Monday, June 13, 2011

Book Review: The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

For the past few weeks (ever since classes ended), I have been reading The Screwtape Letters by the renowned Christian author C.S. Lewis. It's taken a while namely because I found it difficult to reading the book nonstop for a few hours of the time -- a matter made no easier due to its format. Admittedly I have yet to finish the book; I have about 1/5 of it left to read which, for better or for worse, I intend to leave unread. That being said, I believe such a revelation will have no impact on the direction (nor sentiment) of this book review.

The Screwtape Letters is C.S. Lewis' more famous works, often spoken in the same breadth as Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia series. Open the book and you can immediately understand why. The Screwtape Letters (henceforth shortened to "Letters" only) is, as its title suggests, a long series of letters written from the perspective of an elder devil to a young devil. The letters primarily serve to instruct the youngling how to best tempt humanity into committing sins and eventually entrapping them in Hell. (Their relationship is not unlike that of a Jedi and a Padawan...) From the subject of the alone, Letters makes a worthwhile reading due to the uniqueness of the perspective written from. Add to this C.S. Lewis' mastery of the English language, and you'd think the book would be a home run.

Well, is it a home run? According to the opinion of this (humble) blogger, Letters is...sorta. I was certainly captivated in the first few chapters, as one seldom has an opportunity to read theology from the opposite perspective (given that Lewis is the author).

The elder devil is named "Screwtape", while his experienced youngling is named "Wormwood". It is apparent from the first letter alone that Wormwood has much to learn about tempting human beings -- and that Screwtape, as condescending and vengeful as he appears to be, is a knowledgeable mentor. The focus of their communications is an unnamed "Patient" of Wormwood's, who is living through the Second World War. They also discuss a variety of theology-rich topics ranging from the grace of God to the idea of the original sin. Overall, the theology aspect of the various letters written seems to the point: Wormwood's energy is spent on undermining the faith of his Patient while promoting pursuit of sinful desires as much as possible.

Letters is, in of itself, a very informative account of our sinful desires -- how we are tempted to commit sin, or to run away from God. I think Lewis' purpose of writing from the perspective of the devil is to result in an awareness in the reader that will lead to change. In other words, when we know what can/will hurt us, we will take precautions to avoid the pain-inducing things. This, I believe is what makes Letters a worthwhile read. Two passages below evidence of how Lewis is teaching through exposing our prone to sins:

“Sooner or later, however, the real nature of his new friends must become clear to him, and then your tactics must depend on the patient’s intelligence. If he is a big enough fool you can get him to realize the character of the friends only while they are absent; their presence can be made to sweep away all criticism. If this succeeds, he can be induced to live, as I have known many humans live, for quite long periods, two parallel lives; he will not only appear to be, but actually be, a different man in each of the circles he frequents. Failing this, there is a subtler and more entertaining method. He can be made to take a positive pleasure in the perception that the two sides of his life are inconsistent. This is done by exploiting his vanity. He can be taught to enjoy kneeling beside the grocer on Sunday just because he remembers that the grocer would not possibly understand the urbane and mocking world which he inhabited on Saturday evening; and contrariwise, to enjoy the bawdy and blasphemy over the coffee with these admirable friends all the more because he is aware of a ‘deeper’, ‘spiritual’ world within him which they cannot understand. You see the idea – the worldly friends touch him on one side and the grocer on the other, and he is the complete, balanced, complex man who sees round them all. Thus, while being permanently treacherous to at least two sets of people, he will feel, instead of shame, a continual undercurrent of self-satisfaction” (52).

“You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one –the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts” (61).

But that being said, the theology contained in the book is clearly on the introductory level. Lewis does not go into much detail in explaining specific theological constructs -- a matter masked by his ability to narrate effectively. I'd say it is a beginner book if the main purpose of the reader is to expand his/her theological knowledge. In addition, Letters was written more than half a century ago, which means there are phrases that are antiquated.

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