Most references to temptation, even among Christians, are to one-off events. I doubt these are our great spiritual dangers. It is the less-visible temptations that stretch over years which unravel us. CS Lewis writes directly about the great, consuming temptations in both his fiction and non-fiction. Not only The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and “The Inner Ring,” but the Narnia and Perelandra series are largely taken up with the questions of temptation. There are temptations to do evil in a good cause, temptations of cowardice, temptations of apostasy and compromise. The brilliance of Narnia is not in its fantastic elements, but in the seriousness of moral questions presented even to children. Young people are not treated as moral simpletons, capable only of steal cookie/not steal cookie obedience, but as full moral agents in hard places.
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings seems to be entirely about temptations, once one thinks to look for them. Boromir is tempted by glory; Saruman by knowledge and power, Denethor by knowledge and despair; the temptation to be left alone in false peace settles in various forms on hobbits, Tom Bombadil, ents, and elves; the beauty of making tempts both elves and dwarves. The danger of competing goods, and of virtues unchecked drive the story forward: Gandalf is tempted by pity, Sam by humility, Frodo by gentleness. While these temptations may come to a sharp, revealing point in the story they are all constant temptations to the characters. Everyone is beset by peculiar weaknesses and virtues that intertwine. Gollum and Galadriel, Beregond and Butterbur are all assailed by moral choices of real consequence. Courage is not a virtue so much as the measure of all other virtues. There’s a book for someone to write about temptation as described by the Inklings. One can meditate on the peculiar temptations of a single group or character at a time.
This all came up because of a description of a scholar a friend sent. The man in question grew up as a fundamentalist Christian, attended a Christian college and prestigious theological school, and had made a name for himself in New Testament studies. He had pioneered a method of considering early texts and interpreting ambiguities which changed the field. Over time he lost his faith, and puts his energy into undermining it now. I was reminded of Gandalf’s comment about Saruman, and it not being wise to study the arts of the enemy too deeply, and of Frodo’s inability to resume normal life in the Shire because of the wounding and trauma he had experienced. But most of all, I thought of Denethor and his Palantir, discovering things important and real that lesser men could not see. His great knowledge led him ultimately to great despair, not because what he had seen was untrue, but because it was selected truth, with Sauron doing the selecting. I feel much sorrow for the scholar.
Fundamentalism can be a brittle faith, shattering rather than absorbing blows. I think real faith always has a few dents in it – not just religious faith, but belief in a theory, trust in a person, or confidence in predictability. Reality is rather messy, unjust, and unpredictable. Even Jesus was surprised that someone had touched him for healing, that the disciples could not keep watch, and that the Father had abandoned him.