This book made its home on my bookcase back in middle school, when I decided that I needed to read something else by C.S. Lewis, having loved The chronicles of Narnia series. The Screwtape letters seemed the best pick then, yet the format of storytelling in one-sided letters along with the philosophical religious content written in a didactic tone overwhelmed me at that young age. And it still threatened to as I read it now.
Screwtape is a high-ranking demon for the Devil who writes these letters to his young demon nephew in hopes of guiding him into successfully capturing his human patient’s soul. Wormwood, the nephew, struggles with corrupting his patient and in the end loses the battle when his human dies in the WWII bombing of England, having found God and solidified his belief in the months prior. Screwtape’s letters to Wormwood are the entirety of this book and with each letter, it is clear that his guidance isn’t being heeded as the patient’s soul slips further from their grasp.
Beyond the format and the set-up, the real charm and creativity comes from the content itself. Screwtape’s demonic guidance to Wormwood focuses on distracting his patient from godly thoughts and actions by any means. His advice includes: making the patient self-involved, exaggerating mild annoyances of others, tempting the patient’s physical self, keeping a division between his religious tendencies and his everyday life, and finally ensuring he lives through the war to a more corruptible old age. However, listing some of Screwtape’s advice makes it sound basic and straight-forward but the letters are anything but.
If such a feeling [of Christianity] is allowed to live, but not allowed to become irresistible and flower into real repentance, it has one in valuable tendency. It increases the patient’s reluctance to think about the Enemy. All humans at nearly all times have some such reluctance; but when thinking about Him involves facing and intensifying a whole bag cloud of half-conscious guilt, this reluctance is increased tenfold. They hate every idea that suggests Him, just as men in financial embarrassment hate the very sight of a pass-book. In this state your patient will not omit, but will increasingly dislike, his religious duties. He will think about them as little as he feels he decently can beforehand, and forget them as soon as possible when they are over. A few weeks ago you had to tempt him to unreality and inattention to his prayers: but now you will be able to find him opening his arms to you and almost begging you to distract his purpose and benumb his heart. He will want his prayers to be unreal, for he will dread nothing so much as effective contract with the Enemy.
Lewis uses this style of philosophical religious argument and persuasion in all of Screwtape’s letters to Wormwood, as a wise advisor would to a newcomer. There is elegance and logic to the advice in the well-crafted letters that makes them both a joy and challenge to read. It’s no surprise that Lewis knows Christianity and counter-point arguments and actions very well; it’s clear that this is a topic of immense contemplation. Many people could write letters between two demons trying to win a man’s soul for the Devil but only Lewis could write it as sophisticated and complex as the Screwtape letters.
Recommended?: For anyone into fundamental, religious inquiry and reasoning. Christians and non-Christians would appreciate this work due to its unique and interesting content and format. The book reads like essays more so than a novel but there is a plot line though the letters address the ramifications of Wormwood and his patient’s actions. It’s a fascinating read but highly intellectual and a different sort of read. This book is a great combination of Lewis’ skill as a fiction writer and thoughtfulness as a curious, studious Christian pondering profound questions.