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The Very Real World of Screwtape

October 8, 2013 by  
Filed under Demonology, Paul McCusker, Spiritual Warfare

Life, As I Find It

While working on the notes for C.S. Lewis’ The Annotated Screwtape Letters, I decided to do a little reading about the real world of demons. I picked up Hostage To The Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Contemporary Americans by Malachi Martin, a remarkable study that was meticulously researched and lucidly written without succumbing to sensationalism. It was an unnerving and horrific reading experience – certainly not for the spiritually weak or easily frightened.

I assume you know that Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters was a fictional correspondence between a senior demon to its nephew giving instructions about how to effectively tempt and corrupt a human. It is a masterpiece of wit, insight and satire. But what I didn’t fully appreciate until encountering Hostage To The Devil was how closely Lewis captured the demonic world in The Screwtape Letters. More remarkably, he captured that world at a time when it was academic suicide to believe in the demonic.

Here’s what I learned about demons and their world from both books.

First, the world of demons truly centers around devouring. Screwtape instructs his nephew Wormwood that humans are merely food for demons. “Our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense,” he writes. Then Screwtape continually reminds his nephew Wormwood of the possibility of being devoured for his mistakes. He warns: “bring us back food or be food yourself.” Even terms of affection between uncle and nephew are food-related and always presented with a clear threat. Though Hostage To The Devil isn’t as comically overt, the sense of spirits and souls being devoured is pervasive.  

Both echo Saint Peter’s reminder in his first letter: “Be vigilant, watch. Your adversary the devil is a roaring lion who walks about seeking whom he may devour” (5:8). And the simple lesson is clear: apart from God, we’re all merely part of one food chain or another.

Second, demons are not as organized as we might think. Lewis envisioned Screwtape as the ultimate bureaucrat, which is perfect if you think of bureaucracy as an incompetent and inefficient entity that seeks only of its self-survival. Demons, I learned from both books, are in a constant state of competitive selfishness – even at the expense of losing the very souls they hope to corrupt. There is little cohesive or coordinated effort, except when it’s forced on them through a tyrannical hierarchy based on fear.  Lewis makes much of this comedically. Martin’s case studies demonstrate it as a matter of terror.

Third, demons are not all-powerful. Lewis makes this clear in his introduction to Screwtape. Satan is not the opposite of God, he’s the opposite of the Archangel Michael. Hollywood and fiction-writers have elevated Satan and his minions to an almost omniscient and omnipotent position. Lewis keeps Satan and the demons in their proper places and reminds his readers that it would be as wrong to over-estimate Satan’s power as to under-estimate it. Likewise, one sees both the brutal strengths and brutish weaknesses of demonic forces in Hostage To The Devil.

Fourth, demonic activity is only effective when partnered with Human Will. A demon cannot force a human to do anything. It can only nudge, persuade, entice and deceive. The human must agree for anything substantial to happen. The entirety of The Screwtape Letters explores the psychological manipulations and rationalizations a demon might employ with a human “patient.” All of the possessed in Hostage To The Devil were complicit with the demons around them. Human Will is the essential component, just as it was in the beginning with Adam and Eve.

Fifth, the intrusion of the demonic into the world of humans is as distasteful to demons as it should be to humans. Screwtape thinks of humans as cattle, little more than vermin, and cannot fathom how God could love the “hairless bipeds.” (In fact, Screwtape must reassure himself that God does not love humans, but is only pretending to for some warped reason.) Any notion put forward by Satanists, movies or books that demons actually care about humans or wish to share power or prosperity with them is a lie. Demons wish only to devour or possess or use humans to thwart God. There is no middle ground, no deal, no three wishes, no affable wink and a nod. Just read the five cases in Hostage To The Devil to see.

In many ways The Screwtape Letters and Hostage To The Devil  are complementary books. Read the first to see how we are lured into a relationship with the demonic, then read the second to see what becomes of that relationship. There is something good to be said of having the devil scared out of us.


The Annotated Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, with annotations by Paul McCusker, is available from HarperOne on Oct. 8th.

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About Paul McCusker

Paul McCusker is an author. He converted from Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism in 2007. He still works for an Evangelical organization. Paul has over 40 published works, including novels, plays, scripts, and lyrics.

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  • MaryofSharon

    For RCSpiritual Direction readers who do not realize how very blessed we are to have the gifts of Paul McCusker among us, take a look at this exceptionally high-quality production which he directed: The Screwtape Letters: Behind the Scenes of the Audio Drama”. We can see our own Paul McCusker multiple times in this brief documentary. They couldn’t have cast Screwtape better than they did with Andy Serkis (Gollum from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.)

  • nosidam

    Wow! Thank you! I am very familiar with the name Paul McCusker!!! Yes! I am a cradle Catholic and very into the new evangelization. I have listened to Focus on the Family from its first episode. I am a huge proponent of Evangelicals and Catholics together. I love my evangelical family. I believe that we need to unify. The divisions are sad.
    We need to gather together as one and share our truths with each other. It does my heart extreme good when I see that now an awesome evangelical Protestant understands the Catholic faith! If we understood each other and shared maybe others would join us! United we stand divided we fall.
    I listen to Christian radio plus Catholic radio.
    Dan and Scott Hahn and Steve Ray and Marcus, Paul etc. are our treasures.
    We Catholics get enriched by you so amazingly.
    Some Catholics are very narrow. Not good! You past Protestants are my favorite people! I love you.
    Welcome to the heart of the faith! You are a huge part of it! God bless you!! Yes!

  • ThirstforTruth

    Have read the Screwtape Letters several times and always find new insight
    into the immaginary Screwtape that Lewis cleverly relates to the real world of evil. About Malachi Martin: I have not read this book of his but have several reservations about this author, God rest his soul. I think his background vastly different from CS Lewis and that he might come from a very different place. Just my opinion, of course, but it would seem a lot of *weirdness* went on in this
    man’s life that attracts a sort of bizaare thinking. I find him rather outside main
    stream Catholicism in his thinking and not sure I would recommend his book(s).

  • Dan

    I was introduced to Malachi Martin when he appeared on the Art Bell radio show. His clear explanations of the nature of good and evil brought me back to Mass after years of neglect. About a year after hearing him on the program my mother passed away. If I had not returned to the Church and to Jesus in the Eucharist a year before, i know I would not have survived my mother’s unexpected death in the way that I did.

    I have read Hostage to the Devil. I read the book in “doses,” reading each case once every few weeks. The detailed accounts are just that intense. In the book, Martin not only presents each actual exorcism, but also presents the backgrounds of the possessed person and the exorcist. The book helped me to realize why we all need to know Jesus and why we should have His saving grace within us always.

    I have not read The Srewtape Letters. It is next on my reading list.

  • nosidam

    God uses everyone for His purposes. The good and the bad people. By their fruits we will know them.
    But we each must discern the truth. God bless you all!

  • Thank you for this! My brother was assigned Malachi’s book for his Theology class. Sent this to him in case it would help him. And based on what he told me, it really spooked him. Started reading the first 3 pages a few night ago, then got a little scared. At any rate, I intend to read as soon as I can.

  • Mary

    Wasn’t Malachi Martin “defrocked”? I seem to remember some scandals about him and some accusations that he wrote books with the intention of causing harm to the church. [Editors note: He was not defrocked. This is a myth cleared up by an official statement from the Jesuits whom he previously belonged to.] How did you become comfortable with the accuracy of his book? What about the book Interview With an Exorcist? Have you read that? My sister says that one is more accurate. I desire to read as little about Satan as possible, as I believe that too much focus makes us vulnerable to him, but I would like to read ONE book on exorcism. I did read Screwtape Letters as a member of this site’s book club and enjoyed it, but it is fiction (although, there is no doubt that the evil forces function is such a manner). Thank you in advance for your response and incite. God bless!
    P.S. Thank you for the reminder that Satan is not the opposite of God – it is easy to lose site of this.

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