When not in Narnia, C.S. Lewis is found wrestling with Christianity, and The Screwtape Letters is one such byproduct. A deftly executed satire, it tells the story of overcoming temptation. Just maybe not in the way you'd expect.
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis is a classic masterpiece of religious satire that entertains readers with its sly and ironic portrayal of human life and foibles from the vantage point of Screwtape, a highly placed assistant to "Our Father Below." At once wildly comic, deadly serious, and strikingly original, C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters is the most engaging account of temptation—and triumph over it—ever written.
Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) was one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century and arguably one of the most influential writers of his day. He was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University until 1954, when he was unanimously elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University, a position he held until his retirement. He wrote more than thirty books, allowing him to reach a vast audience, and his works continue to attract thousands of new readers every year. His most distinguished and popular accomplishments include Out of the Silent Planet, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and the universally acknowledged classics The Chronicles of Narnia. To date, the Narnia books have sold over 100 million copies and have been transformed into three major motion pictures.
Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) fue uno de los intelectuales más importantes del siglo veinte y podría decirse que fue el escritor cristiano más influyente de su tiempo. Fue profesor particular de literatura inglesa y miembro de la junta de gobierno en la Universidad Oxford hasta 1954, cuando fue nombrado profesor de literatura medieval y renacentista en la Universidad Cambridge, cargo que desempeñó hasta que se jubiló. Sus contribuciones a la crítica literaria, literatura infantil, literatura fantástica y teología popular le trajeron fama y aclamación a nivel internacional. C. S. Lewis escribió más de treinta libros, lo cual le permitió alcanzar una enorme audiencia, y sus obras aún atraen a miles de nuevos lectores cada año. Sus más distinguidas y populares obras incluyen Las Crónicas de Narnia, Los Cuatro Amores, Cartas del Diablo a Su Sobrino y Mero Cristianismo.
Date of Birth:
November 29, 1898
Date of Death:
November 22, 1963
Place of Birth:
Belfast, Nothern Ireland
Place of Death:
Oxford University 1917-1923; Elected fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford in 1925
I note what you say about guiding your patient's reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. But are you not being a trifle naïve? It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy's clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily 'true' or 'false', but as 'academic' or 'practical', 'outworn' or 'contemporary', 'conventional' or 'ruthless'. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don't waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous -- that it is the philosophy of the future. That's the sort of thing he cares about.
The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle on to the Enemy's own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He has been shown for centuries to be greatly the inferior of Our Father Below. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient's reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if aparticular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favour, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it 'real life' and don't let him ask what he means by 'real'.
Remember, he is not, like you, a pure spirit. Never having been a human (Oh that abominable advantage of the Enemy's!) you don't realise how enslaved they are to the pressure of the ordinary. I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years' work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. The Enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion (you know how one can never quite overhear what He says to them?) that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line for when I said 'Quite. In fact much too important to tackle at the end of a morning,' the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added 'Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind,' he was already half way to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man's head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of 'real life' (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all 'that sort of thing' just couldn't be true. He knew he'd had a narrow escape and in later years was fond of talking about 'that inarticulate sense for actuality which is our ultimate safeguard against the aberrations of mere logic'. He is now safe in Our Father's house.
You begin to see the point? Thanks to processes which we set at work in them centuries ago, they find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes. Keep pressing home on him the ordinariness of things. Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can't touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists. If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don't let him get away from that invaluable 'real life'. But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is 'the results of modern investigation'. Do remember you are there to fuddle him. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!
“A mixture of wit, insight and brilliance of the kind you rarely meet.”
“I read Lewis for comfort and pleasure many years ago, and a glance into the books revives my old admiration.”
Reading Group Guide
Introduction Originally published in The Guardian from May 2 to November 28, 1941, Lewis conceived of The Screwtape Letters in the summer of 1940. On the evening of July 20th, he heard a broadcast speech by Hitler and later wrote to his brother, Warnie: "I don't know if I am weaker than other people, but it is a positive revelation to me that while the speech lasts it is impossible not to waver just a little." Lewis went on to explain that he was "struck by an idea for a book which I think would be both useful and entertaining. It would be called As One Devil to Another and would consist of letters from an elderly retired devil to a young devil who has just started work on his first 'patient.' The idea would be to give all the psychology of temptation from the other point of view." This reversal, whereby God becomes "The Enemy" and "Our Father's House" is not heaven but hell, is crucial to understanding The Screwtape Letters and also accounts for much of its power. All questions of Christian faith are approached from the perspective of a devil who wants to undermine that faith and capture the soul of "the patient." This radical shift allows Lewis to reveal, as the patient moves precariously through one temptation after another, both what is required to maintain one's virtue and the precise nature of the forces of darkness deployed to destroy it.
The Screwtape Letters was greeted with great critical and popular enthusiasm when it first appeared. The book was reprinted eight times in 1942 alone. Contemporary reviewers wrote that "Lewis is in earnest with his belief in devils, and as anxious to unmask their strategyagainst souls as our intelligence department to detect the designs of Hitler" (The Guardian, 13 March 1942) and that "Mr. Lewis possesses the rare gift of being able to make righteousness readable" (New Statesman and Nation, 16 May 1942). The Saturday Review (17 April 1943) called it an "admirable, diverting, and remarkably original work… a spectacular and satisfactory nova in the bleak sky of satire." The Screwtape Letters continues to be admired both as a brilliant literary work and a powerful exploration of Christian faith. Questions for Discussion
Much of the appeal The Screwtape Letters derives from Lewis's startlingly original reversal: telling a story about Christian faith not from a Christian point-of-view but from the perspective of a devil trying to secure the damnation of one's man's soul. Why is this strategy so effective? What does it allow Lewis to accomplish that would have been impossible in a more straightforward approach?
In the first of Screwtape's letters, he instructs Wormwood not to attempt to win the patient's soul through argument, but rather by fixing his attention on "the stream of immediate sense experiences" (p. 2). Why is immersion in the particulars of "real life" fertile ground for temptation? Why is argument a risky strategy for devils to employ? Where else do you find this opposition between the particular and the universal-between materialism and spiritual faith-in The Screwtape Letters?
While Screwtape allows that war is "entertaining" and provides "legitimate and pleasing refreshment for our myriads of toiling workers," (p. 18) he fears that "if we are not careful, we shall see thousands turning in this tribulation to the Enemy, while tens of thousands who do not go so far will nevertheless have their attentions diverted from themselves to causes which they believe to be higher than the self" (p. 19). Why would war have this effect? How does war alter human consciousness in a way unfavorable to temptation? How would you relate Lewis's own experience in WWI, which apparently confirmed his youthful atheism, to his position in The Screwtape Letters?
In describing the differences in how God and the Devil view men, Screwtape says: "We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons" (p. 30). What is it about God's relationship to man that Screwtape finds so unfathomable?
Why is Screwtape so pleased when the patient becomes friends with a group of people who are "rich, smart, superficially intellectual, and brightly skeptical about everything in the world"? (p. 37). What influence does Screwtape hope they will have on him? Why should their "flippancy" build up an "armor-plating" against God? In what ways does Lewis merge theology and social satire in this and other passages throughout The Screwtape Letters?
Screwtape assures Wormwood that although some ancient writers, such as Boethius, might reveal powerful secrets to humans, they have been rendered powerless by "the Historical Point of View," which regards such writers not as sources of truth but merely as objects of scholarly speculation. "To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge-to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behavior-this would be regarded as unutterably simple-minded" (p. 108). Why would Screwtape delight in this situation? How would he turn it to his advantage? How does this view of reading parallel post-modern approaches to literature? Where else does Screwtape encourage Wormwood to persuade humans that truth is irrelevant?
Lewis exhibits throughout his writings an uncanny sense of human nature and a style capable of brilliant aphorism: "Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury" (p. 81); "Gratitude looks toward the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead" (p. 58), to cite just two examples. Where else in The Screwtape Letters do you find universal statements about human nature? Do these statements accurately reflect not just a Christian ethos but the workings of human psychology more generally?
The sub-plot of The Screwtape Letters turns on Screwtape's relationship with his nephew Wormwood, the apprentice tempter and demonic understudy in charge of carrying out Screwtape's instructions. How do Screwtape and Wormwood regard each other? How does their relationship change over the course of the book? In what ways does their relationship offer an inverted reflection of God's relationship to man? What is Lewis suggesting by having the story end with Screwtape preparing to devour a member of his own family?
In discussing time, change, and pleasure, Screwtape asserts that "just as we pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty" (p. 98). Why is the demand for novelty necessarily destructive? What natural balance does such a demand disrupt? In what areas do you find this insistence on change, or overvaluation of the new, operating today?
Love is an important theme in The Screwtape Letters. Describing the human idea of love and marriage, Screwtape tells Wormwood: "They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life as something lower than a storm of emotion" (p. 72). Screwtape is also confounded by God's love for man, which he grants as real but irrational. What is Lewis saying, in the book as a whole, about human and divine love?
Over the course of The Screwtape Letters, the state of the patient's soul fluctuates as he experiences a conversion, doubt, dangerous friendships, war, love, and finally, in death, oneness with God. What major strategies does Screwtape use to tempt the patient into the Devil's camp? Why do these temptations fail? In what ways can the patient be seen as an everyman?
In spite the patient's triumph over temptation, his glorious entrance to Heaven-"the degradation of it!-that this thing of earth and slime could stand upright and converse with spirits" (p.122)-Screwtape does not lose faith in his own cause. Why do you think Lewis chose to end the book in this ambiguous light? Why is Screwtape sustained by "the conviction that our Realism, our rejection (in the face of all temptations) of all silly nonsense and claptrap, must win in the end"? (p. 124). What warning is implied in the book's ending? In what ways does The Screwtape Letters speak to contemporary moral and spiritual issues both within and outside of the Christian Church? About the Author: Clive Staples Lewis was born in 1898 in a suburb of Belfast. An extraordinarily precocious child, at the age of eight he was writing and illustrating "Animal-Land" stories with his brother Warren, at ten was reading Paradise Lost, and at nineteen was described by one of his teachers as "the most brilliant translator of Greek plays that I have ever met." By the time Lewis entered Oxford in 1917, he had long considered himself an atheist, a position that his experiences on the front lines of World War I only confirmed. But in 1925 he was elected to a fellowship at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he taught for twenty-five years and where his intellectual, creative, and religious development underwent a remarkable flowering. Shortly after a late night talk with J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson in 1931, Lewis had a conversion experience, beautifully described in his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955), and regained his faith in Christianity. There followed an astonishing succession of fiction, criticism, and religious books, including The Problem of Pain (1940), The Screwtape Letters (1942), The Abolition of Man (1943), The Great Divorce (1946), Miracles (1947), George MacDonald (1947), and Mere Christianity (1952), and the seven children's books comprising The Chronicles of Narnia, completed in 1954. Greatly admired for his teaching, Lewis was offered the chair of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge in 1954, a position he held until his death. In 1956 he married Joy Davidman Gresham, the American poet and novelist, who was diagnosed with cancer later that year. Despite his wife's illness, Lewis achieved in his final years the happiness and contentment he had searched for all his life. His relationship with Joy, who died in 1960, is the subject of Richard Attenborough's film Shadowlands, and Lewis's own A Grief Observed, published under a pseudonym in 1961, is a deeply moving account of his struggle to come to terms with her loss. C.S. Lewis died on November 22, 1963, at his home in Oxford.
Dear Reader, Happy National Card and Letter Writing Month. To celebrate, put pen to paper and write a note to a loved one, a pen pal, or even a new friend, and if you’re looking for some inspiration, might we suggest one of these brilliant epistolary books that will linger with you through their fierce, […]
Whether you’re feeling rock-solid in your faith or going through a period of doubt, walking in the path of righteousness or struggling with a time of trouble, the books below will remind you why you are a Christian, why you believe what you believe, and why you are loved by God. From time-tested classics to newer works, the picks on […]
You might be forgiven for assuming that magic is, well, magic—a supernatural ability to do things that violate the laws of reality. That is a pretty good description of magic, which is awesome. Except if you’re a writer, in which case it becomes a problem: once you introduce magic into your story, you must come […]