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A Year of Reading Lewis: The Screwtape Letters

“The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” – Martin Luther (the opening quote of The Screwtape Letters). 

The Screwtape Letters was originally written as a weekly series in the Anglican periodical, The Guardian, between May and November of 1941. It was compiled into a book and published in 1942.

As the title suggests, the book is a series of letters, written by a Senior Devil, Screwtape, to his hapless nephew and Junior Tempter, Wormwood. Wormwood has been given charge of a man (known only as “the Patient”) and Screwtape writes Wormwood with advice as how best to tempt the man and ensure his damnation. The book presents only Screwtape’s letters, the reader understands Wormwood’s replies and questions from what Screwtape writes.

Definitely not how Lewis pictured Screwtape. One of the most famous quotes of the book is, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

Definitely not how Lewis pictured Screwtape. One of the most famous quotes of the book is, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

That is, in a nutshell, what the book is about, but, oh, what a book this is. That short summary does it no justice. Like with so many of Lewis’ books, I finished it with  awe at his skill and with a heart full of things to ponder. This is a satirical book, and is certainly very funny at times. Through Screwtape, we see the devils in all their horrid, austere, and selfish greed. Everything is turned upside down in this world. God is called the Enemy, and Hell is portrayed as a huge bureaucracy, with the devils in descending (ascending) levels of importance, culminating in “Our Father Below.” Screwtape is in turn condescending, imperious, demanding, and servile towards his nephew. In one particularly funny passage, his fury at Wormwood’s bungling causes him to inadvertently turn into a giant centipede, and the rest of that letter is finished as a dictation to another devil-scribe, as Screwtape is no longer able to write himself. Hah.

These articles were originally written during WWII, and that conflict appears tangentially as a background to Wormwood’s work in tempting the Patient. There isn’t much “story” here, although in the letters we see the Patient’s first steps into faith, his participation in some war-time duties, his involvement with a group of friends whom Screwtape calls “thoroughly reliable people; steady, consistent scoffers and worldlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortably towards our Father’s house”, and his relationship with a deeply spiritual woman (“not only a Christian but such a Christian–a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouse-like, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss. The little brute.”).

But the “story” isn’t really the point. The book is basically a treatise on Christian living, in its upside-down, wryly funny way. In fact, the broad strokes of the Patient’s life allows us to see ourselves in his shoes, as I am sure Lewis intended. The Patient is basically Everyman, and as such we learn a lot from the advice Screwtape gives his nephew on temptation.

Lewis tackles many topics in this book, including:

  • the use of propaganda in turning the Patient from the truth – “Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.”
  • how the Patient’s “idea” of the Church can undermine his faith when he sees the reality of the ordinary people who actually ARE the Church, with all their weaknesses and foibles (“Provided that any of those neighbours [at church] sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.”)
  • how day-to-day relationships are the real battleground of faith (“Keep in close touch with our colleague Glubnose who is in charge of the mother, and build up between you in that house a good settled habit of mutual annoyance; daily pinpricks.”)
  • prayer (“In avoiding this situation – the real nakedness of the soul in prayer – you will be helped by the fact that the humans themselves do not desire it as much as they suppose.”)
  • the up and down nature of faith (“He [God] wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles.”)
  • how anxiety over the future can undermine faith (“[God] wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.”)
  • the different causes of laughter – Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy, and why each should be either avoided or cultivated in the quest to guide the Patient to Hell. Flippancy is the best, for “It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.”

There is much more, I took those topics from the first quarter of the book. I hope some of the quotes  wet your whistle for reading all of it.

As I finished the book I was struck by a couple of things. One, I was once again amazed by how Lewis can write so perceptively about the Christian faith. This whole area of temptation can be difficult to write about – the  idea of writing some kind of treatise on what a temptation is and what it isn’t, and how to avoid or resist a temptation, makes me cringe.  You risk coming across as some kind of spiritual know-it-all, high up on a mountaintop above all the other ordinary people. What kind of credibility does any of us have in writing about how to successfully resist temptation?  Basically, you would be writing about failure. And who wants to write about that?

But by putting the topic into the mouth of the devil who is doing the tempting, Lewis manages to write about temptation in a deeply meaningful way, providing us with much rich spiritual contemplation as he does so. It’s a brilliant idea, executed with skill.

Secondly, as I thought about it, it seems to me that these essays would have been very hard to write. To write in the point of view of a devil would have been a nasty exercise all in itself, even if it is meant to be satirical. But there’s an even greater difficulty to overcome. The reason why these letters are so startling and thought-provoking is that they strike so very close to home. Lewis is speaking from personal experience here as he describes the various temptations; we know that because we recognize ourself so easily in the Patient. This willingness of Lewis to explore his own nature and bring up to the light what he found is essential for any good work of art – and it’s so hard to do.

Lewis himself swore he would not do another Screwtape letter once he finished, and he kept to that until 1959, when he published an article in The Saturday Evening Post, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” which is a treatise on trends in public education. Shades of The Abolition of Man, perhaps? I’m not sure, I didn’t get a chance to re-read it this time, but I will do so this year and review that essay in another post.

In the meantime, as much as I would like to ponder the truths found in The Screwtape Letters a little longer, I’m off to begin the next book in my series. This month I am tackling The Problem of Pain, another one of Lewis’ most popular books. I hope to have it done by the end of August, so I can keep to my schedule of posting an installment of this series at the end of each month.

I leave you with a final quote to ponder, in which Screwtape advises Wormwood of the advisability of a long life for his Patient. It comes towards the end of the book, and it is a perfect example of how the book can be chilling, humourous, and thought-provoking, all at once:

“How valuable time is to us may be gauged by the fact that the Enemy allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth. It is obvious that to Him human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life. We are allowed to work only on a selected minority of the race, for what humans call a ‘normal life’ is the exception. Apparently He wants some–but only a very few–of the human animals with which He is peopling Heaven to have had the experience of resisting us through an earthly life of sixty or seventy years. Well, there is our opportunity. The smaller it is, the better we must use it. Whatever you do, keep your patient as safe as you possibly can.”


 For more reading on Lewis and Screwtape, check out this interesting post on the inspiration for Screwtape, found over at the Pilgrim in Narnia’s blog: