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Read Screwtape Letters

29 March 2011

A few weeks ago, twenty-odd (they may also have been twenty odd) people from Moortown saw the Saltmine dramatisation of C S Lewis’s Screwtape Letters at Bradford Playhouse.  It was a great performance, presenting the spirit of Screwtape without sticking to the letter of the book.  But points come and go so quickly on the stage.    I recommend reading the book: that gives us time to think. 

What do we find in the book?

It is composed of letters from a very senior devil, Screwtape, to his junior tempter, Wormwood, giving him advice about how to make a good career in the Infernal hierarchy which goes downwards (of course) to our Father Below.  Making a good career depends on getting human beings (who have free will, conscience, intelligence, and the care of the Father in heaven by the Holy Spirit) into their power so that they end up in hell, for the enjoyment of the devils, who do not have any care for the real best interests of human beings.  Indeed, devils are incapable of understanding what is good about human beings, especially not that they are loved by God and intended for a close relation with Him, loved as his free partners.   Devils, in Lewis’s vision, are greedy consumers, who destroy all that they can get their hands on, and who devour God’s creatures without enjoying the taste of them. 

Wormwood has a task – to get hold of one young man, and to bring him to hell.  Wormwood makes mistakes, and loses one trick after another –  the young man becomes a Christian, falls in love with a Christian girl, isn’t put off by Church when he finds out how it is full of odd people, sorts out how to act wisely and bravely when the war comes, and then goes out to help people in an air-raid, and gets killed, and goes to heaven’s glory, leaving Wormwood nothing but Screwtape’s fearsome displeasure. 

It is all very entertaining – Lewis knew how to entertain as well as to think – but it is important to keep our bearings.  Screwtape sees everyone the wrong way up – or down.  It is possible to get fascinated by the devils and think that Lewis is trying to instruct us in their organisation and tactics.  But then we get the wrong way up too.   We follow the entertainment standing on our heads, as it were, but at the end we need to take away from the book some good advice about how to live as human beings with our heavenly Father, standing upright on our feet.  

If we read the book, not trying to follow devilish machinations but to get light on how we should believe, think, pray and live, what will we get from it?  

If  Wormwood’s ‘real business’ is to undermine faith and prevent the formation of virtues’ (p 30), we are called to the exact opposite: be strong in faith and growing in virtue. 

What advice for that project do the letters give us?    I offer these notes as hints and appetisers.   You won’t always agree with Lewis, but he makes you think.  

Argument is a way to faith so don’t despise or fear it.  It involves ‘attending to universal issues’ and ‘withdrawing attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences’  or what is often wrongly called ‘real life’  (p 12)     

Believe in the unfamiliar rather than the familiar which is before our eyes  (p14)  –  real science encourages thought about realities we can’t hear or see.     

Devils are against argument:  ‘it is funny how mortals always picture us (the devils)  putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out’   (p 25).

2   God aims to make human beings to be free lovers and servants of God – sons – and so he leaves them ‘to do it on their own’ (compare Aslan in Narnia), and thus they have to go through disappointment or anticlimax when they first become Christians   (p 17).   If they get through this, they are less dependent on emotion (p18).

3   ‘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?’     If I can ask this question, the real church is less likely to be a decisive turn-off.   (p18)

4   Live realistically with the real mother, or neighbour: do not let inwardness and prayer lead us away from duties towards the actual person   (p21).    

Live together with an understanding of complexity and how we mismanage and exploit it to our advantage against the other  (p22).

How to pray – praying is not mood inducement, but concentration of will and intelligence.   Turn attention on to God away from self and their feelings  (p 25).   Turn attention from false images, ie ‘the thing (the pray-er) has made’  ‘…to the Person who has made him’  (p 27).      Prayer is addressed  ‘Not to what I think thou (God)  art but to what thou knowest thyself to be’.    So trust oneself to ‘the completely real, external, invisible Presence’  (p28).     

Later some more:  Prayer becomes formal because worldliness makes for a reluctance to think of God really and openly in prayer  (p 62); when  God is distasteful to the Christian who has compromised  any trivial alternative will serve to distract him, and thus his life becomes trivial, empty and ashamed  (Nothing p 64).

6   How to respond to War with faith in God?   In war,  people turn to God,  or at least, have their ‘attention diverted from themselves to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self’  (p 31)  and God responds to that turn positively.  War makes  people more truthful about Death, and undermines ‘contented worldliness’  (p 32)     Suffering is part of Redemption, so faith is not destroyed by war.   

7   Deal with what is actually feared, in reality, not with the fear of all the many incompatible possibilities which  fear conjures up in the imagination  (p34).

8   Malice and benevolence are both in the human person – that is obvious in war. There is a tendency for him  ‘to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, the people he does not know.   The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary’  (p36,37). 

9    The existence of demons understood historically.  In modern culture,  the existence of demons is concealed, and this has potential for a new form of the demonic, when science may be emotionalised and  mythologised  (as Lewis later explored in his novel That Hideous Strength).  ‘If once we (the devils) can produce our perfect work – the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits” ’ then the devils will have succeeded   (p 39,40)

10  How to be a pacifist, or committed to any demanding or unpopular cause, without falling into pride and hatred of others (p 40).  

Whether  your cause is Pacifist or Patriotic, do not identify it  with religion as its most important part  (p42);  do not turn Christianity into a mere support for whatever human cause or campaign you are involved in.   Do not make World the goal, and faith merely the means to it.  (also p 119-120).   

11  Troughs of dryness:   God wants a universe of creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like his own,not because he has absorbed them, but because their wills freely conform to his…He wants servants who can finally become sons….so he does not use the weapons of the Irresistible and the Indisputable, because he does not want overpowered beings  (p 45-46).

So he withdraws support and leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs, willing and able to get on doing duties even when they have lost all relish  (p 47).

What God wants:   A human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do (God’s will), looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and (yet) still obeys.

12  Pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form – in sex, or drink – God made all pleasures  (p 49).  All the devils can do is to encouraged the humans to take the pleasures God has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which God has forbidden.   

Cf  p 100:  Falling in love  ‘like most of the other things which humans are excited about, such as health nd sickness, age and youth, or war and peace, … is, from the point of view of the spiritual life, mainly raw material’.  

And p 112:  God is an hedonist at heart…He makes no secret of it: at his right hand are pleasures for evermore.  …He has filled his world full of pleasures.  There are things for humans to do all day long without God’s minding in the least – sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working….Nothing is naturally on the devils’ side – it has to be twisted before it is any use to them.

13  Know the law of Undulation  (p 50):  nothing, despair or wellness, goes on for ever in human life;  if we know that, we can live through troughs  not thinking they are permanent states  – This is wisdom for living.   But don’t think in jargon about ‘phases’  (p 51) –   Hold to the antithesis between True and False  (p 52).

14  Why has the church given up saying much about the temptations of The World in recent times?   The old warnings about Worldly Vanities, the Choice of Friends, the Value of Time are dismissed as  ‘Puritanism’  (p 55).   This helps the devils to rescue annually thousands of humans from ‘temperance, chastity and sobriety of life’.

15 Human laughter is a mixed thing:  analysed as Joy  (p 57), Fun, ( p 58) – both positive – and   the Joke Proper, ( p 59 – dangerous, especially in the context of ‘English seriousness about Humour’  which is an all consoling and all excusing grace of life)   and Flippancy – (p 60).  

‘Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any(one) can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny.  Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made.  No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it.  If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against (God)…It is  a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening the intellect; and it excites no affection amongst those who practise it’

16   In relation to points 14 and 5, the grace of repentance, a second conversion:      (p 66).    

From being seduced into flippancy and badly chosen friends, the man returns to real joy, in a book and a walk  (p 67)    by which he comes home to himself  (p 68)   – (cf  points 12 and 15)  – and reality.   God God affirms the distinct self of the person  (p 68).  

‘Any strong personal taste which is not actually a sin, even if it is something quite trivial such as a fondness for county cricket or collecting stamps or drinking cocoa…such things have nothing of virtue in them; but there is a sort of innocence and humility and self-forgetfulness about them’  (which Screwtape distrusts  p 69, because they are good). 

Truly and disinterestedly enjoy any one thing in the world for its own sake and without caring twopence what other people say about it  –  do not abandon what you really like, in favour of what is said to be ‘the best people, the right food,   the important books’.  

17  Humility:   After this repentance, the man lives in a different way, not making lavish promises of perpetual virtue, but with only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation  (p 71).  

Have humility without knowing, for knowing it easily makes for pride.   Humility’s true end is to attend to God and to neighbours, not to have a low opinion of one’s own talents and characters  (p72).    

If a person has Humility: he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would if it had been done by another   (p73).      This is the source of being able to ‘recognise all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things’.

We are not called to have an opinion of our own talents at all  – all is gift  (p 74).

‘Even of his sins the Enemy (God)  does not want him to think too much: once they are repented, the sooner the man turns his attention outward, the better the Enemy is pleased’  (p75). 

18   Attend chiefly to two things:  eternity itself and the Present, the point where time touches eternity  (p 76).    

Against living in the Past  or the Future (hope and fear and unrealities)

19   Staying  in one church a way of being open in uncommenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment that is going  (p 82)  

But this is not as simple as it sounds:  there are churches that do not offer much nourishment. 

20  Gluttony – is a ‘determination to get what one wants’ – and that may be a small delicacy not an Excess  (p 87). 

21  Sex, marriage and being in love :  either complete abstinence or unmitigated monogamy –  sex created by God to counter the Hellish view that ‘to be means to be in competition’  ( p 92)

God’s way:  Things in creation are to be many, yet somehow also one.   Sex goes with affection, and family.   God says One flesh – not a happily married couple…(p 93)

Copulation sets up a transcendental relation which must be eternally enjoyed or eternally endured  (p 94)    (cf R C Hutchinson)

Marriage not based on being in love, being in love is to be the result of marriage.    

22  God’s love is genuinely not self-interested, aiming at getting something out of the other – how can that be?  It grounds the whole of faith.   (p 97  cf p 92)

This is the secret on which the throne of God depends – p 98 (cf the deeper magic in Narnia)

23  Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury   (p106).

My time is my own – the issue of the general sense of ownership (p 108). 

Notice the finely graded differences that run from “my boots” through “my dog”, “my servant”, “my wife” , “my father”,  “my master” and “my country” to “my God”  –

they cannot all be reduced to the first  kind of ownership    (p 109).

22  Fallen in love with a Christian, and her Christian home where there is disinterested love, which the devil cannot explain away: it is like Heaven, in one description, ‘the regions where there is only life and therefore all that is not music is silence’.  In Hell by contrast there is only Noise (p 113-114).

23  If spirituality cannot be removed, the devil must aim to corrupt it:  make the man a spoiled saint.   One way of corrupting it is to attack  at the  borderline between theology and politics  (p 116).  And by manipulating how he thinks about Jesus. 

Screwtape says: ‘we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like that would be a major disaster. On the other hand, we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means, preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything, even to social justice.’  (p119-120)

24  Dangerous confidence and spiritual pride come from a protected insular religion (p 121). 

Don’t confuse the contrast between the circle that delights us and the circle that bores us,
for the contrast between Christians and unbelievers  (p 124)

Do not think Christianity is a mystery religion in which we can feel ourselves one of the initiates   (p 125).

26   Go for  Mere Christianity  not ‘Christianity And…’    

‘They all have individual interests, but the bond remains mere Christianity’. 

Having a  horror of the Same old thing (p 126) results in  Fashion  (p 128): the natural pleasantness of change is twisted into a demand for absolute novelty.

Ask of any course of action: Is it righteous, prudent, possible?  (p 129)    not, Is it in accordance with the general movement of our times …?

27   Talk of charity rather than unselfishness  (p 131)  

How marriages go wrong –  Generous Conflict Illusion  (p133). 

Say what you want, listen to what others want. Do not try to guess what others want and then represent it as what you are prepared altruistically to go along with.  That sets up competitions in unselfishness which destroy good relations.  

Live knowing that ‘love’  is not enough, charity is needed and not yet achieved and no external law can supply its place  (p 135)

28 Prayer again: distraction in prayer; difficulties of petitionary prayer  (p 136)  lead to understanding creation and how the whole material universe fits with the whole spriritual universe  (p 139).   

29   How to live in the war Christianly, with God  – (p 142)
When he survives, into middle age prosperity or adversity – that is the test    (p143)
Yet the appetite for heaven is kept awake by so many things in life in the world – (p 144)

30 Vices in war – and how even from them comes an opening towards God – eg to discover one’s cowardice is to discover the whole moral world for the first time  (p 148).

31 What does ‘Real’ mean?   (p154)   Is the spiritual real  or is it merely subjective?  Why do we say the hateful and violent is real, while the loving is no more than  subjective?

32  When he is killed in the air raid, and passes beyond the reach of Wormwood’s attack.   This is the final unveiling, entering into life through death and finding the humanity of heaven, with Him (p 159).   Screwtape always talks about the Enemy.  He is not able to name the Father in Heaven or the Lord Jesus Christ.  So now he talks about how the man passed in a moment through death and saw ‘Them’.

‘When he saw them he knew that he had always known them and realised what part each one of them had played at many an hour when he had supposed himself alone, so that now he could say to them, one by one, not “Who are you?” but “So it was you all the time”…..He saw not only Them; he saw Him.  This animal, this thing begotten in a bed, could look on Him.  What is blinding, suffocating fire to you (Wormwood) is now cool light to him, is clarity itself, and wears the form of a Man…’

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