Book Review – The Screwtape Letters (By: C.S. Lewis)

The Screwtape Letters is that C.S. Lewis book that you didn’t read after the ones you read in school. Unlike (but kinda like) his more famous fantasy novels, it is a Christian Apologetic (is there a better term for that yet?) series of fictitious letters sent by a bureaucratic devil (Screwtape) to his junior nephew (Wormwood). And it attempts to explain how to avoid temptation and straying from faith by telling you how to do the exact opposite, with Screwtape instructing Wormwood as he attempts to tempt his first “patient”.

There are 31 letters, and my book also contains the later-written Screwtape Proposes a Toast, that follow the Screwtape side of the conversation as his nephew attempts to sway the soul of an unnamed British man around the time of the Second World War (though not really, as the demons don’t know “time” as we do), which is about when the text was written and published in the newspaper. They read at times like essays, but do keep the flavor of correspondence throughout, and discuss how turning away from God in both large and small ways will eventually lead to the soul being cast into hell to be devoured by the devils. And with each letter (though they don’t necessarily go in “chronological” order) you can clearly read Screwtape’s increasing frustration and disappointment with Wormwood’s failure to tempt the man.

While it is impressive how well Lewis can keep the “opposite day” style presentation up without contradictions arising, there are some that pop up here and there. The most common of these being the veneer of politeness as each letter ends “Your Affectionate Uncle, Screwtape”, which seems like something the office workers of hell wouldn’t really attach to things they send. Even with it obviously being a lie, I don’t understand why they wouldn’t use something more cold and business-like. There are a few other inconsistencies like that which always seem to pop up when representing devils, as manifestations of evil are hard to rationalize. Through most of the book, though, the motivations and desires of the demons are surprisingly understandable, and that makes the message of how easily one can be turned away from the Lord more powerful.

The book does a very good job of encapsulating the teachings of the modern Christian philosophy, and does so in an entertaining way, not just with a reverse perspective, but with the snippets of story that can be found every few lines that hint about the larger narrative both on earth and in hell that really give the reader the sense that the story is happening in a world. And this method of storytelling, coupled with the fact that Lewis is generally a good and engaging writer, smoothes over most of the rough parts of the book. There are still times that I’m not sure about how things really fit together, for instance I was sure that “our Father Below” (“Satan”) was either imprisoned in hell, or not present there but out in the world sewing lies and deceit, but of course the book is an interpretation meant to focus on a point, and not get mired in the details of things like where “Satan” is, how soon souls enter hell, and how exactly did the power structure of the fallen shake out once they were cast out of heaven.

The notion that there is an office to work at, a college to attend, and quotas to meet for devils is, of course, a ridiculous one, but as it is meant to be more of a representation of a system definitionally unknowable to men on earth, it is allowed some leeway in how it goes about it. I feel it’s more for introspection and self-analysis than really to “teach” you something directly. I won’t be making any life choices off of what I read in The Screwtape Letters, but while reading, things were brought to my attention, debated, solidified, or organized in my head that wouldn’t have likely come up otherwise. And unlike so many other texts, this one provides another useful way of approaching a problem by looking at it backwards (like the recent {at the time of writing} CGP Grey video: 7 ways to maximize misery) and seeing the result opposite the one you want to achieve, or what those who oppose you are looking to get you to do.

And, in as much as it’s trying to tell you the best way to live your life closely to God, there isn’t much here that hasn’t been said before. If you want to call it “advice” it’s solid (if you actually interpret and don’t take it from the devil’s point of view), but everyone is going to have their objections. There isn’t anything earth-shattering or miraculous, just competently executed restatements of ideas that have their roots stretching back sometimes to before Christianity.

So is it a good book, then? Yes. But of course, it isn’t for everyone. Like many of his strictly Christian writings, this is a book for Christians. It isn’t going to change anyone’s mind, and, while it is quite entertaining regardless, some might find it a bit preachy. It’s a quick read, and not particularly dense or stiff, indeed I’d call it a fairly average novel that I’d probably recommend to my friends, especially if they have some connection or ideas about the source material.