C.S. Lewis is known as a Christian apologist. This means he presents reasoned, logical, evidential bases for Christianity. In fact, he is known as one of the most influential Christian apologists of his time. Interested in presenting a reasonable case for Christianity to the world, he wrote many books and essays on the matter. While Mere Christianity is considered his definitive work on the matter, The Screwtape Letters is his only fictionalized attempt to share these opinions.
It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.
I will admit, I only picked up The Screwtape Letters for a buddy read. This is not a book which had ever been on my To Be Read list. I am glad Emma convinced me otherwise! An epistolary novel, this is a collection of letters written by a Senior Tempter (demon) named Uncle Screwtape to his nephew, a Junior Tempter, named Wormwood. Throughout these letters Screwtape is giving his young nephew advice on how to ensnare a human soul. After all, the demons need to consume human souls for survival. Unfortunately for Wormwood, the “patient” he is assigned to ensnare has recently converted to Christianity and is seeking the hand of a faithful Christian woman.
By keeping humanity off-stage in this manner, the reader only hears about humanity’s daily interactions through hearsay. This is surprisingly effective in outlining the folly of most human behavior. From the perspective of Christian apologetics, I think this is brilliant. In each letter, Screwtape outlines a virtue or vice of their patience Wormwood can exploit. This detailed advice provides Wormwood with various methods to undermine the faith of the Patient.
The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.
I will admit, the formula became belabored for me about halfway through. Lewis looks to explore all aspects of sin, both subtle and overt. In fact, Wormwood tends to lean towards the more wicked and deplorable sins while Screwtape is inclined to recommend more subtle tactics. Despite this, it takes thirty-one letters to explore all these sins. Sex, vanity, love, pride, gluttony, intellect, insincerity, forgetting God, war, and more are described in detail between each letter. The goal of these letters is obvious: Show the reader how often they are tempted to be led astray from Christian, and therefore ethical, teachings.
While this point was exhausted on me by the end of the novel, I can appreciate the subtle way Lewis assists the reader in looking more closely at their own life. I found that, even though I am not a Christian, I was reflecting on how I might have had some of these actions. By never naming the Patient it is easy for the man to become an Everyman, and therefore easy for the reader to put themselves in that position.
Gratutide looks to the Past and love to the Present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.
All in all, I’m quite glad I read this book. It helped me to better understand Christianity in a logical way. While an intense rumination on the natures of good and evil, it expanded my understanding of the person I am and who I want to be. Which, honestly, I didn’t expect. I might not have come to any solid conclusions, but I know that Lewis’s work is effective.
What do you think?
- How do you feel about epistolary novels?
- Have you ever read any of the works of C.S. Lewis? Do you enjoy them? Do his non-fiction works about Catholicism compare well to this?
- Catholic or not (I am not) do you find works like this interesting? Why or why not?