Spiritual Classics

The Screwtape Letters
(1942)
CS Lewis

Screwtape is a senior devil whose job is to increase the store of malice and misery on Earth. He achieves this by carefully targeting humans and then providing them with an array of temptations that can take their minds away from God.

Under Screwtape's charge is his nephew Wormwood, a novice devil. The letters between them record their efforts to turn a young man from his newly-adopted Christianity back to 'Our Father Below' (Satan). Wormwood receives detailed instructions on how to exploit the man's weaknesses and bring him permanently around to sin.

Both shocking and amusing, C S Lewis's satire The Screwtape Letters was a bestseller in its day, selling over half a million copies. It was a brilliant riposte to the creeping atheism, existentialism and materialism of Lewis's time, attracting the smart reader who normally may have dismissed Christianity as a moral guide; Lewis's Screwtape works relentlessly not simply to turn the victim towards sin, but to a fashionable resignation about the 'way of the world' that denies human progress.

The book is quite a challenge to understand, because everything is morally in reverse. You have to remind yourself that the 'Enemy' referred to is God, and that the way of life advocated by Screwtape is the exact opposite of a good Christian life. For instance, Screwtape bemoans that that the Enemy has given human beings free will to choose the Good, and that God actually loves 'the human vermin'.

Each chapter deals with a different temptation such as a lack of neighborly love, smugness, lust, and identifying with non-believers because they are clever and witty.

Beginning the assault

We are made aware that Screwtape and Wormwood's victim is an eligible bachelor, and they work on getting him hitched to various unsavory women. They are horrified when their man falls in love with a Christian woman of good repute and family. At this point they realize it is no use trying to turn him away from his growing spirituality, so instead attempt to corrupt what spiritual feeling he does have. As the victim moves in intellectual Christian circles, they make him attracted to fashionable ideas, such as: the church is a mere bureaucratic perversion of the original intention of its founder; Jesus is a mere historical figure and not really divine; and Christianity on its own is not enough - one has to ally it to social programs to 'create a better society'. The idea is to make him feel that Christianity on its own is a little old-hat, that to make it really come alive in the greater population is must be made sexier.

This ploy works. The victim is now moving in a fast set of intellectuals far in advance of him, and Screwtape succeeds in instilling in the man a certain spiritual pride. The idea is to make him feel that as a Christian he is better than others, and as an intellectual Christian he is even more special. Screwtape tells Wormwood: "The idea of belonging to an inner ring, of being in a secret, is very sweet to him. Play on that nerve. Teach him...to adopt an air of amusement at the things the unbelievers say."

We'll get him still

The book is set in wartime England when bombs threaten to rain down and kill. Wormwood is excited at this prospect, but Screwtape tells him not to be so silly - it is better that their victim be kept alive. Why? Because if he survives the bombs they will have him in the palm of their hand, because with the advancing years he will succumb to the spiritual wasteland of middle age. Routine and the failure of youthful hopes and loves, they are sure, will turn him their way. Screwtape gleefully writes of ".the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it - all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition."

However, if the man is successful and prosperous, Screwtape slyly observes, "our position is even stronger". He explains that prosperity cements a person to worldly concerns by increasing their place in it. If they become well known and important with many connections, what need will they have of God? The goal of the dark side is to increase attachment to the earthly concerns, and this becomes easier with age. In contrast, the spontaneity and love of life of the young (or young at heart) makes it very difficult for him and his kind to win a human over to their side.

The final assault

Screwtape's larger aim is to prevent the victim from gaining any self-knowledge. The idea is to keep him locked into raw emotions which cancel out any hope for objectivity and reflection. As the bombs fall on London, Wormwood suggests injecting a bit of cowardice into the man, but Screwtape says 'No!' - cowardice brings on shame, which can lead to self-evaluation and a desire to be a stronger person.

The diabolical two try to get the victim to not persevere in anything, to fail in his resolutions, to not make commitments, as all such things make a person evolve into something better. They want him to feel that he is the master of his destiny who does not need God's help. In times of adversity, Screwtape observes, "the fun is to make the man yield just when (had he but known it) relief was almost in sight."

When the man sees burning flesh on the wall of a bombed-out house, the devils hope they have succeeded in making him believe that life is just a house of horrors with no meaning. But the man shocks them by seeing beyond the rubble to the miracle of life. He is now well beyond the reach of the devil. Screwtape had described the victim as: "This animal, this thing begotten in a bed." Now that same animal sees in the same way that God does.

Final word

When Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters his writing was already known to a huge audience who had listened to his 'Ten Minute Talks' on the BBC in the early years of the Second World War. These talks covered his conversion to Christianity, morality and many other subjects. The book was dedicated to his friend JRR Tolkien.

The Screwtape Letters may have seemed to represent what was going on in the political world, but the author's real concern was the inner life and the decisions we make every day. The old-fashioned morality that the book espouses still packs a punch, and although Lewis wrote as a Christian, the reader can easily substitute their own devils for his Screwtape and Wormwood.

Is painting the world in terms of 'good and evil' too simplistic? Perhaps, but Lewis's quirky presentation of the polarities as real is quite convincing and makes you think about all the rationalizations we make to justify our thoughts and actions. What we can take from this book is a reassurance that there is something in us that is naturally resistant to corruption - and that by being true to ourselves we can succeed in increasing that resistance.

Source: 50 Spiritual Classics: 50 Great Books of Inner Discovery, Enlightenment and Purpose, Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)

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From The Screwtape Letters:

"My dear Wormwood,
   I noted with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian. Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties.In the meantime we must make the best of the situation. There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy's camp and are now with us."

CS Lewis:

Born in Belfast in 1893, Clive Staples Lewis was the son of a solicitor. He taught English literature at Oxford from 1925, and stayed there for most of the next three decades. In 1954 he was lured to Cambridge when a new post of Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature was created. Lewis's 30-plus books include The Allegory of Love, a key source on fifteenth and sixteenth century English? literature; the famous children's books The Chronicles of Narnia; science fiction novels Out of the Silent Planet (1938) and Perelandra (1943); Christian and philosophical works The Problem of Pain (1940), Beyond Personality (1944) and Mere Christianity (1952); and an autobiography, Surprised By Joy (1955).
In 1956 Lewis married for the first time, to Joy Davidman. He died on November 22 1963, the same day as Aldous Huxley and President Kennedy.
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