The Screwtape Letters

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The Screwtape Letters Letter XVI Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Screwtape has learned from Wormwood that the patient only visits a single church. Screwtape is angry that Wormwood has not told him this information sooner. It is a dangerous thing, he explains, for a person to only visit one church. The purpose of a church is to bring unlike people together. It’s better for the person to become a “connoisseur of churches”—this way, he will ultimately surround himself with people whose tastes—both in churches and in general—are like his. This defeats the purpose of churchgoing, which is surrounding oneself with unlike people who are nonetheless equal before the Lord.
Although Lewis is fundamentally optimistic about human salvation, he still never hesitates to show how difficult it is for organized religion alone to lead its followers to God. Even churchgoing can be an immoral act, if one treats a church as a mere “vacation spot” to be sampled and critiqued like a restaurant. The danger Screwtape is encouraging here is that a church can then become a place to affirm one’s sense of self-righteousness and piety, instead of a place that challenges one to grow in faith and charitable love.
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God wants humans to approach churches with some skepticism about the information they learn there. At the same time, God doesn’t want humans to waste time thinking about why they reject what they reject—he wants them to reject it, and move on. As a result, humans become very sensitive to Christian teachings —this is very displeasing to devils.
In this section, Lewis proposes a deliberately simple answer to the problem of negation. For many modern thinkers (Freud, for instance), true “negation” is impossible: one can’t truly stop thinking about something, because deciding not to think about the thing means, of course, thinking about it. Lewis agrees with this in one way, but mostly encourages us to simply act or feel, instead of overthinking our actions and feelings.
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Screwtape discusses the two churches near the patient’s home. One is run by a vicar who tries to make his sermons as secular and “watered down” as possible, in order to attract bigger crowds. The second church is run by Friar Spike. At times, Spike is a Communist, and at other times he’s almost a theocratic Fascist. The common thread between these two seemingly contradictory beliefs is hatred, a useful emotion for the devils. At the same time, Spike’s one defect, as far as the devils are concerned, is that he sincerely believes what he says.
Here Lewis suggests that two seemingly competing ideologies—Communism and Fascism—are ultimately just two sides of the same coin. Less than a decade later, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt would publish The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she essentially came to the same conclusion as Lewis: in spite of their vast differences, Fascism and Communism turned out to be virtually indistinguishable.
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The one common trait of the two churches, Screwtape continues, is that they are “party churches”—churches whose congregations subscribe to their own petty interpretations of Christian tenets—things like what kind of candles to use, or whether to say “mass” or “holy communion”— and hate rival interpretations. Without the multitude of small debates of this kind, Screwtape concludes, the Church of England would be a place of love and piety. As always, Screwtape signs his letter, “your affectionate uncle.”
There’s a longstanding history of “quibbles,” of the kind Lewis describes, in the English Christian community. Less than a hundred years before Lewis’s book was published, there was an influential series of debates between F. W. Newman and Matthew Arnold, two of the greatest theological minds of their times. These debates involved seemingly insignificant matters—where pews should be located, what language certain sermons should be read in, etc.—but they provoked enormous vitriol between the defenders of either man. Lewis looks on debates of this kind with a mixture of amusement and annoyance—if Christians could put aside their petty differences, their community would be far stronger.
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