Screwtape Letters

A couple weeks ago, I finished reading the C. S. Lewis classic, The Screwtape Letters. A regular book review seems kind of inappropriate given the book’s age and theological importance, so perhaps a brief impression of one of Lewis’s many points is more fitting. Bear in mind, though, that Screwtape was my first exposure to Lewis, so perhaps the issue I’m going to raise has been fleshed out by Lewis more systematically elsewhere. Anyway, the subject I want to address is this: evil doesn’t get love.

What do I mean by that? Well, basically, that the demonic forces don’t understand real, Christian love; a love more concerned with The Other than with the Self. Lewis, the reader will recall, depicts Hell as a kind of bureaucracy where everyone is out for number one: self-serving, greedy, indulgent, acquisitive. The idea of giving of oneself in the service of another without expecting anything in return is foreign to that environment. Indeed, from the book one can make that case that this is the fundamental difference between the good and the evil. Recall that in the middle of the story, Wormwood’s “patient” falls in love with a Christian woman of exquisite virtue. This causes Screwtape, Wormwood’s demonic mentor and supervisor, to write several letters to the younger demon explaining the many aspects of human love and how it might best be exploited to turn the young male patient to the dark side. In this series of letters, Screwtape unintentionally reveals that evil has a blind spot with regards to true love (incomprehension of sacrifical love), and indeed this blind spot might even be the reason for Satan’s rebellion against God. Consider this passage from letter 19:

The reason one comes to talk as if He really had this impossible Love is our utter failure to find out the real motive. What does He stand to make out of them? That is the insoluble question. . . . . [T]his very problem was a chief cause of Our Father’s quarrel with the Enemy. When the creation of man was first mooted and when, even at that stage, the Enemy freely confessed that He foresaw a certain episode about a cross, Our Father very naturally sought an interview and asked for an explanation. The Enemy gave no reply except to produce the cock-and-bull story about love which He has been circulating ever since. This Our Father naturally could not accept.

Our Father (Satan) is presented with an image of the prefigured Christ—”slain before the foundation of the world”—and he doesn’t get it. He asks: what is in this for God? What’s God’s secret motivation for this? Surely God must be getting something out of it! He can’t just be doing this for the good of mankind, can He? Could this be what the battle between good and evil is all about? Consider this later passage from the same letter:

Members of His [God’s] faction have frequently admitted that if ever we came to understand what He means by love, the war would be over and we should re-enter Heaven. And there lies the great task. We know that He cannot really love: nobody can: it doesn’t make sense. If we could only find out what He is really up to! (emphasis added)

The Screwtape and his fellow bureaucrats can’t see how loving someone else without expecting something in return is even possible. Consider also the phrase Screwtape uses to sign off each of his letters: “your affectionate uncle.” Lest we be confused that Screwtape actually and truly loves his nephew Wormwood, recall how that salutation changes on his very last letter; it is now “your increasingly and ravenously affectionate uncle.” Screwtape tells his nephew, “I have always desired you, as you (pitiful fool!) desired me. The difference is that I am the stronger. I think they will give you to me now; or a bit of you. Love you? Why, yes. As dainty a morsel as I ever grew fat on.” Screwtape can be “affectionate” with Wormwood because no matter what happens, he wins. If Wormwood succeeds in winning his patient’s soul, the demons get to feast on it. Since Wormwood’s patient is killed in a German air raid before his soul is secured (I don’t think a spoiler warning is necessary on a 60-year-old book), Wormwood becomes the demon chow. Whatever happens, Screwtape is satiated, so he can afford to be generous—it costs him nothing. He gets to feast regardless of the outcome.

We humans are like this all the time. We show affection to people if we think we can get something out of them. We tithe and give to charity, but only if our pocketbook doesn’t really feel it. We demand that government fix problems, as long as it doesn’t cost us anything. According to C.S. Lewis, that’s not love or charity in the Christian sense, because it costs us nothing or we expect reciprocity. That’s what demons do. Our model instead should be the sacrifice of Christ—the greatest sacrifice—His own life.

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