Review of “‘The World’s Last Night’ and Other Essays” by C.S. Lewis

My personal copy. I bought it used some years ago. Yes, that is a library sticker on the binding.

My personal copy. I bought it used some years ago. Yes, that is a library sticker on the binding.  It was a library discard.

Lewis, C.S. “The World’s Last Night” and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., 1960.

It’s been a couple weeks since I last posted so I want to get “back on the stick” as we say here in the south.

Recently I decided to begin reading the rest of the unread books in my C.S. Lewis library (which is fairly extensive).  I’ve read all his fiction but not much of his non-fiction.  “The World’s Last Night” and Other Essays was the first book I came to on my shelf so I decided to start there.

This particular publication has been out of print for some years.  I stumbled on the hardback copy pictured above at a local used bookstore over twenty years ago, and since then it has sat on my shelf gathering dust.  Until now.

“The World’s Last Night” and Other Essays is a collection of six magazine articles and one address.   All the material is non-fiction save one piece: “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” which is sort of a brief sequel to Lewis’ popular book The Screwtape Letters.  This is the most accessible and enjoyable piece of them all, and probably the most well-known at the time of publication.  The non-fiction pieces fit mostly in the genre we would call “apologetics,” which is the attempt to answer challenges to Christian faith using rational arguments.

The 1960 publishing date for the book is three years before Lewis died.  So unlike some other collections of his writings, this one was released during his lifetime.

Now that I’ve read it I can see why this book is no longer in print.  To begin with, the reading level is very high-brow.  The text is replete with cryptic literary allusions and untranslated quotations in Latin, Greek, and other languages-that-are-not-English.  Since our American education is no longer a classical one, these quotes are lost on most of us, including me.  The only thing I had any hope of translating was a word in Greek, and while I was able to transliterate it, I didn’t recognize the word or its meaning, since it was a classical reference and my training is only in koine, the colloquial Greek of the Bible.

However, I was not to be deterred: I expected the internet to be filled with resources that would help me crack the meanings of these quotes, and I was not disappointed.  In fact, to my delight I found a web page devoted exclusively to a book study of “The World’s Last NIght” and Other Essays, which provided not only translations of every foreign-language quote but also helpful historical and literary background to the various articles and allusions.  The page I’m referring to can be found here: http://cslbookclub.com/site/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=59&Itemid=81

A second reason I’m not surprised this book is no longer in print, though, is that the subject matter seems pretty dated.  Where the topics themselves aren’t dated, in many cases the treatment of them is.  Or so I thought anyway.  This is not a book that would speak very well to twenty-first century postmodern readers.  While it is aimed at the highly-educated elite, I suspect its arguments would seem outmoded to that very elite today.

Really the book is an odd collection, too.  The intended audience from piece to piece ranges widely.  Chapters 1 and 7 deal with devotional and theological matters that would most likely be of interest to Christians or at least those with a penchant for theology.  Chapters 2 and 3 are addressed more to skeptical scholarly types.  Chapter 4, the only work of fiction, would have a wider appeal because of its entertainment value.  Chapter 5 is a work of social commentary.  Chapter 6 is aimed at those interested in science and science fiction.  So I can easily see how each essay might not be of interest to every reader.  Those most likely to enjoy the book as a whole would be people of wide-ranging interests, and those like me who are interested simply because it was written by C.S. Lewis.

Nevertheless, throughout, the book reveals a man with an intimate relationship with God and a deep understanding of the Christian life, and for that aspect alone it is a worthwhile and encouraging read.

The book’s first essay, entitled “The Efficacy of Prayer,” initially appeared in a January 1959 edition of The Atlantic Monthly.  For the present-day reader this is probably one of the more interesting and appealing chapters.  Most of its explanation is applicable today.  Yet even here the decidedly modern tone of the book (as opposed to postmodern) is evident.

Lewis begins by addressing in rational terms the question “Why can’t we prove prayer works?” which is not exactly the kind of question people are asking today.  Most people today aren’t interested in scientific proof for prayer–they either believe in it or they don’t, based on their experiences, and are not looking to be convinced by rational arguments.  For good or ill, folk today rely more on feelings than on intellectual evidence.  So Lewis’ meticulous arguments, while well-stated, seem a bit quaint.

Granted, there might be a point in someone’s life in which they begin to ask the kinds of questions Lewis deals with here, in which case it would be of great value to them.  But otherwise it may not seem to have much applicability.  That said, the piece is still valuable, for in it Lewis addresses a number of common questions about the nature of prayer and does a good job with it.  Most importantly, he points out that prayer is founded on a personal relationship with God, and it must be understood in that light.

Essay #2, titled “On Obstinacy in Belief,” is a paper Lewis read to the Socratic Club at Oxford University, where he was a professor.  This shows the extent to which Lewis sought to engage secular and unbelieving culture, for this was not a Christian group but an academic one.

In the address Lewis responds to a question he infers from the writings of skeptics: “Why do Christians hold on so obstinately to their beliefs when all evidence seems to point to the contrary?”  At first I felt the question itself wasn’t all that relevant today, but as I read on I finally concluded that Lewis makes some very good points.  In the end I concluded this is actually one of the most relevant essays in the whole volume.

Lewis claims most people, Christian or not, choose their beliefs based on factors that seem like good evidence to them at the time.  Likewise, people choose to become Christians because the evidence seems to point in that direction.  Moreover, the evidence for unbelief is not as immune to subjectivity as some would like to believe.

Lewis says Christians don’t place blind faith in God as is sometimes claimed, and that no one expects people to accept Christian faith without reasonable evidence.  However, once a person becomes a Christian they may be very determined in their beliefs, even when there might appear to be a lot of supposed evidence to the contrary (bad circumstances, etc.).  This obstinacy of Christian belief is because at this point the person has already trusted in God based on the evidence before them.  I agree with Lewis on this point.  I won’t explain any more of what he says but instead encourage you to read the article if you are interested.

I found the third essay, “Lilies That Fester,” to be one of the least interesting pieces in the book.  This was because I wasn’t really taken with the topic.  In it Lewis is reacting to those who make being “cultured” an end in itself and look down their noses at those not sufficiently educated in the latest fads of high society.  Along the way he does make some interesting arguments as to why a Christian theocracy would be an undesirable form of government, how modern education is geared toward fostering certain opinions rather than teaching students to think critically, and why artists serve the public and not vice versa.  But I found the main emphasis of the article a bit tiresome, although I am completely sympathetic with the point he is making.

Chapter 4, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” which originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in December 1959, is certainly the highlight of the book.  It’s a follow-up to The Screwtape Letters, probably Lewis’ most famous work.  Of course, Screwtape is a piece of fiction in which the author supposedly stumbles on a correspondence between a senior devil and his nephew, a tempter-in-training.  Lewis uses the story as a vehicle for exploring the nature of evil and temptation.

Rather than more letters, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” takes the form of an address given by Screwtape to the Tempters Training College for young Devils.  Here Screwtape waxes more political than religious, and this time Lewis uses the address as a vehicle to examine the pitfalls of democracy (yes, there are some) as well as disturbing trends in education. On both points Lewis is uncannily prescient, predicting pretty much where our society has wound up half a century later.

In the 5th essay, “Good Work and Good Works,” Lewis is disturbingly prophetic again, this time foreseeing the perils of consumerism. Once more he pretty much describes where America in particular has wound up 50+ years later.  Lewis differentiates between gainful employment which serves a useful end and those careers whose sole purpose is the making of money, without providing a worthwhile product or service.  He says this is what happens in a society based on consumerism.  This accounts for “built-in obsolescence” among other problems (and if Lewis already thought it was bad in his day, he would be horrified with the situation now).

Essay #6 carries the intriguing title “Religion and Rocketry.”  This is an interesting piece because it deals more directly with some of the themes that were likely in Lewis’ mind when he wrote his celebrated “space trilogy,” an early and respected work of science fiction.  In this essay he addresses various objections to Christianity supposedly raised by scientific speculation about space travel and life on other planets. Lewis does a good job of revealing the flaws in these criticisms.  However, once again I felt Lewis was answering objections no longer being made today, or at least not being made on the same grounds.

However, his main point is worth considering, which is that space travel and the possibility of life on other planets don’t negate the story of Christ coming on earth.  The words of Christian singer Larry Norman in his song “U.F.O.” from the 1970s capture pretty well the point Lewis makes in the essay:

If there’s life on other planets
Then I’m sure that He must know
And He’s been there once already
And has died to save their souls….

In the final chapter, from which the book draws its name, Lewis shares some reflections on the second coming of Christ.  Once again he is in apologetics mode, as his stated purpose is “to deal with some of the thoughts that may deter modern men from a firm belief in, or due attention to, the return or Second Coming of the Saviour”–a worthwhile goal for sure.  However, I am uncertain whether the specific objections Lewis attempts to address are necessarily the same ones that would be raised by skeptics today.  Maybe they are, I don’t know, since I’m not a skeptic.

The objections Lewis addresses are two: First, Jesus and his disciples believed his return was imminent, and so the fact that he did not return in the first century calls the belief itself into question.  Lewis does well in answering this objection, and if you’re interested in knowing his argument I encourage you to read the book.

Secondly, Lewis claims that modern people shy away from the idea of Christ’s sudden return because it doesn’t seem to square with evolutionary theory.  I’ve never heard anyone raise that specific criticism.  Rather I perceive modern people have a much bigger hurdle to overcome: a worldview which excludes any heaven or afterlife from which Jesus might come back to begin with.

Well, that is a brief summary of the topics covered in the book.  In places Lewis is nothing less than prophetic regarding the times in which we live, but in other sections the book seems dated by a modernistic perspective that has been replaced today with postmodernism.  Nevertheless, I think spiritual seekers in our day might still find ideas here that will address some of their questions.  And I have no doubt Lewis fans and aficionados will find the book an enjoyable and profitable read.

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