Friday, February 13, 2015

Uncle Screwtape

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil (Ephesians 6:11).

In a letter to his brother dated 20 July 1940, C. S. Lewis shared the spark of an idea for a future book.


According to Lewis biographer Allister McGrath, the occasion for Lewis’s brainstorming was a dull sermon at Holy Trinity Church. Lewis explained the moment like this:    

Before the service was over—one could wish these things came more seasonably—I was struck by an idea for a book which I think might be both useful and entertaining. It would be called As One Devil to Another, and would consist of letters from an elderly retired devil to a young devil who has just started work on his first “patient.”


Fame and Scorn

The letters began to appear in a weekly church magazine called “The Guardian” in May

1941. They attracted the interest of a publisher and came out as The Screwtape Letters in February 1942.


Lewis said he “had never written anything more easily” and yet he also remarked later on that he was “never very fond” of the book – a statement that caused some consternation for his friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkien, to whom the book was dedicated.


Most of us associate Lewis with Mere Christianity, a work that was not published until 1952. A decade earlier it was Screwtape that launched Lewis to fame in the United States - “a popularity for which he was ill prepared,” according to McGrath.


In 1943 Oliver Chase Quick (Regius Professor of  Divinity, Oxford) wrote a letter to William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, urging that Lewis be recognized by being awarded an Oxford Doctorate of Divinity. At the same time, oddly enough, Screwtape was earning Lewis scorn among the academic fraternity at Oxford. They regarded Screwtape as a lightweight piece of Christian writing identified openly with a teaching fellow of Magdalen College.


In some ways this grievous sin, repeated with other popular writings that followed, stained Lewis’s entire tenure at Oxford. What was held in derision by the elites at Oxford remains a treasure among so many Christians. It is noteworthy that today we cannot name a single one of Lewis’s detractors, and the book they despised is still in print.  


True Then, True Now

Maybe one of the reasons Screwtape has endured is simply that it tells something we know to be true about our lives but usually fail to see. Blogger Andy Naselli took every chapter of the book and summarized the devil’s ‘scheme’ in one sentence. Here’s a sampling of Uncle Screwtape’s strategies:

  • Make him disillusioned with the church by highlighting people he self-righteously thinks are strange or hypocritical.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of ‘very small sins’ because the safest road to hell is a gradual one.
  • Make him live in the future rather than the present.
  • Keep him from any serious intent to pray.
  • Annoy him with daily ‘pin-pricks’ from his mother.
  • Encourage him to be a church-hopper.
  • Defeat his courage and make him a coward.
Things haven’t changed much. What Lewis saw and imaginatively described in 1942 remains true of us today. Maybe one of the most interesting pieces of counsel is Screwrtape’s advice that Wormwood carefully guard the life of his patient so that he lives long and grows old. The Reason? “Because real worldliness takes time,” writes Screwtape.
This is a sobering insight. As long as we live we are engaged in spiritual warfare. Our adversary is relentless. So pay close attention to your life. How might Screwtape coach Wormwood if you were the ‘patient?’   
Merciful God, we are in continual need of your grace, making us aware of the schemes of our adversary. Since the enemy is relentless, give us your power that we might not grow weary or lazy in the struggles that erode our faith. Open our eyes to his ways and our hearts to your strength, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

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