The Screwtape Letters Chapter 1 Summary/Commentary

Photo of a demon portrayed in an architectural sculptureI intend to get into each of these commentaries without too much fluff, so let’s just get started with a quick summary of the first letter. Chapter 1 sets the stage for the rest of the letters through Screwtape giving his nephew Wormwood some general advice on guiding human thought. If you haven’t yet., be sure to read my introduction to the Screwtape Letters.

This letter is largely showing that belief in God is not so much an issue of logic and “proof” as it is a matter of the heart. One determined person leaning either direction can investigate infinitely into the matter and remain at their position, or swap back and forth multiple times.

“It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the enemy’s clutches.” The fact that this goes both ways makes me ever so more sure that apologetics can only go so far. At the end of the day your spiritual state of being is not dependent on the information you ingest, but the state of your heart.

Screwtape also insists that jargon is the key to guiding a human mind. Forget about the meaning behind a word or label, our idea of the jargon is what matters. For example, when I say “conservative,” how do you feel? What about when I say “liberal?” How about “religious?” Certainly these can be defined in any number of ways by any number of people. Yet it is most often a buzzword that gets attention in a news article or a sound byte, not an idea.

Screwtape then provides an example of a “success story” of his. An atheist of many years beginning to question cosmic origin and the meaning of life was swept away into denial again by the simple temptation of going to lunch. Once he was outside and in the “real world” his sense of practicality returned, never to leave him again.

Incompatible Philosophies

My favorite part of this letter is when Lewis notes on our cultural tendencies to accept multiple ways of life at once, having a buffet of differing values or religious beliefs that please us despite their opposition to one another.

“Your man has been accustomed, since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head.”

I again think of “Democrats” and “Republicans” as a young and disillusioned voter in the modern US. Perhaps Wartime British culture was not so different from the time and place I am living in now.

By the way, have you ever met a New Age Christian? How about a Buddhist Jew? What about a Hindu Christian, or a communist business owner? They all exist, I’m sure, and they all have philosophies that directly contradict one another.

Jesus said that you cannot serve two masters because you can only really focus on one (Matthew 6:24). I can’t speak for Christian tribals, refugees, and others. Here in the west, though, our church has a problem with idolatry. A lot of us have a bad case of “Jesus plus.” We want to say that Christianity is a lot of things other than Christ. Some say it’s good behavior or religious rules, some think it’s a top notch career, others believe it’s adherence to certain political philosophies.

Inescapably, however, a quick read through the first few books of the New Testament will frustrate our “Jesus plus” mentality. We have to get the world out of our head. We have to pray to God and meditate on His word. We have to let go of our dozens of incompatible philosophies and boil our submission down to what Lewis called “Mere Christianity.”

Sense Experiences

Screwtape warns Wormwood that argument and reason go against their goal. He mentions the human tendency to focus on a “stream of immediate sense experiences.” As long as one is attached to this stream they will not question their mortal existence and what it means in light of larger things such as eternity. Not only that, but they must view these sense experiences as “ordinary” and get caught up in what is ordinary and practical.

Here is where it gets super deep:

“Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it ‘real life’ and don’t let him ask what he means by ‘real.”

Back to jargon without questioning again. We get so caught up in day-to-day life that the supernatural power of God is easy to dismiss. You would think that incredible miracles and moving testimony would awaken our sense of spirituality. And perhaps it can for an evening or a season.

Nevertheless we enter “real life” again expecting to continue hearing from God constantly rather than being humbled and amazed at the few words we got from the Creator of the universe. We purposely disconnect from God and then wonder why we can no longer hear Him. Then we indignantly turn back to our daily lives living as if He does not exist merely because He is too extraordinary for us to care to comprehend in our ordinary lives.

And Onward

I suspect that Screwtape has nearly given his nephew the keys to the kingdom and some of the simplest yet most diabolically useful advice a demon could give. Lewis probably could have ended this short story here and simply called it “the Screwtape letter.” It is an excellent summary of many a demonic work and also of human thought.

This is only the introduction, though, as it would seem that winning (or damning) souls is quite a seriously nasty business. A business we shall learn more about in the second letter!

Did something stick out to you in this first letter that I didn’t catch? What are your thoughts on Screwtape’s stratagem? Comment below and let me know! And of course, thanks for reading.

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