A Quill Pen

The Screwtape Letters

by C. S. Lewis

1 July 2005 book review
by Collie Collier

From what I've been told and read, Lewis was a renowned social commentator for his times. I'd have to disagree slightly with that assessment, as I feel many of his clever, gently pointed observations apply just as well today as they did then. True, there are a few references which I feel are now dated (such as his commentary on evolution being a distraction from the truth), but they are very few, and they do not detract from his overall message -- which is, I believe, just as fresh and pertinent today as then.

That being said, his book did not speak to me on a purely Christian basis. I don't consider myself a christian in the modern sense; if anything I self-identify as a relaxed agnostic. I've experienced nothing in my life which I can accept as incontrovertible proof of a deity or deities, but I'm relaxed enough about it that I'm in no rush to die and find out for sure. I have a basically anthropological view on deities, in that they are most usually a glorified form of the culture's social ideals.

As a consequence, I also don't feel morality needs to be handed down from, say, a scary father figure in the sky. I feel true morality comes from within, rather than being a fearful obedience -- and, of course, I know everyone's mileage varies, and that's fine with me. Thus, there were parts of Lewis' story I did not identify much with. What I found fascinating, however, was how much of it did resonate for me, and with which I felt an instant empathy.

I'm not referring to the up-front textual message of the book here, of course -- it is purportedly a series of letters from a demon, advising another on techniques to successfully tempt a human into turning from god. I refer instead to the subtext I received when I tried turning the textual, "demonic" advice on its metaphorical head.

I found there a message of hope, kindness, generosity of spirit, and love, which I found truly attractive. Considering some of the more unpleasant christian polemic I've read through my life, it was wonderfully, refreshingly attractive to read Lewis' views on what true Christianity is.

Through a glass, darkly

Indeed, the book was quite absorbing. More than once I found myself thinking, "Wait... what was that again?" and going back to carefully re-read a thought-provoking or complex sentence -- or even the entire paragraph again, for context.

Also more than once I felt that amused ping of recognition, seeing people I've known who call themselves Christians, in Screwtape's descriptions of tempted humans. I also had a small laugh of recognition during the letter where Screwtape describes the uses of Fashion, in particular during the segment stating:

"We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is in least danger, and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. ...

Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm...."

Keeping in mind this is a demon describing how to best separate humans from the deity, I couldn't help but grin at, "...and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey." Hoisted by our own cultural petard, I see.

I also found Lewis' attitude towards the clergy interesting. For example, at one point Screwtape refers to a "sound old vintage Pharisee (italics his)" in a toast. One might initially believe this was a bit of anti-Semitism, but it's clear from the lovely description this is a "vintage" made up as much from the clergy of both christianity and other religions as it is from actual Pharisees:

"Types that were most antagonistic to one another on earth. Some were all rules and relics and rosaries; others were all drab clothes, long faces, and petty traditional abstinences from wine or cards or the theatre.

Both had in common their self-righteousness and the almost infinite distance between their actual outlook, and anything the Enemy [i.e. Heaven] really is or commands. The wickedness of other religions was the really live doctrine in the religion of each; slander was its gospel and denigration its litany."

I've read far too many diatribes against other groups and religions to be able to take seriously those who make hatred against others their religion. When asking questions is huffily equated by the cleric to disobedience to god, when simply disagreeing is grounds for excommunication, when doing anything differently than the cleric has dictated somehow makes you the anti-christ... well, frankly I think there's more insecurity than deity in clerical squawks like those.

I very much enjoyed Lewis' subtly humorous dismissal of these sorts. As he himself quotes of Luther in his preface, "The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn."

When I was a child...

On the other hand, there were a few things I found perplexing, although it's possible I found them so due to their being anachronistic (they are quite google-able for the curious, I may add). For example, who is Farinata? Why or how did Rousseau first reveal the supposedly "very human" deep hatred of personal freedom in the human striving for Liberty?

Also, I can quite understand the need to act when one is moved, and the benefits of making a habit of action at such times. Thus I would guess a good active habit might be one such as, for example, making time to exercise every day. However, what is a good passive habit and why does Lewis think they are good for you?

Unfortunately it's a bit sadly clear Lewis lived in a different time and place when we reflect on his (few) views on women. The books are written with an emphasis on men -- to the point, I feel, that Lewis can't even see his non-conscious bias.

For example, in the closing segment titled "Screwtape Proposes a Toast," some time is spent emphasizing how to twist true democracy into nothing more than an insecure internal sense of "I'm as good as you." I live in the land of "no child left behind," and I know what that's doing to both the education system and the morale of teachers and students alike.

Nevertheless, while I might agree there are indeed some who are definitely better at some things than others are, I'm not willing to subscribe wholeheartedly to Lewis' assertion of the ills of democracy.

His examples are especially telling: in one of them he uses a Chihuahua and a St. Bernard to assert the little dog is not "as good as" the larger one. But if the living space available is better suited to a tiny dog, or if the owner needs a good alarm-giving dog rather than a huge and easy-going one, then isn't the Chihuahua -- in those circumstances -- actually better than the St. Bernard? And can't other circumstances be equally easily derived which demonstrate a St. Bernard would be the better choice in that particular case?

Perhaps most telling is when Lewis attempts to demonstrate the falsity of the "I'm as good as you" precept by comparing a plain and a beautiful woman. Wow, that's a bad choice! I understand he may have believed the only means of comparison for women was looks, but fortunately things have changed since then.

I would no more expect or validate comparing women via only that category than I would do so for men. What about intelligence, for heavens' sake? What about genetics, or context, or strength, or skills, or anything else by which you might compare one human to another?

The greatest of these is Love

Still, the books were more insightful than just as a handy means to sneer with superiority at others. More than once as I read I also found myself wondering with a touch of concern, "That sounds uncomfortably familiar... do I do that?"

I also found fascinating Lewis' description of how we are seen by god. One of the most frequent arguments I've heard against the christian heaven is how insecure a deity must be if it truly needs to be lauded through eternity by its creations, which it swallows into itself after their deaths.

However, Lewis describes a deity who doesn't wish to absorb its creations into a sort of personality-slaying hive-mind. Rather, he describes a deity who wishes there to be such joy and holiness in its creations that they become more -- they progress from simple creations to trusted servants, and from servants to beloved children (or sons, as Lewis puts it).

In such a view of the afterlife I could see, not a deity requiring constant reassurance, so much as a deity who, with its beloved offspring, sang the joy and holiness of being with them.

With gentle humor and an absence of pomposity, in this thought-provoking epistolary novel Lewis has postulated a deity who actually seems to epitomize christian Faith, Hope, and Love. Simple in concept but complex in execution, there's a lack of complacency or self-righteousness which I very much enjoyed. If only all the Christians I knew could be like this; I'd be tempted... to convert.

Reader Comments

07.05.05: Chandra's thoughts

(and my replies)

I'm pretty sure that in the first paragraph, you meant "do not detract" rather than "they do not delete from his overall message." Lower down, you have ascribe instead of subscribe ("I'm not willing to ascribe wholeheartedly").

*happy sniffle* Wow, someone with a great vocabulary who's not afraid to say so -- I'm so pleased! Getting good feedback can occasionally be problematic, so thank you very much for calling my attention to my errors!

07.05.05: Velvetpage's thoughts

(and my replies)

I grew up with my father's opinions of C.S. Lewis ringing in my ears. He was a great thinker, the greatest Christian Theologian of our time (which of course meant Dad's time) and the best apologist for theism that he'd ever read. In addition to the Narnia books, I read most of his other works, including the Screwtape Letters, before I finished high school. (If you're interested in Greek Mythology, try "Till We Have Faces." Purported to be one of the best English-language novels of the twentieth century, and Dad could never figure out why it wasn't taught in more university courses. He attributed the oversight to the view of Lewis as a Christian author first and novelist second, and he may be right. It's a good read either way.)

Oh, I absolutely loved the Narnia books! I had the librarians hold them for me as they came in, and I had to wait for months between the latter ones. I so very much wanted to live in a world where the animals talked... so much so that I was a bit startled and dismayed when it dawned on me these stories were about Christianity, not some wonderful fantasy world. ;)

I love mythology in all its forms; I would for example consider it rude not to include Christianity in the category of wonderful world myths which helped us become better people. So I'll have to find Till We Have Faces and read it too, definitely!

My view of evolution - basically, that the Bible story was never meant to be taken literally, and I can agree with scientific explanations without disbelieving the biblical account - stems directly from Lewis, specifically IIRC "God in the Dock." My view of what it means to have Christian humility comes from the Screwtape Letters, and the gist of it is that a Christian should be proud of the wonderful thing he has created - rejoicing in its beauty exactly as much as he rejoices in the wonderful thing his brother created. Pride itself is not the sin; egotistical pride, or a pride that seeks to tear down in order to build oneself up, is a sin.

I haven't read "God in the Dock," but after The Screwtape Letters I'm quite interested in reading more of Lewis's works. This is the viewpoint my parents had on evolution too, which I'd forgotten about for several years. As my father once put it to me, Jesus taught in fables. So why wouldn't YHWH, whom Jesus is part of, also do the same, especially to a group of people who wouldn't be able to understand concepts of galaxies and mitochondria?

I wonder if my parents also got that perspective on evolution from Lewis? It wouldn't surprise me to find that was so. I think they had some of his books too.

Curiously enough, that's the impression of pride I got from the Narnia stories too. I'm glad to hear as a child I grasped a good concept well.

I think I need to revisit the Screwtape Letters. It's been about twelve years since I read it.

Well worth a repeat reading, I feel. As I noted in the review, there was more than one point where I went back and read the section again, to be sure I was better grasping some interestingly complex point he was making.

I'm so pleased to hear the review brought back good memories for you. Thank you so much for commenting! ;)

My dad's favourite work of Lewis', I think, was "Of Fernseed and Elephants," which I read at least four times before I got the full impact of it. It's a beautifully written treatise on education and the pursuit of beauty and truth, among other things.

You know, part of my love for concise, flowing, and slightly pretentious language probably comes from reading Lewis as a teenager, especially with my father singing the praises of these books in the background. Lewis was seen as the pinnacle of literary achievement, and I unconsciously imitated him.

Gracious, I can certainly think of worse to imitate!

Heehee! re: "slightly pretentious" -- yes, I can see that, as I do it too, I think. It's always nice to see the influences of one's childhood, and to find them still valid. ;)