A Long Review of Screwtape Letters

Posted: April 2, 2013 in Book Review, Discipleship, Guilt, Spiritual Warfare
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Most of my book reviews are pretty short. This one is almost as long as the book was . . .

Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters with Screwtape Proposes a Toast. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2001. 224pp.

Clive Stapleton Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland in 1898. As a teenager, he left the faith of his parents, and became an avowed skeptic. However, in his early thirties, influenced by his friends, T.S. Eliot and J.R.R. Tolkien, he returned to Christianity. In between his departure from and return to Christianity, he served in the British army in World War I, and was wounded in the Battle of Arras. He subsequently achieved Firsts in Honour Moderations (Greek and Latin Literature), Greats (Philosophy and Ancient History) and English from Oxford University. Lewis taught at both Oxford and Cambridge, and wrote over 20 works of nonfiction, and nearly as many fictional. Most of Lewis’s books and essays dealt with Christian themes, and he is known as one of the 20th century’s most effective Christian apologists, sometimes being called “The Apostle to the Skeptics.”

Although Lewis’s nonfictional works are highly regarded, especially Mere Christianity, his fictional Chronicles of Narnia have made him one of the most well-known authors of all time. The Screwtape Letters is another fictional work, originally written as a series of short articles in the Anglican newspaper The Guardian (which closed in 1951).

The Screwtape Letters are written as correspondence from one demon to another, as His Abysmal Sublimity Undersecretary Screwtape, T.E., B.S., etc. attempts to instruct his nephew, a lesser demon named Wormwood, in the temptation and retrieval of the soul of a new Christian. Through this method, Lewis attempts to describe the devil’s strategies for defeating followers of Christ (the Enemy – according to Screwtape). A number of different situations and stratagems are explored, but Wormwood eventually loses the battle, when the Christian dies. Each short chapter stands alone, although Screwtape sometimes refers to something he wrote earlier. He also obliquely refers to Wormwood’s correspondence, although only Screwtape’s letters are shown to the reader.

As the book progresses, the reader can catch a glimpse of the progress in Christian growth of Wormwood’s patient, as well as a few references to World War II, during which Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters. The focus, however, is really not on the Christian’s growth – which actually seems rather haphazard and inconsistent, but rather on the “wiles of the devil.” Lewis does not give clear instruction on how to combat these wiles, but attempts to present the devil’s tactics from the devil’s perspective.

One of the key points Lewis demonstrates the efficiency of the demonic strategy of deluding a man into thinking he has personal rights, especially the right to his time, and how defeating it is to have that personal “me” time taken away unexpectedly. In fact, Lewis, through Screwtape, says that this strategy is even more effective than sexual temptation (95-96). Although the nature of the book as a series of disconnected letters makes it a bit difficult to determine what Screwtape perceives to be the best strategy for retaking the Christian’s soul, the demon returns regularly to this theme of convincing the human that he has ownership, possession, rights, or a claim to something.

This selfish self-centeredness seems to be Screwtape’s goal for Wormwood’s patient, in order to draw him away from Christ. In fact, any possible small movement in the direction of self is to be encouraged, while sacrifice, for whatever reason, is to be discouraged. It was interesting to research a quote that Lewis references on page 109 from Reinhold Niebuhr, where Lewis basically says that Niebuhr is aiding the devil by giving some other reason for belief in Christianity than the fact that it is true. It was Niebuhr, however, who described the root of evil as the “prideful human pretension of being God”[1]. Lewis describes sin in a very similar manner.

Screwtape frequently encourages Wormwood to allow his target to engage in something good, including prayer and Christian fellowship, but to slightly corrupt the good activity. If the good thing could distract him from Christ, or eventually bore him, or best of all, lead him to pride – the battle was won. If the soul became proud of his prayers, or especially of his type of Christianity – the devil’s work was accomplished. We would rightly  include in our live several spiritual disciplines, especially prayer and fasting, but it must be remembered that such disciplines are means to an end. If they are seen as the goal, rather than that which leads us to Christ, then the amount of time and effort we expend can easily produce pride, or a greater sense of self, rather than the real goal of “more God, less me.”

Lewis, through Screwtape, shares a perspective on death and suffering that is in stark contrast to what modern Westerners practice. Screwtape encourages Wormwood to keep his patient alive, to let him avoid suffering and an early death. He says that suffering and death more frequently serve the cause of his Enemy (Christ), than they do the cause of Satan. Suffering opens the door for man to understand Christ, and death opens the gate to the next life (134). In fact, Screwtape claims that humans regard “death as the prime evil and survival as the greatest good” precisely because the devils have taught humans to do so. (131)

The fact that the book is written during World War II serves as an interesting background, but little more than that. Screwtape is himself almost dismissive of the war, seeing it more as a tool of the Enemy (Christ) than of the devil. He claims that more people choose Christ because of war than because of peace. This is a very interesting perspective, and worthy of further thought. Of course, Screwtape sees the value of promoting hatred, and especially cowardice, against the backdrop of war, but the war in and of itself does not particularly help the devil’s cause.

Screwtape also claims that the devils, through Fashion, have succeeded in causing humanity to castigate that which it most needs in any given era. So, enthusiasm is exposed as dangerous when apathy holds sway, or Puritanism is decried during lecherous ages. “The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood.” (117-118).

The pursuit of pleasure, or hedonism, is the most significant area where some of us might disagree. We many times emphasize the need for holy living, while Lewis argued that pleasure is good, and meant to be pursued. Of course, Screwtape encourages Wormwood to use corrupted pleasures to entice his patient, but cautions that these strategies can backfire, as they lead the soul to guilt, which should be avoided because the soul may then be more cognizant of his spiritual state, and of the remedy. Many writers would list hedonism as one of the worldly values that draw us away from God, and encourage holy living that wouldn’t damage our testimony in front of others.

Although The Screwtape Letters is a work of fiction, and furthermore, written from the devil’s perspective, it has a strong biblical basis. There is a biblical understanding of grace, the gospel, forgiveness and sin that permeates the book. It doesn’t attempt to proclaim any new doctrinal insights, but rather basic foundational understandings of the nature of the battle. Of course, there are no biblical citations – that would be anathema for Screwtape. But his descriptions of Christ’s love and sacrifice for humans are in agreement with the Gospel, although he admits that he can’t understand Christ’s plan or goal.

The devil’s perspective, and the anecdotal portrayal of his strategy provide the real strength of Lewis’s book. The Screwtape Letters can let us see just how defeated the devil already is, but it also helps us see what the devil is attempting to do in the lives of ordinary people, as well as world structures. However, Christ has won the victory, and the devil is struggling just to play catch-up.

The length of the 31 chapters serves as a strength, as well. Each chapter is about 1200 words, probably to make the copy fit in the original Guardian periodical. The number fits perfectly with a daily reading over a month, although Lewis doesn’t indicate anywhere that this was his goal. The chapter size makes it possible to read in just a few minutes, but can then be dissected or discussed at length.

The book very well describes the insidious nature of the devil’s attacks. We so frequently think of spiritual warfare as a frontal attack, as demon possession or adversity. However, Screwtape shows us that the devil might actually prefer us in church – as long as that makes us apathetic, or proud, or anything else that removes our attention from Christ. Or he may encourage us to serve someone else – if we can take pride then in our service.

Chapter XXVI was one chapter that personally resonated with me. Screwtape describes the differences in the way men and women think about Unselfishness, but he also shows the slightly corrupted version of Unselfishness that allows us to take pride in being unselfish, and then umbrage at others for not following our “unselfish” wishes, and finally bitterness and quarrels when our “unselfish” wishes clash with others’ “unselfish” desires. Of course, in the end, it is all about self, and true love is forgotten. “Some degree of mutual falseness, some surprise that the girl does not always notice just how Unselfish he is being, can be smuggled in already” (124). How often I have acted and thought just like that! Not only in my own marriage, but in ministry as well! And how devilish, how self-promoting that kind of “unselfishness” really is.

Sometimes Lewis attempts such a convoluted argument that one wonders just what he is getting at. This was especially true in Letter XXX, when Screwtape talks about “reality.” Perhaps an understanding of the cultural milieu of the 1940’s would give a clearer picture of what Lewis is addressing. However, Lewis, who at times makes the perfect profound phrase, sometimes builds complex arguments that start to disintegrate after a few long sentences.             Once in a while, one almost gets the idea that Lewis himself started to lose track of his argument.

Another weakness in the book would be that there is no real plan or even suggestions for the Christian to combat the devil’s tactics. Of course, the book helps us understand his strategy better, but sometimes it would be helpful to have a clearer picture of how these tactics can be defeated. In fact, the conclusion of the book, where the man dies and enters into the presence of Christ, seems almost to indicate that the man is saved in spite of himself.

Or is that the whole point of grace??


[1] Gary Dorrien, Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition, John Wiley and Sons, 2008, p. 248

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