Friday, January 02, 2009

Review - The Screwtape Letters

The Screwtape Letters (Paperback)For a bit of 'inspirational' reading this Christmas, I picked up The Screwtape Letters. I've read some of the Narnia series as well as Mere Christianity (which was years ago, I may have to re-read it) by Lewis and I knew the basic gist of Screwtape, but still wasn't 100% sure what was in store for me.

The book is a series of letters written by the demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood. Both are demons of Hell and the letters are discussions of the practices used to tempt humans and lead them down to Hell rather than letting them make it to Heaven. Wormwood is a junior demon working on tempting a human man in 'contemporary' (to Lewis...~1940s) London. Screwtape is a senior demon no longer doing field work but now in a higher administrative role and full of good advice for the young Wormwood.

The book is often humorous as you read about the follies of humans from the point of view of these immortal and immoral tempters. The humorous anecdotes are also subtly invasive as you realize just how true to life these comments are.

Screwtape advises Wormwood to take advantage of the foibles of human nature to lead the man down the path to Hell while all the while letting him believe he's on his way to Heaven. The subversive realities these demons try to persuade the human to believe are strangely familiar to the social norms of the world in which we live.

Screwtape admonishes that, unless the man is truly vile, Wormwood shouldn't try to push him away from religion but rather let him get puffed up in his religion to the point of self-exhaltation based on his own interpretations. The demons are wary of the truly penitent but are grateful for the many who go through the motions of religion for perception only.

There are many good lessons to be learned through the book. Many poignant passages softly chastising humble pride, valueless bravery, hopeless nostalgic dreamers and others. It's a great satire on the state of the world.

What was most sad and scary to me is that ~50-60 years later, not much has changed. The same subtle lies are being whispered through the world and countless humans (myself included at times) are believing them and gently paving our own way to Hell.

Two other things I found very interesting in this book:

  1. This edition included a short epilogue from C. S. Lewis. In it, he discusses the difficulty of writing from the point of view of a devil. He wrote of the darkness he felt in trying to shed all semblance of goodness in order to portray such a viewpoint. Perhaps one of my favorite themes in the book was that of Screwtape trying to understand "God's Love." He just couldn't believe that God truly loves us and that it is that Love that is at the heart of his motivations. I think Lewis truly threw himself into the role of Screwtape and did a great job embodying the demon. I don't envy him that difficult task.
  2. This edition also included Lewis' one follow up to the Letters. It was a short work called "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" and the setting is a graduation commencement for novice demons just out of training and ready for assignments. Screwtape is giving the commencement speech and toast. His language and themes were again very relevant and honest satires on the world we live in. A few paragraphs really caught my attention...He talked about the education system of humans and ways they (the demons) might undermine it. He talked of standardized testing and lowering the scale to the least common factor such that the most inept student could succeed (only with that bare minimum) while the average and excellent students will leave school with no educational increase. He talked about undermining the true study and learning by replacing it with rote memorization of facts and figures to the point that any ability to truly think would be diminished and thus humans would not be able to see through the flimsy temptations. Sadly, a lot of the language in this section sounded far too similar to the No Child Left Behind legislation and other similar practices in the school system today. How sadly prophetic Lewis was on this front

I'd be interested to find some analysis of it that helps break out different letters into their themes...maybe I'll work on one. Something that could be used to pull out passages about some of the different temptations: Love/Romance/Sex, Religion, Pride, Nature, etc.

Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. There were a few sections that really seemed to drag on but generally it was a lot of fun to read and it left me in a state of deep thinking afterwards. Give it a try.

4 stars

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