Do you ever have books that no matter how many times you encounter them you always get something new out of them? That’s the Screwtape Letters (SL) for me. Just recently I listened to one of the many audio book recordings. This one was well done but not as full of irony like the version read by John Cleese, himself a religious iconocast nor as dramatic as the one done by Focus on the Family that stars Gollum himself, Andy Serkis, as Screwtape.
I have my problems with Jack Lewis even though Evangelicals have embraced his apologetic works in a way that I think he would find quite surprising. He is not as theologically conservative as I would like him to be which is not surprising because as the joke goes, we all know I’m the only one here with all his theology straight 🙂
The letters contain some valuable insights about human nature and Lewis’ take on a variety of issues. Jack (I like to think he’d let me call him this) predicted some modern movements and the trajectory of some concepts in a way that makes me see God’s hand in it even if I don’t agree with everything he says.
I amuse myself with the image of me starting a conversation with Jack with the preface, “Well you know I don’t agree with all of what you say but,” and Jack interrupting me to say, “Well of course not. I should be very suspicious of you if you did. I have no desire to be a prophet or a model. That way lies idolatry.” And then he might invite me to argue with him about my objections to his theology at which point I break into a cold sweat thereby proving Lewis’ point.
The best place to start then is Lewis’ preface where he plays at the idea that the letters are real:
I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to the public fell into my hands.
This isn’t the first time Lewis has used this literary device. He did it in his science fiction novels. It sets the stage for what’s to come though. Lewis already has his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. But even there in the midst of satire and playing at our imagination, we find a nugget that seems to ring true:
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.
Every time I read about those who have an unhealthy interest in devils, I’m reminded of the angel hysteria that I remember as cropping up alongside Frank Perretti’s This Present Darkness and Rebecca Brown’s He Came to Set the Captives Free. Rebecca Brown, MD has been demonstrated to be a fraud and her books contain much more heresy than Frank Perretti’s but at least Perretti’s was intended as fiction. Lewis’ comment however sets up a theme in the whole book. The diabolical forces of this world can use any interests provided they are not interests in the Kingdom itself if we do not keep a check on them.
Richard Howe at Southern Evangelical Seminary once told me a story where as a young Christian minister he was called out to a person’s house where they insisted that demons were infesting their house. Richard arrived and began sharing the Gospel with the family. They expected Richard to say some words and do his best impression of the priest from The Exorcist.
Richard pointed out that if he did this might just be what the demonic forces would want for the family would feel safe but at what cost? Their comfort would rest on incantations and ritual not salvation. Several times they asked Richard if he was going to exorcise the spirits, but he would not be distracted. The family needed the Gospel. When salvation came, the demons if they were actually molesting the family, would take care of themselves.
Lewis warns us not to read too much into the Letters:
Readers are advised to remember that the devil is a liar. Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle
If I had Jack here, I would really ask him why he added this line. Is it just to keep up the literary conceit that these are real letters when we know they are not. Or is there a deeper meaning to the tongue in cheek warning. To whit: Don’t attempt to build a theology out of these letters. And so I won’t.
There are elements to the letters that are plainly false. Devils don’t “rule” hell any more than the correspond by mail. They don’t dine on their patients like food or wine any more than they go to college to learn how to be tempters. These are devices to stir up our imagination.
Other elements are false though not perhaps because Lewis intended them to be but because Lewis’ theology is wrong. Lewis was an Anglican and in some areas was a theological liberal. He did not believe in the inerrancy of Scripture for example. Screwtape implies that someone can become a Christian and then wind up in Hell. He may have believed in an intermediate state though it is hard to tell from his writings. I won’t make an idol of him by ignoring some of his theological flaws. But for all that, I still think the Letters have devotional value especially as a way of examining human nature and spiritual virtue. I’ll try to capitalize on that value in this series.
I hope you will prayerfully consider Screwtape, warts and all, with me and may the grace of Jesus Christ be with us all.Ω
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