C.S. Lewis

Thinking about Trump, young evangelicals, The New York Times and ... Screwtape

Thinking about Trump, young evangelicals, The New York Times and ... Screwtape

If you have heard of the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, then you have probably heard of three things — a land called Narnia, “Mere Christianity” and a demon named Screwtape.

The format of the bestseller “The Screwtape Letters” is unique, to say the least. In this painfully clever book, a senior demon named Screwtape offers guidance to a young tempter — his nephew Wormwood — on the art of steering a human soul into the land of “Our Father Below.”

Now, the purpose of this think piece is not Christian apologetics.

Instead, it is to consider one of Screwtape’s most famous observations and what it has to do with — brace yourself — Donald Trump, modern evangelicals and The New York Times.

Yes, this is linked to that much-discussed Times feature that ran with this headline: “ ‘God Is Going to Have to Forgive Me’: Young Evangelicals Speak Out.” How did this piece come to be?

With just days left before the midterm elections — two years after President Trump won the White House with a record share of white, evangelical support — we asked young evangelicals to tell The Times about the relationship between their faith and their politics.

Nearly 1,500 readers replied, from every state but Alaska and Vermont. Hundreds wrote long essays about their families and communities. They go to prominent megachurches as well as small Southern Baptist, nondenominational and even mainline Protestant congregations. Some said they have left evangelicalism altogether.

Yes, 1,500 young evangelicals is an impressive number. At the same time, as several digital correspondents told me, it’s amazing the degree to which the voices in this unscientific survey that ended up in print — in the world’s most powerful newspaper — sound exactly like you would expect young evangelical Times readers to sound.

Please read the Times piece for yourself.

Then turn to this friendly commentary about this Times feature written by one of America’s most outspoken #NeverTrump evangelical scribes — religious-liberty expert David French, a Harvard Law School graduate who writes for National Review.

But before we get there, please think about this snippet from Letter 25 by master Screwtape, a letter with tremendous relevance for Trumpian evangelicals of all ages as well as the leaders of the growing evangelical left:

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Faith-free thinking about aliens: Oxford experts say we probably are all alone in universe

Faith-free thinking about aliens: Oxford experts say we probably are all alone in universe

Near the end of his life, the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis give a final interview to journalist Sherwood Eliot Wirt. One of the topics they discussed was the possibility of intelligent life on other planets -- a subject that interested Lewis, a fact made obvious in his trilogy of science fiction novels.

This is a subject that can be addressed in a secular manner, of course.

At the same time, if intelligent life is found on another planet, this does raise certain questions for those who believe in a God that -- one way or another -- created heaven and earth. To cut to the chase: What actions would this kind of God need to take to provide redemption on other worlds, if they are as sinful and fallen as this one?

For example, there was this exchange in that 1963 Lewis interview:

Wirt: Do you think there will be widespread travel in space?

Lewis: “I look forward with horror to contact with the other inhabited planets, if there are such. We would only transport to them all of our sin and our acquisitiveness, and establish a new colonialism. I can’t bear to think of it. But if we on earth were to get right with God, of course, all would be changed. Once we find ourselves spiritually awakened, we can go to outer space and take the good things with us. That is quite a different matter.”

Now, flip that coin over and look at the other side. What are the theological implications of evidence that this world is truly unique, that intelligent life does not exist elsewhere?

With that in mind, consider this weekend's think piece, which ran at Vox under this sobering double-decker headline:

Why haven’t we found aliens yet?

A new paper on the Fermi paradox convincingly shows why we will probably never find aliens.

Unless I have missed something, this long piece is totally free of any content linked to religion, at least in a positive sense. The absence of any religious implications -- even the obvious points that would raised by an atheist or agnostic -- is rather striking.

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Religion plus travel: Are only secular pilgrims walking UK's pilgrimage trails?

Religion plus travel: Are only secular pilgrims walking UK's pilgrimage trails?

Religion and travel are two topics that are rarely combined, yet the Guardian did so –- in a fashion –- with a piece on Britain’s ancient pilgrim routes and how they’ve soared in popularity. The point of the feature was that one need not be religious at all to tread ancient paths that honor everyone from St. Cuthbert, St. Cadfan, St. Werburgh and St. Chad to Saints Wulfad and Swithun.

What results are nature walks with likeminded people with not a nod to the religious history that has traditionally surrounding this activity. Imagine traveling to Mecca for the … architecture? Might religious convictions have something to do with the motives of some of the travelers?

Here’s an account of how secularized Brits are strolling from church to church just to get some peace and quiet.

In one of the smallest churches in England, a couple of dozen people are taking the weight off their walking boots for a moment of quiet reflection in the cool gloom. Outside, an unlikely April sun pours over the South Downs.
It seemed, says Will Parsons, a good moment to learn the lyrics of John Bunyan’s To Be a Pilgrim -- perhaps, he adds, adopting neutral terms “to be more inclusive”.
The group was soon belting out the 17th-century hymn, drawing curious passersby to peer into the tiny hillside Church of the Good Shepherd, in Lullington. Come wind, come weather, regardless of lions, giants, hobgoblins or foul fiends, “there’s no discouragement / Shall make them once relent / Their first avowed intent/ To be a pilgrim”, they sang.
This merry band are part of a new boom in pilgrimage which has seen the re-establishment of ancient routes and the growing participation of people on a spectrum of belief from religiously devout to committed atheists.

The story goes on to say the hikers were walking Lewes Priory to the Holy Well in Eastbourne over two and a half days.

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Judge Neil Gorsuch's Anglicanism is still a mystery that journalists need to solve

Judge Neil Gorsuch's Anglicanism is still a mystery that journalists need to solve

It’s been about three weeks since Neil Gorsuch has been nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court and we’re no closer to figuring out what makes him tick, spiritually. However, there have been a few jabs at trying to gauge the spiritual temperature of his family's parish in downtown Boulder, Colo..

The most aggressive reporting has been by a British outlet, the Daily Mail, whose reporters have shown up at Gorsuch’s parish, St. John’s Episcopal. The Mail has also been sniffing about Oxford University (pictured above), which is where Gorsuch apparently became an Anglican during his studies there. It was also where he met his future wife Marie Louise. Her family is Anglican and the Mail explains that all here and here.

Very clever of them to nail down his wife’s British background and that of her family and to have interviewed Gorsuch’s stepmother in Denver.

They too see a dissonance in Gorsuch’s purported conservative views and the church he attends:. 

He has been described as 'the heir to Scalia' and is a religious conservative whose appointment to the Supreme Court was greeted with jubilation on the pro-gun, anti-abortion Right.
But DailyMail.com can reveal that Neil Gorsuch's own church, in Boulder, Colorado, is a hotbed of liberal thinking -- and is led by a pastor who proudly attended the anti-Trump Women's March in Denver the day after the President's inauguration.
Another member of the clergy at St. John's Episcopal Church is outspoken about the need for gun control, and helped organize opposition to a gun shop giveaway of high-capacity magazines in the run-up to a 2013 law that banned them from the state of Colorado…
And in a twist that may surprise religious conservatives who welcomed Gorsuch's appointment, church leader Rev. Susan Springer, 58, has said she is pro-gay marriage and offers blessings to same sex couples.

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Memory eternal, C.S. Lewis: Another story on Nov. 22 that might be worth some ink

Memory eternal, C.S. Lewis: Another story on Nov. 22 that might be worth some ink

Here in the United States of America, Nov. 22 will always mean one thing on the news calendar. That's especially true in Texas and for folks like me who are natives of Dallas.

As you would expect, there was some mainstream coverage of the fact that today is the 53rd anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I expect some second-day coverage of events linked to the anniversary, as well.

However, on the other side of the Atlantic, this day also marks the 53rd anniversary of the death of another famous man -- a scholar and popular writer whose works are just as influential today as they were on the day he died. We're talking about C.S. Lewis.

I know that I am biased -- "The Great Divorce" is my favorite book -- but I am thinking that many Americans would want to know if there are any events on the other side of the pond, even coverage after the fact, marking this event. This 2013 story from The Independent -- timed for the 50th anniversary -- contains plenty of information to serve as a starting point.

CS Lewis: In the shadow of JFK's death...
The author of the 'Narnia' children's books, died an hour before Kennedy. His stepson recalls the day

The stepson is Douglas Gresham, known to some Americans for his role in promoting the work of Lewis and for playing a role in turning some of the Narnia books into mainstream movies. That series will be rebooted with the release of "The Silver Chair," which is expected in 2018.

This passage from the earlier story provides all the context that journalists would need:

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The Wall Street Journal gets religion and aliens — in Los Angeles

The Wall Street Journal gets religion and aliens — in Los Angeles

This spring, the Wall Street Journal advertised for a Los Angeles-based religion reporter who'd not only cover the beat but pinch-hit on other stories. This pleased those of us who have wondered for years how one of America’s largest newspapers could neglect so huge a beat.

Since the early 1990s, the Journal’s religion coverage has been all over the map. At one point, the paper was running columns by one-time Journal religion reporter Gus Niebuhr down the left side of the front page. At other times, all you could find in its pages was a weekly freelance column called Houses of Worship. I wrote some religion pieces for the Journal from 2012-2014, most of which ended up in the entertainment blog.  

So I was glad to see this ad. I’m guessing the Journal’s religion+breaking news beat out of the L.A. bureau was actually started a year or two ago by Tamara Audi, whose talents were spotlighted last year by my colleague Bobby Ross Jr. When Audi was promoted earlier this year, the Journal wanted to retain the same beat composition. This summer, the paper hired Ian Lovett, a 2006 Amherst College graduate. After a short stint at the Beverly (Hills) Press, he got hired on the Los Angeles bureau of the New York Times as a junior reporter in 2010. Then the Journal hired him this summer. 

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Is the Babylon Bee insider 'Christian' funny, or truly funny enough for prime time?

Is the Babylon Bee insider 'Christian' funny, or truly funny enough for prime time?

So what is this week's "Crossroads" podcast actually about?

Well, on one level it's about the "Christian" humor website called The Babylon Bee. But on a deeper level, it's about what happens when the word "Christian" is turned into an adjective defining a form of popular culture. At that point, all kinds of interesting and even distressing things take place. There are news stories in there, folks.

For example, when you hear someone talking about "Christian" rock 'n' roll, doesn't that (if you are of a certain age) make you think of that famous "Seinfeld" episode that included the riff about the car-radio buttons? Here's a flashback, from an "On Religion" column that I wrote long, long ago:

As she pulled into traffic, Elaine Benes turned on her boyfriend's car radio and began bouncing along to the music.
Then the lyrics sank in: "Jesus is one, Jesus is all. Jesus pick me up when I fall." In horror, she punched another button, then another. "Jesus," she muttered, discovering they all were set to Christian stations. Then the scene jumped to typical "Seinfeld" restaurant chat.
"I like Christian rock," said the ultra-cynical George Costanza. "It's very positive. It's not like those real musicians who think they're so cool and hip."

It's all about the world "real." We are not talking about "real" musicians, here. We are talking about "Christian" rock. Thus, when most people hear the phrase "Christian" rock, they probably think of this rather than this (please click these URLs).

What do you think of when you hear people talk about "Christian" movies? Do you think of this or of this?

How about the fine arts? When you think of Christian paintings, do you think of this or, well, of this?

I could go on. "Christian" humor, including satire, is not new -- in fact, it's ancient.

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Are demons going to start sending us links to that Washington Post exorcism essay?

Are demons going to start sending us links to that Washington Post exorcism essay?

It's perfectly understandable why many journalists are fascinated with the subject of exorcisms, especially when the Roman Catholic Church gets involved. For starters, we are talking about battles on the front lines between the material and the supernatural, encounters that raise eternal questions about free will, the love of God and the existence of ultimate good and ultimate evil. And then, of course, there is Hollywood.

So you will not be surprised that your GetReligionistas have taken a look at quite a few mainstream news stories about this topic. Click here and do some surfing, if you wish.

But this post is not about a news piece. Yet, over the past week people have sent me the URL to this Washington Post essay more than any other. At this point, I have begun to wonder if the demons are sending it to me. Why, well you know what C.S. Lewis said about demons (speaking through the voice of Screwtape, his great demonic professor).

We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics. At least, not yet. I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, belief in us, (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy. The “Life Force”, the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis, may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work -- the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits” -- then the end of the war will be in sight.

The headline on the Post piece, written by New York Medical College professor Richard Gallagher, was this: "As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession."

I should note that this is a sequel, of sorts, to his 2008 essay -- "Among the Many Counterfeits -- A Case of Demonic Possession" -- that ran in the journal The New Oxford Review, a very small-o orthodox Catholic publication (and one with a high digital wall around its content).

Here is the opening of the new Post piece:

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God, cancer, a videogame: Did WIRED dig deep enough into the facts of this mystery?

God, cancer, a videogame: Did WIRED dig deep enough into the facts of this mystery?

I have had the following debate several times with editors over the past 40 years or so, while working on news features or columns about religious issues and the believers involved in them.

In terms of reaching mainstream readers, an audience that is both secular and religious, which of the following two methods is best?

When writing the final version of the piece, should you include lots of specific facts and information about the religious beliefs and practices of the people involved, for the simple reason that these details are crucial to their lives and, thus, the story?

Or maybe you need to turn that around. Should you write about their faith in a very general way, so that more readers have a chance to get involved in the story without baggage or prejudices? After all, saying that a story focuses on a circle of "evangelical" Christians will turn off people who are angered by that whole "evangelical" thing.

For many people, this is another version of the old debate between "spiritual" storytelling and "religion" news.

Let's look at a perfect example of this debate in practice. I'm interested in how readers react to the decisions that writer Jason Tanz and the editors at WIRED made while producing the absolutely wrenching feature story called "Playing for Time." The kicker for that headline: A father, a dying son, and the quest to build the most profound videogame ever."

Yes, once again we are dealing with another "theodicy" story that revolves around ultimate questions about God, pain, evil, sickness and death -- when bad things happen to good people. The people at the center of the story are videogame pro Ryan Green, his wife Amy and Josh Larson, the co-designer of the game called "That Dragon, Cancer."

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