I recently discovered these amazing, artistic renderings of sundry Lewis writings (please check them out, O Reader, they are worth your time) and it put me in a mood to re-read Screwtape Letters in particular. It had been quite a while.
For those unacquainted, the book is written as letters from a senior devil to a junior, all of which regard the best ways to tempt a given “patient” (a human) and lead him away from what the devils refer to as “the Enemy,” meaning God.
I forgot how excellent this book is!
I had actually hesitated slightly before re-reading, because I wanted to read it out loud to my husband, and reading in the voice of a devil seemed a little uncomfortable. Of course, Lewis had to write in that voice, mind you. He said it was the easiest book he ever wrote and the least enjoyable, all “dust, grit, thirst, and itch.”
Since my review of Pilgrim’s Regress has turned out to be a helpful post, I decided I could add to the Lewis reviews. If nothing else, this is an exposé on my character, because what I will list here are all the most convicting elements of the Screwtape Letters…all the ways in which I have allowed myself to be fooled, lied to, tricked, and clouded.
1. Argument style:
This one is best relayed in quotes, as follows. Screwtape is telling Wormwood (the junior devil) to encourage his patient to focus on those little habits or mannerisms of his mother’s which most annoy him so as to damage their relationship by inches and pinpricks.
“Let [the patient] assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy…And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones an looks which similarly annoy her.”
Screwtape then advises that the patient be made to speak normal words in a particularly nettling manner, thence to be “surprised” that the nettle finds its mark.
“Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offense is taken.”
*Ahem* Reading this passage was like having cold water dumped on my head. Deservedly. I have done this. I have said things in sharp and exasperated tones, then been irritated that anyone should take offense but me. “All I said was such-and-such. How could that possibly hurt your feelings? It certainly wouldn’t hurt mine.”
2. Approved but inactive virtues:
Along the lines of believing in God—as even the demons do while shuddering—faith without deeds is useless.
“All sorts of virtues painted in the fantasy or approved by the intellect or even, in some measure, loved and admired, will not keep a man from Our Father’s house: indeed they may make him more amusing when he gets here.”
“Here” being hell, remember.
There are so many times where I see a truth but struggle to adhere to it in the clutch. I approve a truth, but do not internalize it. I agree with a truth, but do not apply the discipline necessary to live it. And this is deadly in the most honest sense.
3. Political Christianity (it doesn’t even matter which side):
When the war (WWII) breaks out Screwtape tells Wormwood that he would do well to try and figure out whether Patriotism or Pacifism would be a better inducement to folly. It’s not to do with which is worse or better, but rather which is better suited to his personality and, therefore, more easily twisted to his endangerment: “All extremes, except extreme devotion to the enemy, are to be encouraged.”
“Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as part of his religion….Then…come to regard it as the most important part.”
This is something of which we should always be leery: cramming God into a political agenda, even a good one. Now, I have very strong political ideals and leanings. But they must all be measured by a rubric outside of themselves: whatever is not of God must fall off. There is much that is not of God in absolutely every corner of the political field. We must never forget that. We must never fall prey to the belief that ANY earthly faction perfectly represents God’s “interests” or character, for in that moment with have replaced Him with something that is NOT GOD, and it does not matter how good it seems or is. In this case especially, the perceived good is the enemy of the actual great.
We must always be “alive to the social implications of [our] religion” even though the intersection of theology and politics is regarded to be an excellent point of spiritual attack.
A tricky situation indeed….a dangerous road that we must nevertheless walk.
4. Law of Undulation
Simply put, we are rhythmical, amphibian creatures—“half spirit half animal”—and thus we go through peaks and troughs.
Screwtape tells his nephew Wormwood that God appears to use the troughs of spiritual life even more than the peaks…indeed “some of His special favourites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else.”
A period of spiritual dryness or dullness is neither the loss or end of faith, but the refining of it to great purpose. Remember this. I am telling myself, and anyone else who will listen.
5. I’ll just leave this quote right here: “An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula. It is more certain; and it’s better style. To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return…”
6. In one letter, Screwtape berates Wormwood for having let ‘the patient’ slip back towards the Enemy…and how did this happen? The patient read a book he really liked and took a peaceful walk. Joy, nature, and clear thought become an act of routing the devils’ intentions, or at least taking cover from direct fire. Another thing we would do well to remember.
7. The combat of daily prayers:
Even Screwtape assumed daily prayers as a given, though of course he regards them as a troublesome barrier to tempting. I forget about this sometimes. Daily prayer. Such a simple, seemingly little thing. But it’s humility, it’s warfare…and it’s necessary.
8. A Taster of Churches:
Screwtape advises Wormwood “Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.”
This is especially convicting of our broader culture. It often does lead to giving up on church altogether, for all churches have flaws, even drastic ones. She is, after all, made up of humans.
9. “…zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own.’ Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours…the assumption which you want him to go on making is so absurd that, if once it is questioned, even we cannot find a shred of argument in its defense.”
Our time is not our own.
10. “How valuable time is to us [tempters] may be gauged by the fact that the Enemy [God] allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth. It is obvious that to Him human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life. We are allowed to work only on a selected minority of the race, for what humans call a ‘normal life’ is the exception. Apparently he wants some—but only a very few—of the human animals with which He is peopling Heaven to have had the experience of resisting us through an earthly life of sixty or seventy years.”
That’s kind of a thrilling notion, isn’t it? What we experience isn’t just the norm. It’s intense training and preparation.
So I actually had TWENTY-EIGHT bullet points when I started this, but it was getting so long, I decided I’ll save the others for another time. Or perhaps I should just say: read the book, and see what you find.