The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

The Screwtape Letters
by C. S. Lewis
1961

Having enjoyed The Great Divorce and found it extremely thought-provoking and had a casual book club with various members of my family, it was proposed that we read The Screwtape Letters next. It was just as thought provoking, if not more so, although somewhat less enjoyable. It consists of 31 chapters/letters plus one toast, and it’s all told from the perspective of a demon, the titular Screwtape, who is giving advice on how to lure humans into sin.

Despite having been written 80 years ago, it is decidedly timely today, as it addresses the devil’s goal of keeping humans constantly focused on doom scrolling and headlines and thoughtless denigration of anyone who disagrees with you, while avoiding humility, charity, respect, or thoughtful consideration. I felt decidedly called out at various points. I should be better! I will try to be more thoughtful and focused and enjoy the pleasures that are available to me in the present and worry less.

At other points, however, it feels dated in the way that it appears to be arguing about social trends that I’m not even aware of. At one point the devil is recommending that people should stay focused on government policies rather than prayers since those are so much less important and I really hope that Lewis had no expectation of “thoughts and prayers” becoming such a catch phrase for politicians refusing to update policies. As Screwtape presents himself as the arbiter of what is evil, Lewis comes across as an arbiter of what is good, and that is, occasionally, rough. Historians, modern artists, and unions are all mentioned as being misleading to Good Christians.

Lewis definitely takes the opportunity to call out some of his personal most and least favored theologians, placing them either as godly agents or thoroughly controlled by the devils’ temptations to sin. This book also has a nearly Ayn Randian Objectivist perspective on the world: what is Good is very clear and natural and unaffected by different lives, perspectives or understandings. Devils provide temptation and people provide false information but a Good Christian will just know what is right due to God, much the same way that Ayn Rand’s protagonists will know what is right due to Logic, despite any lack of education or resources for either. Peak individualism, despite the differences in both methods and goals.  

I found that I needed to read this book one chapter at a time and take at least a little break between. They were thought provoking and inspiring and occasionally quite funny, but they were also quite dense and more than occasionally rather florid.

This book also made me think that I should get around to reading Lolita, at some point, as the only other book I can think of that has the protagonist/narrator also be the unrepentant villain of the story. I did wonder how many people read this book and think Screwtape is an anti-hero instead. Some of his advice came across as fitting right in with big business and some of my least favorite managers at my job, so it’s not out of the question.

I got a lot out of this book and enjoyed talking about it with Anna as we progressed through, but the book started out strong and then got progressively more wearying as it continued. It’s worth reading, but be prepared to decide what you take seriously. (Note: Cherry-picking what to take seriously is also advice that Screwtape would offer a human and C.S. Lewis specifically rejects when it comes to religious contemplation. So, you know: Enjoy!)

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