“In the early days of World War II, an odd book appeared in England and America,” Thomas Howard writes in his introduction to the fiction of C.S. Lewis. “It seemed to be a collection of letters from an old devil to a younger one, telling him how to handle a man who had been assigned to him as his special demonic responsibility.”
Howard refers of course to The Screwtape Letters, an inventive collection of letters in which Screwtape, a senior demon, advises his nephew Wormwood in the subtle art of temptation.
Demonic letters aren’t typical in fiction, especially when the satanic point of view is an ironic set-up for a profoundly Christian work.
When The Screwtape Letters was first published, the slender volume was unusual enough to capture its war-worried readers’ attention. It wasn’t a treatise on the crisis they were facing. Instead, its satirical motif enabled readers to see how their response to the situation might be affecting their souls.
In Screwtape’s letters, “The Enemy” refers to God and “Our Father Below” is the demonic master. Thus Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood allows us to see common holiness as so powerful that it makes the darkness tremble and superficial spiritual mediocrity as absolutely advantageous to the Evil One. It reminds us that every single moment of our lives has supernatural implications.
InThe Screwtape Letters, Satan is unmasked in that he tempts most frequently not to egregious, shocking sins but to small slips into smug superiority.
Screwtape approves of anything that waters down a Christian’s absolute devotion to Christ. The attitude that “religion is all very well up to a point” will help the Christian compromise his faith in order to please those wishing to pull him away from his devotion. Petty observations about the ordinary people in the pews next to him at church will do it as well.
Screwtape advises Wormwood to lure the Christian he is underming into seeking the approval of colleagues who are “rich, smart, superficially intellectual, and brightly skeptical about everything in the world.”
Noting the “subtle play of looks and tones and laughs by which a mortal can imply that he is of the same party as those to whom he is speaking,” Screwtape instructs the junior tempter to watch for the moment when the Christian decides to postpone revealing to his new friends that he is a believer, rendering his faith more difficult to finally acknowledge. Educated Christians know exactly what this means. Only grace, humility and a higher love will save us in such moments.
And Screwtape delights when religion and politics mix, thereby splitting Christians into factions and diminishing their witness.
This last is strikingly applicable to the problem of political division in today’s proud and fractious culture. When political parties claim our absolute devotion, we’re in danger of mistaking our favorite cause for Christ. It doesn’t matter whether the cause in on the left or the right.
Referring to the target of Wormwood’s temptation as “the patient,” Screwtape advises: “Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part.”
This seems to me a critical danger today. The stakes are high in the culture to be sure, but when we identify too closely with a political party, a judgmental superiority overtakes us as politics becomes our religion perhaps more than we even know. Screwtape hopes Wormwood can capture his “patient’s” soul in just this way.
Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours–and the more ‘religious’ (on those terms), the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here.
The causes are important, of course; it’s the importance we assign to them that is the critical thing. Love of God and neighbor cannot grow when obsession with a cause has surpassed quiet obedience and humble simplicity.
But Screwtape is even more annoyed when the patient moves beyond factiousness, superiority and hopes of instant perfection and begins praying only for “the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation.”
“This is very bad,” the senior devil warns. “Your patient has become humble.”
He has a remedy, however. Make him proud of his humility.
“Have you drawn his attention to the fact?” Screwtapes inquires. “All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is especially true of humility.”
Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove! I’m being humble,’ and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear.
Humility is never observed except in others. We observe it most fully in Christ himself, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” He showed us the way that makes the demons tremble, advising us always to take the lowest place.
The senior devil knows many more ways humility is undermined: denying our gifts rather than using them, developing a false humility in the form of self-contempt, allowing self-examination to become so excessive that we forget God and neighbor. In each of these we are curving in on ourselves, pride overtakes our hearts and we inch just a little closer to captivity.
I don’t believe I’ve ever seen The Screwtape Letters on a list of recommended Lenten reading, but it seems to me a book perfect for this season of self-examination. C.S. Lewis, the atheist Oxford don turned humble Christian, reminds us that ours is not the first dark hour in the history of the world, and that most of our spiritual battles are won or lost at the narrow gate of God’s glory and our neigbor’s need.
Reads and Other Seeds
Screwtape is an easy read at 172 pages. This time around I supplemented a re-read with this Audible edition. From wicked little chuckles to flashes of threatening anger, it is narrated to perfection by British actor Joss Ackland. A four-hour listen worth repeating.
I’d never thought of Screwtape as a book to recommend at Lent, perhaps because I never read it specifically with an eye to this holy season. Discover more possibilities with 10 Books for Lent that You Won’t Find on Other Lists. I’ve only read the first two and I love them both. So I’m adding a few of Vicki Burbach’s other recommendations to my ever-growing wish list of serious spiritual reads.
Photo by Nadine Doerle on Pixabay.
For more on this series, see Confessions of a Cannonball: A Lenten Invitation to Hunger for Humility. To receive new posts in your inbox, Follow Sparrowfare by placing your email address in the follow box, and please share Sparrowfare.