Monday, January 13, 2020

The Screwtape Letters

I remember first reading The Screwtape Letters when I was in high school. I was fascinated by the general concept of the book (a demon writing letters to another demon), but at that time, I wasn’t able to fully appreciate the genius of C. S. Lewis’s writing. For me personally, it was just a little too tough to read.

I’ve recently started re-reading the book, and so far I’ve loved every minute of it. There are still some segments that shoot right over my head, but whatever. (My guess is that geniuses have a difficult time distinguishing between what’s lofty and what’s accessible.) But whenever things go over my head, it doesn’t discourage me from continuing to read. Instead it just has a way of making me want to learn more.

It seems to me that our tendency is to think of demons (and spiritual beings in general) as having a vague and nebulous existence. So one of the most immediate practical benefits of a book like Screwtape, for me anyway, is that it evokes a palpable sense of the realness of the spiritual realm. Hell is real. The enemy is real. Demons are real. They’re personal, thoughtful, intelligent, and crafty — more crafty than even Lewis can portray them to be, which is saying a lot.

Of course, the notions of demons writing letters to each other, or graduating from a “Tempter’s College,” or having familial relationships with each other (“your affectionate uncle Screwtape”), are fictitious. But these are just Lewis’s creative way of putting flesh and bones on evil spirits and the work that they do. They may not look and speak exactly like this, but they’re at least as real and cunning as this.

I recently had the opportunity to see a theatrical performance of The Screwtape Letters, put on by the Fellowship for Performing Arts, and I was very impressed with it. Initially I wasn’t sure how Screwtape could even be adapted to the stage. But they did it, and they did it masterfully. In my opinion, the show was very true to the spirit of Lewis’s work.

Some people commented on the comedy of the performance. It was a pretty funny show, and the audience was routinely laughing throughout. Does that minimize the seriousness of the material? I don’t think so. Lewis created, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most brilliant characters of all time in Screwtape, who is genuinely wicked and genuinely funny simultaneously, and the stage performance skillfully captured that same dynamic.

So watching the show felt very much like reading the book, which regularly makes me laugh as I read it. Sometimes I’m laughing at the hysteria of Screwtape as he tries to keep things under control, but I’m just as often laughing at the ridiculousness of our own sin. Because Lewis has an incredible way of helping us realize that sin is stupid.

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