Screwtape Stings: Lewis' Gut Punches

A Demonic Adventure

A couple weeks ago I read C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters for the second time. If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s an imaginary collection of letters from a demon named Screwtape to his “nephew” Wormwood. Wormwood has the task of destroying his “patient’s” soul, and the experienced Screwtape offers him advice along the way. C. S. Lewis creatively uses this format to show us the demonic, or at least generally wicked, influences in our daily lives. Rarely, you see, are most demons busy haunting people, hanging out with witches, or working on massive conspiracies. Instead, The Screwtape Letters encourages us to examine our own lives for the diabolical. Satan’s most effective tactics are not flashy. They work in the subtle recesses of our hearts and imaginations.
This creative format makes the book pack quite a punch. As demons discuss their plots to destroy us, we see ourselves. We see how this bad attitude or this unkind habit isn’t harmless. Rather, every fault in our hearts is a potential crumbling point. How we trivially treat our mothers, our friends, or selves can all lead toward either glory or ruin. So Lewis writes, in essence, as a wakeup call. As we read Screwtape suggest tactics to ruin a young man, we might spot our own weaknesses and pitfalls.
All of this, then, made The Screwtape Letters an unusually convicting book to me. For that reason I intend to blog through it, sharing some of my favorite insights. Whether in our duties toward God or duties toward each other, I’m confident that Lewis has something to teach anyone who might read this. I know he did for me.

Intro: The Problem with Reason

I do not plan in this one post to share all that much, since I’ve spent enough time just introducing this series. However, I do want to at least give a taste of the kinds of things you have to gain from following this. So I’ll start off with something Lewis points out in the very first chapter of the book.
The book opens with Screwtape’s response to Wormwood’s current strategy: have his “patient” read skeptical literature and hang out with a materialist friend. Screwtape acknowledges that this is well enough, but encourages Wormwood not to let the matter get overly intellectual. Why? A couple of reasons. For one, God is truth. To play the game of reason is to give God the homefield advantage. For another, reason is not always the most powerful motivator. People are often much more likely to believe things for reasons that have very little to do with rationally thinking they are likely true. To quote Screwtape:

Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false”, but as “academic” or “practical”, “outworn” or “contemporary”, “conventional” or “ruthless”. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.

Our World

A moment’s reflection should show how painfully true Screwtape’s point is. This is probably even more the case in our social media age than in Lewis’ day. Lots of adjectives that have nothing to do with reason and truth govern what people are willing to believe. For example, how many times have you heard “It’s 2019” used like it’s evidence for something? The year obviously has nothing to do with the truth, but often enough, it’s assumed that what people think today is automatically superior to what people used to think.
Other examples abound. Some beliefs are “toxic” or “bigoted.” Others are “progressive” or “inclusive.” Or, on the evangelical side, some ideas are “Gospel-centered” or others are “worldly.” In a Reformed context, “confessional” or “Catholic” can be the start and end of a conversation. Politics can be even worse, where an idea being “liberal” or “discriminatory” or “backwards” or “socialist” can immediately rule it out depending on the audience.
Lewis here reminds us of something he made a repeated point of elsewhere. What matters with any idea or belief is solely whether it is true. Whether we like or dislike it, whether it fits any particular agenda or sensibilities, or whether it is in favor or out of favor, truth is truth. Will we believe it? Will we let factors besides truth govern what we believe? Anything more than this is from the evil one.

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