Bookends #1: The Screwtape Letters

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Today’s post is by Terry Foraker.  Welcome to Bookends, a new column where I give you a peek over my shoulder at what I am currently reading and hopefully toss out a quasi-thoughtful question or two.

 The other night I finished listening to the audio version of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.  (There are actually two or three audio versions floating around; I recommend the one read by John Cleese of Monty Python fame.  He brilliantly brings out both the pomposity and the sinister humor in the work; this recording won the Grammy award for best spoken word recording of 1988.)  For some reason I find myself drawn to Screwtape (either the audio or print edition) this time of year, perhaps because after a surfeit of Christmas cheer I am in generally in need of a healthy dose of comic cynicism. For those who have not yet read or listened to Screwtape, it consists of a series of letters written by Screwtape, a sort of middle manager in the realms of hell (referred to by Screwtape as the “lowerarchy”) to his nephew Wormwood, who is a brand-new tempter assigned to a young Englishman, referred to simply as “the Patient.”  (Incidentally, proper names are seldom used in this book.  God is referred to as “the Enemy” and Satan is “Our Father Below.”  The only exceptions are the rather nasty-sounding names assigned to Screwtape’s colleagues:  Slubgob, Triptweeze, Glubose, and so on.)  While discussing the two malefactors’ attempts to undo the Patient spiritually, the letters also contain some keen psychological insights into human nature.  The book’s setting during the Second World War made it particularly timely and topical, as it was written during that period.

Some editions of Screwtape include a preface which C.S. Lewis wrote in 1960 explaining his rationale behind some of the metaphors and symbols in his book.    Most notable is the sort of personality he used for his “diabolical ventriloquism” in which he expressed his own philosophy in the voice of a demonic narrator. 

Lewis begins his preface by expressing his opinions of the imagery employed throughout the years in depicting heavenly messengers.  He then moves on to discuss some of the horrific images used in depicting devils-particulary, bats’ wings as an outward manifestation of inward corruption.  In what is to my mind the most intriguing part of his preface, he states rather bluntly, “I like bats much better than bureaucrats.”  He explains that, in keeping with the times, he has chosen to project his voice through a generally dignified, respectable, soft-spoken gentleman who nevertheless masks a deep hostility and rage which only occasionally seeps through (most notably when Screwtape learns that Wormwood’s patient is in love with a Christian girl).  For the most part, Lewis observes,

The greatest evil is not now done . . . in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.  Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business con­cern. (The Screwtape Letters, p. x; all page references are from the 1982 Macmillan revised paperback edition.)

A related metaphor, which Lewis refers to more than once in the piece, is what he calls “spiritual cannibalism” wherein a stronger entity consumes a weaker one and absorbs its will into its own-sort of the spiritual equivalent of a hostile takeover.  Lewis intends this to be a perversion of the Christian concept of submitting one’s will to that of God only to receive one’s own self back  in a greatly improved version.  Two primary differences between God’s way of absorption and that of the devils are noteworthy here:  first, God wishes us to surrender our wills so that we can be purified and receive back far more than we sacrificed:

Remember, always, that [the Enemy] really likes the little vermin, and sets an absurd value on the distinctness of every one of them. When He talks of their losing their selves, He only means abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever. Hence, while He is delighted to see them sacrificing even their innocent wills to His, He hates to see them drifting away from their own nature for any other reason. (59)

In contrast, the devils are entirely self-serving in their motivations; their aim is simply to conquer:

The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. “To be” means “to be in competition”. (81)

The second difference concerns the means by which these aims are achieved.  While God desires, and even requires our wills, he will never forcefully take them from us–in Screwtape’s words, “He cannot ravish.  He can only woo.” (38)  The devils, on the other hand, are far more aggressive in their approach:  “Our Father hopes in the end to say ‘Mine’ of all things on the more realistic and dynamic ground of conquest.” (99)

To return to the “voice” which Lewis employs in Screwtape:  I see it mainly as a reflection of the dictatorial times in which Lewis lived, with its Hitlers, Mussolinis, and Stalins.  On the other hand, there also seem to be traces of a big business bureaucracy such as we see in abundance today.  If the book were to be written today, how do you think the voice might differ? 

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Comments 9

  1. I honestly don’t think the voice would differ all that much, perhaps only in the semantic nuances of modern idioms. The voice captured the Zeitgeist of his day, but since peace had been taken from the earth long before Lewis penned the Letters, the spirit of our time is very much the same.

    The Bish

  2. Terry,

    Nice post. I look forward to the Bookends to come.

    It’s hard to imagine a 21st-century British author writing on these topics and finding an audience. Our world has changed so much since WWII that Lewis would have a harder time finding a publisher, I think. The war temporarily revitalized English Christianity, which had been flagging for some time, especially after the ravages of the Great War. We’ve had over sixty years of secularization since then…

    Lewis succeeds for Mormons because he predates the evangelical obsession with trashing us. Evangelicals love him today because he expresses their convictions more eloquently than anyone they’ve produced since. That’s why when the Narnia movies come out, they are a love-feast between evangelicals and Mormons. There were even some formal attempts in this regard to use Lewis as a bridge-builder between the two groups in the Mountain West.

  3. I like Lewis. I really enjoyed The Screwtape Letters.

    And I noticed John N.’s last sentence. Isn’t it Millet who has one wall of LDS books and then another wall of evangelical books? But the book section between carries Lewis’ books? 🙂

    Of course, I think John’s third to the last sentence is quite a stretch. I would suggest more reading.

  4. As I am a great Lewis fan, it will be tough to get me to agree there is a more eloquent voice for traditional or evangelical Christianity writing today. I do not mean erudite, there are plenty of those authors out there, but I’ve read no one who can make the gospel more understandable in laymen’s terms without overly distorting it. Of course, this business of critiquing is slightly subjective:)

  5. One evangelical I enjoy is R.C. Sproul. I haven’t read any of his books, but I used to listen to his radio show years ago when I was on the road a lot and liked his approach–very intelligent and well-spoken.

  6. Though I love his apologetic works, I’ve never been fond of Lewis’ fiction, because it’s so didactic. It doesn’t feel like I’m participating in the story at all, only being led to the writer’s predetermined interpretations. That’s why I greatly prefer Tolkien’s fiction to Lewis’. His is more like feigned history, and any applicability to the current situation is left entirely up to the reader to discern.

    In fact, I sometimes wonder if Mormon art and literature as a whole aren’t stuck mostly in mediocrity because they’re so killingly didactic? We Latter-day Saints do constantly immerse ourselves in moral lessons, since our approach to life is based around eternal progression. Even Richard Dutcher and Orson Scott Card, who are said to be among the best LDS artists of the day, both have a strong strain of didacticism that, to my mind, greatly detracts from their work. Does anyone else get this feeling? If so, will this ever improve?

    In short, the best way I think Lewis’ fiction could be updated for the current day is for it to be written with a lot less allegory and a lot more story.

  7. John N.: “Lewis succeeds for Mormons because he predates the evangelical obsession with trashing us.”

    Although, he does take a veiled swipe at us in “Voyage of the Dawn Treader” (Narnia Book 5) in which he refers to weird neighbors who were teetotalers who wore a peculiar sort of undergarment.

    Tatiana B.: “Even Richard Dutcher and Orson Scott Card, who are said to be among the best LDS artists of the day, both have a strong strain of didacticism that, to my mind, greatly detracts from their work.”

    Amen to that, sister! I think they are referred to as among the best LDS artists of the day because there’s not a lot of competition. Orson Scott Card is hit and miss. Also, Dutcher left the church last April, citing it was irreconcilable with his artistic expression (I’m paraphrasing). Interesting, since I doubt he has a lot of crossover appeal, and he just alienated his target audience with that pronouncement. But artists are not always the best business people.

  8. I was considering ScrewTape Letters as a way to gather Strength on what to watch out for. I believe that Satan is Real and these thoughts on his temptations to lure our thoughts from the Truth of Christ Jesus are worthy of notating and forging against in alerting new believers, old believers, pew-warmers. The attacks are constant. As for Didactal I agree and as you may know when you have a relationship with Jesus Christ you are not a robot awaiting instructions you are who He Created you to be with gifts and talents and spiritual growth to look forward to .Psalm 23 is working together remembering that we are sheep though we push against that thought . You cannot save yourself. Your belief may not tell you that but consider how great the Pharisee thought he was yet led people astray for his selfish purposes. Jesus words toward him and alike not so complimentary.Romans10:1

  9. With some dismay,  I note that most of my Mormon friends willingly ignore the Law of Non-contradiction.  In short, two diametrically-opposed, and mutually-exclusive, claims can not both be true.  That having been said, either The Bible is Truth, or it is not.  Moreover, either Jesus’ is the Only Begotten Son of the Only Living God, or He is not.  Lastly, either Jesus is, as He, Himself, claimed, The Way, The Truth and The Life; or, He is not.

    In summary, the Law of Non-contradiction still stands.  Like my dear friend, i pray that those of you who can still think, at all, will accept that Jesus Christ is The Living Lord.  And, that Joseph Smith was both a lunatic and a liar.  The Sovereign Lord of All Creation has left to each of us to choose Him; or, not.  I think that Joseph Smith is eternally regretting his wicked folly. Please, dear ones, turn your hearts toward The Saviour.  : )

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