C.S. Lewis on the Paris Attacks

isis-flagMany of us were struck by the events in the legendary city of Paris on Friday night. As Parisians settled into cafes, filed into theatre seats, and gathered by the tens of thousands at the soccer stadium, seven young men perpetrated six separate mass shootings and three suicide bombings. At least 129 people died while sharing coffee with friends or trapped like cattle in an art centre. Another 400 were injured, and the morale of a nation is stirred.

ISIS/ISIL has claimed responsibility, and I have little doubt that they were the perpetrators. Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 we have been conscience of various Islamist organizations who use civilian populations as tools in their warfare, from Lebanese hijackers to Boko Haram in West Africa to large scale Western strikes like 9/11 and 7/7. As ISIS has terrorized a large region of Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East, beginning the largest migration of Muslims in history, ISIS has now brought fear and blood to one of the great cities of the West.

paris-attacksThere will be more blood and fear to follow. And many of us are struggling to know how to respond as Paris mourns.

As French fighter jets streak across the Levant and refugees prepare for another night sleeping on foreign ground, it might be helpful to take a Screwtapian view of things.

The Screwtape Letters is one side of a demonic correspondence discovered 75 years ago and then published by C.S. Lewis. Screwtape, a senior demon who had spent his career tempting humans on the front lines, offers advice to his protégé. Peaking in on this manual of anti-spiritual advice gives us an intriguing view of sin and brokenness from the other angle.

screwtape1We discover quickly that Screwtape loves extremism. The issue in Screwtape’s context is WWII, so the extremes in England then were pacifism and patriotism, rather than today’s political ideology that harnesses the religious passions of oppressed and disillusioned young men. But all extremes are to be encouraged, and it is up to the demon to know which extreme to encourage. And Screwtape was able to predict exactly how young men become suicide bombers. Let me quote a portion of Letter VII, changing some of the words for the new context:

Whichever the young man you are tempting adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the political action as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause”, in which religion is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the end of Western tyranny.

Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and pilgrimages and charity, he is ours—and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here,

terror-attacks-in-paris-a-timeline-of-events-1447523619It is a pretty good recipe for creating a terrorist out of a disillusioned youth. Doubtless a senior demon like Screwtape can be effective in destroying souls among the disaffected, even if the context is quite different. Indeed, it could be that Screwtape’s protégés are hardly necessary in certain parts of the world as cultures of soul destruction are functioning well without any need of attention.

But a clever fiend like Screwtape would have some concern by the particular actions of Paris Attackers. Screwtape divides cultures into two ages:

Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them.

It could be that Paris and the West are ripe for being inflamed because of unbalance and partisan spirits. Divisions of culture certainly exist, not least in the United States and France.

screen-shot-2015-11-14-at-1-04-31-amBut are these terror attacks not more like waking sleeping giants? I suspect, despite the culture wars we wage, we are an age of apathy. In Screwtape’s recipe, our complacency should be soothed, our consciences left in slumber. I would argue that our culture’s entrenched battles of ideas are fought by a very few while most people are watching TV or doing puzzles of pictures of the Eiffel Tower or the New York skyline. Probably the shrill tenor of our partisan politicians and frontline culture warriors is because most people just don’t give a damn.

What of the Paris Attacks?

“Of course a war is entertaining,” Screwtape admits to the up and coming tempter. The next sentence could have been a demonic tweet last Friday night: “The immediate fear and suffering of the humans is a legitimate and pleasing refreshment for our myriads of toiling workers.” But Screwtape gives two warnings to young fiends who delight in carnage.

Logo_of_Boko_HaramFirst, what will be the general public’s response to the “fear and suffering” that it causes? There is no reason to think that the reaction will favour the side of evil:

We may hope for a good deal of cruelty and unchastity. But, if we are not careful, we shall see thousands turning in this tribulation to the Enemy [i.e., God], while tens of thousands who do not go so far as that will nevertheless have their attention diverted from themselves to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self. I know that the Enemy disapproves many of these causes. But that is where He is so unfair. He often makes prizes of humans who have given their lives for causes He thinks bad on the monstrously sophistical ground that the humans thought them good and were following the best they knew.

As François Hollande hastily sends young men and women into battle, there is no doubt hatred and revenge and panic. On the edges, the tangs of evil may not be unlike the response of whoever set fire to a mosque in Ontario yesterday. There will be evil in the response to terror, as there was evil after 9/11, even if there is good. Probably the people to suffer the most will be the 100,000 people who call refugee camps their home tonight.

afterburnBut the event may cause thousands of Parisians to awaken to something other than whatever the French equivalent to TV and puzzles is. On his first day in France one of my former students was at the Stadium when it was attacked. Interviewed by CBC, he said that the Paris Attacks are “a turning point for the city.”

What if he is right?

What if a conversion of hearth is the result of the terrorists’ attack? What if people turn from self-occupation and culturally acceptable levels of narcissism and apathy to hearts bent with concern for the suffering and the oppressed? If this is what happens, there could be some good emerge from the blood and fear in Paris.

Screwtape-Letters18062lgSecond, those involved in the destroying of souls relish in keeping a human preoccupied with anything but their own mortality, while slowly stripping the soul of its immortal vision. “Wartime,” or times of terror like right now, are exciting to demons because of the carnage. But events like the Paris Attacks really work against what Screwtape thinks is the most successful plan for soul destruction—even if it is the least sexy approach:

Consider too what undesirable deaths occur in wartime. Men are killed in places where they knew they might be killed and to which they go, if they are at all of the Enemy’s party, prepared. How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition! And how disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless. In wartime not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever.

“Contented worldliness”—I called it a life devoted to a flickering screen and puzzles of places the puzzle-doer will never visit—is a powerful tool of soul destruction. Honestly, in my own life it is not the tragedies that drain me of spirit. It is the relentless pace of Monday to Monday, the blather of media, and a world more committed to office politics than real issues of truth and beauty and love. I have had tragedy, and you can bear up against it. You can emerge from the cloud of pain and see the world again.

But we can never escape from what we’ve made of everyday life. It is all there is left to us in the imaginative landscape of possibility.

ISIS-ExecutionNot that TV and puzzles and routine and media are bad. They are good and essential things. But they are things that lull us into sleep if we do not make them redemptive things.

How do we respond to the Paris Attacks? How do we resist Screwtapian evil and turn this fear and blood into good? We hear the prophet who cries, ““Awake, O sleeper!” Awake.

As it turns out, the Paris Attacks will probably have unintended consequences for the terrorists and for the Islamism that supported it. Events like 7/7 and 9/11 are not the first surgical strike of an energized movement. They are the desperate attempt of dying idea perpetrated by a community desperate for change. As frightful and frustrating as we urbanites find them, they do not produce the results that support the initial cause. Or at least not for long.

So our response of caring, connecting, and giving encouragement to those suffering is a great way to resist demonic actions of whatever stripe. It would be no small thing if terrorism served to awaken our cultures to systems of oppression, to the effect of our choices, and to the spiritual need that goes unmet in our neighbourhoods.

That, I think, is how we respond to the Paris Attacks.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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21 Responses to C.S. Lewis on the Paris Attacks

  1. robstroud says:

    Astute application of Lewis’ insights in The Screwtape Letters.

    I remain amazed at the number of people, worldwide, who do not recognize the magnitude of this present conflict.


    • Rob, could you speak to this a bit more. You have a particularly military perspective that I don’t have. My son asked if this was WWIII, and I said “no.” But it is a globally significant regional war at a fairly large scale. What’s your thoughts that we might be missing?
      I should also note that I’m not anti-Muslim in principle. My Muslim students invariably feel victimized by terrorist attacks. But religion is not a non-factor in the ISIS/ISIL war.


  2. Wise and well spoken, Brenton. I too am hoping that one good coming from this atrocity will be eyes opened to a reality every sensible farmer already knows: you cannot enjoy lasting fruits if you disregard or sever the root. The people of France, America, and everywhere else will not enjoy Truth and Beauty if they disregard, denigrate, or sever their Theological and Philosophical roots.


    • Allacin, I think that we in the West (I’m Canadian, but we might share this), we imagine that our choices are not theological. I bought an Eggnog latte this morning at Starbucks. That choice communicates who I am on a series of issues: economics, fair trade processes, animal rights, and apparently some business about Christmas. Until we recognize that when we speak or act we do so in a way that affects others, we won’t be able to make change.


  3. LEA says:

    Gotta disagree with you here; these terrorists are following their religion. It isn’t that they feel oppressed or that someone convinced them that acts of terrorism are consistent with Islam. Islam = terrorism. All the way back to Mohammed, killing or forcibly converting the infidels has been the modus operandi.
    These terrorists aren’t acting under disillusionment; they believe that they will win paradise by their acts.

    So, I think you completely misapplied Lewis’ words; in fact, his words would better apply to the Western world, parts of which want to flood all the countries with these refugees, and parts of which want to completely destroy certain Islamic countries, regardless of who is innocent and who is not.
    I don’t want to let in a ton of Muslim refugees (especially when it seems that they may not be such refugees at all, but infiltrators), but I don’t want to bomb a whole country and kill innocent people (I do think that bombing of areas where militants are congregated is unavoidable).


    • Allow me to push back a little bit with a “yes” and “no.”
      Yes, the terrorists are working out of their religion, in the same way that the Pope in his fiscal management or Franklin Graham in his political conversations or Westboro Baptist Church in their “God hates fags” work out of their religion.
      But as a Christian I’m particularly sensitive to people peaking in on my sacred texts and telling me what I believe. I don’t think the crusades represent my understanding of Christianity well, yet they are part of my heritage. When an atheist friend reads Joshua and tells me I must be in favour of ethnic cleansing, I feel like he has twisted my view. I read the Bible differently, and I think he should ask me what I believe before blaming me for it.
      Same with Islam. History bears out the violence at certain periods of Islam, as it does with Christianity. Islam is political earlier, and so they have more to answer for at their fundamental levels. You can do this.
      But when Muslims share their experience, I listen. Muslim youth in places in the Middle East have been oppressed, which can tend to violence. It does not justify the violence, but the disillusionment is there. As for whether the terrorists’ faith and violence is “normal” for Muslims, and some will say yes. But most say no–especially since only 25% of Muslims live in the Middle East.
      I do think the tension of refugees and bombing is a good one to talk about, in principle. I wish post-9/11 policies included your thoughtfulness.
      But I cannot go along with the idea of them as infiltrators. Seriously, when you consider hundreds of miles of walking with children, people dropping in the roads, the freezing cold of European nights, the stench of refugee camps, the hunger, cash in hand that can’t buy toilet paper, a loss of papers and land and identity…
      Have you spent time with refugees? It is a moving thing.
      I know some terrorists will come in through systems that are good. Some came in on the big Vietnamese influx in the late 70s and early 80s. Some Germans came in after WWII that we discover were Nazi perfectors of violence. We can’t catch everybody.
      There is a risk. I think the risk is worth it.

      Liked by 3 people

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        To take up your point of “people” approaching “my sacred texts and telling me what I believe”, this is always going to be problematical, not least among those who (in one way or another) ‘share’ the same sacred texts, whether we think, say, of the Scriptural reports of our Lord and and St Stephen and St. Paul arguing with other Jews about their understandings of texts and what they derive from them, or St. Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, or how various self-describing Muslims understand what the Quran means by the affirmations it includes concerning Tarat and Injil, or self-describing Christians arguing (if Wikipedia’s got the totals right) about the “range from the sixty-six books of the Protestant canon to the eighty-one books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church canon”, and how to interpret them.

        A facet of this is to discover how various Muslims, individually and in self-identified groups and traditions, interpret the Quran. For one example, the final two verses of the Fatiha might sound general and anything from ‘unobjectionable’ to ‘affirmable’ by a ‘naïve-ling’ such as myself: “Guide us to the straight path, the path of those upon whom You have bestowed favor, not of those who have evoked [Your] anger or of those who are astray.” But I have seen it said by those better read than myself (and with supporting evidence linked) that most Muslim commentators coincide in believing that the correct interpretation of the last two groups referred to is, that it is the Jews who have evoked and earned Allah’s wrath and the Christians who have gone astray, while “the straight path” is Islam as they understand it, emphatically contrasted with the others.


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          My apologies: my mistyping seems to have missed any of the ways of transliterating ‘Tawrat’/’Taurat’/’Tawrah’/’Taurah’!

          Liked by 1 person

        • Most people go to Sura 9 and the Sword Verse when thinking of violence and Islam. I think one of the big struggles historically is that the very first generation of Muslims after Muhammad burst out of Mecca and crossed much of the Mediterranean by the end of the century.


  4. jubilare says:

    “I suspect, despite the culture wars we wage, we are an age of apathy…So our response of caring, connecting, and giving encouragement to those suffering is a great way to resist demonic actions of whatever stripe. It would be no small thing if terrorism served to awaken our cultures to systems of oppression, to the effect of our choices, and to the spiritual need that goes unmet in our neighbourhoods. That, I think, is how we respond to the Paris Attacks.”

    I think so, too.
    And, lest we forget: “Probably the people to suffer the most will be the 100,000 people who call refugee camps their home tonight.”


    • Thanks Jubilare for highlighting that for me. I haven’t felt comfortable with the Monday piece. It’s jumbled and not very elegant. But I still believe that.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Since first reading that sentence, I have encountered this overview (by Faith McDonnell): “about 10% of Syrians are Christians, so why are so few of these refugees Christians, particularly given that they are among the most persecuted of groups in Syria?

      “Their plight involves a nightmarish catch-22. When Christians flee as refugees they cannot go to UN-run refugee camps because there they face the same persecution and terror from which they fled. If they are not in the refugee camps they are not included in the application process for asylum. The U.S. State Department knows this, but continues to allow the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to select refugees for asylum with no regard to the endangered Christians and other religious minorities. According to statements in the Sunday Express from an ISIS defector and aid workers in the UN camps, ISIS is sending teams of trained assassins disguised as refugees to kidnap and kill Christians.”


      • This is an intriguing point. I would like to hear about the refugee experiences from Syria. About 300,000 or so Lebanese Christians used Syria as an escape route to other parts of the world (a generation ago), so your note signals a change in how that experience is going. It seems to me the story of “why minority refugees face persecution in UN camps” is key here.
        I do, though, take American reports of persecution of Christians with a grain of salt. Not that Christians aren’t persecuted, but that American conservative feels a degree of persecution consciousness that makes me doubt this lens of the world. Faith McDonnell’s think tank is an example of this. It is not an extreme think tank, but it is committed to a particular view of the world. And that view, right now, is tending to resist openness to refugees. And that loop makes me pause over the phrase, “teams of trained assassins disguised as refugees” and wonder what the big game is here.
        But my bias is for nations with the capability (like Western Europe, the UK, the US, and Canada) to take a large number of refugees and do it well, as Canada did in the Vietnam crisis. So I do have doubts to what degree ISIS has infiltrated the millions of refugees in Europe and Turkey.


        • jubilare says:

          I… am going to say something I personally have no right to say, just because I believe it is true.
          Even if we unknowingly welcome extremists into our countries and those extremists kill us… from a Christian perspective, we are still in the right for welcoming them. I’m not saying that refugees shouldn’t be screened (they should be, of course… we want to protect honest refugees, not welcome those persecuting them), but the fear of accidentally admitting threats is an utterly worldly fear. It is opposite to what should be the Christian reaction. In turning away those who need help we effectively turn away Christ. If we are killed, we have assurance in Him. Those things, together, surely tell us that we need to swallow our fears and sacrifice our own time, resources, ease, and possibly safety, to help those who are in distress.


          • If I can play out your logic a bit, Jubilare, we can see the logic of fear in the New Testament. I think it culminates in John, “authentic love dispels fear.” I think a fear-based politic–even when we have things to be afraid of–will always lead to alienation and oppression. Left-leaning parties do it all the time, beating the “Candidate X … Hitler” drum until the goatskin is worn through. The right-leaning “there’s a terrorist in every mosque” is of the same variety. And it has the same result.


  5. L.A. Smith says:

    Great post, Brenton! Reblogged it!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Reblog: C.S. Lewis on the Paris Attacks | the traveller's path

  7. Sharing this not so jumbled and very elegant piece

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Why I am Not Anti-Muslim | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  9. jubilare says:

    “If I can play out your logic a bit, Jubilare, we can see the logic of fear in the New Testament. I think it culminates in John, “authentic love dispels fear.” I think a fear-based politic–even when we have things to be afraid of–will always lead to alienation and oppression. Left-leaning parties do it all the time, beating the “Candidate X … Hitler” drum until the goatskin is worn through. The right-leaning “there’s a terrorist in every mosque” is of the same variety. And it has the same result.”

    Yes! Yes. This. This and the confusion/conflation in some people’s minds of their religious/ethical allegiances and political allegiances. Confusing the two is dangerous.

    Liked by 1 person

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