Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book Review: The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism

The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism
by Mary Eberstadt
Ignatius Press (San Fransisco), 2010

C.S. Lewis used to be an atheist.  Yes he did.  And, if you ever read snippets of his writing and correspondence from those faithless years, you will find an alien Jack (as he was known — for reasons of his own — to friends, family, and colleagues) awaiting you.  Imagine the sharp and rapid synapses of that exceptional mind firing, not with the expansive geniality and wry humor so characteristic of his later years among the redeemed, but with bitterness, smug condescension, arrogance, and, frankly, snottiness.  It was a shock for me to read of rude, young Jack — in his own words — in Alan Jacobs's first-rate biography, The Narnian.  But, really, it ought not to have been.  After all, I was briefly an atheist, too.  And, if I recall correctly, I was not particularly pleasant to be around, either.

And, so, we have what are collectively called The New Atheists — including, but not limited to, Sam Harris (The End of Faith), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), and Christopher Hitchens (god is Not Great).  As I am a Christian and believe such things are good for the soul, I will start with a confession:  I have not read any of these modern polemics.  Truly, life is too short on good reading time, and there is always a new book about Shakespeare (current read: Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt) or Jane Austen (most recent read: Jane's Fame by Claire Harman) or even a novel or two skulking about the bookshelf queue, awaiting perusal (just finished: Wuthering Heights by Emily BrontĂ« -- next up: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver) — I have neither the will nor time to read books about something I, sorry guys, simply do not find all that interesting.  Don't feel bad — I tend not to read apologetics or other books about Christianity either.  I mean, we have the Bible and G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis and a small handful of other writers.  And I am content.  Faith question?  Answered.  Belief question?  Answered.  Religion question?  Answered.  God question? Answered.  So why did I hurry over to Amazon (after checking my local Christian bookstore, which did not have stock — c'mon guys, you need to be more on the ball!  I'm doing my best to keep you in business, but you're NOT helping!) to pick up Mary Eberstadt's brand-spanking-new epistolary novel, The Loser Letters?  Good question.

I read a review of it by chance at Christianity Today's website.  The reviewer said that it was a sort of modern take on C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters.  Interest officially piqued.  The one-sided record of correspondence between Screwtape, an undersecretary in some unnamed department of bureaucratized Hell, and his nephew, Wormwood, a young tempter on the make that chronicles their battle for the soul of one man against The Enemy is an enthralling read.  I was certainly intrigued to discover what Ms. Eberstadt -- whose book, Home Alone America, I enjoyed a few years ago — would do with an atheist version.

A.F. Christian is our correspondent in The Loser Letters.  She is a twenty-five year old in rehab; a convert from Christianity to atheism (the "A.F." stands for "a former"); and she writes a series of letters to the big guns of New Atheism — the aforementioned Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins as well as Onfray, Stenger, Dennett, and many others of whom I have never heard, let alone read.  In her first letter, she observes that, while she was lucky to have thrown off the shackles of belief in that "biggest fraud of all time, cosmic zero, ultimate no-show" Loser (God), there have, overall, not been many converts to the atheist mindset — especially in proportion to the amount of work put out by the men she addresses.  She proposes a series of letters to these worthy fellows, detailing the ways in which atheism can better be "sold" to the public at large — each letter touching on a different subject that might turn off the majority of believers (whom she cleverly labels as "Dulls," since — and I'm not making this up — several atheists are trying to assume the general cultural label of "Brights" instead of "Atheists") from giving up on the Deity and embracing atheism.

From this general premise, A.F. Christian proceeds to enlighten and inform the atheist brotherhood.  There is a much different dynamic at work in The Loser Letters from The Screwtape Letters.  In Screwtape, two demons consult each other (one advising, the other reporting) on their task of keeping one man, the patient, from the Enemy — that enemy, of course, is the Father and His armies of heavenly host and earthly saints.  Both devils know that the Enemy is real; both know His power and curse His love.  In Loser, the advisor and the soul in jeopardy of perdition are one in the same.  She rails against a power and presence she denies is real (though, from page one, the reader has the sense that she is no more convinced of that than I was during my brief, but excruciating, voyage into unbelief) to a group of men who have made it their business in life to be officially "without God."  In fact, the enemy in Loser is not so much the Loser Himself, as it is His followers — the Dulls who would believe so strongly in this imaginary friend, and act so rationally in accordance with their beliefs to heal and edify and encourage and support the world at large in the name of this friend.  See, atheists can, by definition, have no beef with God; they must be against those who cling to Him.

The strengths of The Loser Letters lie in the fact that some glaring inconsistencies of atheism — were atheism looked at as a whole cloth belief, which I think would arouse protest from many atheists  — are entertainingly brought to light.  For instance, there seems to be no agreement among atheists on whether man is just one of the higher orders of animals, whose lives are on par with those of many animals, and whose animal appetites ought to be satisfied as a natural occurrence (as someone such as Peter Singer might believe); or whether man is the highest, the noblest of beings, so sufficient unto himself that he, in his most exalted state, is worthy of worship and is certainly over all of nature (and most of his fellow men) in the pursuit of his goals (as, say, Ayn Rand might aver).  Ms. Eberstadt looks at the products of the systems of belief, as well, in a very effective way.  What, say, Christianity has wrought culturally, artistically, charitably versus what atheism has wrought.  She looks at the current, depressing cultural view of sex against a backdrop of the religious values of self-control and monogamy; the historic and current worlds of art; the myriad hospitals, soup kitchens, international missions, the grand, seismic shifts in human justice done in the name of Loser.  She does acknowledge (she is writing as an enthusiastic atheist, you know) the many times believers have fallen short of glory; but, she slyly insinuates that adherents of atheism never had any heights from which to fall.

There are several weaknesses in this book as well.  It is, altogether, a little too linguistically hip and swinging to be a really pleasant read.  I know that Ms. Eberstadt was going for the voice of disillusioned, twenty-something America; but, I had trouble easily digesting about 25% of what was written.  The cultural references are also up-to-the-minute (at least I assume they are; I'm about three hours late, culturally speaking), which, I fear, will detract from the shelf life of this book.  It certainly makes the "comic" aspect of the book a wee indecipherable to a fuddy-duddy like me.

I think, though, that the main weakness for me was the story itself.  Throughout the letters, A.F. reveals in piecemeal her personal story — her journey to unbelief.  When the story is fully revealed, I thought to myself, "This is entirely over the top; therefore, it rather discredits than bolsters the narrative."  The ending, too, is just a little too schmaltzy and pat and feel-good.  Take the ending of Screwtape — reassuring, yet unsettling and terrifying at the same time.  This was sort of like . . . eh.  I will admit that I did cry a little near the end; but, I dare any mom to read the last chapter and not tear up a bit.  But emotionalism on the cheap does not a strong story make, and overall, I was a bit disappointed.

So, who is The Loser Letters for and what are they to take from it?  You know, I'm not really sure.  Is it for Christians, to help them answer the arguments of atheists?  Surely; but, there are books that present those answers more thoroughly and fluently.  Is it for atheists, to encourage them to re-think some of their assumptions and assertions?  Surely; but, I am not convinced that it is most effective that way.  As a Christian, I was arguing against A.F. on the atheists' side; I do not think that atheists in general would have a light bulb over the noggin experience (truly, I do believe that only the Holy Spirit can effect such a welcome moment).  Mostly, I think, The Loser Letters is worthy entertainment for an evening; and, perhaps, a springboard to grander and better books on culture, faith, and this great "mess and mystery of life."  And, considering it is a published collection of an installment series from National Review Online, not a scholarly apologetic years in the researching, that is not too backward of a commendation.  A harmless and intermittently entertaining read.  But, make sure you read The Screwtape Letters, if you haven't already.

Oh, and one last quibble with Ms. Boar-City:  Why does my beloved Deutsch have to be the language of Hell?  Huh?  German is a glorious and startlingly beautiful language, and, though I am sure it was done in jest, deserves better than such malignancy.  I think the language of Hell is bound to be — in keeping with Jack Lewis's particular vision — government bureaucracy legalese, with every communication coming in 2,800 page documents.  Ooh, I just gave myself an other-worldly shiver . . .

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