A Quick Look at the Best of ‘Screwtape’

Small Talk — 2013 National Conference

The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis

Good afternoon. My name is Devin Brown, and I’m from Asbury University. I’m the author of a new Lewis biography that’s for sale over there called A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C.S. Lewis. I also helped out with the documentary that we showed earlier at noon that’s also playing at the end of the Lewis timeline, but I’m here today to talk about the best of Screwtape. How many people have read The Screwtape Letters? Can I see some hands? Because I would just say this: you could get up and give the best of Screwtape lecture, because well, everyone has their favorite parts, and to some extent what I’m going to tell you today isn’t new, which is kind of in violation of why you should listen to me, but I’ll do the best I can.

In my earlier talk at noon, I showed a very glamorous documentary that I’d written that was very high-tech. Today’s small talk is going to be very low-tech. I have one post-it note, one book with some post-it notes in it, and I have one piece of paper that I’ll show you in just a second, that you won’t be able to see, by the way.

The Best of Screwtape

Long before there was Narnia, there was Screwtape, right? And in 1947, C.S. Lewis made the cover of Time Magazine for the one and only time in his life, and it had nothing to do with The Chronicles of Narnia or Mere Christianity; it was for The Screwtape Letters, and if you could see this, you’d see there’s a devil on Lewis’s shoulder. He writes a letter in his 50s to a friend, and he says, “I’m going to be one of those people who was famous in his 40s, and then dies unknown.” He thought he would only be famous for The Screwtape Letters and then kind of fizzle out. Little did he know that he was yet to write the work that he would be most famous for in the next century, but anyway, this is the work that put him on the cover of Time Magazine. I only have 10 minutes. I’m going to talk about five things, and if you do the math, that’s two minutes per topic.

1. Reason

I think that the best of Screwtape could be almost anything we want to say, but I’ve picked five things. The first is what Lewis has to say about reason. Letter one begins like this:

My dear Wormwood, I note what you say about guiding your new patient’s reading, but aren’t you being a trifle naive? It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy’s clutches. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.

I grew up in a very sweet, very non-academic church on the south side of Chicago, and we were taught to love God with all our heart, but they didn’t say so much about loving him with all our mind there. As a matter of fact, they were a little worried about this reason thing, as if you went off to college and started reading, well, you just might lose your faith, because you might be reading too much. In letter one, Lewis makes it clear that reason is God’s creation, and while the devil can subvert it and subvert jargon for true argument, when you are in real argument, fair and square argument, you are on the Enemy’s ground. Letter one concludes:

Do remember you are there to fuddle him, not have him think, and certainly not have him think clearly.

2. Pleasure

Second, what Lewis has to say about pleasures. That church that I grew up on the south side of Chicago, well, they weren’t too sure about reason, and they sure weren’t too sure about the pleasures, all right? Here’s what Screwtape has to say to Wormwood about pleasures:

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are on the Enemy’s ground again. He made the pleasures. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures, which our Enemy has produced, at times, or ways, or in degrees, which he has forbidden.

If you pick up The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and you see Edmund seduced by the White Witch through what? Sugary Turkish delight. Don’t think that Lewis is against good food, right? Because when we get to the beavers, we have one of the most famous meals in all The Chronicles of Narnia — fresh trout going from the pond to the pan, right? And that glorious sticky, marmalade bun, and hot tea. Pleasures were made by God. The devils haven’t been able to invent any of them. All they can do is try to get us to “take them at times, and ways, or degrees, which he has forbidden,” but if they twist the pleasures, just like they twist reason, well, then they can do something with them. An ever-increasing craving for an ever-diminishing pleasure. That’s the formula.

3. Laughter

Third, consider what Lewis has to say about laughter. Letter 10 begins with this:

Dear Wormwood, I was delighted to hear from Triptweeze that your patient has made some very desirable new acquaintances — rich, smart, superficially intelligent and brightly skeptical about everything in the world. Scoffers.

Then he warns him to be careful about thinking that scoffing is the same thing as laughter. Here’s what he says:

I trust that this does not mean you are under the impression that laughter is always the same and always in our favor. This point is worth much attention. I define human laughter into many causes. When it’s caused by joy, well, it’s very dangerous.

Douglas Gresham was at our school this week, and someone asked him what he remembered about his stepfather, C. S. Lewis, and he said, “I’ll tell you, the first thing that people need to know is that you could not be in his presence for more than a few minutes without laughing.” He said, “When the Inklings met” — and he went to a couple of those meetings — “people in the room next to them at The Eagle and Child would look around the corner and say, ‘What are they having such a good time laughing about?’” So true laughter, true joy, is God’s gift to us. This other kind, this scoffing laughter, this ridiculing laughter, that’s the kind that the devils can make use of.

4. Christianity

Fourth, what Lewis has to say about Christianity and. Worwood tells Screwtape:

What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind that I call, “Christianity and . . .” You know, Christianity and the crisis, Christianity and the new psychology, Christianity and the new order, Christianity and faith healing, Christianity and psychical research, Christianity and vegetarianism, Christianity and spelling reform . . .

And when I teach my class, this all seems a bit distracted, I say, “What about some of you? Is it Christianity and speaking in tongues? Or for a few of you, Christianity and recycling? Or Christianity and eating local? He goes on to say:

Substitute for the faith itself some fashion with a Christian coloring. That’s the trick.

5. Death

All right, one more highlight from the best of Screwtape. Oddly enough, number five is what Lewis has to say about death. Lewis writes about death in other places, but I think no place does he do better than right here, along with The Last Battle in The Chronicles of Narnia. But here’s this version. There’s been a patient, as you know, that Wormwood has been trying to take down the path to hell, and in the end, the thing that everyone’s been praying for, that he’d be safe during the bombing of London, goes unanswered because a better prayer is answered. He dies in the bombing, and here’s what happens. Here’s how Wormwood complains:

The more one thinks about it, the worse it becomes. He got through so easily! No doctor’s sentence, no nursing home, no operating theater, no false hopes; sheer, instantaneous liberation. One moment it seemed to be all our world — the scream of bombs, the fall of houses, the stink and taste of high explosive. The next moment, all this was gone, gone like a bad dream, never to be of any account again. And he saw you (suddenly, the devil that’s been tempting him is clear to him), and he also saw Them.

I looked at this cover of Time Magazine for about five years before I saw the other part. There’s a devil on this shoulder, but on this other shoulder is this winged thing with a glorious halo around it. And Lewis makes it clear that if we have someone tempting us from the wrong side, we have angels of mercy, guardian angels, on the other side. Wormwood says, “He saw you, and he also saw Them.” He continues:

Those who he knew had always been with them. He realized what part each of them had played at so many an hour in his life when he had assumed himself alone. So it was you all the time. All that they were and said at this meeting woke memories. That dim consciousness of friends around him, which had haunted his solitudes from infancy was now, at last, explained; the central music of every pure experience that always evaded him was now at last recovered. He not only saw Them, he saw Him. This animal, this thing begotten in a bed, could look on Him . . .

And that’s where Screwtape stops. He can’t bear to discuss what it would be like for us to meet our Savior, our Lord, but that hint of it is one of my favorite depictions of death in Screwtape and one of my favorite moments.

What’s the best of Screwtape? Well, I like what he has to say about reason, about the pleasures, about laughter, about Christianity and, and about death, because in this book about devils and temptation, like all of Lewis’s other books, is the story of the good news, right? The good news, the story of redemption and salvation, a story that ends in defeat for the devils and eternal life for us. Great book. Thank you very much.