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Recommended Reads?: The Screwtape Letters; C.S. Lewis

[Note: This is the script version of the video I put up on YouTube, it has a few more quotes and a bit more information so you can either watch the video (here) or you can read it below. Either way I hope you enjoy!]

About the writer and the book

The Screwtape Letters is a novel by C.S. Lewis, a British novelist, poet, academic, lay theologian, broadcaster and lecturer, amongst many other things. He held academic positions at Oxford and Cambridge Universities but is best known for his works of fiction notably The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia which are both some of his most popular works.

Though an atheist for a large part of his adult life, C.S. Lewis returned to Anglicanism when he was 32 in large part due to the influence of J.R.R Tolkien and his other friends many of which were part of the informal Oxford literary group known as the Inklings. After this conversion/return, Lewis’ faith affected his work profoundly, indeed not only did he write such pieces as Surprised by Joy and The Screwtape Letters but there are strong Christian themes in The Chronicles of Narnia. Moreover during the war his radio broadcasts dealing with Christianity and subjects of Christianity brought him wide acclaim.

The Screwtape Letters book is a Christian apologetic. It’s written as a series of letters, from the demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, offering advice. The advice pertains to Wormwood’s job; he is a Junior Tempter who must tempt a British man –only ever refereed to as ‘the Patient’ –and ensure his soul ends up in Hell. However this is just the setting/ dressing used to discuss Christian theological issues in a more accessible and entertaining manner than a lecture or series of notes.
Throughout the book we follow the life of the Patient, only ever seen from the demons’ –and more specifically Screwtape’s –point of view down in Hell. We see the trials and temptations, the successes and failures the ‘Patient’ encounters as the demons’ try to win his soul. Screwtape gives advice on how to undermine faith and promote sin and sinful behaviours, thoughts etc. Screwtape also expresses his observations on human nature and on Christian doctrine.

However though a popular book C.S. Lewis said it was “not fun” to write, disliking having to –in essence –think like a demon and he “resolved never to write another ‘Letter'”. That said after numerous requests and feeling the time was right he finally wrote, not a letter, but a ‘toast’ from Screwtape to the graduating demons of the college (this can be found added in a lot of the newer editions of the book).

The Plot

The plot is no more complicated then the aforementioned summary: demons trying to tempt a soul. You only see one half of the events, i.e. that of Screwtape, but can infer what is going on with Wormwood and his ‘Patient’ from Screwtape’s replies. In each letter we find out a little more about what is going on but the main focus is predominantly a discussion of morality, doctrine and sin loosely disguised as a story but made more entertaining for it.
For example we see that it is as early on as the second letter that the Patient converts to Christianity and Wormwood is in trouble for allowing this. Another example would be how we can see that, throughout the book, Wormwood wishes to tempt his patient into doing something truly evil and grand but how Screwtape advises against this recommending instead a multitude of small sins which amount to a subtle erosion of the man’s soul:

“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one –the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts” (Letter XII; p.61)).

The demons

What are the demons like in this book? In a word: unpleasant and to be avoided. Indeed in the foreword itself C.S. Lewis warns the reader:

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall bout devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” (pix)

But it’s not just their interaction with humans or their end goal that’s unpleasant, they’re horrible to one another too. They will punish each other for failure (“Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties; p.5), and try to dob each other in if they think the demise of one would help them (as when Wormwood tries to get his uncle into trouble (“You may be interested to learn that the little misunderstanding with the Secret Police which you tried to raise about some unguarded expression in one of my letters has been tidied over.” (p.117)).

In fact ultimate failure (i.e. failing to bring a human soul back) leads to the death of the demon in question. We see this with Wormwood:

“My dear, my very dear, Wormwood, my poppet, my pigsnie,
How mistakenly now that all is lost you come whimpering to ask me whether the terms of affection in which I address you meant nothing from the beginning. Far from it! Rest assured, my love for you and your love for me are as like as two peas. I have always desired you, as you (pitiful fool) desired me. The difference is that I am the stronger. I think they will give you to me now; or a bit of you. Love you? Why, yes. As a dainty a morsel as ever I grew fat on.”(p.171)

And this brings me on to the second thing that makes them unpleasant: their desire for food. Human souls are their primary food but if they can’t get those they’ll eat each other. We see that they see us as food when Screwtape explains to Wormwood the different purposes that God and the devils have for humanity: “We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons”. And he urges Wormwood to “bring us back food” (p.165) or else.

We also learn a lot about how they achieve their ends (i.e. getting human souls). Screwtape explains that their real business is “ undermining faith and preventing the formation of virtues.” (p.22), in other words they don’t have to tempt someone to Dorian Gray levels of debauchery, they just need to stop humans from doing anything good or breed a collection of small vices to drag them down with. He furthers this point by constantly urging Wormwood to focus on the small things and by commenting how “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out” (p.16). In other words they don’t have to put in a bad idea or a vice, they just have to keep out the little voice telling you that you shouldn’t have done it and that you should make amends.

We also learn that they have no understanding about what the Enemy, i.e. God wants with Humanity, Screwtape calls us ‘vermin’, they see us as base, disgusting and not worthy and state this as the reason for their Father Below (the devil) leaving Heaven (rather than being thrown out):

“I do not see that it can do any harm to tell you that this very problem was a chief cause of Out Father’s quarrel with the Enemy. When the creation of man was first mooted and when, even at that stage, the Enemy freely confessed that He foresaw a certain episode about a cross, Our Father very naturally sought an interview and asked for an explanation; The Enemy gave no reply except to produce the cock-and-bull story about disinterested love which He has been circulating ever since. This Our Father naturally could not accept. […This] caused him to remove himself an infinite distance from the Presence with a suddenness which has given rise to the ridiculous Enemy story that he was forcibly thrown out of Heaven.” (p.100).

As such they can’t understand why God would love humanity and see only selfish gain and power as the only good.

We are also warned by C.S. Lewis himself *1 not to believe everything Screwtape says, that he could be lying or twisting the truth and indeed we only ever see one side of the event throughout, we only ever read Screwtape’s letters so have to take his word for it that Wormwood’s excuses when he fails are as feeble as Screwtape makes out.

*1″Readers are advised to remember that the devil is a liar. Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle.” C.S. Lewis; Preface to The Screwtape Letters (-p.ix)

Are the ‘lessons’ only for Christians?

So if this book is a Christian apologetic and if it uses Christian imagery to discuss its themes is this book only for Christians? Well I’d say not exclusively, while there are some concepts that are discussed that are exclusive to Christianity (e.g. the discussions on humans’ relationship with God) there are others that are could be taken as more generalised warnings or teachings.

For example the discussion of unselfishness vs charity. Screwtape instructs Wormwood to, “from the very outset, teach a man to surrender benefits not that others may be happy in having them but that he may be unselfish in forgoing them”(p.141). Certainly this attitude (taking pleasure in forgoing something not for the benefit of another but for ‘bragging rights’ for oneself) is not something exclusive to Christians and is a good lesson for all to learn to distinguish the two.

Another example is the discussion of the word ‘real’: (pp.167-9:

“You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word ‘real’. They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, ‘All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building’; here ‘real’ means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say ‘It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like’: here ‘real’ is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on the human consciousness. Either application of the word could be defended; but our business is to keep the two going at once so that the emotional value of the word ‘real’ can be placed now on one side of the account, now on the other, as it happens to suit us.”

Certainly I’ve heard enough debates and discussions go in circles as two different sides argue over what counts as real or evidence and, without even realising it themselves, they constantly shift and swap the definition of these words. Again this is something everyone can take away from this book and be aware of. Similarly with the idea of “real life” which here is used to lead humans astray but does also highlight the strange ways we move the definition of this word to exclude some things that maybe we shouldn’t as not being part of ‘real life’ and so not really worthy of consideration. The example given is how Screwtape diverts a man’s attention away from whatever spiritual revelation he was about to how, no by logic, not by counter argument, but by reminding the man of the mundane (food, a newspaper boy and a bus) and presenting those as real life, sensible things, not those funny ideas that happen in your head when you think too much. No, no best to just concentrate on those ‘real life things.’ As Screwtape puts it:

You begin to see the point? Thanks to processes which we set at work in them centuries ago, they find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes. Keep pressing home on him the ordinariness of things.”( pp.4-5)

However some warnings are more locked into Christianity and its practice such as the criticism of overly pious pretentiousness by showing how in fact they help the demons. Such as when they try to encourage the patient to pray for his mother something that would seem, on the surface, pious but that the demons can twist to their own advantage:

It is […] impossible to prevent his praying for his mother, but we have means of rendering the prayers innocuous. Make sure that they are always very ‘spiritual’, that he is always concerned with the state of her soul and never with her rheumatism. Two advantages will follow. In the first place, his attention will be kept on what he regards as her sins, by which […] can be induced to mean any of her actions which are inconvenient or irritating to himself. Thus you can keep rubbing the wounds of the day a little sorer even while he is on his knees […] . In the second place, since his ideas about her soul will be very crude and often erroneous, he will, in some degrees, be praying for an imaginary person, and it will be your task to make that imaginary person daily less and less like the real mother –the sharp-tongued old lady at the breakfast table. In time, you may get the cleavage so wide that no thought or feeling from his prayers for the imagined mother will ever flow over into his treatment of the real one. I have had patients of my own so well in hand that they could be turned at a moment’s notice from impassioned prayer for a wife’s or son’s ‘soul’ to beating or insulting the real wife or son without a qualm.” (p12)

Or the discussion of how factionalism in the church helps the demons in their goal despite it being the church as the institution is human it is not free from their influence as they can push the people to act in detrimental ways and use factionalism to aid this. p33 (-quote on screen)

My thoughts:

I found it an easy read, the text flows well and the letter format makes it easily digestible and not feel like a lecture. Sure there are some bits that do not apply outside a Christian context but then there are other passages that are food for thought. There are also a couple of bits I didn’t really get, namely at the end when he talks of spirits when the patient dies “he also saw Them. […] the gods are strange to mortal eyes, and yet they are not strange. […]He saw not only Them; he saw Him.”( pp.173-4)

As for if I agree with the book or see Demons like this? Well some of the lessons are useful but no, I don’t see Demons like this at all. And truth be told had I not been recommended it by a lecturer for my University Dissertation I wouldn’t have picked it up. Still a good read thought and actually does give food for thought though obviously it is more helpful to a Christian (who is working within that framework) than someone without it. Nonetheless it can give anyone plenty to think about and is a good, easy read, either just for fun or if you want to test yourself against these ideas and see if you fall into any of the traps.

(Again, if you want you can check out the video here. Enjoy!)

Until next time,
Lifelong Scribe

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