The Devil Is in the Details

I recently spoke at a C. S. Lewis conference about the significance of The Screwtape Letters. This is obviously one of the best-known works by Lewis and continues to hold a strong fascination in the minds of those who have read it. Americans have loved it ever since it was first published.

In my presentation, I thought I would begin with what ostensibly could be called a “catchy” title.

Catchy, yes, but also quite accurate. I did provide a general overview of the letters, highlighting some of the key thoughts throughout, yet I began by focusing on Lewis’s own perspective for how and why he took this approach in warning Christians about the Devil’s strategies. In his preface to the later 1961 re-publication (which added in his “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” essay), Lewis begins by recounting how one particular man was truly flummoxed by Screwtape.

One ought to be concerned that any clergyman would not grasp the intent of the letters, but I will rest in the probable outcome: that clergyman, if he remained as faithful to the Lord as his misunderstanding indicates, is now fully informed of his error, perhaps through a really nice talk with Lewis in their heavenly abode. At least, that’s my hope.

In this new preface, Lewis lays out his idea for how Hell should be portrayed.

He notes that Charles Dickens always portrayed evil in “sordid dens of crime.” Lewis, instead, transfers the locus of evil into a modern bureaucracy where people in boardrooms pass resolutions that accomplish evil purposes. Their offices are clean and carpeted and the people are quiet and quite “civilized.” Yet these “nasty business concerns” epitomize the new avenue for evil. Another example for Lewis is the bureaucracy of a police state. Evil remains evil regardless of the outward expression of it.

Those of us who love how Lewis skewers Hell (and the Devil doesn’t like being made fun of) and appreciate his writing talent, nevertheless should take into account how writing in this way affected Lewis. Near the end of his preface, he lets readers know the downside.

Lewis’s commitment to this task, gritty as it may have been, with the loss of the beauty and freshness of the faith during the writing, was a commitment that was worth the “spiritual cramp” that he experienced. His wit and insight has brought beauty and freshness to a multitude of readers. If you have never read The Screwtape Letters, now is a good time to embark on that journey. If you haven’t read it for some time, renewing your acquaintance with one of Lewis’s most poignant books would be well worth your time.