That Hideous Strength

John C. Rankin

[excerpted from First the Gospel, Then Politics …, 1999, Vol. 3, not published]

 I was raised in the secular assumptions of the Unitarian-Universalist worldview of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The idea of the supernatural was downplayed, and viewed as intellectually unsustainable. But then I came to Christ in 1967 through a powerful supernatural encounter with God, in response to an intellectual inquiry into the origins of the universe. I never bought into many secular assumptions to begin with, so as I became acquainted with the Bible in my early years of faith, I had no reason to doubt the reality of the war between Christ and Satan.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was converted to Christ out of an atheistic background. As one of the century’s leading intellectuals, his skepticism was deeply rooted as a young professor of medieval literature, until he was “surprised by joy” when he encountered Christ personally. Writing in England through the mid twentieth-century, he was in the midst of an Anglican church that was removing itself further and further from its biblical moorings. In the process, the concept of the devil as a personal and real agent of supreme evil had been reduced to the level of quaint mythology. Very few Anglicans believed in a real devil and a real hell.

Lewis punctured this delusion through his marvelous literary skills. In his well-loved children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia, he introduced personified evil in the person of the “White Witch.” In The Screwtape Letters, he created a fictionalized account of a mid-level demon tutoring a lower-level demon on how to tempt and seduce a man into unbelief.

This personification allowed adults to identify more accurately the truth that undergirded Lewis’s story. In his preface to Screwtape, Lewis makes a very helpful observation for his day that still applies. He said that if the devil can get us to disbelieve in his existence, then it serves his purposes because we will not take him seriously – we will be no threat to him. But if we do believe in his existence, then his purpose is to seduce us into an unhealthy, even prurient interest, in his machinations – so that we become neutralized by becoming mesmerized. Lewis said that writing The Screwtape Letters was the most difficult of all his writings, because he had to learn to understand how the devil thinks and plots.

Then in his space trilogy, Lewis sets up the basis for the most powerful definition of evil I have seen outside the Bible. In the third book, That Hideous Strength, Lewis shows how secularism can boomerang into an explicit devotion to the occult, how people can flip from anti-supernatural assumptions to supernatural assumptions quickly. How can this be? Lewis portrays college professors who have come to know that their naturalistic, Darwinist and Marxist worldviews have intellectually failed. It is said that intellectual revolutions precede political revolutions by about a half-century, in the time that the influence of one generation has been superseded by the next. By the 1940s, professors of secular philosophies began to lose their power in the universities to recruit students into believing the same. Naturalistic worldviews were intellectually bankrupt. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and then the Soviet Union collapsed. Reality caught up. Now the classrooms are full of pagan worldviews, grounded in the assumption of the supernatural.

In That Hideous Strength, Lewis showed that the college professors were not interested in truth for its own sake, though theoretically that was their vocation. Rather, they were interested in power and prestige, and when the old paradigm of secularism was losing its ability to give them this power and prestige in their academic and political world, they abandoned it as soon as a new paradigm for power was in place – they jumped straight into the phenomenological occult. When we consider the ethical nature of the occult – that which is hidden and deceitful in the pursuit of self-aggrandizing power – then this should be no surprise to us.

It is not such a big jump after all, from the natural to the supernatural, when such ethics of power-grabbing elitism equal the life-defining hermeneutic for people. In the Unitarian churches today, a large portion of religious sentiment has boomeranged from natural to supernatural – supernatural in terms of neo-pagan assumptions, and in terms of active witchcraft as well. The Unitarian churches represent, along with the Jews, the most well educated and wealthiest sector of American society. Unitarians have in many regards led the way for paganism and witchcraft to gain intellectual and social respectability, and now the whole culture, like western Europe did before us, is devolving into explicit pagan and occultic sympathies.

Lewis was a prophet.