In his satire “The Screwtape Letters,” C.S. Lewis imagines a correspondence between demons who do their best to tempt humans away from God and His saving grace. In my review of “The Great Divorce,” I hadn’t yet read this book, nor completed the last lecture on C.S. Lewis’ view of Heaven and Hell. In these letters, Lewis gives us a acquired “angle on hell,” Dr. Ward said. “The Screwtape Letters” and “The Great Divorce” are meant to make us laugh while also providing wisdom, which is what makes this a great classic. Both stories use elements of tragedy and comedy – tragicomedy” – to talk about the reality of spiritual warfare. Lewis “satirizes not just demons in “The Screwtape Letters,” but also ourselves,” Dr. Michael Ward said, and exposes our own moral compromises, evasions, and hypocrisies.”
Lewis said he came upon these letters between the “self-important and pedantic bureaucrat” Screwtape, a senior demon, to his nephew, a junior-level demon, Wormwood. Hell in this story is like many a government bureaucracy, which made me think Lewis paid a literary nod to Charles Dickens. (I couldn’t help but think of the circumlocution office satirized in his “Little Dorrit.”) These unwelcome letters of advice are meant to assist Wormwood in tempting his “patient,” but also assist him in anticipating God’s next move to prevent the spiritual attacks. From the outset, Lewis makes it clear that we should not trust Screwtape. After all, the devil is a liar.
Screwtape also introduces Wormwood to some of the other demons assigned to humans in the patient’s life. For example, Glubose is assigned to the patient’s mother, and later, Slumtrimpet is enlisted to help because that demon is assigned to the patient’s girlfriend. One of the first tactics he reveals to Wormwood is to steer clear of logic and reason. They don’t want humans to think and use any part of their intelligence.
Wormwood wants to let the man know about his demonic activities, and Screwtape becomes irritated with his nephew. The truth here, of course, is that demons don’t want humans to know of their existence let alone that we are in a spiritual battle. They’d rather everyone stay ignorant of the supernatural realm altogether. Screwtape tells Wormwood he’s had much success by turning his patient’s thoughts toward the “real life” around them and the most “immediate sense experiences.” Seeing is believing, after all, so many patients will forget about the unseen forces by focusing on the news or a nice lunch.
Wormwood fails when his patient becomes a Christian. Screwtape is angry, but he tells Wormwood that all hope is not lost. He might still be able to get the patient to dissolve his ties with “the Enemy.” The Bible does talk about people falling away from the faith. Those people may not have converted in the first place and committed to Christ. Scripture tells us that Jesus said of those who are His,
“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them away from me, for my Father has given them to me, and he is more powerful than anyone else. No one can snatch them from the Father’s hand.The Father and I are one.”
That person won’t bear much fruit if they live like the rest of the world. They won’t grow spiritually. Screwtape, of course, doesn’t divulge that because he’s perfected the art of deception.
Screwtape’s next tactic for Wormwood to try is to have the patient look at the hypocrisy among other church-goers. The Enemy is ready for the patient to go through a low period in his faith. The patient’s faith can become stronger, which is why Wormwood must act quickly. He needs to foot-stomp the patient’s feelings of disappointment and disillusionment in Christianity. He should find out his neighbors in the pews are sinners – gamblers, gossips, and the like. Knowing their sins may make him not want to attend church there or at least make him gloat inwardly that he is better than them in some way.
Screwtape tells Wormwood to make sure the patient doesn’t settles into attending a particular church. Make him search for a new church. He should make the rounds going from church to church. He also wants to make sure the patient stays away from mature Christians who would know how to help him resist temptation. In fact, Wormwood should put it in the patient’s head to go to one of two “party churches” that will keep him in the dark spiritually.
Wormwood is excited to tell Screwtape that the patient met a married couple who are atheists. He likes spending time with them, and they introduced him to their friends. Screwtape wants Wormwood to encourage the affiliation. “We are the company we keep,” so these people may lead the patient away from the Enemy. His pride also may lead to a spiritual downfall. Make him hide the light within and think it’s comical that these atheists are friends with a Christian. He would be living a double life.
Wormwood fails once more when the patient realizes their incompatibility.
Screwtape then turns to another tactic using lust and the attempting to pervert the patient’s views of romantic love. Wormwood should tempt the patient to lust after a woman who doesn’t even exist in real life. The patient may not wish to take a mistress or go to a prostitute, but if he could just fall in love and marry an unbeliever then she may help turn him away from God.
Wormwood fails once more. The patient meets a Christian woman who grew up in a believing home. Screwtape becomes incensed with Wormwood. The patient should never have set foot in this Christian home, he says. “The whole place reeks of that deadly odour,” and it’s “a house full of the impenetrable mystery” (119).
And then he turns into a large centipede! Another demon, Toadpipe, transcribes the rest of the letter.
In the next missive, Screwtape tells Wormwood the next tactic to try: corrupt the patient’s spiritual life. One of the ways he can do this is by bringing back the “historical Jesus” they introduce every 30 years. That Jesus is a prophet, a messenger, and a teacher, but not the Messiah, so no redemptive act of the cross or resurrection to new life that the Christian faith is based upon. (I’ve seen this recently, so the demons must have brought the “historical Jesus” account back into play.)
“The Screwtape Letters” read like a demonic playbook. Though set during World War II, the story of demonic temptation of Christians isn’t new. These same tactics are in play today.
Lewis said that writing the 31 “diabolical letters” was easy, but not enjoyable. He had to put himself into Screwtape’s hellish environment and line of thinking. “The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp,” Lewis said. He thought of balancing these letters with advice from the patient’s guardian angel, but he felt that every sentence would have to have the “smell of Heaven.”
I could feel the spiritual strain as I read. The demons he wrote about want to destroy and devour us, which became a bit unnerving to read. But Lewis spent time working out for the reader some of the main ways they tempt us to help us remember to stay alert as the apostle Peter told us to do,
“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. to that truth and that reality.” – 1 Peter 5:8
Before I end this blog, I wanted to share where I found great study materials for “The Screwtape Letters”: CliffsNotes and the C.S. Lewis Institute’s study guide. This work also has been dramatized for audio and for the stage as seen below. Enjoy part of Max McLean performance as Screwtape:
One thought on “A review of “The Screwtape Letters””