Classics: The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Hi, friends. Today’s selection differs from the typical novel; it is, however, one of the best books I have ever read, a statement I don’t make arbitrarily. I consumed it in less than two days. In case you’re unaware, C.S. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, but his work with Christian apologetics is as relevant and thought-provoking today as ever.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

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Published in 1942, The Screwtape Letters is a compilation of thirty-one letters that go together but can stand alone (they’re each a couple pages; each one tends to focus on a particular point). Screwtape, a demon who’s been around the block, is advising his nephew, Wormwood, on the corruption of a young man’s soul. Though this man has recently become a Christian, Screwtape knows plenty of ways to skew his course, which he’s happy to pass along to a young fiend. In this satire, Lewis creates an intellectual, ironic, enthralling commentary on human tendencies and spirituality.

C.S._Lewis
C.S. Lewis

In lieu of the usual “Additional Details” section, I will choose some poignant sections from the book and post them below. In this situation, the best way to convey why the book is fascinating is to show rather than tell. Emphasis in the quotes added by me. Oversimplified labels:

  1. Judgement
  2. Politics
  3. True Virtue vs. Conceptual Virtue
  4. Lack of Humility
  5. Reality vs. Sentiment

One fun fact: Lewis dedicated the book to J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and fellow brother in Christ.

#1–Provided that any of those neighbours sings out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must be somehow ridiculous. At this present stage, you see, he has an idea of ‘Christians’ in his mind which he supposes to be spiritual but which, in fact, is largely pictorial. His mind is full of togas and sandals and armour and bare legs and the mere fact that the other people in the church wear modern clothes is a real–though of course an unconscious–difficulty to him. Never let it come to the surface; never let him ask what he expected them to look like. […] If the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge player or the man with squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner, then your task is so much the easier. All you then have to do is keep out of his mind the question, ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?’ You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is!

#2–Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on the stage at which religion becomes merely part of ‘the cause’, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism. […] Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing.

#3–Think of your man as a series of concentric circles, his will being the innermost, his intellect coming next, and finally his fantasy. You can hardly hope, at once, to exclude from all circles everything that smells of the Enemy: but you must keep on shoving all the virtues outward ‘til they are finally located in the circle of fantasy, and all the desirable qualities inward into the Will. It is only in so far as they reach the Will and are there embodied in habits that the virtues are really fatal to us. (I don’t, of course, mean what the patient mistakes for his Will, the conscious fume and fret of resolutions and clenched teeth, but the real centre, what the Enemy calls the Heart.) All sorts of virtues painted in the fantasy or approved by the intellect or even, in some measure, loved and admired, will not keep a man from Our Father’s house: indeed that they may make him more amusing when he gets there.

#4–Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered. Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him. […] Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of his property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious sense, his own personal birthright. […] The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon as his chattels. […] The humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in Hell and we must keep them doing so.

#5–There is a certain attack on the emotions which can still be tried. It turns on making him feel, when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is ‘what the world is really like’ and that his religion had been a fantasy. You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word ‘real.’ […] Wars and poverty are ‘really’ horrible; peace and plenty are mere physical facts about which men happen to have certain sentiments. The creatures are always accusing one another of wanting ‘to eat the cake and have it’; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it. Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment.

I have thoughts on these quotes and more than will manifest in future posts.

Thanks for reading! Have you read any of Lewis’s Christian books? I also bought Mere Christianity but haven’t read it yet.

14 comments

  1. I love the idea of owning the sun or moon. However, I do believe God put it there for us. True also for the stars and morning and darkness, etc. Even another way of looking at it is that the environment actually owns us as we are sorely limited, more so than the environment is to effect the rest of the world. I say this in terms of rain or drought or cold excessive heat or any other number of instances such as earthquakes or tornadoes or the like. Nonetheless, we trust God through it all and to that extent life is a journey in navigation. Sometimes the ride is great. At other times, it sucks. Thank God, for God to brings us to the end. And too, for people like you who make this journey bearable.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Correct, dear Lily. Why on earth did he choose us? As messed up as we are, He loves us anyway. I think that is the identical reason we are also to love each other as it demonstrates His love for us as He would do it as indeed, he does daily and always.

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  2. C. S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors! I have read many of his works including Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. Everything I have read of his is great, but of his non-fiction works I can confidently say Mere Christianity is my favorite (that I have read). It is a classic for Christians, giving so much wisdom and insight in rarely easy to understand terms. I am always looking for a modern author who can compete with Lewis, but I haven’t found one who is so profound in both fiction and apologetics!

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  3. Probably my favorite books of all time! Perhaps my favorite literary quote as well, is from this book: ““Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

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  4. I’ve read several of Lewis’ books, including this one, and read the entire Chronicles of Narnia series for the first time when u read it to my daughter many years ago. The level of depth in those “children’s” books always floored me. The last one moved me to tears.

    I read Screwtape when I was in high school, but it left a mark on me. I was always fascinated with how Lewis could personify the supernatural, exhibited in both Screwtape and Narnia.

    I read A Grief Observed shortly following a very hard loss in my life. It seems as though they are very few subjects that Lewis was able to cover with poignant and hard-hitting truth. He’ll always be one of my favorite authors for his honesty, authenticity, and beautiful use of language. He was Anglican too (like me) so that’s cool!

    Have you ever seen the movie, “Shadowlands”? It’s based in his life and stars Anthony Hopkins. I highly recommend it. And a lot of Kleenex if you do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, I will be on the lookout for the other Lewis book and the movie about his life! I don’t know much about Lewis, but I’m interested to know more about his life. I also need to read Chronicles of Narnia again. 🙂 Thank you for dropping by!

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  5. I have heard and read so many good things about this book that I’ll definitely have to read it. I have never read anything by C. S. Lewis but I recently bought The Narnia Chronicles #2 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I’ll probably save ir for Christmas time though!

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  6. I think I read or heard once Lewis stopped or delayed in writing the ScrewTape letters because he felt like he was putting too much emphasis on darkness or it was pulling him in too much. Something of that nature. I want to get more of his books. Alas, the only ones I have read is the Narnia series.

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  7. The Screwtape Letters is a brilliant work. C.S. Lewis wrote many diverse things, all the way from The Chronicles of Narnia to theological reflections on grief (A Grief Observed).
    My favorite is The Great Divorce, a fictional exploration of why some people/souls would still opt for Hell even if given a second chance to enter Heaven.

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