Summer of C.S. Lewis, part IV

The Screwtape Letters

The fourth and last C.S. Lewis book I read this summer was The Screwtape Letters. This one was not originally on my list. I had heard it was written from the devil’s perspective. No thank you, I’ve had enough experience with him already. No need to seek any more. But my July experience of struggling through Miracles and a glance at my chosen Comments on the Psalms, was enough to convince me. I wasn’t sure I had the will power to make it through another expository book. I needed something lighter. So, with some encouragement from my husband, Screwtape it was.

As usual, God showed His sense of humor. What I most resist is often was does me the most good. I loved this book. Despite my fears, Screwtape did make me feel closer to God, more so than the other books.

For those unfamiliar with it, the premise is as follows: Screwtape is a mature demon writing letters (we are just given one side of the correspondence although we get hints of the other side) to his nephew Wormwood, a much younger demon just starting out on his tempting career. Wormwood’s goal, of course, is to turn his patient (as his human is referred to) away from God, making his final destination Hell. We follow Wormwood’s progress, or lack thereof, through his patient’s life which takes place during the early years of what appears to be World War II. Through his efforts, we see how our own thought processes trip us up, how our minds work against us.

There is much to like in this book. As a literary technique, the book is quite clever. The first few sentences of each letter set up Wormwood’s current progress, and then Screwtape gives advice, sometimes solicited, sometimes not, and Lewis is able to say what he wants to, but in the negative. Things are turned upside down. God is referred to as the Enemy and the devil as Our Father. You get the gist.

There were so many quote-worthy sections to this book. I found it littered with insights into our culture and our reason. There are too many to mention here, so I will try to limit myself to some of my favorites.

When his patient begins to go to church, Wormwood is encouraged to turn his patient’s gaze onto himself or onto the work of religion rather than the subject of it. If our focus is on church committees and programs it is likely to be off of Christ. On the subject of temptations and sins, Screwtape points out that we humans believe “that there is no hope of getting rid of us except by yielding [to the temptation].”

When Wormwood is discouraged because Screwtape is encouraging the temptation of small sins while Wormwood seeks more dramatic indiscretions, Screwtape assures him: “You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are, providing their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards, if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

The real danger, Screwtape continues, are pleasures: “Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [God’s] ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees that He has forbidden.”

Wormwood is told to ensure his patient avoids two great positive pleasures: reading a book he really enjoyed, not reading it just to make clever remarks about it, and taking solitary country walks. Both of these real pleasures give a man a sense of feeling of coming home or of recovering himself (and Wormwood is advised to avoid both). Instead, he should encourage “vanity, bustle, irony or expensive tedium” that masquerade as pleasure.

Another tactic encouraged by Screwtape involves the encouraging of small irritations. A few examples:

  • “Nothing throws one into a passion as easily as finding that a tract of time one thought would be one’s own is unexpectedly taken.”
  • “The tension of human nerves during noise, danger and fatigue makes them prone to any violent emotion.”
  • “Moderate fatigue is a better soil for peevishness” but avoid absolute exhaustion which “can produce extreme gentleness, and quiet of mind, and even something like vision.”

Lewis also addresses the concept of time in an interesting way. Humans cannot understand how the eternal entities such as angels and demons see time, and if we could understand it, many questions would be understood. I found in these thoughts a reasonable or partial explanation to the question of free-will versus predestination: God “does not foresee the humans making their free contributions in a future, but sees them doing so in His unbounded Now. And obviously to watch a man doing something is not to make him do it.” In other words, this whole issue of predetermination includes perhaps some misunderstanding about time, and if we understood how God sees or uses time, then we would understand the question differently.

A couple of points concerning weaknesses of the book: there was no real discussion of how Wormwood or other demons or devils go about influencing us. This was lacking, but I would have found it interesting. Perhaps our unknowing is part of the problem. I also felt that the book ended somewhat abruptly and confusingly. The human patient died suddenly in a bomb raid and went to be with God in Heaven, leaving Wormwood a failure. Screwtape then appears to be delighted with his nephew’s failure and hints that Wormwood would now be consumed by a hungry Screwtape.

By the end of this book, I came to the conclusion that I have my own personal Wormwood, perhaps one more successful than found here. One who breaks the fridge to keep the level of household stress high, who keeps me awake so I’m tired and fretful, who distracts me from the work I know would bring me joy and satisfaction, and who keeps me focused on worry about things beyond my control that prevents me from faith and trust in Screwtape’s Enemy.

There were two lines in this book that particularly spoke to me. The first was that “all mortals tend to turn into what they are pretending to be.” This is for good or bad. We become what we do. And the second was attributed to someone newly arrived in hell, saying “I now see I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.” I felt like those words could have been spoken by me. There is more power in us wandering aimlessly around in the land of Nothing, not committing any great sin, but in avoiding real living. This thought has prompted me to look at how I spend my time. Perhaps, however, it has not moved me enough.

My laziness, avoidance or risk, playing it safe, being distracted by details or frivolous entertainment, in other words, my avoidance of real living. My doing neither what I ought nor what I like. The demons are rejoicing over these things. Knowledge of the devil’s tactics can and should help me recognize them and say, along with Jesus, “Get behind me, Satan.” I know your tricks and I choose differently. The battle is real, my friends. Fight on.

About Katherine J. Scott

Welcome to my website and blog. I am a writer and librarian interested in historical fiction. My works in progress include a trilogy about a stonemason from Elizabethan England and a novel loosely based on the Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestries housed at the Cloisters in New York.
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