There is a seldom told truth, it is a truth that we all too easily want to ignore but cant, or else all to easily should ignore but don’t; that the world that we live in is more then what the eye can see; the shadows are sometimes what we fear them most to be and there really is a monster under the bed or in the closet. What is most surprising of these shadows and monsters, is that they likely do not have fangs and horns, but a well organized and scholarly approach to ensnaring their prey. This is what C.S. Lewis attempts to convince us of with his satirically written book The Screwtape Letters. The spirit world may or may not function as C.S. Lewis imagines, but he uses this creative approach to teach his audience of the dangers that demons pose and the ways they will use vice and even at times virtue to pull their ‘patients’ away from the love of God. In exploring the book of The Screwtape Letters you should first understand what this book is and what it is about. Following that, I have been careful to observe some criticisms (despite my love for the writings of C.S. Lewis) in this essay. Lastly, and most enjoyably, I have been inspired to give some praises of the things I was enlightened on through reading this work of intellectual and artistic value.
I remember when I first heard of the book The Screwtape Letters, my sister had given it to me when I was in highschool but I had always been too afraid to read it. At that time in my life I was not really walking with God and the thought of reading a correspondence of demons was just too much for me. Now that I am older, and have been following God for a while, I have realized that angels and demons are realities, and while our struggles against or with them might be real, they are nothing to fear when you have the power of God on your side. In reading this book though, it was much different than my expectations had been of it so long ago. The book is made up of 31 letters from the demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, letters of evil yet cunning counsel, to which one could read between the lines to discover some very real truths about the spiritual realm. C.S. Lewis wrote this within the historical context of the second world war, which to people at this time was a trying time for mankind, but to the demons of the narrative not very important except as far as it related to the current situation of ensnaring souls for the fires of hell. In the preface C.S. Lewis gives some warnings in how to read and take his book, he states:
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” (C.S. Lewis, 1X)
In reading this book it should remind us of the reality of demons and how to deal with the different temptations that they may throw at us, but it should not encourage an unhealthy obsession with them. Another important thing to note before reading The Screwtape Letters is that “Readers are advised to remember that the devil is a liar.” (Lewis, 1X). What Screwtape advises to his nephew should always be taken with a grain of salt and with the mindset of who is doing the talking. What is good to Screwtape should be considered bad to us, and likewise what is bad should often be considered good, though that is not always the case since at times Screwtape has moments of sincerity. It is not a book you can just pick up and read without engaging your mind and heart to thought and prayer. Probably one of the most important things you can learn from this book is how to be aware of the subtle pitfalls and snares of the wily one, the devil of old. If you read between the lines you can learn a lot of the observations Lewis has made of the tactics of the fallen angels as relates to the life of a believer.
I would have to say that C.S. Lewis is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors for his creativity and his well balanced view of ‘Mere Christianity’. That said though, there were some things that I would have to be critical of in reading The Screwtape Letters. There seem to be some theological errors, but before Lewis receives the blame for them I would like to point out that it could be due to the nature of writing a novel and the sake of keeping an interesting story. Anytime you write a fictional allegory there are bound to be some theological compromises since you are not writing facts and are attempting to tell a narrative. The first and main concern is how C.S. Lewis depicts the nature of salvation. It almost seems like a person is on a scale from good to bad, and that the more you live your life in obedience to God the closer you will be to going to heaven when you die. If this isn’t his view then at least he sees salvation as something that can be lost. But it is possible that is only the perception of the demons and not the reality (and also remember that the demons are liars). This is evident when he states “…your patient has become a Christian… There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us.” (Screwtape Letters, pg. 5) The Bible says in regards to salvation “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; [it is] the gift of God, (Ephesians 2:8, NKJV)”. Elsewhere it declares “For the gifts and the calling of God [are] irrevocable. (Romans 11:29, NKJV)”. If salvation is a gift, and the gifts of God are irrevocable then your salvation can not be lost. But perhaps this is something the demons were not able to understand since the Bible states in 1 Peter 1:12, in regards to the gospel, that the angels desire to look into these things, implying an incomplete understanding.
Lucky for us, the praises of The Screwtape Letters far outweigh the criticisms of it. One of the praises I have for it is its sheer creativity into the world of demons, instead of depicting them as brute beasts in the army of Satan he describes them more as an intellectually advanced and scholarly society. The highest praise for it though, is Lewis’ brilliant knack and understanding of describing the subtle tactics of the enemy of believers and their genius in how they ensnare men with sins of vice. He seems to identify the use of the world, the flesh and then the straightforward attacks of hell. One of the things I personally learned a lot from was how C.S. Lewis wrote about the tactic of Satan to make men either extreme patriots or conscientious objectors. Personally, I have always loved my country and have always wanted to serve it through the military. When I started following God at the age of 18 and went to Bible College, I began to rethink this plan for my life due to learning about cultural differences and that I am first a Christian before I am an American. I also began to develop the conviction that taking a life was wrong in any instance, especially if that person did not know Jesus as their Savior. On returning to America though, the Lord balanced me out by reminding me how good of a nation America is and the potential that it stands for. If it is right to defend your family from harm, as a shepherd defends his flock, then defending your nation can be an extension of defending your family. Lewis brings out the importance of balancing these two concepts, it is right to be patriotic for your nation and even to defend your people from harm, for your nation protects your family. But equally it is wrong to be so patriotic that you are willing to turn a blind eye to the wrongs your nation would commit, especially in a time of war, just for the sake of loving your country. The demons would be equally happy for one to be a coward and not stand up for whats right, in the guise of being a conscientious objector, as they would for you to be so patriotic that would murder in the name of patriotism. There are sins of commission where you do something wrong, but there are also sins of omission where you do something wrong just by not doing what was right to do. Reading Lewis’ perspective on this has helped me to form my own conclusion on the matter, and to be aware of being too much of one or the other.
Overall, the The Screwtape Letters is a book that I would recommend to any Christian that wants to be more aware of the tactics of the enemy. The book is a satire written as a correspondence between two demons giving advise in how to tempt and ensnare their ‘patient’. All that’s written in it needs to be thought and prayed about, keeping in mind that the demons speaking are liars. In reading it I found some criticisms theologically with Lewis’ portrayal of salvation, since salvation is a gift that cannot be revoked. Finally, the praises outweighed the criticisms and personally I enjoyed learning about the balance a Christian should have between patriotism and pacifism. Those shadows may be what we sometimes fear them to be, and the monsters under the bed may truly be there, but reading C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters may help you to better train yourself in how to deal with the adversary of our souls.
© 2012, Matt Camphuis all rights reserved.