Since I’m on a CS Lewis kick and some friends, my wife, and I are going through the Screwtape Letters week by week, I decided to begin a blog series on it. I’ll be mostly offering commentary and observations based on my own experience, and maybe some scripture references.
This first post is sort of an introduction to the Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis. Here I will be talking about the book as a whole and go over the preface written by Lewis himself. Lewis was a long-winded intellectual, you see, and even his remarks on his own works are interesting.
What are the Screwtape Letters?
Originally published as a weekly column in an English periodical, the Screwtape Letters is now known most commonly as a short book. Instead of traditional “chapters” it consists of 31 relatively short letters written from the perspective an experienced demon giving advice to his younger nephew. The advice is, of course, is about tempting mortal humans into sin and leading them away from their creator into damnation.
If you haven’t heard of CS Lewis, I don’t know where you’ve been. He is one of the foremost Christian apologists and novelists of the 20th century. He is the author of several apologetical works such as Mere Christianity, the Great Divorce, and A Grief Observed.
What’s interesting about Lewis is his level of influence among evangelicalism despite his lack of formal training on theology. He tackles everything at a bare-bones, no-nonsense level and tries his best to make everything plain and simple rather than using complex arguments.
The Screwtape Letters are no different in this regard, but they do represent an interesting sub-genre of literature. Somewhere between satire, apologetics, and a semi-realistic religious novella, the Screwtape Letters provides more for deep thought than entertainment.
The Preface to Screwtape Letters is relatively short in comparison with some of Lewis’ other works. In fact, the first paragraph seems to indicate that Lewis had no desire to share about his inspiration for the writing. Rather, he gave a couple of warnings to readers who might take the letters a bit too seriously:
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”
From what I can tell this is actually one of the most frequently quoted passages from Lewis. It is an excellent view on demonology and study of the occult. However, I believe Lewis (probably on purpose for the sake of brevity) left out a couple of common possibilities when it comes to “excessive interest” in the demonic. He gives a materialist as an example of one who does not believe in demons while giving a magician (I suppose one who actually delves into occult practices) as an example of one with excessive and unhealthy interest.
I am sure that Lewis did not think these as a dichotomy with those examples being the only two options when falling into these “two equal and opposite errors.” Those two examples are of people who are most likely not Christians or at least do not take faith very seriously. On the other hand, I think there are far too many believers who fall into these errors as well, although in different ways.
For example, there are many Christians who seem to believe that the demonic world does not exist in our plane of existence. In the very least I feel that many Christians here in America and perhaps across Europe do not feel that the Satanic world of the demonic has any bearing on them. Either out of arrogance, a “practical” and scientific culture, or perhaps a false sense of security. Even though this doesn’t necessarily mean that these people don’t believe in demons, they live as if that is the case.
A Christian example of having “excessive and unhealthy” interest in the demonic would be Christians who jump at shadows thinking every new cultural or media trend is demonic. How many times have shows like the 700 Club covered some innocent child’s game like Pokemon and claimed it was satanic and could lead to demonic possession?
I was once at a health food store when I met a somewhat superstitious woman who happened to attend my Grandad’s (large) church. After telling her about some of my health issues and challenges with unemployment she began telling me about rebuking and “binding Satan.” I don’t think rebuking Satan is unbiblical, but if that is your first reaction to adversity then you have a problem in you walk with God.
The Nature of Satan
Lewis reminds us further down that “the devil is a liar.” Lewis does not want us to take this fictional story as a true theological study on spiritual warfare. He says “Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle.”
And rightly so, for I am fairly sure that there are not older demons and younger demons, nor is there “tempter’s school” of any kind in the realm of Hell for teaching courses such as “advanced tempting 3” or “practical posession.” (Why would demons have need of a school in Hell when they already occupy the schools of America?)
Another interesting point Lewis notes is that “there is wishful thinking in Hell as well as on Earth.” Indeed, for why does the demonic world scuffle in a losing battle with God after the fallen angels have already lost? Satan must not be a Calvinist. As we delve into the Screwtape letters, we will see examples again and again that these beings are not all-knowing nor omnipresent. Therefore even they must rely on guesswork as well as trial-and-error.
Lewis’ digression admits that he was apparently not careful to put dates on each letter but insists that it has little bearing. Of course, the “patient” in the story is the one bound and reliant on time. Since this story is more about demons and their scheming, time of occurrence is not emphasized. Finally, Lewis ends by saying that Screwtape doesn’t care about human wars. Perhaps because that is not Screwtape’s area of specialty, or perhaps to show how different are spiritual wars from material ones.
This is a theme we will see again and again within the letters, so let us begin to examine this war in more detail.