Book Review: The Screwtape Letters

ScrewtapeThe idea for what would become The Screwtape Letters first came to C. S. Lewis in 1940, and, when they were completed, they first appeared one at a time in a weekly Anglican publication called The Guardian. The public response prompted publishers to make it into a book as soon as possible. It was first published in England in 1942 and in the USA shortly thereafter.

Lewis thought it might be both “entertaining and useful” to write a series of letters from an older devil to a younger apprentice in his work of tempting and tripping up a new “patient.” The type of approach, presenting “a negative point of view to lift up the positive,” was unusual for Lewis, but he felt it “would give a fresh, even comical perspective on the subject and might attract readers who might not normally think about such things.” Why a comical approach for such a serious subject, one that ended up being very difficult and unpleasant for Lewis to write about?” Partly to “[lure] the ordinary reader into a serious self-knowledge under pretense of being a kind of joke”* (McCusker’s preface) and because “humor involves a sense of proportion and a power of seeing yourself from the outside” (Lewis’s 1961 preface).

In his preface to the original edition, Lewis notes that “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. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” In the same preface he “[advises the reader] to remember that the devil is a liar. Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle.” He writes in the preface to the 1961 edition that “Satan, the leader or dictator of the devils, is the opposite, not of God, but of Michael,” an archangel, and “God has no opposite.”

At first it is a little hard to get used to the reverse thinking of the letters: Screwtape refers to God as “the Enemy,” to the devil as “Our Father Below,” to his position in the “Lowerachy” of hell, etc. It takes frequent mental adjustments throughout the book, and I can see at least partly how it could seem so oppressive for Lewis to try to express what a devil’s thoughts might be.

Screwtape’s nephew, Wormwood, is his apprentice and correspondent, and Wormwood, seems to want to come at the patient with a full-fledged attack and arguments. Screwtape counsels him that argument is not the answer, because by arguing, “you awake the patient’s reason, and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?” (Letter 1). Likewise, Wormwood wants to be able to “report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing…Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts” (Letter 12). Thus, distracting someone on the verge of a spiritual crisis with thoughts about lunch proves quite effective.

When Wormwood’s patient becomes a Christian, Screwtape threatens “the usual penalties” but admits there is still plenty they can do, such as to “work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax” that occurs a few weeks after his conversion, for “If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.” Wormwood can also point out the flaws in the patient’s church and fellow churchmen, “[keeping] out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?'” (Letter 2).  He offers a few more suggestions, among them:

Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him toward themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills. (Letter 4).

[The Enemy] wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them (Letter 5).

Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours–and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here (Letter 7).

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the human to take the pleasure which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula (Letter 9).

A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all–and more amusing (Letter 9).

But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical…If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it (Letter 11).

Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? (Letter 14).

Tortured fear and stupid confidence are both desirable states of mind (Letter 15).

The search for a “suitable” church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil (Letter 16).

Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him…They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own.’ (Letter 21) (Ouch! This one hit particularly home for me.)

That’s probably more than enough, but there is so much more. When the patient does begin to feel as if he has done something wrong, Screwtape advises trying to help him avoid “the explicit repentance of a definite, fully recognized, sin,” but rather to encourage a “vague, though uneasy feeling that he hasn’t been doing very well” (Letter 12). If the patient gets to the place of proclaiming “No more lavish promises of perpetual virtue…not even the expectation of an endowment of ‘grace’ for life, but only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation! This is very bad” Letter 14).

The particular edition I read also included “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” originally an article in the Saturday Evening Post in 1959. It’s written as Screwtape giving an after-dinner speech in hell at the annual dinner for new graduates of the Tempter’s Training College for Young Devils. Though it contains some general advice from Screwtape, a great deal of it involves politics and education and “devilish” tends on those fronts.

Lewis said in his preface to the 1961 edition that “Some have paid me an undeserved compliment by supposing that my Letters were the ripe fruit of many years’ study in moral and ascetic theology. They forgot that there is an equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works. ‘My heart’—I need no other’s—’showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly.’ ” Thus this isn’t an exhaustive study of every way we can be tempted. I was a little surprised at a few obvious things he didn’t cover (like trying to keep people away from Bible reading). Maybe he felt those were obvious enough that they didn’t need to be dealt with. He doesn’t really discuss spiritual warfare, either, or show how a “patient” can resist temptation except in a few passing observations. His main purpose was to show how Satan can so easily get us off course, sometimes by the merest step away from the way God intended things.

I won’t give away what ultimately happens to the patient or Wormwood, but I did enjoy this peek into the devices of the devil. As I said when I introduced this book for Carrie‘s Reading to Know Classics Book Club for this month, II Corinthians 2:11 was a motivating factor in reading this book: “Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.”

There were a few little places where I didn’t agree with Lewis, most notably a mention of Limbo in Screwtape’s toast, a place for “creatures suitable neither for Heaven nor for Hell.” McCusker quotes a letter from Lewis in which he describes it as a place for the “virtuous unbeliever,” where it’s pleasant except for a “faint melancholy because you’ll all know that you missed the bus.” I don’t know where he got such an idea (it’s noted he explored it further in The Pilgrim’s Regress, which I have not read), but it is not a Biblical concept. McCusker also has a note from a chapter in Letters to Malcolm on a sentence where Screwtape mentions a “final cleansing” before death for humans that Lewis also believed in Purgatory, not as a Catholic doctrine so much as just a need for a final cleansing from whatever sin we were stained with when we get to heaven. I thought that was odd as well. When we repent and believe on Christ, all our sins, past, present, and future, are forgiven, and we’re seen through the righteousness of Christ, not our own. But otherwise, I thought he showed amazing insight and a great deal of cleverness in writing about such concepts in such a way.

The particular version I read was the e-book The Screwtape Letters: Annotated Edition by C. S. Lewis with preface and annotations by Paul McCusker. I found it on a great sale a few months before reading it. His preface and annotations were very helpful: the annotations included definitions of obscure words and explanations of some unfamiliar references as well as cross-references to some of Lewis’s other writings that expand on concepts mentioned here. Sometimes I wrestled with whether to chase down the references or just read the story, but most times it was rewarding to get that additional insight. I was grateful McCusker included both the preface to the original version and the 1961 version here as well.

Carrie will have a wrap-up post for discussion of this book tomorrow. If you’ve read it with her book club, you can link up your post there. I am looking forward to seeing what others thought of this book. It was my first time to read it, but I can tell it’s going to be one I come back to often.

By the way, Carrie shared in her review a clip of a play made from this book. I agree with her that it works better as a book than a play!
*It is difficult to put page numbers for quotes from an e-book, because they might vary on different devices or with different size fonts, so I just put what section or letter the reference is from.

Reading to Know - Book Club

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

13 thoughts on “Book Review: The Screwtape Letters

  1. Pingback: Reading Plans | Stray Thoughts

  2. Just read your review (and set the post to go live tomorrow!). If I was concise I think that’s because I did not draw as much out of it as you did. And you most certainly did! It’s like you went treasuring hunting and I rubbed my toe around in the dirt a little bit.

    Sometimes I feel like if I had read people’s concluding posts first, I would get more out of the read in general. 🙂 The information which pours out then is always so fascinating.

    Thank you for sharing and for choosing this book in the first place!

  3. I’m really enjoying re-reading this (although it has been slow progress for me – more because of my current season of life than anything else!)

    It’s hard to pick out specific quotes because there are so many witty or profound little statements sprinkled throughout.

    I was thinking just today that with 31 letters, someone should come up with some Scriptures to look up for each chapter and read it as a 31-day thing. I’m not super into “devotionals” of that sort since they often make the focus on someone else’s words rather than God’s – but the shortness and number of the letters (as well as the need, which Lewis expressed in one of the prefaces I read, for a heavenly perspective to temper the hellish one) seems to practically beg for such a treatment. Maybe someday 🙂

  4. Pingback: The Abridged Screwtape, part 1 « Bekahcubed

  5. You picked out all the quotes I liked too! That one about the road to hell being a gentle slope, so scary and true.
    I thought of 1Peter 5:8 while I read this book: Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour

  6. I always appreciate all the background you give in these types of books. It’s interesting to note where the author was coming from. One of these fine days I will make it to this book!

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