Review: The Screwtape Letters

screwtape letters

 

The Screwtape LettersC. S. Lewis.  New York: Macmillan, 1962 (Link is to current edition).

Summary: The classic collection of letters between a senior demon and junior tempter charged with undermining the new found faith of his “patient.”

I am surprised how many I’ve talked with have heard of The Screwtape Letters but have never read this classic by C. S. Lewis. It is a purported collection of letters that has fallen into his hands from a senior demon, Screwtape, to a junior tempter, Wormwood. One of the fundamental insights of this work is that this Infernal Bureaucracy is founded the axiom of consume or be consumed.

Wormwood’s patient becomes a Christian after the first letter. And so Screwtape concerns himself with advice about unraveling the faith of this new convert. Various letters explore the use of subtle distractions rather than frontal attacks. There is the avoidance of matters of truth or falsity, categorizing thing as brave or progressive. Playing on subtle annoyances is far better than tempting to spectacular sin. Don’t let the convert notice he is drifting away. Get him to spiritualize his concern for his mother while detesting her annoying habits, to have noble visions of fellowship while being put off by the neighbor in the pew.

All the tempter can do is twist and distort. Use a new circle who accompany his newfound love, a Christian woman of character, to make him look down on others. There are several letters on sexuality, and the insight that it is often in the valleys when the affections are depressed that temptation may be most effective.

The letters are short and pithy. The apparent love of the “Enemy” (God) for his creatures is incomprehensible and contemptible. At one point, Screwtape becomes so provoked at the Enemy’s designs that he is transformed into a giant centipede. Before this happens, he writes:

    “He is a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a facade. Or onlylike foam on the seashore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at his right hand are ‘pleasures for evermore.’ Ugh! I don’t think He has the least inkling of that high and austere mystery to which we rise in the Miserific vision. He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least–sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side” (pp. 101-102).

Lewis found the letters difficult to write, adopting the mindset of the infernal. Yet he offers numerous insights into the dynamics of spiritual life and the nature of the battles we fight or fail to resist. He resisted pleas to write more, but did write a sequel, included here. In Screwtape Proposes a Toast, he instructs the tempters in the nuances of their trade. He has a fascinating commentary on “democracy” and mistaken ideas of equality this evokes.

Perhaps this is the summer you sit down with this collection of letters. It can be read as a witty diversion. Or it can expand our perception of the realities of the spiritual battle in the midst of which we live.

 

7 thoughts on “Review: The Screwtape Letters

  1. NO WAY! Bob, I’m in a book club and this was my month and this was my pick and it’s happening in an hour! What a fun surprise to see this reference here. 🙂 Giving me new ideas for the discussion I’ll lead tonight. It’s been a favorite of mine since high school. I enjoy your posts!

  2. I have returned to The Screwtape Letters repeatedly over the years since I first read them decades ago. Certain of the letters made a lasting impression, and became useful in counseling others,in addressing issues of practical theology, etc.. I empathize with Lewis about the tortuous difficulty he must have had writing the Letters, but always come away amazed at his ability to get us to look at our situation from a perspective so different from, so opposite to that of the Scriptures. This is quite a unique book that perhaps only Lewis could pull off.

  3. Also see Andy Naselli, “Diabolical Ventriloquism: A 1-Sentence Summary of Each of Screwtape’s Letters” (25 JUL 2013), on Andy Naselli at http://andynaselli.com/diabolical-ventriloquism-a-1-sentence-summary-of-each-of-screwtapes-letters [accessed 27 APR 2016].

    Andy’s post begins: “In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis masterfully “teaches in reverse” by wryly using demonic points of view to enforce a biblical one. He calls it “diabolical ventriloquism.” Here is a one-sentence summary of each of Screwtape’s thirty-one letters that advise Wormwood how to tempt his “patient” (who becomes a Christian between letters one and two):…”

  4. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: April 2016 | Bob on Books

  5. Pingback: Book Review: The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis | Emerging Scholars Blog

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