"In all debates, let truth be thy aim, not victory, or an unjust interest." -- William Penn
It was the classic exchange with two titans ferociously interacting, wielding all of their skills in an epic debate. The stakes were huge and both of them knew it. One participant was an obvious expert who spoke with the wisdom that can only come from success. The other was a novice who had tried many times to be successful but, in the end, his rhetoric did not equal his performance.
That kind of confrontation always gets our attention. It might be in the boxing ring with Joe Frazier and Mohammed Ali and the "Thrilla in Manilla" on July 1, 1975 or a classic Super Bowl game or perhaps the seventh game of a World Series. It is the David and Goliath bout where there is an obvious underdog going against a superior opponent.
No one writes any better about such a moment than C. S. Lewis in his literary classic called The Screwtape Letters. Lewis was one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century and arguably the most influential Christian writer of his day. He was a Fellow and Tutor in English literature at Oxford University until 1954 when he was unanimously elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University, a position he held until his retirement.
Lewis wrote over thirty books including The Chronicles of Narnia, The Problem of Pain, The Four Loves, Mere Christianity and many more. His major contributions in literary criticism, children's literature, fantasy literature, and popular theology brought him international renown and acclaim.
The Screwtape Letters is a masterpiece of satire written in the form of 31 letters from Screwtape to Wormwood. Screwtape is a demon of high regard and high position in hell who is the uncle of Wormwood, a novice demon who is being trained by Screwtape to help cause a young man to lose his soul. "Our Father Below" is Satan and "The Enemy" is God. The young man who is the subject of Wormwood's mission is called "The Patient" and the Patient's mother is called "The Old Lady."
The debate from hell unfolds as we listen in through these letters to the attempt of old Screwtape to persuade young Wormwood to wield all of his skills to ruin the Patient. Unfortunately, Wormwood is not successful because after the second letter the Patient converts to Christianity and Wormwood is chastised for letting that happen.
In this classic struggle between good and evil one would expect Screwtape to advise Wormwood to utilize huge evils such as war and genocide and tyranny to persuade the Patient. After all, are not these huge evil things the ultimate enemies of anything or anyone that is good? But in the words of Screwtape, "Small evils are what corrupt humans, not large ones." He speaks of lying about small things, distractions, lust, and entertainment which contaminate humans little by little until everything is ruined.
Everyone knows we can have our cannons aimed at the front door for the huge assault while subtly the enemy sneaks in the back door and slits our throat. The worst sins, as Lewis puts it are "conceived and ordered in clean, carpeted, warm, and well-lighted offices by quiet men in white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices."
As someone said, "Evil doesn't want to be giant and overwhelming; it just wants to get the job done, hoping that you'll do most of the dirty work for it."
In many ways through The Screwtape Letters Lewis takes us inside an imaginary persuasive effort between two colleagues who are wrestling with the best way to ruin humans. It really is the debate from hell. His message is indeed timeless because it highlights the epic struggle between good and evil.
What an incredible debate. What an incredible book.
Think about it.