The Screwtape Letters: Preface and the First Five Letters

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2018. The schedule is online.

This week we begin our final summer bookk, The Screwtape Letters. Before I give some thoughts on this week’s reading, I have some general observations.

On to the main course:

Demonic correspondence in a hellish bureaucracy is a genius idea for a book and I assumed it would have been fun to write, but Lewis said “Of all my books, there was only one I did not take pleasure in writing.” The Screwtape Letters “were dry and gritty going. At the time, I was thinking of objections to the Christian life, and decided to put them into the form, ‘That’s what the devil would say.’ But making goods ‘bad’ and bads ‘good’ gets to be fatiguing.” (source)

I’m glad Lewis put up with the fatigue. The result is tremendous. Let me begin with one of my favorite quotes from the book (from the preface):

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.

This paragraph has special meaning to me as a Pentecostal. Some corners of the Pentecostal world seem to believe there is a demon behind every headache and traffic jam. But much of our society has a hard time acknowledging that there is anything demonic about something as overt as Satan worship. There is a more sensible position which Lewis here describes and which the Apostle Paul modeled: Paul was comfortable with the spirit realm and demons recognized that he was a force to be reckoned with (Acts 19:11–16), but he did not obsess over it. He was not an easy man to distract. Once a demon was harassing him, but it took several days before it got on Paul’s nerves enough for him to respond to it (Acts 16:16–18). Strive to be like Paul — deal with the demonic realm without becoming consumed by the demonic realm.

In the first letter, Screwtape writes to Wormwood about how modern trends have made demonic work easier:

Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false”, but as “academic” or “practical”, “outworn” or “contemporary”, “conventional” or “ruthless”. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.

Reading this paragraph reminded me of the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau. He once famously answered a question about his cabinet composition by saying, “Because it’s 2015!” This is the kind of thing Screwtape is talking about. It’s the kind of answer we have been conditioned to respond to, and so it’s the kind of answer a skillful politician gives.

Later in the same letter, Screwtape makes a good point about science:

Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists. If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don’t let him get away from that invaluable “real life”. But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is “the results of modem investigation”.

I’ve ministered at Stanford since 2002, and in my experience mathematicians and students of the hard sciences have an easier time embracing the gospel than do students of the social sciences or the humanities. In part, it seems to me, it is because social scientists tend to look for answers that “explain away” whereas hard scientists tend to look for explanations. 

The final sentence, though, is the real kicker. We assume something is true because a lot of people keep saying it and thereby mistake repetition for reason. When someone tells me “the Bible is full of contradictions” I often discover they don’t have any to offer. They’re not lying — they are merely repeating something they have heard so often that they assume it must have a solid foundation.  Sometimes there’s more cognitive dissonance, such as when someone assumes the sexual revolution has been a net positive for society. In that case my interlocutor is usually ignoring or discounting evidence they have personally observed. But again, they’re not consciously lying. The sexual revolution is nearly always presented as progress, and people assume that there must be something to that since it keeps getting repeated.

I am not saying we should mistrust the consensus of experts who are speaking to us about something we have no knowledge of. Deferring to expert consensus is an excellent heuristic, except when the consensus conflicts with something we know. In that case we humbly return to the evidence and think things through again, with openness to the idea that we might be wrong but so might the experts. Here’s the rub: when it comes to things like morality and religion we will almost always have some direct knowledge which we need to consider. And especially with subjects like morality and religion we need to remember that both the experts as well as ourselves have powerful motives to not think things through all the way. All that to say: trust the experts, but not too much. Furthermore, don’t assume our cultural consensus is the same thing as the expert consensus. If that was always the case, we wouldn’t need experts!

I’ll content myself with sharing one final quote from the reading, this one from Letter Four:

It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.

Distraction is one of the chief enemies of spiritual growth, and we live in an age that is full of it. Sustained and slow thought is one of the chief instruments in our transformation. If Lewis is right and one of the infernal legion’s goals is to keep you distracted and prevent you from focusing, let that inform your use of apps and the internet. Just a thought.

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