Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil
“We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.”
It is The Screwtape Letters’ format that is its triumph. Because it is a collection of letters from a “senior” to a “junior” demon, Lewis is able to explore a plethora of spheres of godliness. He has a penetrating grasp of the intricacies of the fallen mind and the way that we lie to ourselves in our walk with Jesus. From forced devotional moods and mistimed flippancy to false humility and impossible sexual fantasy, every lesson hits hard. Lewis takes a grim satisfaction in unearthing the wicked depths of our psyche, giving our sin the clarity often needed for repentance. One gets the impression that he winces as he writes; his piercing insight is obviously dependent upon his own experience, which he clearly lays bare in the most astonishing display of transparency and visceral honesty.
The book is a trove of common sense discernment and firm rebuke. That it is framed in the talk of a spiritual battle for the eternal life of an individual makes Lewis’s call to godliness all the more urgent and chilling. In fact, this is a theme that could (should?) have been made more of. Although ridiculing evil can be powerful, occasionally Lewis’s writing makes his demons appear ridiculous, making his intentioned warning to be spiritually discerning easy to disregard. As well as this, The Screwtape Letters has not aged badly, but it has aged. Some of the letters are far less relevant, if not irrelevant, to a 21st century readership.
Lewis’s poetical mastery is perhaps the most underrated aspect of the book. There are profound flourishes throughout, like contrasting hell, the “Kingdom of Noise”, with silence and music. But it is the ending on the New Creation that is unusually striking, some of which is worth quoting verbatim: “But that is the cursed thing; the gods are strange to mortal eyes, and yet they are not strange. He had no faintest conception till that very hour of how they would look, and even doubted their existence. But when he saw them he knew that he had always known them and realised what part each one of them had played at many an hour in his life when he had supposed himself alone, so that now he could say to them, one by one, not “Who are you?” but “So it was you all the time”. All that they were and said at this meeting woke memories. The dim consciousness of friends about him which had haunted his solitudes from infancy was now at last explained; that central music in every pure experience which had always just evaded memory was now at last recovered.” Come, Lord Jesus.