December 7, 2004
Our Father, Who Art in Hell
“I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian” (Lewis 5). So writes Uncle Screwtape in C.S. Lewis’s, The Screwtape Letters, to his nephew, Wormwood, a young fiend who has just been assigned his first patient. Initially one may believe that we are discussing an environment that is related to the medical field, however we soon learn that Uncle Screwtape is an under-secretary of a department in Hell who is mentoring his young nephew, a “junior tempter” in the acquisition of souls, or – for the duration of the text – one particular soul. The text documents a series of letters written by Screwtape as responses to the reports submitted by Wormwood on the progression of his patient. Much like a stock-broker, Screwtape guides his nephew in acquiring a much sought after commodity for his business. The only difference is that the commodity in this instance is human souls.
The style in which Lewis writes the communiqués between Screwtape and his nephew is very business like, similar to the style used by the British Civil Service; and at times quite humorous. Initially the reading of the letters was difficult to comprehend, as the references to the “Enemy” (God) and “Our Father” (Devil) requires an adaptation to our mindset on the belief that God is good, and the Devil is evil. Simply put, the text is written in a style that is reverse to what we as humans have been conditioned to believe, and the format challenges the reader to think more about what is being written. Once this is understood – which for me was approximately one-third through the text – the reading becomes easier to comprehend.
The subject matter of the advice being offered to Wormwood is very diverse, and covers most of the areas of human existence, such as love, politics, hatred, courage, fear, amongst others.
When Wormwood seeks guidance on the issues relating to the spirituality of his patient, Screwtape offers some interesting insights. At first he suggests that given the activities of the patient (relating to his increased involvement with intelligent Christians) it would be “quite impossible to remove spirituality from his life. Very well then; we must corrupt it” (123). Screwtape sets out to explain that there are four ways to corrupt the patient’s spirituality through the promotion of the (current) construction of a “’historical Jesus’ on Marxian, catastrophic, and revolutionary lines” (124). Screwtape goes on to advise that it is the intention to change these ‘constructions’ every thirty years or so. After explaining these constructions, Screwtape then offers the statement, “No nation, and few individuals, are really brought into the Enemy’s camp by the historical study of the biography of Jesus, simply as a biography” (125-6), and then goes on to elaborate that “[t]he ‘Gospels’ come later and were written not to make Christians but to edify Christians already made” (126). What Lewis appears to be suggesting here is that much of what is read about Jesus is not, in itself, enough to convert a person to Christianity, and that the Gospels provide a greater influence, even though they were written after, and perhaps (without reading too much into what Lewis has written) represent the moral values of the time in which they were written.
When Wormwood seeks advice on how to combat the Enemy’s influence on the patient’s chastity (sex life), Screwtape seeks a report on the “young women in the neighborhood” to ascertain that “if we can’t use his sexuality to make him unchaste we must try to use it for the promotion of a desirable marriage” (105). Again, if the mindset one is reading this has not been adjusted, one may believe that “desirable marriage” would be something that is advantageous to the patient. Alas, this is not the case. After explaining the two types of imaginary women that a human (man) is haunted by – the wholesome woman (‘terrestrial’), and the vixen (‘infernal Venus’), Screwtape explains that “[t]here is one type [the ‘terrestrial’] for his desire is such as to be naturally amenable to the Enemy”, and “there is another type [the ‘infernal Venus’] which he desires brutally” (108). Screwtape then goes on to suggest that the real use of the infernal Venus is, no doubt, as prostitute or mistress. But if your man is a Christian, and if he has been well trained in nonsense about irresistible and all-excusing ‘Love’, he can often be induced to marry her. And that is very well worth bringing about. You will have failed as regards fornication and solitary vice; but there are other, and more indirect, methods of using a man’s sexuality to his undoing. And, by the way, they are not only efficient, but delightful; the unhappiness produced is of a very lasting and exquisite kind. (108-9)
Here we can sense the glee that Screwtape is experiencing as he offers this advice to his young nephew. The reader may gleam from this passage that, for Screwtape, the most desirable relationship that could be hoped for this patient would be to a whore who traps him into marriage. Indeed, if this were to occur, would one not share in the joy being hoped for by Screwtape?
Throughout the text we catch glimpses of the relationship between the “Enemy” and “Our Father” including an alternative explanation of the infamous fall from grace that many of us are told about in our younger years. The conflict appears to the relate to the Enemy’s love for the humans, which is challenged by the Devil, who seeks to find out what the “real motive for creating them” was about, and why He (the Enemy) was “taking so much trouble about them” (100). As Screwtape shares with his nephew, the discussion “was a chief cause of Our Father’s quarrel with the Enemy” (100), and after the Enemy produced a “cock-and-bull story about disinterested love which He has been circulating ever since” (100), Our Father “implored the Enemy to lay His cards on the table” (100). Screwtape goes on to say that He (reference to Our Father) admitted that he felt a real anxiety to know the secret; the Enemy replied ‘I wish with all my heart that you did.’ It was, I imagine, at this stage in the interview that Our Father’s disgust at such an unprovoked lack of confidence caused him to remove himself an infinite distance from the Presence with a suddenness which has given rise to the ridiculous Enemy story that he was forcibly thrown out of Heaven. (100-1)
As the text draws to a close, we learn that Wormwood has failed – in part – from protecting his patient from the clutches of a woman’s love. Screwtape’s joy over this news is overshadowed by the type of woman that he has fallen in love with.
Not only a Christian but such a Christian – a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouse-like, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss. The little brute. She makes me vomit … We’d have had her to the arena in the old days. That’s what her sort is made for. (117-8)
It is amusing to read how Screwtape describes this woman, and makes reference to the “old days” when, one assumes, Christians were fed to the lions. Even more amusing is that later in the same chapter, Screwtape is so agitated by this news that he appears to “burst a blood vessel” in anger, and has to hand over to his secretary to finish his letter.
Sadly, in the end Wormwood fails to capture this soul through the patient being in the location of a bomb blast. Wormwood’s failure is greeted by Screwtape with a greater sense of sarcasm than has been witnessed previously. This failure appears to be the end of Wormwood’s hopes of being a tempter, as the reader is led to believe that he will join with other ingredients for a meal to be enjoyed – in part – by Screwtape. A clear indication that this is Wormwood’s fate is given with how Screwtape signs off on his final letter to Wormwood which states “Your increasingly and ravenously affectionate uncle” (175).
The communiqués provide an interesting perspective into the workings of Hell, especially as it relates to the deployment of tempters to capture the human souls needed to feed the “employees” of Hell, not to mention providing an insight into the thinking of an under-secretary to the Devil, in the guise of Screwtape. The focus, while it appears to be negative and ‘evil’, actually appears to offer a quick and handy guide on what not to do if you want to live a good life, and ultimately end up in Heaven, providing the reader, as mentioned earlier, reads the text with the understanding that everything is reversed.
It appears that the lessons offered by Lewis in his writings attempt to persuade the reader that the only true way to Heaven is to lead a virtuous and moral life. While the reading is – in parts – enjoyable, and quite humorous, the reader could easily ‘get lost’ through the complicated method in which Lewis has chosen to deliver the message. As Screwtape writes to Wormwood, “[y]our patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool” (6), and as such the message should be aimed so a fool can understand.
Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.
You can also download the PDF version of my essay.