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Book Review: The Screwtape Letters

July 27, 2012

  I have read and enjoyed C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, but never tackled his weightier books of philosophy. While The Screwtape  Letters is a work of fiction, the thought-provoking elements of philosophy abound. This is a book that I gained so much insight into my own human weakness. It is a book that promises to open my eyes even in subsequent readings.

The fictional author, Uncle Screwtape, is a demon. He writes to his nephew, Wormwood, and gives advice on how to tempt and steer the thoughts of Wormwood’s “patient.” It took a few pages to get used to the fact that when Screwtape refers to “the Enemy,” he is talking about God. C.S. Lewis doesn’t present the demons as particularly powerful, but able to manipulate thoughts of humans.  In this book the battle lies in the mind of the patient. The setting is  World War II in England.

The book is not an exhaustive study on the demonic force, but rather an eye-opening glance at the vulnerable points in humanity – even in Christians.  The book is not long, only 31 short letters. We only see from the more highly ranked demon’s point of view.

Over and over again, Wormwood is instructed to steer the patient’s thoughts to the edge of realities, by thinking of the future and what might happen, to be “hag-ridden” and “haunted” by it. He is instructed  to extrapolate the patient’s fear or even grandiose ideas of a future as being something only heroes attain, not something that we all are traveling toward and reach “at the rate of 60 minutes and hour, 24 hours in a day.”

One theme was that of two extremes. Where our enemy, Satan, would not care if we were brave or cowardly, if our bravery were corrupted to a focus on self. Another example occurs when the patient is looking for a church and Screwtape’s advice is to cause him to look at a congregation as a social club OR to look for a suitable place that makes the patient a critic rather than a pupil.  This theme comes is brought to our attention over and over. Where Satan wants us to focus on extremes, God wants and empowers us to live here and now – not in future or the past, not in fear or in longing, but with contentment and joy right now.

Another theme has to do with dealing with trials. The tempter opens us to think that what is going to happen is the “cross to bear” rather than the current fear as being the cross.  Wormwood is counseled to train the human to think of misfortunes and disappointments as injuries and from there a wound to pride. The demon tempts the patient to dwell on how undeserving he was of this “injury” and it is just a short step to bitterness when he is on this path.

I was challenged to:

  • guard against flippancy while still experiencing laughter and joy,
  • understand humility is not a low opinion of self, but actually self-forgetfulness. and
  • to aware that  Satan corrupts what God intended to be good and those corruptions often strike at our motives.

These are only a FEW of the many thoughts I had while reading this book. I know that when I read this again, other things will be impressed upon me and other scripture brought to mind, but the end result will be the same: An overwhelming praise for a Good and Faithful God who loves me and wants me to be conformed to the image of His Son, Jesus Christ, not just in the future, but growing in Him every moment.

This book was published in 1943. It is an old book, but the characters are timeless. I would encourage you to read it and even to read it again, if you already have.

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