In the 1940s, as war waged in Europe, another war raged in England: a struggle for one man’s soul. Advised by his uncle Screwtape, a young demon faced with a new convert to Christianity must work overtime to stifle his target’s growing inner life. The Screwtape Letters consists of 31 letters chronicling the demons’ twin efforts to lead ‘the patient’ off the straight and narrow. The result is a fascinating and insightful volume which indicates why CS Lewis is held as a titan of modern religious literature.
Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood reveals the obstacles that the spiritually concerned trip over in their attempts to live more mindfully, or in the Christian case here, to live abiding in the spirit of God. The chief goal of the demons is to keep their patient out of that spirit; anything that helps them in their cause, even if it’s counterintuitive like enticing him to become overly zealous, is embraced. They play a sensitive game, where small moves are key. They don’t want to lead their patient into so great a sin that he’s horrified by what he’s become and is reduced to a weeping, repentant sinner. The trick is leading him steadily off the path with distractions, and quietly, subtly snaring him with small sins. When he’s in reflection and starting to grow dangerously close to realizing something about himself, they make him think of a chore that needs doing, or suggest that he’d think better if he took a walk. If he insists on going to church, they distract him by pointing out the noisyness of other parishioners’ kids, or the oratorical inadequacies of the preacher. They can even pervert the attempt at virtue into vice – to have him constantly pray for the sins of others (and thereby have him constantly focus on people’s failings, and not their person), or by inducing pride in his own humility. If nothing else, there’s always politics: make the patient more concerned about being with the right ‘set’ at church: a man consumed with ambition and in-fighting is a lock-in for Hell.
The book is rich in jarring observations, including a beautiful one at the beginning when Screwtape suggests that Wormwood keep his man thinking about the sins of those around him, and basking in the hypocrisy:
All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question “If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?” You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head.
Lewis’ gift for pointing out subtle snares we are prey to makes this book an eternal classic, in part because the wisdom is universal, not applicably only to Christians. Epictetus could read this and recognize the man making classical mistakes: dwelling on matters outside his control, for instance, and relating to people not as they are but as we’d wish them to be. The volume has tremendous value as a guidebook to spiritual formation, alerting the reader to marvelously subtle pitfalls, but through Screwtape’s lectures to his young ward we also see Lewis reflecting on the human condition as a whole. It’s an all-around fascinating little book.