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Today I loaned a copy of "Screwtape" to a young woman - the receptionist where I work -- who just celebrated her 21st birthday. I HOPE she enjoys it, even as I wonder if a fifty year old book could strike a chord with her -- the way it did with me, when I was her age. She seemed eager enough to borrow a copy (I have two) just as soon as I described the book's delightful premise:
"Screwtape" I told her, "is letters from a senior devil to a junior devil - and it's the funniest thing C.S. Lewis ever wrote - Have you heard of C.S. Lewis?" I asked. "No? Well he authored `Narnia.' (Neither of us has seen the movie yet.)
I told her 'Screwtape' is funny because (like all good humor) it seems so TRUE. Or at least you want to BELIEVE it's real, as `Screwtape' the experienced devil coaches his nephew `Wormwood' in his first assigned task: to "secure the damnation" of his 'patient' -- a young man who has just become a Christian.
As with "Narnia," the story unfolds in wartime (WWII) England. That's a long time ago for someone 21 years old and "I'm really interested" I said "to find out if the 'dialogue' of this book still speaks to someone your age."
"Personally, I think it would make good movie" I said. "It has been made into a talking book - read, I think, by John Cleese - the funny guy who starred in the movie `A Fish Called Wanda" - I read somewhere he's recorded a version of `Screwtape.' "
So . . after loaning that copy of "Screwtape" today, I opened, at random, my OTHER copy -- it fell open to page 24 -- and I re-discovered why I've loved this book so much for so many years.
It's the sort of book you can open almost anywhere - years after you first read it -- and find yourself laughing out loud - and falling in love once again, with the written magic of C.S. Lewis at his 'finest hour.' Well here, if you can spare two minutes -- get comfortable and see if this random sampling, from page 24, "Chapter IV" -- 'speaks' to YOU:
"My dear Wormwood, The amateurish suggestions in your latest letter warn me that it is high time for me to write to you fully on the painful subject of prayer . . .
"The best thing, where possible, is to keep the `patient' (the young man who is spiritually up for grabs) from the serious intention of praying. When (someone like him) is an adult, recently re-converted to the Enemy' (Screwtape's term for Christianity's founder) - such as your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember - or to THINK he remembers - the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood.
"In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and `un-regularized' And what this will actually mean to a beginner will be an effort to produce in himself a vaguely devotional MOOD . . . in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part.
"One of their poets, Coleridge, has recorded that he did not pray `with moving lips and bended knees' but merely `composed his spirit to love' and indulged a `sense of supplication.' That is EXACTLY the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence, as practiced by those who are far advanced in the Enemy's service, clever and lazy `patients' can be taken in by it for quite a long time.
"At the very LEAST, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.
"It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things OUT.
"If this fails, you MUST fall back on a subtler misdirection of his intention. Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves.
"Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce FEELINGS there, by the action of their own wills. (So that) when they meant to ask Him for Charity, let them instead start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves - and not notice that this is what they are doing.
"When they are meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to FEEL brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to FEEL forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feelings, and NEVER let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.
"But of course, the Enemy will not meantime be idle. Whenever there is prayer there is danger of HIS own immediate action. He is cynically indifferent to the dignity of HIS position (and to OURS as pure spirits!) and to human animals on their knees He pours out self-knowledge in quite shameless fashion.
"But even if He defeats your first attempt at misdirection, we have a subtler weapon . . ."
After describing that more subtle `weapon' in detail, -- and it concerns the true nature of God as opposed to the `composite images' that can be "derived from pictures of the Enemy as He appeared during (His) Incarnation" (20 centuries earlier) Screwtape advises his green nephew:
"Whatever the nature of his composite (picture of the `Enemy') you must keep your `patient' praying to IT - to the thing that he has made - be it something in his own head or a crucifix on the wall - and NOT to the Person who has made him.
"You may even encourage him to attach great importance to the correction and improvement of his composite object, and to keep it steadily in his imagination during the whole prayer. For if he ever comes to make the distinction, if ever he consciously directs his prayers `Not to what I think thou art, but to what thou knowest thyself to be,' our situation is, for the moment, desperate."
The good news, says the `senior devil,' is that, "in avoiding this situation - the real nakedness of the human soul in prayer - you will be helped by the fact that the humans themselves do not desire it as much as they suppose. There's such a thing as getting more than they bargained for!"
That "more than they bargained for," Screwtape explains (earlier in this same chapter) is that humans (at least the majority, who are far from saints) - "have never known that ghastly luminosity, that stabbing and searing glare (of true self-knowledge) which makes the background of permanent pain in our own lives (as devils).
Your affectionate uncle,
Late in life C.S. Lewis was asked WHY he never wrote a sequel (apart from a few pages entitled, "Screwtape Proposes a Toast"). The greatest of Christian `apologists' replied in effect, that it "hurt" him too much -- to maintain within himself the necessary state-of-mind where he was thinking purely as a devil -- in order that Screwtape's words could pour from his pen onto paper.
Living 'inside' "Screwtape" Lewis experienced an exhausting -- even terrifying -- spiritual/psychological torment that he was NEVER prepared to re-visit. Despite the fact this little book was, until "Narnia," his most enduring source of fame - so much so, it got C.S. Lewis onto the cover of TIME magazine -- fifty years ago -- a red cartoon devil on his shoulder, poised -- it seemed -- to whisper sweet words of prideful praise into Lewis' deaf ear.
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Who can deny the insidious whisperings that infiltrate the noblest heart and penetrate the most virtuous mind?--those subtle impulses that beckon hither and thither to paths we ought not to travel upon. How often have we vowed never to yield to some enticement, only to succumb moments later to the very vice we had pledged to eschew? Whether manifested in the final, luscious slice of a calorie-loaded pound cake or in the tantalizing allure of a forbidden passion, temptation to choose wrong over right is ubiquitous in our lives as we daily make decisions of both trivial and profound significance. Yet while many have denounced the depravity of sin, C.S. Lewis, a mid-twentieth century British theologian, took a much more innovative approach - through the eyes of the devil himself. The resulting correspondence written between the seasoned devil Screwtape and Wormwood, his inexperienced nephew, is an insightful training manual on the art of human subjugation. In his masterful commentary The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis effectively employs satire, irony, and appeal to logos to enable his adult Christian audience to recognize and understand the devices of temptation.
From the beginning, Screwtape's writings unveil the real roots of temptation through satire. Wormwood's task is to bring about a soul's damnation, but as his uncle quickly observes, the newly christened tempter is prone to error. Critiquing his understudy, Screwtape chides, "Are you not being a trifle naïve? It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy's clutches... Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church" (p. 1). This passage is satirical because it exploits Wormword's fallible use of argument to undermine his patient's faith when mere diversion would be sufficient. It is a direct critique of the book's adult Christian audience who allow meaningless "jargon" to distract them from their faith. As evident in this example, C.S. Lewis masterfully uses satire to establish lesser temptations as valid components of sin in the reader's mind.
Additionally, the satire in Screwtape's letters provides valuable insights on the tactics employed by the beguilers. After offering a slew of tips for diverting people from their prayers, Screwtape states, "It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality, our best work is done by keeping things out" (p. 15). Here he is specifically referring to the spiritual distance fostered by casual or self-promoting prayers, but the technique of distancing his patients from "the Enemy" characterizes all the devil's efforts. This example is satirical because it largely implicates the tempted - not the tempter - for planting seeds of temptation through a careless relationship with God. It reveals the devil's tendency to not only entice, but to encourage conditions where such enticements will be most compelling. By critiquing the audience's possibly cavalier approach to prayer, satire teaches the reader to recognize the devil's underlying tactics in temptation.
In addition to satire, C.S. Lewis uses irony to explore temptation's appeal to human flaws while simultaneously undermining the demon's methodology. On page 37, Screwtape writes, "Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation." Wormwood's patient had recently dropped into a spiritual trough, and Screwtape cautions that such deviations do not of themselves lend to damnation. His statement is ironic because it underscores change as mankind's only dependable feature. But the true irony is that Wormwood's efforts to discourage ultimately undermine his objective because they humble the patient to rely wholly upon "the Enemy." Lewis' irony reveals both human flaws and demonic arrogance associated with sin. It enables his Christian audience to better understand temptation by concisely illustrating both its strengths and failings.
Another example of irony is Screwtape's inability to comprehend love. Referring to God as "the Enemy," he writes, "All His talk about Love must be a disguise for something else - He must have some real motive for creating them and taking so much trouble about them" (p.100). Because, as a devil, he is himself incapable of virtue, Screwtape incorrectly assumes that all righteous actions must also have ulterior motives. This non sequitor fallacy is satirical because it exhibits the tempter's deficiency in understanding, while reinforcing to the Christian audience that love really is "the Enemy's" driving motive. This satire provides dramatic insights by suggesting that temptation is only a pervasion of virtue which cannot supplant righteousness. Through this satirical device, Lewis convinces the reader that while Satan can mimic love as lust and induce man to commit all manner of sexual transgressions, he can never understand the true nature of love. This conundrum is further reinforced by the statement, "We know that He cannot really love: nobody can: it doesn't make sense. If only we could find out what he is really up to!" (p. 101). By satirically emphasizing Satan's misunderstanding of truth, Lewis establishes in his reader's perception the subtlety of sin as a perverted reflection of truth.
Lewis's irony is further bolstered through the use of distorted diction. The polarity of his word choice is best exemplified on page 117. Describing one particularly righteous girl, Screwtape writes, "Not only a Christian but such a Christian - a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouse-like, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and butter miss." The contrast between this vitriolic stream of adjectives and the virtuous purity of Christianity is deliciously ironic. God becomes "the Enemy" while Satan is tenderly patronized as "Our Father Below" (p.2). This ironically polarized diction reinforces the audience's understanding of sin as corruption. What Screwtape loves we should disdain, and Screwtape loathes we should embrace. By intensifying the contrast between good and evil, the irony of Lewis's "black is white" diction immediately alerts his reader to recognize temptation.
Finally, Lewis' rational dissection of temptation as a systematic progression appeals to the reader's sense of logos. Defining his intentions on page 44, Screwtape gloats, "We always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula." With this object established, the devil then works systematically toward his victim's destruction. First he plants doubts so that a patient will question the value of religion. He then lets the person acclimatize to a lowered spiritual condition and finally moderate into complete religious complacency (p. 45-46). This progression toward captivity appeals to the reader's sense of logos because it follows a coherent chronology. By understanding the general logic of temptation and the ensuing misery, the audience is empowered to identify similar patterns in their own lives.
The appeal to logos is similarly employed in Screwtape's discourse on the sin of "fashion." On page 137, the devil lays out the consequences for yielding to fashion in an orderly, logical manner. First, an obsession with novelty "diminishes pleasure while increasing desire." Second, it costs money. Third, it leads to "excesses of lasciviousness, unreason, cruelty, and pride." And ultimately, it "distracts the attention of men from their real dangers." This appeals to the reader's sense of logos because it clearly illustrates the sin-driven regression from desire to danger. By appealing to logos, Lewis clearly displays the mechanics of beguilement to his audience.
As a whole, The Screwtape Letters provide invaluable insights into the world of temptation. From sensual passions to trendy fashions, and distracting jargon to cavalier prayers, C.S. Lewis thoroughly exposes his reader to the twisted realities of the devil Screwtape and his minion Wormwood. In so doing, he empowers his adult Christian audience to resist temptation when it strikes. The scathing satire, delicious irony, and rational appeal to logos unravel the tangled intricacies of temptation by defining its roots, devices, and systematic methodology. In a world filled with temptation, this book is a must read for any Christian adult eager to avoid an unpleasant reunion with "Our Father Below."