In a recent “Great Books Audio CD,” Dr. Ken Boa returns to the work of C. S. Lewis, this time examining The Screwtape Letters. In this amusing and delightful book about a demon instructing his nephew in the art of tempting humans, Boa says, Lewis again displays his “wonderful ability to distill so much good theology in such a ... condensed way.”
Lewis was self-deprecating about his own book—he joked that it was “the sort [of book] that gravitates towards spare bedrooms [or sits on coffee tables], there to live a life of undisturbed tranquility.” But in fact, The Screwtape Letters has been stunningly successful ever since its publication. (Just recently, a dramatic adaptation of the book starring actor Max McLean has done well in both New York and Washington.)
Boa tells us that Lewis got the idea for the book shortly after hearing Adolf Hitler speak on the radio. Lewis marveled at how persuasive even such a tyrant could be. Lewis later wrote to his brother that he planned to write a book presenting “all the psychology of temptation from the other point of view.”
The striking thing about evil and temptation is their sheer ordinariness. Lewis conceived of hell as being something like “the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern”—the sort of place, Boa wryly observes, that most of us are familiar with here on earth.
In the book, the demon Screwtape teaches his young protégé Wormwood how to tempt his human “patient.” Many of these temptations are surprisingly petty. Boa quotes Lewis’s friend and biographer Walter Hooper, who says the book paints “the immortal consequences of seemingly small and insignificant choices in the life of every man.” There are no unimportant choices.
It is our tendency to avoid serious thought, reflection, and self-examination that often leads to our succumbing to temptation. Some of the demons’ most powerful weapons are simply distraction and deception—like convincing us that we are always in the right in whatever we think or do. Screwtape writes of his patient at one point, “You must bring him to a condition where he can practice self-
examination for an hour without discovering any of those facts about himself which are perfectly clear to anyone who’s ever lived in the same house with him or worked in the same office.” I left the White House realizing that all humans have an infinite capacity for self-rationalization.
It is sobering to realize just how easily, completely, and willingly we can be deceived—about God and about ourselves. It is even more sobering to be reminded that the point of the temptation is to bring the human to a place where he can be totally devoured or absorbed by the ravenous evil spirits. But the great hope of the book lies in the reminder that God is actively working against our spiritual enemy and that His goals for us are very different. As Screwtape spitefully remarks, while the demons consider us “cattle,” God wants to make us into “servants” and ultimately into “sons.”
The demons, in Lewis’s imagination, have no understanding of the love and grace that God has for us. The glorious paradox of The Screwtape Letters is that, through the demon’s jealous and uncomprehending eyes, we ourselves come to understand God’s love and grace all the better.
Copyright © 2008 Prison Fellowship. Used with permission.
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