My book for this week is The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, published 1941 originally. I have included the original date of publication as some of the book does reference England’s participation in World War II.
David Foster Wallace listed this book as #10 on his list. The wikipedia entry for him states that though it was not discussed much in his writing, Wallace belonged to a church whereever he lived. Sadly, Wallace killed himself by hanging on September 12, 2008. Wallace struggled with depression for over 20 years.
I mention his church membership, as it is relevant to The Screwtape Letters and why Wallace might have chosen it for his top ten list.
For the purposes of knowing the lens in which I read this, I feel it necessary to mention that I am Christian and an active member of a church. I received a degree that has a theological component to it (a teaching degree including a Lutheran Teacher Degree, which qualifies me to teach in Lutheran elementary or secondary schools).
C.S. Lewis remains one of the most famous theological writers, known to most people no matter whether they are Christian or not. His series for children, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is still widely read and has recently even been made into movies that have crossover appeal to adults as well.
In terms of literature devices, I found Screwtape Letters to be fascinating. Lewis uses the letters method to tell his story. The story consists of letters from a “senior” demon to his protege and nephew, who is currently working on turning an individual away from God and towards Hell. The device worked well to highlight character of both the uncle, Screwtape, and also gave you a decent character sketch of the nephew Wormwood. Nowhere does any of the letters to Screwtape from Wormwood show up in the book.
Lewis puts in his preface “I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer the public fell into my hands.”, which adds to the literary device of the letters, reminding me even of movie techniques for horror films that are filmed as if they actually happened and were recorded by the people in them (The Blair Witch Project is the most well known movie of this type).
Theologically, I really also enjoyed the book, Lewis talks in the preface about how there are two errors that believers & non believers fall into when regarding devils/demons. “One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them”. One of my rants about some denominations and churches within those denominations is the tendency to demonize basic human emotions. I think these are an extreme of the first camp of Lewis’s statement, they don’t believe in demons so they make them into greed, lust, envy etc. Biblically these are sins of man, there is no mention of demons tempting David into his lust for Bathsheba. There is no mentions of the running away of Jonah from God’s summons being from a demon. Job gives the best example in my opinion of the actions Satan can take, where he makes Job miserable in the attempt to turn him away from God. This appears to be the point Lewis makes in Screwtape Letters.
Much of what Screwtape tells his nephew is that they can cloud a man’s mind, they can turn little things into big sins against God that will turn man away from God, thereby giving him over from God.
“But there is an even better way of exploiting the trough; I mean through the patient’s own thoughts about it. As always, the first step is to keep knowledge out of his mind.”
“The first thing is to delay as long as possible the moment at which he realises this new pleasure as a temptation”.
“But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy”.
“You can worry him with the haunting suspicion that the practice is absurd and can have no objective result”.
Writing Screwtape Letters took a toll on Lewis. He states in the preface to a follow up he wrote called Screwtape Proposes a Toast (in which Screwtape is commencement addressing the latest graduating class of tempters). “Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment”. “But though it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude, it was not fun, or not for long. The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp”. “It almost smothered me before I was done”.
Reading it also produced a small spiritual cramp for me, even while it let me see some of my own sins that didn’t seem much like sins until then.
I think that the literary devices used by Lewis make this a book worth reading by writers looking for ways to explore different fiction techniques. I think that this book is also good for Christians to read, if they have the ability to see themselves in some of the writing.
And if you’re wondering if Wormwood succeeds in tempting his “patient” (as Screwtape calls the man) away from God, the last salutation to Wormwood is “MY DEAR, MY VERY DEAR,K WORMWOOD, MY POPPET, MY PIGSNIE”. Of course, that doesn’t tell the whole story does it?