Reversing Screwtape: The Christian Life

  1. The Christian Life

In the very first letter, Screwtape advises Wormwood to make sure he keeps the man away from anything to do with contemplation and thoughtfulness about the deeper meaning of the world.  The man is encouraged to think in the binary terms of “academic” or “practical” and is always to be nudged into practicality, what Screwtape calls “real life.”

Screwtape suggests that man must always have the “ordinariness of things” pressed upon him, and made to believe in the unfamiliar when the familiar is before our eyes.  Screwtape tells a story of a man reading at the British Museum one day, and “the enemy” (aka God) was “at his elbow” – in other words, the man was contemplating or thinking about greater things than the material world – the unseen, the transcendent, the meaning of life and the purpose of humanity.  

But Screwtape tells how upon realising this, made the man aware of his hunger, and therefore lunch, and so the “contemplation of God” was quickly diminished by practical, material matters.  And by the time the man had got to the street, the newsboy shouting, and seeing the “number 73 bus,”  it was now clear to the man that he was once again in “real life”, and that what he was beginning to think about previously “just couldn’t be true.”

C. S. Lewis was picking up on the observation that the world, as busy and noisy and real as it is, can be the very thing that stops us from going beyond the material to the immaterial.  From this world to God’s world.  From earth to heaven.  Busyness is a modern day virtue. Our very identity depends upon it.  This is even more so within the life of the church.  In fact, the old sin of Sloth carries a double-meaning.  We naturally think to be Slothful is about laziness and the like.  But in the Christian tradition, to be Sloth also meant and still means being so busy, so active that you deny yourself the necessary thought about God and biblical or spiritual matters, what P. T. Forsyth called “amiable bustle.”  These things are surface level actions but there’s no substance.  In this sense, being so busy as to find contemplation too demanding a task or a chore is the act of being Slothful.

So Screwtape highlights this deadly sin in the Christian life.  Is it any wonder that technological distraction in our day has captured an entire generation to avoid such contemplation?  We complain that kids today are always on their phones.  Is this not what Lewis calls “the devil being at our elbow”?  Sloth is the divine longing for Peace, and the way to peace that Christ gives requires, and is fulfilled by diligence and fortitude in the spiritual life, and not merely a superficiality to God’s unseen realm where what is unseen will be seen:  Paul writes, “If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:15).

Affectionately yours,


Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

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