Who, in these days, believes in devils?
I do! But, even if I didn’t, experience tells me that temptation is real. We can ignore temptation, or we can resist it, but we can never avoid it. That’s what makes C. S. Lewis’s classic masterpiece as relevant today as the time when he wrote it. He wrote The Screwtape Letters during World War Two – and much has changed since the 1940s. But the realities of temptation are the same. There are just more ways for it to reach us.
The three main characters of the Letters are Screwtape, a senior devil, Wormwood, his nephew who is a trainee in the field of temptation, and an unnamed man, sometimes referred to as “the creature”, who is Wormwood’s hapless victim. Lurking in the background are “Our Father”, that is Satan, and “The Enemy”, by whom Screwtape means God. Within this inverted world view, Screwtape keeps up a stream of correspondence with Wormwood, advising him how to go about tempting the creature, never concealing his contempt for humanity (“…why should the creature be happy?”).
C. S. Lewis used to say that he found it easy to write this book, but an unpleasant experience to dwell on this distorted world view, in which God is “our Enemy” and humankind is despised:
“…we must never forget what is the most repellent and inexplicable trait in our Enemy; He really loves the hairless bipeds…”
“…He really likes the little vermin and sets an absurd value on the distinct essential of every one of them.”
Lewis’s formula has been emulated by many other writers – but never with the literary skill, or the commercial success of The Screwtape Letters. He was, of course, the author of the Narnia books, which have delighted generations of children and adults, and have been made into cinema and TV films, but Screwtape was one of his most popular adult books. I bought my first copy while I was still at school, and paid two shillings and sixpence for it (12.5p). What value! Now, many years into my retirement, I decided to read it again. I have not been disappointed.
This book is a long joke but, unlike most drawn-out humour, it never becomes monotonous. Lewis was an accomplished writer, and letter-by-letter builds up a life story of the man who is being tempted. He tells the story obliquely, but with a clarity that forms a convincing image in the reader’s mind. It’s no coincidence that the writer was famous as a radio broadcaster (the pictures on radio really are much stronger than on TV!). But though it is fiction, this book tells a story that is true to everyone who wants to live a good Christian life. Screwtape’s comments provide insightful guidance on the nature of temptation:
“My Dear Wormwood, …like all young tempters, you are anxious to report spectacular wickedness. But…it does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light...”
It’s good to know your enemy’s plans and strengths. On that basis, the Screwtape Letters could be an invaluable insight into the Devil’s methods – if it were true. But this book is so well written that you easily come to believe that you’re really spying on the devil. I guess that’s why Lewis found the work unpleasant. He was a genuinely good man, who felt his mind being stained by the process of thinking like an evil spirit. The advice in Screwtape’s correspondence is based on careful observation of human weaknesses, and the genuine struggles that face anyone who wants to live a holy life. Regular readers of my blog will recall that I wrote a series of articles about temptation and how to overcome it. Screwtape gives similar help, but packaged in a memorable story that will bring a wry smile to your face.
© Derrick Phillips 2020