Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis


This was a quick Sunday-afternoon reread of an orthopraxic classic. CS Lewis is always a pleasure to read—he was a fine stylist, and his prose would be interesting even on the label of a can of baked beans. That Screwtape Letters—stuffed with some very fine philosophical points—is as readable as it is is quite an achievement.
It's been a few years since I first read the book, and found it pretty useful and enlightening this second time around. If you haven't read it, go and do so—it's witty, engaging, and very edifying. It's part epistolary novel, part discussion of the Christian walk; but it takes the form of letters from a senior devil (Screwtape) to a junior tempter on his first assignment (Wormwood). The Patient: a new Christian, a young man living through the early years of World War II and his first true love. It's Wormwood's mission to make sure the Patient never makes it to Heaven—instead being swallowed into Hell to provide delicious suffering for the sustenance of demons. In a bizarre, morally-reversed world in which God is The Enemy and Satan known as Our Father Below, Screwtape ponders at length the uses, kinds, and effects of sins and temptation.
There was one thing about the book which really niggled at me this time. I think I barely noticed it last time I read the book. But I have just returned from a very nice prolonged visit with some very good friends of mine, a highlight of which was a long-running series of discussions on the doctrines of grace; I, of course, pro, and they generally con. I was thinking like a Calvinist, and like a particularly sharp and aggressive Calvinist at that, when I re-read Screwtape Letters.
The thing I kept coming back to was the fact that Lewis does not appear to believe in the perseverance of the saints. Granted, he is writing strictly from a demon's perspective, with all sorts of misguided ideas (played for comedy), but nevertheless his assumption seems to be that a Christian can lose his salvation—that life, for a Christian, is lived on the brink of the Pit and only death can render a Christian 'safe'. Indeed, Screwtape does say at one point, vis-a-vis the Christian “patient”, that “the safest path to hell is the gradual one”.
Am I saying that there's no such thing as spiritual warfare? Well, no—although as a postmillenialist, it might be more accurate to say that we're enforcement, not shock troops. But let me put it this way—in most wars, the battle isn't about trying to get the combatants to change sides. It's about winning the field and planting the flag. It's about who gets to make laws—who gets to be King. This war is no different; sure, hearts are the most important battleground, but not the only battleground. And the Christian life isn't about staying out of Hell and getting into Heaven. It's about bringing Heaven to earth, about glorifying God and enjoying Him forever.
In such a view, devils just aren't all that important. Flies to be swatted away. Maybe even thorns in the flesh. But not a threat to our salvation.
That leads to something else about The Screwtape Letters. Lewis says a lot about sin—a lot of good things. For example, that many people go to Hell on a flood of “tiny” sins, believing themselves to be good people. Quite true, but as an Arminian, Lewis doesn't have the full picture. Sins—in the sense of law-breaking—don't damn anyone. A state of rebellion against God, and refusal to give glory to Him—that's what damns you. That state of rebellion, that total depravity, is what makes you sin. I believe it was RC Sproul who said, “We aren't sinners because we sin—we sin because we are sinners.” It's not a trickle of minor infractions that take you to hell, any more than it's one or two big ones.
Reading The Screwtape Letters might be calculated to make one more paranoid than holy—might make one fear that sin might snatch one away from salvation. Happily, to a Calvinist, it's a flawed but still worthwhile discussion of many different areas of the Christian life. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

2 comments:

The Writers' Block said...

I came to the same conclusion about Lewis, though I'm forgetting now which of his works led me to realize it.

Still, he is one of my favorite authors of all time, and this book was excellent in that it helped me see a million tiny things in a new light.

Have you read his Till We Have Faces?

- W. L.

Suzannah said...

Yes, I think I've read all Lewis's fiction. I think he spoke best that way--in stories.

Thanks for commenting and I'm glad you enjoy my little blog!

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