The Screwtape Letters–Part II

In the first part of this article I looked at several basic character traits that Mr. Lewis present as potential obstacles to a successful Christian walk. Traits such as the novelty of a new faith, relationships with family or acquaintances, prayer,  spiritual ‘dryness’,  humility, a sense of separation from God, and even time,  can be used to stunt, and eventually destroy, a person’s Christian faith.

In the second and final part of this piece I’ll primarily look at Mr. Lewis’s examination of close personal relationships, and how they can help or hinder a fruitful Christian life.

To recap the premise and terminology of the novel: It is written as a series of instructional letters by an experienced demon, Screwtape, to his neophyte protégé and  nephew, Wormwood, who is tasked with securing the soul of his ‘patient’, a young man who has recently converted to Christianity. God is referred to as ‘The Enemy’. The Devil is referred to as ‘Our Father’, Hell is ‘Our Father’s house’, and the ‘patient’ is the young man whose soul Wormwood is attempting to secure.

Love and Sex

Screwtape delivers a primer on how marriage, sexuality, and the idea of ‘being in love’ can be used to capture a patient’s soul, thereby destroying his relationship with God. 

‘[T]he Enemy has gratuitously associated affection between the parties with sexual desire’. This, as well as the resulting children—the family—symbolizes the overall concept of ‘love’. Screwtape argues that sex is a natural outgrowth of love, p95.

Once one is married and sexual intercourse ensues, a transcendental relation is set up between [the man and the woman] which must be ‘eternally enjoyed or eternally endured’. Sexual intercourse in effect makes the two people ‘one flesh’. This ‘transcendental’ relationship can and often does produce affection and ultimately a family, p96.

The idea of a close and strong relationship developing as a result of marriage and not as a pre-requisite for it is counter-intuitive in Western culture. In truth, Screwtape adds, there can be other entirely legitimate reasons for marriage, such as ‘loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life’, p 97.

The opportunity for the demons, then, is for humans to regard as the basis for marriage a highly-coloured and distorted version of something the Enemy really promises as its result. There are therefore two benefits for the demons. First, humans who do not have the gift of ‘continence’   [self-restraint or sexual abstinence] will be deterred from seeking marriage because they do not find themselves ‘in love’ [or have a basic attraction to the individual], and second, the idea of marrying for any other motive seems to them to be low and cynical, pp 96-97

The idea that the impetus for marriage need not be ‘being in love’, but some other entirely mundane, even rational motive, is probably a radical idea in Western culture, as is the idea that  after marriage, after sexual intimacy, after commitment, then affection, and feelings of being in love would follow.  This is clearly a view that had lost currency in 1942, when Screwtape was written, and is practically unheard of today. It actually supports the idea of ‘arranged’ marriages, or marriages entered into for some noble reason.

(Note: Lewis himself did marry the American poet, Joy Davidman Gresham, ostensibly in order for her to remain in England. It was initially a marriage of convenience. However in time, after Ms. Gresham was diagnosed with bone cancer, a true sense of affection did evolve between the two.  This chapter in Lewis’ life was chronicled in the 1993 Richard Attenborough feature film, Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. A stage play and a television movie were also produced.)

Sexuality and Chastity

The patient has become chaste. The demon’s mission is to utilize the patient’s sexuality to either make him ‘unchaste’ or, failing that, use it for the promotion of a desirable ‘marriage’. To that end Screwtape recommends the type of woman he should fall in love with, if ‘falling in love’ is the best they can do, p 105.

The demons in the ‘Lowerarchy have manipulated the agreeable image of the female over the ages. At one point she was ‘statuesque’ and ‘aristocratic’; in another age she was the ‘exaggerated’ feminine type, ‘faint and languishing’. Now in the ‘age of jazz’ her body is ‘scarcely distinguishable from those of boys’.  ‘As a result we are more and more directing the desires of men to something which does not exist—making the role of the eye in sexuality more and more important and at the same time making its demands more and more impossible’, pp 106-107

To this end there are two types of women to whom men are attracted.  One is ‘readily mixed with charity, readily obedient to marriage, coloured all through with that golden light of reverence and naturalness which we [the demons] detest. The other type is the ‘infernal’ Venus. One whom he desires brutally, and desires to desire brutally, a type best used to draw him away from marriage altogether but which, even within marriage, he would tend to treat as a slave, an idol, or an accomplice. This is the ideal prostitute or mistress, but he can be persuaded to ‘love’ her and be induced into marrying her—a marriage which may lead to a ‘long-lasting’ and ‘exquisite’ unhappiness, pp 108-109

A Sense of Ownership

Screwtape advises Wormwood to foster a sense of irritability, a sense of annoyance, or ‘peevishness’ in his patient. One way of doing this is to attack his ‘sense of ownership’.

Man possesses a sense of ownership in terms of his time, his body, his soul. A strong sense of ownership of these things, from Screwtape’s perspective, should be encouraged.  The more of a claim on his own life that a person has made, the better. Moreover the more this claim is taken away, the more ‘injured’ and ‘ill-tempered’ he will feel, p111

He adds: “the joke is that the word ‘Mine’ in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything. In the long run either Our Father or the Enemy will say ‘Mine’ of each thing that exists, and especially of each man.  They will find out in the end…to whom their time, their souls, and their bodies really belongs—certainly not to them, whatever happens, pp114-115

This sense of ownership that Screwtape is suggesting is antithetical to living a Christian life; nonetheless it is a popular way of thinking. ‘My life is my own, my time is my own, I will do it as we please’.  Screwtape is arguing that ultimately your life is not your own—it will eventually belong to the Enemy or to the Father down below.

Corrupt Spirituality

The patient gets a girlfriend, and a true Christian, to Screwtape’s horror.  Now it will be impossible to remove spirituality from his life. The only alternative is to corrupt it.  This requires the ‘reinvention’ of what Screwtape calls ‘a historical’ Jesus, in effect a Jesus reinvented by different men and women to suit the times.  There are several ‘advantages’ of this corruption. They:

  • direct man’s attention to something that does not exist. The ‘documents’ (that is, the scriptures) say what they say and cannot be added to. Therefore a reinvented Jesus (what Screwtape refers to as a ‘historical’ Jesus) can only be achieved by suppression or exaggerating parts of the scriptures. For example, at one point Jesus was promoted along liberal and humanitarian lines. At another point he was promoted along Marxian and revolutionary lines, p124
  • confine the appreciation of Jesus to what he taught, and not to who he was. The different historical ‘constructions’ of Jesus place the importance of Him on some peculiar theory He is supposed to have taught. In doing so the ‘Father’s’ objective is achieved by directing one’s attention away from what He actually did to only what He said, p 125
  • destroy the devotional life. This is achieved by creating an image of a ‘merely probable, remote, shadowy, and uncouth figure, one who spoke a strange language and died a long time ago. Such an object cannot in fact be worshipped’, p125
  • divert the attention away from the fundamentals of Christianity, which are the Resurrection from the dead and Redemption from sin. This type of spirituality (or religion) which is introduced every few thirty years, may not only neglect the fundamentals of Christianity, but even worse, may be created as a means to an end–a means for forwarding one’s own political or social agenda, pp 125-126.

Spiritual Pride

A chink in the girlfriend’s armour is spiritual pride–a belief that those who do not believe as she does are stupid and ridiculous. Screwtape refers to this as the ‘strongest and most beautiful’ of vices, pp 129-130.

How can spiritual pride in the patient be promoted? Have him believe that the progress in his spiritual walk–which is actually achieved by the more experienced members in his newfound circle—is actually a result of his own doing. He must be made to feel that his newfound friends are really ‘his people’ that he has come home.  He should be made to feel that he has a right to associate with these people because he is truly of their level, and not to think of them as having displayed ‘charity’ or humility’ in accepting him, p132

‘What you want is to keep a sly self-congratulation mixing with all his thoughts and never allow him to raise the question: “What, precisely, am I congratulating myself about?”’ p132

‘Mere Christianity’

The patient is living in a state of mere Christianity, which is to be discouraged. Instead encourage a sort of hybrid Christianity, for instance ‘Christianity and Faith Healing’, or ‘Christianity and Vegetarianism’, p 135

He then links this desire for different flavors of Christianity with human’s ongoing desire for change.

Humans inhabit ‘time’ and as such require change, they require novelty.  The Enemy does not ‘wish them to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself…’ He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence, p136.  For example,  there is the novelty of the change of seasons, together with the permanence of those seasons year after year. The demon’s task is to create the desire for ‘infinite’ or ‘unrhythmical change’.  The advantage of this is that it creates an increasing desire with diminishing pleasure. This state of diminishing returns creates avarice and unhappiness, not to mention incurring financial costs.

The greatest triumph is to elevate the horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy so that ‘nonsense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will’, p138. Instead of asking basic and simple questions such as: Is it righteous? Is it prudent? Is it possible?’,   ‘we‘ want them to ask questions such as: is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is it the way that history is going?

These words, written in 1942, can easily be transferred to 2015, where one can argue a certain smugness is evident by many in leadership positions in politics, culture and the media. The smugness arises out of a comparison of the current times with years past. It is based on an updated morality, on a value system based on ‘science’ alone, and on a professed egalitarianism cum political correctness that is unique to the modern day.  This mindset fosters statements like: ‘This is not appropriate in 2015.’  ‘That is behavior straight out of the 1950s, but has no place in the modern world.’  But behaviors and mores change over time and there is a prevailing wisdom out there that values always change for the better.  Behaviours that are accepted today but were unacceptable yesterday are automatically considered a good thing, a sign of progress; and behaviours that were acceptable yesterday and are not unacceptable today are automatically considered bad, or regressive. But as mores and values change, they almost always do so in favour of those currently in positions of power.  I think that the salient point of Mr. Lewis’ argument is that the fundamentals of the Christian faith do not change. There are Truths that are fixed, permanent, and unaffected by changing cultural mores and sensibilities.

The Passage of Time

As the War progresses, Wormwood reports with ‘glee that there is reason to expect heavy air raids on the town where the creature lives’, p 153.  For Screwtape however, death, while the ‘creature’ is growing in his spirituality, is exactly what they do not want.

Time is on the Devil’s side.   Screwtape explains that the longer the Christian is alive, the more of an opportunity there is for him to stumble.

As a young man, newly converted to Christianity, the ‘worst’ thing that could happen to the patient is for him to die.  His personal safety should be a priority for the demons, for time is one of the Father’s best weapons. According to Screwtape: ‘The long, dull monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere, p155 [Lewis’ italics]   This is true if his life is filled with drabness and adversity, but is even better if his life is one of prosperity. Prosperity ‘knits a man to the World. He feels that he is finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him, p155

This idea of time suggests, probably, one of the more macabre arguments in the work.  The value of time to us may be gauged by the fact that the Enemy 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 qualifications for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life, p157.

The natural take-away from this argument is that those who die in infancy, those who die in youth are, in fact, the fortunate ones, the ones who will not suffer the attacks, the adversities, the horrors of life that survivors are condemned to encounter. This is cruelly counter-intuitive and monstrous in its implications.  To think that the children in poor and underdeveloped countries who die of starvation and disease, or who are killed in war, are the truly fortunate ones, is an unsettling,  even hideous proposition. On the other hand, the believer will ask: is it any worse than living for seventy or eighty years in adversity (or worldly prosperity) only to spend the rest of eternity apart from God?

Vices in the Face of War

The patient’s town is about to be bombed. What is the opportunity?  Screwtape recommends utilizing, albeit with some stealth, the vices of hatred and cowardice.

  • Hatred – the patient can be made to feel hatred, not on behalf of himself, but on behalf of his loved ones, of women and children–a ‘righteous hatred’ of the Germans. A Christian is taught to forgive his enemies, but not the ‘enemies of others’, p 160
  • Cowardice – -cowardice alone among the vices can instill shame, and a sense of despair. This is useful since it implies that the patient, while accepting the Enemy’s forgiveness for his other sins, has not done so for cowardice. However cowardice can be a negative for the demons as well, for it may produce a sense of self-awareness resulting in humility and repentance, p162
  • Screwtape recommends that a sense of cowardice and fear can be bolstered by convincing the patient to create a sort of ‘insurance’ policy. Have the patient believe that in the event of real tribulation he will have something to fall back on, thereby preventing a complete and total commitment to the Enemy, p163

Fatigue

The patient is showing fatigue from the constant bombings. Screwtape recommends capitalizing on this in this way: have him establish his own coping mechanisms, instead of committing to the Enemy. There are a number of ways in which this can be done:

  • Feed him false hopes. Put the idea into his mind that the air raids will not be repeated. The idea is to have patient avoid total commitment, p166
  • Have him commit to the trials only for a period of time, and ensure that that period is less than what he will experience, p167
  • Instill doubt in his spirituality: convince him that when he ‘sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is ‘ what the world is really like’ and that all his religion has been a fantasy, p167

In summary the rule of thumb is: ‘in all experiences which can make them happier  or better, only the physical facts are ‘real’ while the spiritual elements are ‘subjective’; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them, the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist” p168

Other Topics

There are thirty one chapters in this book, and many interesting topics were left out of these articles, due to length.  Some of the topics not examined here include Anxiety – a tool for turning the patient’s trust away from the Enemy;   Church attendance—particularly ‘church hopping’, and the ‘Gluttony of Delicacy’ – utilizing selfishness but in an ever-so-polite and congenial manner.

Wrap Up

In 2015 the premise of The Screwtape Letters may appear to be outdated and simplistic, little more than spiritual fodder for a bygone era. The idea of a real Hell and Heaven, of God and the Devil, and of demons actually engaged in a battle with the agents of God over the life of a human being, sounds more like the backstory of a young-adult fantasy novel than an insightful polemic on the study of human behavior—of our spirituality, our carnality, our interactions with one another, with God, and with eternity.

We live (or we tell ourselves that we live) in an ever more sophisticated world, one dominated by technology and science. It’s a world where humans increasingly construct our own moral codes, our own values. (Some may argue that this has always been the case, even when scripture had far more popular currency than it does today. They will argue that scripture was created by Man anyway–to keep the less powerful in check– as opposed to being divinely inspired for our benefit.  I’ll leave that argument for another day.)  I don’t think that it’s an exaggeration to say that many, especially those who hold positions of power—in culture, politics and commerce–have convinced a significant portion of Western civilization that we don’t require a God to instruct us on what is right and wrong.  No, God—especially a ‘personal relationship’ with God– is often relegated to the likes of the ignorant, the poor, the uneducated and the child-like.  Marx’s contention, that religion is ‘the opiate of the masses’   has, in some very powerful circles, unwittingly and quietly taken hold.

The irony is that the more fantastic, juvenile and, frankly, irrelevant, The Screwtape Letters may appear, the more prophetic its arguments become: namely, that as the identity of the agents of the Devil are hidden from human beings, as humans are made to think that they are in fact in charge of their own destiny, and as more far-fetched the idea of spirits, God, and the Devil may seem, the more successful the demons will be.

As we are pulled along by the continental drift of a modern day morality and a constantly changing perception of right and wrong, the notions of what is appropriate and what is not, what is politically correct and what is not, are being shaped, not by God, not by religion, not by holy scriptures, but by leaders elected only by popularity metrics—sales of newspapers, books, and video games, television ratings, movie box office receipts, music and movie downloads, and ‘clicks’, ‘views’,’ likes, ‘’tweets’, and ‘followers’ on social media platforms.

This very silent and seamless development would no doubt make Screwtape ecstatic.

The Screwtape Letters
By C.S. Lewis
Harper San Francisco, Zondervan Publishing House
2001

© Weldon Turner 2015 All Rights Reserved

Next month, Dr. Ben Carson, world renowned neurosurgeon and U.S. presidential candidate.

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