C. S. Lewis published his much acclaimed Screwtape Letters in 1942. Drawing on his own long experience of conversion from atheism to Christianity, he constructed a story of a senior Devil named Screwtape, who writes a series of letters to his nephew Wormwood in order to instruct him in the art of deception.
Screwtape’s subtle method of reverse psychology involves the use of a chain of gradual steps, half truths and choices that are made in seemingly innocent daily circumstances which are designed to lure Wormwood’s ‘patient’ away from God and onto the wrong path. At one point Screwtape says to Wormwood: ‘Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts’. This reinforces the many warnings given by Paul to the Corinthian Church about being taken advantage of by Satan: ‘for we are not ignorant of his devices … and no wonder, for Satan disguises himself as an angel of light’ (2 Cor.2:11; 11:14).
In his aim to teach Wormwood how to destroy the believer’s walk with God, Screwtape aims at a human’s most vulnerable place – his thoughts. Beginning with his first Letter, Screwtape looks at how ‘thinking connects with doing’, that is, people may be persuaded to alter their way of life as a result of a chain of reasoning. Hence he tries to persuade Wormwood to steer his ‘patient’ away from the church by making suggestions that prevent him from holding any logical arguments that prove what he believes in, and to let him form various incompatible philosophies and odd ideas that may come from suspect sources which dance inside his head and muddle his thinking. This lack of clarity in thinking and the pressure of the ordinary things of life keep the patient from experiencing the reality of the spiritual world and ultimately do not lead to any change in behaviour.
Here, C.S. Lewis agrees with Shakespeare when he says ‘action is eloquence’ (Coriolanus). In other words, a person’s beliefs or thoughts determine his or her actions. Aristotle in his Ethics, agrees: ‘Virtue manifests itself in action’. So if we are confused about our beliefs, or if we are distracted in our thinking about God, then our behaviour will show it.
Righteousness involves action. This is what James says about Abraham: ‘You see that his faith was working together with his works and that faith was verified by his works’ (James 2.22). What James is saying here is that grace is a gift and that God accredits his righteousness to those who have faith in Christ, so they cannot take credit for their salvation because their good works simply testify to their faith in God. The believer has to move from the inner experience of conversion to the more powerful confirmation of an outer faith that is lived out.
In Letter 2, Screwtape instructs Wormwood how to make his patient disregard his own ‘sinfulness’ and to become proud and dismissive of others sitting next to him in church by taking credit for the fact that he ‘allowed himself to be converted’. In Letter 3, Wormwood’s patient comes out of a spiritual experience, and enters a world of living with real people, in this case his mother. This provides Screwtape with his opportunity, so he instructs Wormwood to make his patient concentrate on his own feelings and emotions. Because he has such an inflated view of his own self-worth, he becomes oversensitive and judgmental of his mother’s words and tones and misinterprets them, even though he expects his own words to be taken at their face value.
Before we go any further in delving into Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, we have been armed with the knowledge that we have a most formidable and cunning foe who seeks to undo us.
– Nicos Kaloyirou
Nicos Kaloyirou is a lawyer in Adelaide