Saturday, August 14, 2010

Snippet from Screwtape Letter 23: C.S. Lewis on the historical Jesus

My dear Wormwood....

Simpsons-Jesus-by-Matt-StoneYou will find that a good many Christian-political writers think that Christianity began going wrong, and departing from the doctrine its Founder, at a very early stage. Now this idea must be used by us to encourage once again the conception of a ‘historical Jesus’ to be found by clearing away later ‘accretions and perversions’ and then to be contrasted with the whole Christian tradition. In the last generation we promoted the construction of such a ‘historical Jesus’ on liberal and humanitarian lines; we are now putting forward a new ‘historical Jesus’ on Marxian, catastrophic, and revolutionary lines. The advantages of these constructions, which we intend to change every thirty years or so, are manifold. In the first place they all tend to direct men’s devotion to something which does not exist, for each ‘historical Jesus’ is unhistorical.Jesus-CEO-Laurie-Jones The documents say what they say and cannot be added to; each new ‘historical Jesus’ therefore has to be got out of them by suppression at one point and exaggeration at another, and by that sort of guessing (brilliant is the adjective we teach humans to apply to it)Third-Jesus-Deepak-Chopra on which no one would risk ten shillings in ordinary life,  but which is enough to produce a crop of new Napoleons, new Shakespeares, and new Swifts, in every publisher’s autumn list. In the second place, all such constructions place the importance of their historical Jesus in some peculiar theoryJesus-Interrupted-Bart-Ehrman He is supposed to have promulgated. He has to be a ‘great man’ in the modern sense of the word—one standing at the terminus of some centrifugal and unbalanced line of thought —a crank vending a panacea. We thus distract men’s minds from who He is, and what He did....

The ‘historical Jesus’ then, however dangerous He may seem to be to us at some particular point, is always to be encouraged....

Your affectionate uncle,

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (originally 1942; this edition: Harper Collins, 1996) 123-124, 126.


  1. It's a very interesting reading from Lewis, but I'm not sure I like The Simpsons style picture of Jesus. Was that actually from the show?

    Lewis seems to really nail the ongoing quest for the historical Jesus movement. How interesting to think it could be a devilish plot!

  2. Hi Scott, welcome to the Mere CS Lewis blog. At least I think you're new... first comment in any case. Thanks.

    Yeah, you're right, Lewis really nails this ongoing quest for the historical Jesus. He really made me think. I'm still thinking about it and wondering how much of a distraction this movement has been. Of course, without it, we might not have had N.T. Wright come along and offer his huge corrective :)

    The Simpsons-style picture of Jesus is not actually from the show, but from an artist named Matt Stone. If you click on the pic, it will take you to his website.

    For any Simpsons fans, while looking for a picture of Jesus from the Simpsons, I happened upon this episode of The Simpsons where Jesus and Lisa Simpson have a discussion. It's not a real episode, but the author is brilliant and makes it very convincing. I wish it had been an episode because it's really cool. I recommend reading it: Jesus Meets Lisa Simpson

  3. Thanks for your quick reply! I did check out that "Jesus Meets Lisa Simpson" episode(?) and you're right, it is quite well done. Too bad a good picture couldn't be drawn for it. If anyone is good at drawing the Simpsons, here's a great opportunity!

  4. Yes, getting a better illustration would be great! The picture that is posted confused me... for a while I was thinking that Jesus had appeared to Lisa in the form of Richard Gere! Very confusing and just plain ODD.

    In spite of that, let me repeat, the actually script for Jesus Meets Lisa Simpson is really cool!

    I'm with Scott... if anyone can draw the Simpsons, please submit an illustration of Lisa Simpson & Jesus to that website.

  5. With all due respect to the author of this blog, I find it objectionable in using The Simpson's for any illustrative purposes.

    Another objection is from a C.S. Lewis quote, he disregards his own advice, he speaks of two errors. Why write a book about them if he considers this to be an error?

    "There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight."

    Unless I completely misunderstand his quote, he is contradicting himself. In one sentence his claims of two scenarios one of belief and the other in disbelief in the existence of demons, he identifies these as errors and then he says "they" "I take it he means demons" as if he believes they truly exist.

  6. To the Anonymous commenter,

    I sure hope you get this reply. First let me say thank you for giving the blog a good read. It sounds like you had the chance to review several snippets from Lewis's Screwtape Letters.

    As to whether Lewis contradicts himself... I guess he does set a standard and then allows us to judge his work based on that standard. As I understand, the two errors that Lewis is describing are like two ditches on either side of a country ride. If you drive off into either ditch, you're in trouble. The challenge is stay on the road and not fall for either extreme when it comes to our understanding of evil in our world and the work of demons. Anon, you identified the "two scenarios one of belief and the other in disbelief in the existence of demons," but that's not exactly the two scenarios according to Lewis. Disbelief is the ditch to the left, but the ditch to the right is not just believing in them (that's the road) but belief with "an excessive and unhealthy interest in them."

    In an inscription before the Preface, C.S. Lewis quotes Martin Luther: "The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn." In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis is mocking the devil's schemes.

    Finally, your first objection was my use of The Simpsons for illustration of these readings. I understand that some people do not approve of the TV show, but I know others who have watched it and found interesting things about it. Mark Pinski wrote a book which argues that in spite of the tone and apparent mocking of religion that goes on, the family basically lives by Christian principles. His book was titled The Gospel According to the Simpsons. Christianity Today also explored the presence of Christian themes in the show, suggesting that Ned Flanders is a pretty good Christian guy.

    But why did I use Homer Simpson as my primary illustration for The Screwtape Letters? I'm not sure, it just kind of happened. When you start reading the Screwtape Letters, you don't know how the "patient" / human victim will turn out. I knew I could find pics of Homer being reverent and irreverent so I thought I could make it work. You'll see that I've used all kinds of images to illustrate various Lewis writings. I aim to be fresh and creative and yet to use familiar images in a new way. For Lewis' short biography of Ezekiel Bulver, I had to find a man who was better at attacking his opponent's motives rather than arguing ideas -- I'm still happy with the politician I chose (see my article on Ezekiel Bulver). When illustrating friendship writings from The Four Loves, I thought pictures from M*A*S*H* would be ideal since Hawkeye was presented as having two very close friends. I think it worked, but those pics were very hard to find! On another occasion, when I presented Lewis answering questions from factory workers, I searched hard to find pictures of the actual factory and workers (probably a few years later than Lewis' visit, though). So, I'm sorry if you were offended by pics of The Simpsons; they will be done when we finish with The Screwtape Letters which will be very soon. After that, you'll find the pics used to illustrate will be something entirely different. I'm trying to keep it interesting by offering a slight and suggestive illustration of the writings.

    Hope that helps. And please do not judge the author, C.S. Lewis, by the weaknesses you see in my presentation or illustration of his writings.

    Thanks for being in touch,

  7. I'm curious to know if "Anonymous" came back to read my reply. Maybe he or she will let us know.

    I've done a lot of work in New Testament studies in the last decade or more, and just found it to be so amazing that Lewis saw with clarity what we have in fact experienced in regards to studies on the Gospels and on the historical Jesus in particular. Wow! Still amazed!