Several months ago I mentioned we’d be discussing C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters during Lent. Now is a good time—acts of warfare are ongoing in Libya—and in Screwtape Lewis confronts readers with an underlying question: what importance is to be given to the inner spiritual life, the discipline and hope of saving one’s own soul, versus the call to Gospel justice in practising the beatitudes and righting the wrongs of the world?
Written by Lewis shortly after bombs began falling on Britain after 1939, Screwtape can be viewed through two different lenses, each offering ideas about how to face outside forces of destruction. A first view is a description of the book itself. It is a series of letters between two devils, a younger devil assigned to tempt a particular man who is living in England during the War, and an older devil who is “supervising” the younger one, in a manner to an experienced physician supervising an intern. The names of these two malevolent spirits indicate Lewis’s disdain. The young devil is Wormwood—bringing images to mind of nasty creatures that bore into and destroy the once-alive material of which houses, furniture and even works of art are constructed. The senior devil’s name, Screwtape, brings to mind a twisted tape measure, one that is useless and even worse, one that will ruin the best architect’s plans.
In his correspondence Wormwood indicatess glee at the great war going on, as it is an opportunity for rapes, property destruction and senseless killings of all kinds. This brings rapid rebuke from Screwtape, who informs Wormwood that very many souls are brought to Heaven during times of War because of fulfilled duty, heroism and sacrifice. Screwtape suggests inciting quarrels between people, encouraging pride and judgementalism, and encourages getting people to take strong political views concerning the war—positions that will incite disagreement and even hatred toward other Christians. (Will the battles in Libya become a force to make Christians angry at or even hate each other? It will be interesting to see how this will play out.)
The second lens of interpretation discovers themes of Lewis’s spirituality. He conveys these to his readers in six guidelines. First, the struggle for eternal salvation is the greatest moral task, and cautions that great Earthly problems, even the worst wars, can divert a person from their primary task. In framing our journey on Earth in this manner, he can be counted among those who opt toward the more “supernatural” aspects of the Christian faith. Second, encourage divisions within Christianity itself, using theological and political statements as wedges to polarize the faithful against each other. He refers several times in Screwtape to the conflict and enmity between pacifists and those adhering to just-war theories, pointing out that each side becomes so certain of their righteousness that this issue becomes more important than what we ask for each time we say the Lord’s Prayer.
Lewis’s third, fourth, and fifth themes form a trilogy, one concerned with psychological matters. The devil should keep a person’s mind focused on inner life and feelings (to promote self-absorption and selfishness), ignore today and worry about the future, and discourage a person from seeking simple God-given pleasures. Lewis was no fan of Freud, although he grudgingly suggested psychoanalysis could help extremely troubled people, and suffered no foolishness concerning lengthy discussions about religious and spiritual feelings. His focus was the opposite of William James: not to delve into what people “experienced and felt” but rather to stir them to Christian activity. There is an Ignatian streak in Lewis’s thought where he encourages us to live each day to the fullest, to be concerned about only each day’s bread, and to remember those lilies of the field that sway so beautiful and remain so protected. Simple pleasures—taking a walk, tea-time or coffee break, reading or re-reading a book, having a pint in a pub—were staples in Lewis’s life and he encouraged others to find activities like this. And like Ignatius, for him gratitude was a cardinal virtue.
The sixth major theme of Screwtape Letters may be the most timely, as bombs fall in Libya this Lent. Screwtape envisioned a major part of the Devil’s workload as encouraging Christians to judge and condemn the enemies of others. This, of course, is not a teaching of Christ. Since much of Christian advocacy and social justice work involves confronting injustices—either systemic ones or those actively caused by others—how can standing up to, confronting, and yes—even judging—the enemies of others be a bad thing? For Lewis, the reason is that this builds up a person’s sense of pride and being smarter than others or “being right”—attitudes leading to incivility and anger. Some have suggested that because of these attitudes, Lewis was too passive. Dietrich Bonhoffer, Thomas Merton, and others—including Jesuits too many to name—took a much different approach when confronted with systemic evil.
Screwtape Letters has always made me question the balance in my own life between working to change the world versus changing myself and leading a Christian life in the “small” matters that come up each day. I find that too many times that the former starts to obscure the latter, and that when this starts to happen C.S. Lewis provides a helpful spiritual antidote.