Notes on The Screwtape Letters
Bill King, Lutheran Campus Pastor, Virginia Tech
The following comments are intended to be a distillation, commentary, and reflection on the major themes of C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. I hope these notes will be helpful for those charged with leading a study of the book, particularly for students or others who have had minimal theological training. Chapter comments are more extensive in the beginning because Lewis introduces themes early and tends to return to them as the book progresses. Page references are to the HarperCollins 2001 paperback edition. Chapter 1 One of Lewis’ major concerns throughout the book is the intellectual assumptions of his world. At the beginning he notes a “materialist” worldview holds sway, which is to say the assumption that if you can not empirically verify something it does not exist. This, says Lewis, is a backdoor way of avoiding confronting important realities; you simply define them out of existence. Lewis does not see a conflict between reason and faith; he believes the claims of faith can stand the test of scrutiny. Indeed, he believes that a vigorous application of reason takes one beneath intellectual fad to testing fundamental truth claims. He would disagree with much of the deconstructionist thinking that denies “truth”; he would perhaps argue for some humility in asserting claims, but would say there is a truth to be sought and that it matters what one embraces. The intellectual search is one with an end. (For another treatment of this theme, see Lewis’ The Great Divorce, chapter 5, in which a one character prefers a hell which includes eternal debate on religious issues to a heaven of certainty in the presence of God). Lewis asserts that much of “hell on earth” is rooted in an unwillingness to ask deep, probing questions about what is really important, what gives true fulfillment, what is real as opposed to illusion. (In this he would share some ground with the Hindu concept of maya). He believes we are often prisoners of “immediate sense experience” and the “pressure of the ordinary,” that we seldom step back to reflect on what is important. Screwtape emphasizes that the demonic is always about “fuddling”, that is, obscuring what is really important in favor of the transitory, ill conceived, or tawdry. Lewis clearly believes that faith has nothing to fear from reason rigorously applied, but his is not the reason of materialism or scientism. Chapter 2 Screwtape takes the church as an example where Wormwood can cause confusion by getting his patient so focused on the immediate and “real” that he loses sight of the transcendent. The Church is both more and less than the immediate manifestation of any one time and place. One will inevitably be disillusioned if one compares the immediate incarnation of the Church to the ideal toward which it strives. The doctrine of the Incarnation is bigger than the idea that God was in Christ; it also speaks to the concept that the holy is found (however imperfectly) in the real world of imperfect humans. There is a certain tension here. While God is indeed in the imperfect,that is not an excuse for making no effort to have our lives and our community grow into the image of Christ. (As the Scottish New Testament professor told his class, “We do indeed have this treasure in earthen vessels, but ye need not be as earthen as ye are.”) That is why “holy habits” are
2 important. Screwtape notes that the man’s habits are still in favor of Wormwood until he cultivates new ones. Christianity is not magic; it is a lifestyle and as such demands intentionality. Screwtape notes that we have freedom which must be used to embrace that holy vision which is set before us. There is a certain tension in noting that God’s love comes to us as grace, but that it must be embraced with a certain intentionality. It is the same tension which an Eastern parable notes: The master told his pupil, “You can no more compel God’s...