Recently, I stumbled onto a collection of essays, The World’s Last Night, and Other Essays by C.S. Lewis, published in 1960 by Harcourt Brace. It has been years since I’ve read any of C.S. Lewis’ nonfiction works, and I thought it could be fun to dive into these bite-sized topics and if I didn’t abandon the reading entirely, perhaps even talk about them here. For anyone who may not recognize C. S. Lewis’ name at a glance, he is the author of the beloved fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia.
This particular collection has seven different essays, all previously published in various reviews or magazines, and here compiled. Any errors in describing or misrepresenting the author’s work is my own error entirely, but, I’ll do my best to be as concise and accurate as I possibly can.
The Efficacy of Prayer
This opening essay discusses whether prayer has any effect, or if the things that we pray for would’ve happened anyway, even without believing and praying to a Higher Power. Lewis defines prayer as a form of request, and draws comparison between the requests we make to God, and the requests (or prayers) we make to our fellow man. This gave me pause, as I tend to think of prayer as being communication between one person and God, or perhaps a group of persons, if corporate prayer, and God, rather than some of the allusions Lewis makes to, the request a man makes to a woman for her hand in marriage, for example. Lewis goes on to express the view that prayer should not be viewed as something that God only hears the select few, as if He played favorites. Prayer is not us giving God advice on what to do. It is not a magical incantation.
We put requests to people, and have a reasonable expectation of a reply (in favor or against) because we know them. We have a relationship with them. We are dealing with a person, not a myth. What stands apart, with prayer, according to Lewis, why we can believe that prayer works, is the foundation of our relationship with God. “Our assurance is quite different in kind from scientific knowledge. It is born out of our personal relation to the other parties; not from knowing things about them but from knowing them” (7). Because prayer is grounded in a relationship with a Person. This argument, of whether God should be treated as a myth or a Person, is continued in his essay, “On Obstinacy in Belief”.
On Obstinacy in Belief
Lewis goes on to explain, “To believe that God — at least this God — exists is the believe that you as a person now stand in the presence of God as a Person. You are no longer faced with an argument which demands your assent [does God exist or not?], but with a Person who demands your confidence” (26). And if God does exist, it’s reasonable to suppose that we may not always understand why He acts as He does, because we lack that divine understanding. We can instead, only put our confidence in Him, whether this thing or that thing that we ask for is given or denied, and that it is for our benefit, even if we cannot rationally see its outcome.
Lilies That Fester
In “Lilies That Fester”, Lewis discusses the potential of the human spirit for an appreciation of higher pursuits, the lilies that fester from over-cultivation by culture, embarked upon for its own sake. Lewis argues that elements of culture must be spontaneously embarked upon, to be inspired by our own interests and passions, to have any lasting value, rather than the pursuit of a thing because it is considered ‘cultured’ or ‘refined’. The self-awareness destroys the learning.
When I read this, I wonder what Lewis would have made of tourists queuing to take the same insipid photos of the same unchanging vista, the one that’s been taken a thousand times before, cameras and camera phones all jostling overhead for that perfect shot unmarred by the sight line of another camera by the stranger’s next to yours. I suspect that Lewis would’ve eschewed such pastimes, or if he viewed them, found a quiet spot instead to reflect upon creation and its Creator, and left the camera at home entirely.
Lewis discusses the superficial knowledge of culture, of knowing the right remark to say on such-and-such a topic, but when plumbing its depths, you find that pretense of culture is instead a Potemkin village, a propped-up illusion with no substance behind it. “I should have hopes for that boy [reading Fantasy and Science Fiction, rapt and oblivious of all the world aside]. Those who have greatly cared for any book whatever may possibly come to care, some day, for good books.
Screwtape Proposes a Toast
Lewis’ own foray into fiction was quite extensive, and no collection of essays would be complete without an example of his allegorical writings. The Screwtape Letters were a charming allegorical tale, in the epistolary style, where Screwtape, an elderly demon, teaches his nephew how to better torment his human assignment and lead him to hell. In “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”, we revisit Screwtape who addresses a demonic hoard in the form of a toast, that is more or less, a long monologue. Screwtape discusses how the intensity of evil has diminished over the centuries in individuals (with some exceptions), but what hell lacks for the solo human bastions of evil, they have an over abundance of tepid souls — in short, quantity over quality, as it were.
This wasn’t my favorite sampling of Lewis’ work from the bunch but I get what the author is trying to do. It’s pretty straightforward and hard to miss. I find it disturbing comparing the idea of demons feasting on evil, like humans feast on a buffet, and the comparisons of humanity’s sin to food and wine is deeply unsettling. For this essay alone, I would not recommend this for younger audiences.
Good Work and Good Works
Moving on from a discourse on evil to what type of action we should take on this earth, in “Good Work and Good Works”, Lewis makes a case for the nature of work, and how good work has become nearly impossible. Lewis is critical of the advertising movement, which he says is designed solely to make people want to buy things that have already been made.
“In a rational world,” Lewis says, “things would be made because they were wanted.” (76). Lewis extols the virtues of a simpler time, when the craftsman was rewarded for making things that were not only needed and necessary, but built to last, and ornamental. Now, we live in an age where things are not needed, but manufactured en masse, and then we are manipulated into thinking we need them. Worse yet, they are made to last a short time, and we must replace them again, feeding the consumerist cycle.
It is nearly impossible to find good work to be had, work that needs doing for its own sake, and should we find it, we may not want it. The job worth doing, the ones most labor-intensive, are too often the least financially profitable, and therefore, not desirable. Lewis explains it thusly, “We shall try, if we get the chance, to earn our living by doing well what is worth doing even if we had not our living to earn. A considerable mortification of our avarice may be necessary. It is usually the insane jobs that lead to big money; they are often the least laborious” (78). How topsy-turvy the job market seems, when described this plainly!
As a final example from this essay, Lewis also discusses how the role of the artist has changed in society, from being one where the artist was formerly, perhaps, a trade of necessity, like, a storyteller or singer of songs, someone who could make no other trade, and this being a way they could support their community. Now, Lewis says, the community exists for the sake of the artist. Our ‘duty’ as society, is to laud the artist for art’s own sake, regardless of whether it represents or reflects the needs, desires, or tastes of the community. If we don’t, we are a pariah. How accurate and backwards this seems, when put in this light!
Religion and Rocketry
Lewis’ interest in science fiction (and his own writings) may have influenced his next featured essay, “Religion and Rocketry”, where he muses on the space age race, and the possibility of alien life on other planets and whether they might have souls that need Salvation.
This was fascinating to me, as we cannot presume that we would necessarily find intelligent life, or intelligent life with souls, or intelligent life with souls that would have the same level of fallen natures as humankind. Lewis speculates that no doubt, there would be a kind of “theological imperialism” in space travel, where humans would try to impose their own religious beliefs on alien races, because, there will always be people who believe that what applies for humankind, must apply for all., irregardless of the conditions of the soul of the ‘native’ population.
While I haven’t read it myself, Lewis mentions this august topic has been discussed previously, by one of the saints. St. Augustine wrote a piece speculating on the “theological position of satyrs, monopods and other semi-human creatures” (92), which is such an imaginative direction that I completely didn’t expect to find from St. Augustine, I’m tempted to take a peek at it sometime. At any rate, it shall be interesting to see how history plays itself out (if it happens within my lifetime), as it did not in C. S. Lewis’ case. He did make a prognostication that is worthy of mentioning here, on the subject of what manner of people would most likely be the first to reach populated alien worlds. ‘Our ambassador to new worlds will be the needy and greedy adventurer or the ruthless technical expert. They will do as their kind has always done” (89). This sounds grim, frankly, but, in my opinion there is a certain kind of logic — space exploration funded by greed, technical genius, the foolhardy or the desperate. What do you think of Lewis’ claims?
The World’s Last Night
The final essay in this collection, “The World’s Last Night”, was, predictably, about eschatology and the Judgment spoken of in the Book of Revelation, and other places. Lewis believed that the world would likely end when there has been a global shift in how we view Christianity, that is, from the possibility that God might exist, to the compulsory belief that He does not, fed by a strong, nearly irrefutable case against Christianity, which would “deceive (if it were possible) the very elect, [which] will appear with Antichrist” (92), and then, the world would end.
The bulk of this essay delves into the differences between viewing the end of the world and judgment, as a theory, a maybe, to living in preparation for it and always being at the ready, like the Biblical story of the faithful servant, ready at the gate, or the wise virgins who had their lamps trimmed, awaiting the Bridegroom when He appears. Lewis (of course) errs on the side of being watchful and ready. He does caution against living in the agitated excitability of when, and instead, being faithful in every moment, disciplining ourselves to look at our thoughts, words and actions, in the light of Eternity.
This was an absolute treasure of a collection that I never meant to stumble upon but am so grateful that I did. I’ve tried to accurate represent C.S. Lewis’ essays here, but any errors are my own. The copy that I found (dusty, old, forgotten) may or may not be in print anymore, so, I’ve tried here to give a fair summary of its contents, in case you cannot locate a copy for yourselves, but I would highly recommend reading this if you’re a fan of his writings, and looking for something new, or if not, then perhaps you are intellectually curious and want to read his writings for yourself. This book is for both types.