The Screwtape Letters, C. 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.