The Screwtape Letters

C.S. Lewis

Book cover

I enjoyed this book–as I observed with “The Great Divorce” (and contra “Mere Christianity”), I think Lewis is at his best when writing in a basically narrative mode, even if only as a vehicle to discuss his views on Christianity. Rather than discuss the book as a whole, I want to address two particular things.

First, connections between the book (written in the 1940s) and the current age of social media/web 2.0. Consider the following passage (p. 2), in which (as in the whole book) the senior demon Screwtape is writing to the junior demon Wormwood:

“The trouble about arguent is that it moves the whole struggle on to the Enemy’s [i.e. God’s] own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He has been shown for centuries to be greatly the inferior of Our Father Below [i.e. Satan]. By the very act of arguing, you awaken the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favour, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. 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.’”

It probably hardly needs emphasizing that a major effect of social media is to expand massively the potential “stream of immediate sense experiences” and indeed even to broaden the scope of what kinds of things can act as such. Consider also the following passage in the context of “personal branding” (p. 26-7):

“An important spiritual law is here involved. I have explained that you can weaken his prayers by diverting his attention from the Enemy Himself to his own states of mind about the Enemy. On the other hand fear becomes easier to master when the patient’s mind is diverted from the thing feared to fear itself, considered as a present and undesirable state of his own mind; and when he regards fear as his appointed cross he will inevitably think of it as a state of mind. One can therefore formulate the general rule; in all activities of mind which favour our cause, encourage the patient to be unself-conscious and to concentrate on the object, but in all activities favourable to the Enemy bend his mind back on itself. Let an insult or a woman’s body so fix his attention outward that he does not reflect ‘I am now entering into the state called Anger–or the state called Lust.’ Contrariwise let the reflection ‘My feelings are now growing more devout, or more charitable’ so fix his attention inward that he no longer looks beyond himself to see our Enemy or his own neighbors.”

Isn’t this exactly the effect of the culture of “personal branding”–to encourage reflexivity with regard to the positive and admirable aspects of our lives, while suppressing consideration or even articulation of the negative and undesirable aspects?

The second thing I want to address is the concluding essay, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” While I enjoyed the rest of SL, I thought SPT was completely wrongheaded, and I think it shows where my theology (and politics) part ways with Lewis’s. In SPT, Screwtape basically lauds the cultural impulse toward “levelling,” specifically in education (which means that Lewis is against it). As an illustration of the truly reactionary nature of this essay, consider the following passage:

“Of course this would not follow unless all education became state education. But it will. That is part of the same movement. Penal taxes, designed for that purpose, are liquidating the Middle Class, the class who were prepared to save and spend and make sacrifices in order to have their children privately educated.”

If only those lazy poor people had the starch to save for their children’s education! I think the political sentiment expressed here hardly requires critique (though unfortunately it probably actually does), but I want to address it from a religious perspective. I’m with Lewis to a certain extent–the impulse toward envy is a destructive one. But Lewis’s preferred solution seems to be something like “the inferior people should be content with their lot and let the great people be great.” I think the Gospel’s answer to this issue is a much stronger statement about the deep equality of people in the way that matters, namely as children of God. (John Howard Yoder talks about this as “multiplicity of gifts.”) The real Christian solution to this issue of social envy, to my mind, would be more like a complete revision of our concept of “merit.” In many ways I think Lewis is a very perceptive writer, but I think he blinks from following the Gospel all the way to its extremely radical conclusions, in a way that (for instance) Tolstoy did not. Lewis’s Christianity remains almost totally individualist, with very little interest in what it would mean to be a Christian community.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars