The Screwtape Letters

by: C.S. Lewis

Letters 25-27

Summary: Letter 25

The trouble with the Patient’s new set, writes Screwtape, is that it is merely Christian. It would be much better if the Woman and her family were Christians with a special interest, like faith healing or vegetarianism. Devils should exploit the human tendency to make faith into a fad. They should corrupt a healthy desire for change into an obsession for absolute novelty. This helps diminish pleasure and, at the same time, increases desire. unifies the new and old with Rhythm—the Rhythm of the seasons, of youth, age, death, and birth. The Enemy wants men to ask simple questions: Is it virtuous? Is it possible? But Hell wants men to worry about whether a proposal is novel, whether it fits the spirit of the times. Humans can’t know the future, but they distract themselves trying to predict it. This opens up a space for devils to enter their lives and bend human actions to Hell’s desires.

Summary: Letter 26

The Patient and the Woman are in love. Wormwood should take advantage of this by making them feel that love has solved any potential domestic problems. In reality, the problems are hidden behind the intensity of their initial emotions. Wormwood must trick the Patient and the Woman into thinking the good will they have toward each other at this moment, a result of sexual excitement, is genuine unselfishness used to be called charity. Men think being unselfish means not causing other people trouble, and women think it means taking on trouble to help others. This difference in definitions is what makes both men and women regard each other as selfish. Then, later, once the Patient and woman have a family, Wormwood should try to create “Generous Conflict.” When something trivial is proposed, like having tea, Wormwood should make the Patient say he doesn’t want to have tea but will do it for the sake of the others. The others will insist on doing what the Patient wants. They will fight over who gets to be unselfish, and no one will be happy.

Summary: Letter 27

Wormwood, writes Screwtape, is doing a terrible job. His efforts to use the Patient’s love to distract him from the Enemy are canceled out when the Patient prays for help with his distraction. Wormwood should make the Patient pray only for spiritual aid, rather than make simple requests for daily bread. If that fails, he should make the Patient believe his simple prayers have no real effect. The Enemy sees all of time at once. But Wormwood can make humans believe their granted prayers are a consequence of cause and effect stemming backward in time, while the cause, the prayer, the effect, and all the choices of the individual exist, for the Enemy, at once. Yes, human writers have written about this, but Wormwood need not worry. Hell has dealt with human learning by introducing the “Historical Point of View.” As a result, when scholars encounter old ideas, they are not concerned with whether the ideas are true. Instead, they ask questions like: Who influenced the idea? Is the idea consistent with the writers’ ideas elsewhere? This keeps humans from learning from the past.

Analysis

For Lewis, mere Christianity means the core teachings common to most Christian sects and to Jesus’s lessons in the Bible. Mere Christianity is a positive force opposing the corrupted, fashionable, trend-based Christianity that Screwtape praises as a means of distracting humans from God. In books like Mere Christianity, Lewis also elaborates the arguments he raises here against strong divides between the “old” Catholic Church and “new” Protestant groups like the Anglican Church. He stresses, as in The Screwtape Letters, common bonds and Christian unity. Some would argue that, despite Lewis’s efforts to bridge the divides between Christian groups, his ideas are primarily Anglican. He believes, for example, that both faith and works, and not faith alone, help a person to gain salvation. This, Screwtape argues, is exactly the kind of technical detail that Wormwood can use to distract the Patient from real spiritual progress. In the twenty-fifth letter, Lewis reinforces his argument for unity between Christian groups by arguing, through Screwtape, that God is the great unifier. People should seek to find rhythm in their lives, which is God’s means of unifying the old and the new.

In the twenty-sixth letter, Screwtape continues to argue that modern changes in language and fashion are a result of Hell’s successes on earth. What used to be a positive assertion of virtue—charity—thanks to Hell’s efforts, has been renamed as the negation of a vice—unselfishness. This is another way Hell carries out its strategy to make people think only of themselves. Thus far in the story, the Patient has experienced a succession of, from a Christian perspective, positive life events. He has converted to Christianity. He goes to church. He denies himself the worldly temptation of his skeptical friends. And, finally, he falls in love with a Christian woman who is part of a good Christian family. advice is always to take these positive occurrences and twist them into sin. “Generous Conflict” is perhaps the best example. A family argues over who gets to be self-sacrificing with the hypocritical result that each person ends up being selfish and dissatisfied. Screwtape, meanwhile continues to offer sexist generalizations of human attitudes. All men are said to behave one way, all women another. These biases can be interpreted as common prejudices of the early twentieth century as an element of Screwtape’s demonic nature.

Screwtape’s anger at Wormwood foreshadows Wormwood’s eventual failure to capture the Patient’s soul. Prayer, which returns again as an obsession of Screwtape’s correspondence, continues to lead the Patient closer to God. Devils do not pray, but experienced tempters like Screwtape have studied human prayer and know how to corrupt it. Screwtape’s opinion challenges the expectations that it is better to pray for spiritual rather than material assistance from God. Material prayers may have a spiritual advantage. They keep people focused on day-to-day realities, keep people rooted in the present moment. Lewis recycles themes like prayer, novelty, pride, and the transient nature of human existence throughout the letters. This recycling of subjects establishes a rhythm within the letters similar to the rhythm of growth and change Screwtape notes within the seasons. Change is not necessarily linear, but cyclical. So long as people exist in time, they do not finish with any given challenge once and for all. Instead, the difficulties of life surface and resurface, causing pain, then prompting struggle and recovery.