Eerily Applicable: The Screwtape Letters

Moving into the summer months, there is a transition that occurs here at Our Savior in Hartland. We move from a typical Sunday School arrangement into what we call “Family Sunday School.” The typical Sunday School structure is as you’d suspect. The adults gather for study with the pastor, while the children are shepherded according to their appropriate grade levels to classes taught by an adult volunteer joined by one or more assistants. When summer comes around, we gather adults and children together for study, with each lesson being taught by the pastors, seminarians, and others. Last summer we studied the liturgy. In summers before that we studied our Lord’s passion, the biblical themes of our congregation’s stained-glass windows, and plenty of other worthwhile topics. This year we’ll be trying something a little different. We’ll be visiting with ten of the thirty-one letters in C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters.

If you’re unfamiliar with the book, just know it’s a stranger bit of Christian fiction, the kind that only the brilliant author of the Chronicles of Narnia series could summon. Although, I hesitate to call this unique work by Lewis fiction. In a way, its point is genuine. It observes the Christian faith through the eyes of a demon named Screwtape. An uncle to Wormwood and an undersecretary in hell, Screwtape is writing to his nephew, offering his best advice for accomplishing the condemnation of Wormwood’s “patient,” a young man in England during World War II.

I’ve read the book several times over the years, usually a few letters at a time, and only as the urge to turn a few pages surprised me. I’ll be starting this summer study, which begins today. I’ll introduce the book’s characters before handling the Preface and Letter 1. From there, I’ll turn over the remaining sessions to others throughout the summer. I’ll wrap it all up in August. Along the way, we’ll do our best to make the material graspable to all, even the youngest among us. The book does dig relatively deep. This means it will take a little extra effort to bring the kids along. That being said, I’m not one to impose upon children a list of inabilities foreign to them. In fact, I have a feeling they’ll understand far more than any of us may expect. Besides, Christ Himself reminds us that when we grow up, we need to be more like them than adults, especially when it comes to the things of faith (Matthew 18:1-6).

In preparation for this morning’s effort, there is a line in Letter 1 which reads, “The trouble with argument is that it moves the whole struggle on to the Enemy’s own ground.” By the “Enemy,” Screwtape means God. Screwtape continues advising Wormwood that it’s best to keep his patient away from the exchange of opposing viewpoints, primarily because it involves genuine contemplation, and genuine contemplation is the potential pathway to discovering objective truth. An honest handling of objective truth can only lead to the divine. Equally, Screwtape discourages courteous discussion. In other words, keep it as a heated exchange of little more than emotional declarative statements fed by the distractions of what he refers to as “real life,” namely, what interests the patient personally. “And don’t let him ask what he means by ‘real,’” the undersecretary demon makes clear. This is to say, let him define reality in whatever ways he wants to. This is the essence of the old proverb, “Devil take the hindmost.” It describes someone serving his or her own self-interests at the expense of what’s right or wrong, true or untrue.

These things being the content of just the first letter (and the doorway to all the others), already the reader can see how timelessly insightful C.S. Lewis is for revealing hell’s tactics. He wrote this book eighty years ago, and yet, when we compare it to what’s happening in our world today, it seems a much more recent editorial.

Not much has changed. And why? Well for one, I suppose Satan appreciates consistency, knowing not to fix what isn’t broken. In a way, his appreciation of consistency reveals his devilish hypocrisy, too. What I mean is that it’s a nod to the only things that truly are consistent: God and His natural law. By nature, creation is bothered by shifting inconsistency, but instead takes comfort in reliability. Just ask a preschooler, someone who is the epitome of natural law at work in humanity. Try swapping story time with craft time on the schedule. You’ll learn very quickly the innate urge to abide by the natural order of things. In fact, you’ll learn it takes some pretty smooth talking to steer away from it.

Again, part of Lewis’ point is that honest observation and genuine discussion have the potential for revealing these consistent boundaries—at least that they actually exist. When one realizes objective truth exists (as Lewis makes abundantly clear in his book Mere Christianity), the likely endpoint is, at a minimum, an acceptance not only of God’s existence, but an embracing of Him as the wellspring of these truths.

Of course, Christians equipped with the Word of God already know the deepest of all these things, which is the two-fold thread woven into and through the entirety of objective truth’s fabric. It’s God’s gracious warning of our dreadful condition—our unalterable predicament in Sin (Romans 3:23). And yet, He pierces the hopeless situation with the bright-beaming light of His love, revealing to us that He has sent and accomplished the solution to this humanly unsolvable problem. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, who by His incarnation became one of us and atoned for the Sin of the whole world (1 John 2:2).

Interestingly, Screwtape references his disdain for Christ’s incarnation right away in the first letter. Referring to the patient’s humanity, he reminds Wormwood, “Remember, he is not, like you, a pure spirit. Never having been a human (Oh that abominable advantage of the Enemy’s!) you don’t realize how enslaved they are….” Amazingly, Screwtape speaks to humanity’s bondage in Sin while at the same time expressing frustration that Jesus, out of great love, stepped into it, submitting Himself to the same bondage.

As the book goes on, these types of theological premises expand. As they do, we get an inside look at just how frustrating they are to the old evil foe, Satan. At the same time, we become more attuned to the vile tactics he uses for obscuring our view of God’s loving effort to save us. As you get deeper into the book, I guarantee you’ll sense their familiarity.

And so, if you haven’t already, I encourage you to read The Screwtape Letters. It’ll be well worth your while. Although don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself being distracted from reading it. Again, even though it’s technically fiction, I doubt the devil is too appreciative of it. It’s far too accurate a depiction for his liking.

It’s Complicated

Have you ever had one of those moments when you suddenly realized you’d matured in your understanding of something? Usually, the process of mental maturity is a gradual one, moving along so slowly that you don’t necessarily realize the things you are realizing. Every now and then I’ll observe what feels like sudden realizations with my kids. They’ll use a word they’ve never used before, or they’ll ask a question in a way that proves a much deeper awareness of a certain subject. In those instances, it’s as if I saw them leap from one of life’s steppingstones to the next. I enjoy such moments. They’re milestone flashes for any parent.

I rarely notice these moments in myself. I usually just move along knowing what I know. Of course, I’m always learning as I go, and as my knowledge base grows (or is cultivated), God willing, I’m faithfully employing every fiber of its muscle as possible. Still, there are those moments when I realize I’ve changed, that I’m not processing things as before. I’ll give you an example.

Today, Our Savior in Hartland celebrates the Festival of the Holy Trinity. Each year, Holy Trinity Sunday is an opportunity to meet with the wonderful, and yet ungraspability, of our Triune God. Hopefully other churches are blessed to do the same. I suppose they need to care about such things, first. We certainly do. Following along with the historic lectionary, we’re always so incredibly blessed to wade into certain occasions that eventually pull us into the deeper waters of divine truth. We’re not guided by the “sermon series” whims of clergyfolk who, perhaps being huge fans of Star Wars, want to spend the whole summer donning various costumes from the nine films all the while complicatedly imposing the Gospel upon each.

For as interesting as that sounds… (yawn). But hey, you do you, I guess.

Anyway, having revisited the texts appointed for today, most especially John 3:1-17, I realized I’ve become someone geared toward and appreciative of simplicity. In other words, I used to be someone prone to spinning my wheels in the mud of over-analysis. Nowadays, I’m comfortable seeing things through very simple lenses, and the simplicity is providing a clarity of sight about complex things that I don’t recall having before. Of course, I’m not saying that life doesn’t require contemplation. It does. What I’m saying is that with the Gospel for faith as the essential interpreter for pretty much everything, I experience what the Lord described in Matthew 18:1-6, which is a childlike sense.

Interestingly, John 3:1-17 is a reminder that while our God may be thoroughly unsearchable in His being, He really isn’t that hard to figure out. In short, sin is real and identifiable. It is condemnable. Everyone on the planet is infected by it. But God’s desire toward sinful man is one of love. It really is that simple. He loves us and wants for our salvation. It’s only when we complicate His desire for our rescue communicated straightforwardly by His Word that we complicate His desire’s reach into the world, sometimes negating it altogether. Nicodemus proves this repeatedly as he attempts to interpret Jesus’ words according to his reason. Doing so complicates his grasp at holy things and produces some pretty ridiculous conclusions, even one statement about climbing back up into his mother’s womb to be reborn, which seems almost a snide poke at Jesus’ simple preaching.

Thinking about all of this, I can’t help but recall what the month of June has become—LGBTQ+ pride month—along with all the denominations of Christians around the world who’ve somehow reasoned their way into believing God’s okay with the lifestyle.

The Bible is by no means unclear regarding God’s displeasure for the LGBTQ+ sexual ideology. It also doesn’t deny God His rightful due as the supreme determiner of right and wrong. In other words, when we stand before the throne on the Last Day, it will be according to His standards, not ours. What He considers godly and ungodly will be counted as such. Nevertheless, there is an aspect of the sinful nature that tries to wiggle free from God’s definitions so as not to be counted guilty for sinful behaviors we’d prefer to overlook or maintain. When we do this, the baseline of God’s Law appears cloudy—is made complicated. We no longer believe we’re doing anything wrong because, well, life in this world isn’t that easy to compartmentalize, right? The Bible might present itself in clear terms, and yet, there are plenty of reasonable explanations for people being the way they are and doing what they do. Surely, God understands this and is likely to be flexible with His boundaries. I mean, perhaps people were born a certain way—with certain inclinations—and if God created them, surely He won’t be justified in condemning what He created. 

When we complicate our thinking this way, not only do we lose sight of God’s right and wrong, but the Gospel He put in place to meet it becomes clouded, too. In other words, if the LGBTQ+ lifestyle is not as God describes it in His Word, that is, it does not have God’s Law leaning against it, then two things in particular must be true. Firstly, God’s Word cannot be trusted—or at a minimum, we appear to have the freedom to take from it what we want and to forget about the rest. Secondly, it seems logical that the Jesus described by the scriptures as the Word made flesh—the One who came to save us from real, genuine, inescapable Sin—isn’t to be trusted, either, or again at a minimum, He isn’t as necessary in certain circumstances as we suspected. Saint Paul said that God’s Law has no hold on righteousness (Galatians 5:16-26). So, if I’ve convinced myself that what I’m doing isn’t sinful, but rather is acceptable to God, I won’t for a second believe I need a Savior’s rescue from it.

That’s not good. To do this is to deceive oneself and confuse truth (Romans 1:25, 1 John 1:8). What’s more, it’s an overly complicated and eternally terminal way to interact with God.

I say keep it simple—or as I discovered myself whispering alongside Saint Jerome this morning, “O, holy simplicity.” Honor God’s Word as reliable and true, and then stick with His definitions. Trust His desires, not yours. If you’re at all like me, when you keep things simple, being sure to view things through the lens of the scriptures, desiring to align with God’s desires, you’ll often discover the cultural fog beginning to dissipate, and with it, the fear of facing off with just about everything that might crawl out from beneath its cover.

Unguarded

Even though summer doesn’t technically arrive until mid-June, for many, it has already begun. School is out. Graduations are underway. Schedules become shapeshifters ready to consume each newly liberated hour the season promises. I don’t know what this means for you, but for the pastor of a church with a school it means arranging my day in a way that gets me to the office much earlier in the morning than usual with the hope that I can find my way home by mid-afternoon. Doing this allows time I don’t normally have with the family before needing to venture out for anything church-related in the evenings.

As it is every summer, I intend to use a portion of the morning’s quiet time for reading. Hardly moved by the criticism of my fellow pastors, I rarely spend much time in the summer with anything distinctly theological, but instead, whatever is enjoyable in the moment. Although, technically everything is theological—or better yet, Christological. I’ll give you an example.

I’ve already started my summer wanderings by picking away at a collection of letters from Charles Lamb, an essayist and poet of remarkable style from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I stumbled upon the compilation in Google Books while looking for something else.

One thing is for sure, you can learn a lot by reading from a historical character’s personal correspondence. Not only do you discover the superficial things relative to culture—such as favorite foods, pastimes, manners, colloquialisms, and the like—but you learn quite a bit about the person’s hidden qualities. For instance, a rather famous Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a letter to Lamb, one in which he described summer setting in “with its usual severity.” Coleridge’s point was to complain about England’s unfortunate (but not unusual) coolness in May and June. Apparently, he didn’t like it. Interestingly, Lamb didn’t acknowledge Coleridge’s complaint in his reply, but instead carried on about how the painter who’d recently completed a portrait of Lamb had captured him in “one of those disengaged moments… when the native character is so much more honestly displayed….”

From what I know of Coleridge, which is that he was a delightfully expressive man, one who could hardly be characterized as a complainer, Lamb’s words to his friend seemed almost out of place. Or better yet, if they were intended as a subtle response to a very wise Coleridge, then they were pointed. In other words, they appeared to suggest that just like everyone else, the real Coleridge could be betrayed by an unguarded moment. For as beloved as Coleridge was by the public for his eloquent appreciation of all things, his secret dislike for English summers slipped through to Lamb.

Whether or not this was Lamb’s point isn’t exactly clear. Still, I have the nagging sense it was. Either way, like everything else in life, it can be viewed through theological lenses. In this circumstance, it first serves as a reminder that no one is perfect. It’s also a lesson to the would-be narcissists among us. For as complete as one might appear to be, the unguarded moments eventually come around, and when they do, our incompleteness breaches the surface. And this is a good thing. It brings about the opportunity for honest confession—the opportunity to recognize one’s need for rescue from Sin’s deathly grip.

Lamb wrote something else of interest in his reply to Coleridge. Having included a small facsimile of the portrait with the letter, he scribbled, “Whatever its pretensions, I know it will be dear to you, towards whom I should wish my thoughts to flow in sort of an undress rather than in the more studied graces of diction.”

Did you pick up on Lamb’s inference? He offered two things that, if thinking theologically, are likely to resonate with Christians. The first is that no matter our failings, we can be counted as dear to one another. This is true because God’s grace is holding us together as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). With this as the connective tissue for our friendships, the second thing Lamb said becomes incredibly clear. He notes his hope for genuine honesty between he and Coleridge—that the things troubling, worrying, or haunting either of them can be made bare, rather than remaining guarded by a “studied” carefulness with words. This means as brothers and sisters in Christ, we don’t need to hide our real selves, as though needing to project an image of having it all together. We don’t even have to exist in a way that stays within the easy boundaries of cordiality. Instead, we can be real friends—folks ready to walk together through both the complete and incomplete parts of life.

In short, Lamb implies what the rest of us already know by King Solomon’s words, “For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:10). This is the epitome of Proverbs 27:17, which reads: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another,” and certainly it’s at least a molecule in the Lord’s formula fueling the encouragement to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

My prayer for you today, and always, is that you will remain part of a Christian church family that truly enjoys such collegiality. We can do no better than to be surrounded by genuine Christian friends as much as possible, knowing full well that a “friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17).