a descent that makes one less than human because of sin and temptation (that moves us further away from God), can only have consequences that are "deadly serious." The Screwtape Letters will force you to think of your own salvation in the face of temptation and some passages can be downright uncomfortable.

To return to the book, I would like to periodically share some of the passages that I found most effective in bringing out that intriguing combination of the "wildly comic" and the "deadly serious." The book is cast as a series of letters from Screwtape, servant of "Our Father Below," to his nephew, Wormwood, on assignment to drag a particular young man's soul down to Hell. For Screwtape, the "Enemy" is Christ! So Screwtape must teach Wormwood to keep his assigned human as far away from Christ in thought and deed as possible. In the process, there are many passages that reveal the "worldview" of the Devil and the "insights" that he has gained into human nature and behavior through tempting human beings from time immemorial. The following passage, I believe, speaks of our own temptation today for reasons I believe you will agree with:

The Enemy has guarded him from you through the first great wave of temptations. But, if only he can be kept alive, you have time itself for your ally. The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather.You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it - all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition. If, on the other hand, the middle years prove prosperous, our position is even stronger. Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is 'finding his place in it," while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him an sense of being really at home in earth, which is just what we want. You will notice that the young are generally less unwilling to die than the middle-aged and the old.

The truth is that the Enemy, having oddly destined these mere animals to life in His own eternal world, has guarded them pretty effectively from the danger of feeling at home anywhere else. That is why we must often wish long life to our patients; seventy years is not a day too much for the difficult task of unravelling their souls from Heaven and building up a firm attachment to the earth.

Some challenging insights from our "Enemy!" There are some concluding thoughts in this particular "letter" that further challenge some of our own ways of looking at "long life" that I will share tomorrow.

Fr. Steven