When I heard that The Screwtape Letters was a theater production playing in Nashville this last weekend, I bought tickets and reread the book in anticipation of the play. I have read the book previously, but it has been many years, so it was time for a refresher. I plan to reflect on my thoughts on the book in this post and my thoughts on the play in a subsequent post.
The Screwtape Letters is a Christian classic, along with nearly every other book written by C.S. Lewis. Lewis makes an insightful exploration of temptation in daily life from the perspective of the demons. Christians are not used to considering things from this perspective, but this unique outlook is exactly what makes the book so valuable. By intentionally considering the weapons of the Tempter, we should hope to be more aware and prepared for his assaults.
The book consists of a series of 31 personal letters written by a senior demon tempter in hell named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, who finds himself on his first assignment on earth tempting an individual known as “the Patient.” Screwtape is an experienced tempter who now holds a bureaucratic position in Hell, and he serves as a mentor to the young Wormwood.
The letters address several different topics, but taken together, they form an overarching narrative that traces the life of an Englishman in his daily decisions. The letters encompass the Patient’s life before and after becoming a Christian. His church selection, his potential mate, his friends, his desires and the war fought for his country are all topics for scrutiny by the demons.
Several things jumped out at me as a read through the book.
- It was interesting to see that Screwtape had a way to attack the Patient at each stage of his life. Before he was a Christian, the obvious goal was to keep him from becoming one. Once he became a Christian, there were other avenues to use. In spiritual highs and spiritual lows, there were methods of attack.
- The demons had some power but many limitations. The demons played off of emotions and thoughts; they possessed the power of suggestion. They could not force someone to sin against their will, and they could not banish God’s influence. The best they could hope to do was suggest, obscure and misdirect.
- Beliefs were a major focus for Screwtape and there were many ways to address the Patient’s thoughts and convictions. Screwtape advised Wormwood to redefine words. The philosophies of the age were to play a major role in his beliefs without him realizing their influence. He was instructed to keep Biblical doctrines fuzzy, but to give him some kind of feeling that he was doing the right thing. Rationalizations for pursuing a sinful lifestyle were offered.
- Screwtape did not feel that need to directly address matters of faith or ethics. He preferred a method of diversion. Wormwood was supposed to keep him from focusing on matters of importance or enjoying pleasures in life that might allow him to reflect on God. If the Patient could become enthralled with some cause or movement besides or even alongside Christianity, that was to be preferred.
Much, much more could be said about the book. It is a fairly short book, but it is dense and full of material to consider and discuss. Lewis’ insight into the pride and selfish desires of the heart should force each one of us to look into our own hearts and wrestle with the demons whispering in our own ears.
See my next post on Screwtape Theatre.