The Bureaucrat On Your Shoulder: C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters”

It was triggered, apparently, by a boring sermon. C.S. Lewis had been sick for weeks and was finally well enough to attend a Wednesday service at his Anglican church. The homily was delivered by a guest and he found it painfully dull, so his mind began to wander. It wandered to the point of imagining a series of letters from a senior devil to an apprentice, teaching the latter how best to tempt his assigned human. Thus was born one of Lewis’ early triumphs, The Screwtape Letters.

True to the original inspiration, the book is epistolary, though entirely one-sided. We read the advice that Screwtape, an undersecretary in the Department of Temptation (Hell is a model of bureaucracy as perfect as the Civil Service), writes to his nephew Wormwood, but are never privy to Wormwood’s replies or questions. Like some of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, the full conversation has to be inferred. Through this device, Lewis again puts his subtle imagination to the service of theology in a language that theology normally doesn’t speak: satire. The godly life is outlined from the opposite point of view and the point of view itself is outrageously mocked even while it’s being ostensibly defended. Lewis’ preface to the 1961 edition of the book superbly explains in more detail what he believes about demons and how the satire of the book operates. I have never yet found another serious example of theological satire–but then I have never yet found a Christian author who has so many new ways of making us think theologically.

Along with new ways of making us think, Lewis also challenges what may be our prevailing notions. Screwtape opens his second letter by noting “with grave displeasure” that Wormwood’s subject has converted to Christianity, then almost instantly says that it isn’t reason to despair. All they need to do is keep him focused on the outward appearance of ‘church’ as the ugly building, the annoying people, and the badly-written songs. Being a Christian, in other words, is not the out-and-out protection from the Devil that we would like to think it is.

One of the most ubiquitous images in our culture is that of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, each trying to guide us in the way we should go. For all the cliche, it remains a perennial symbol of the battle between good and evil. Yet it seems to me that it also presents a significant theological problem. Presumably both the angel and the devil are attempting to modify our behaviour. They are both pictured as whispering in our ears, putting thoughts and ideas into our heads that otherwise wouldn’t be there. They are both trying to make us conform to their wills. Which begs the question: is there room in the equation at all for our own will? When am I allowed to think my own thoughts? Am I a person involved in a spiritual battle, or am I merely the battleground for spirits?

In Letter 14, Screwtape plots a strategy for attacking the man’s virtue of humility and first considers the general aims of the opposition.

[The Enemy] wants to kill their animal self-love as soon as possible; but it is His long-term policy, I fear, to restore to them a new kind of self-love–a charity and gratitude for all selves, including their own; when they have really learned to love their neighbours as themselves, they will be allowed to love themselves as their neighbours. For we must never forget what is the most repellent and inexplicable trait in our Enemy; He really loves the hairless bipeds he has created and always gives back to them with His right hand what He has taken away with His left.

Satirically, of course, we’re led to think about how God values human freedom and what His desire is for our rightly-ordered self-love. But this still doesn’t solve the dilemma of our identity. In fairness to Lewis, the entire premise of the book would collapse if we dwelled on these questions. But it is interesting that the character who Screwtape and Wormwood are tempting is never referred to by name and never seems to have much personality; he is called simply ‘the Patient’. No doubt this is intended to make him a sort of Everyman in which readers can see themselves, but in strictly literary terms it also means that he isn’t really a person, only property to be fought over.

The point of the book, however, is not really spiritual warfare. In the very next letter Screwtape focuses on how Hell attempts to confuse our relationship to time. The Present, he explains, is the closest thing we can get to experiencing eternity. The Future, on the other hand, is “the most completely temporal part of time–for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays…Hence nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.” Where God would want humans to look to the future with hope, Hell desires “a man hag-ridden by the Future–haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth–ready to break the Enemy’s commands in the present if by doing so we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other–dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see.”

While I still have some question marks about Lewis’ view of the Future–what, after all, about hoping in the New Jersualem?–this is a fair example of The Screwtape Letters‘ broader premise. This is not a book about spiritual warfare, about demons or angels, or about where you go when you die. It is about the human condition in a moral universe; what it means to live in a Present eternity. There is good and there is evil, virtue and vice, but the image of a devil on your shoulder is only the comical satiric vehicle for Lewis’ ideas of daily human life: what makes us laugh, what makes us petulant, what we’re doing when we pray, what lenses we use to see the world around us. He doesn’t really want us thinking about who’s whispering in our ear, nor about whether we are perfect or perverse. He wants us thinking about who we are.

One thought on “The Bureaucrat On Your Shoulder: C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters”

  1. It’s been years since I’ve read The Screwtape Letters. I always found a similar thread in Graham Greene’s writing, especially in the tale of the whiskey priest in Mexico and his self loathing and seemingly unworthy upholding of faith in a torn land. Or the war with God proposed in The End of the Affair. It’s fertile and subtle ground. Black and white so often shades to grey. If I remember right, Screwtape loses through a gross oversight and oversimplification of the stakes at hand. But, I really should reread the book. Thanks for running it up the flagpole. I’ll give it attention again.

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