The Screwtape Letters

December 15, 2016
The Screwtape Letters Book Cover The Screwtape Letters
C.S. Lewis
Theology
HarperOne
October 8th, 2013
Hardback
169
Library
1942

This extraordinary little book is a startling, unique, and powerful presentation of the old, old problem of the continuous battle for the soul of man between the insidious forces of evil and the triumphant forces of good.

It consists of a series of letters written by Screwtape (an important official in his Satanic Majesty's "Lowerarchy") to Wormwood, his nephew, who is a junior devil on earth. The letters are instruction in temptation as to how to corrupt the faith of Wormwood's "patient," who is in danger of becoming a Christian.

"The book sparkles with wit and reveals on every page a penetrating understanding of man's spiritual struggle upward toward the City of God. Its incisive truth, its scintillating style cry out for quotation. The reader will irresistibly find himself carrying it about, reading it to anyone who will listen. It is a perfect joy and should become a classic."

(via Goodreads)


C.S. Lewis is known as a Christian apologist. This means he presents reasoned, logical, evidential bases for Christianity. screwtape-letter-cs-lewisIn 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, screwtape-letter-quotethe 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.screwtape-letters-little-devil

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.

3 stars


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?

10 Comments

  • LizScanlon December 15, 2016 at 11:17 am

    OK, wow… this book has intrigued me completely. I just wonder how this read would work for me… I am not a Christian… well, I’m a complete non believer in God as such, this book sounds kind of like a challenge at the risk of sounding stubbornly defiant? I am all for widening the horizons though and looking at things from other perspectives even if just to understand so I need to flag this title and add it to my TBR pile. Thanks for sharing the great review 🙂

    • Jackie B December 15, 2016 at 5:19 pm

      Thanks, Liz! Haha- it was definitely a challenge for me as well, particularly when I felt like the theme was being belabored. That said, it was really interesting to think about how Lewis was showing the *need* for Christianity in people’s lives. I think at the heart of it all, most religions are really just about a set of ethics to live by and govern their life. So, it might not be all that challenging. It’s obvious you hold your own set of ethics, after all.
      I’m definitely interested to see what you think of this once you read it!

  • Books, Vertigo and Tea December 15, 2016 at 12:44 pm

    Wow, you have a way of really diving in with your reviews! I love this 🙂 While spiritual, but not in any traditional manner, I am a fan of Lewis, but not sure how this one would sit with me. It feels like it might be a bit of an uphill read, but still a rewarding one. So I am definitely not marking it off. I am pretty intrigued by your thoughts 🙂

    • Jackie B December 15, 2016 at 5:21 pm

      “An uphill read” is a great way to describe this, Danielle. I really enjoyed reading the letters at first, but it became a challenge. I’m glad I stuck it out, however! There was always something new to reflect on. It helped me when Lewis’ theme for the letter was overt, but even the subtle ones caused me to think.
      If you are interested in reading this, I would encourage you to read one letter a day for month. They are pretty short, and that makes it manageable to process and appreciate.

  • whatthelog December 15, 2016 at 2:57 pm

    I tried to read this after I’d finished the Chronicles of Narnia series – I wanted to read everything by C.S. Lewis, what can I say! I’d be really interested to read it now that I know what the heck it is talking about, even though I’m not a believer myself. Great review, thanks!

    • Jackie B December 15, 2016 at 5:10 pm

      Good luck, Wendy! I have aspirations to read the complete works of so many authors, but I have never managed to do that (unless you count single book authors like Erin Morganstern…). What in particular about Narnia inspired you to read his complete works? And does this include his more academic literature as well?

  • Laila@BigReadingLife December 17, 2016 at 1:42 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your review, Jackie. I have a complicated relationship with Christianity (as I suspect many people do, believers and not.) I’ve never read anything by C.S. Lewis but have been curious, since he’s so influential. I like your idea about taking this one slowly and reading a section a day. If I try it, I’ll do it that way.

    • Jackie B December 19, 2016 at 10:46 pm

      Thanks, Laila! It leaves a lot to ponder, and should I ever want to re-read this book that’s certainly the format I’ll do it in. I’m impressed you have never read any of Lewis’s works as he is so prolific. He has a very interesting voice. I would certainly be interested in hearing your opinion. He is not a great choice for everyone. But, c’est la vie!

  • Krysta December 27, 2016 at 12:44 am

    I’m usually not a fan of epistolary novels, but I think this one works for me because only one character is writing and his voice is so compelling. I love how Lewis illuminates the consequences of seemingly small or everyday actions.

    • Jackie B December 30, 2016 at 9:38 am

      Right?! It’s fascinating to see the ripple effect of one’s actions from a distance. Lewis really made me think about the person I am and how I interact with the world, which I’m certain was his goal.
      Thanks for commenting, Krysta! 🙂

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