The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis remain a delightful and illuminating read: full of nice short chapters for quick, hurried reads in a busy life on the road to Damnation, or it can be a heavenly bog-book for those little sessions where you’re obliged to sit still and think about politicians and the state of your own body and soul.
Mostly it’s fun.
Because it's really about us.
It’s also a handy little Devil’s Own Guide to fouling up life and preparing us all for a highly calorific afterlife, and takes the form of letters from an experienced demon - Screwtape - to an inexperienced new field agent - Wormwood - whose assignment it is to tempt his particular victim (the ‘patient’) away from any chance of Heaven and into Hell where his soul will be devoured by the demons as a delicacy. Wormwood’s mission - and there’s little doubt that he had no choice but to accept it - is frustrated by the fact that the patient has recently become a Christian. Screwtape offers advice to the hapless rookie in the each chapter (or each week as it was originally published in The Guardian!) to help him overcome the obstacles that God -‘The Enemy’ – puts between Wormwood and success. Thus Screwtape tells us something illuminating about virtue and vice in each chapter which are often real and particular and permanent features of our lives on earth and how we do live it, how we mess it up, and how we might do better by ourselves and our fellows here and now.
Each chapter is funny and enlightening in some particular way. Lewis was making points about Christian morality and theology and therefore not every part of each will be to all tastes, but it’s still got a lot to say in short, easy to digest ways about the human condition and how we live today and might live tomorrow. Mostly each chapter's funny because, as Lewis remarked himself about readers' comments, they usually remind readers of themselves.
Both of the regular readers of this blog will know that I’m no Christian of any sort: though this week newcomers probably couldn’t tell it, but
Yey! Sex at last.
Though not with anyone like CS Lewis, obviously.
Screwtape’s advice about how to make the patient feel secretly superior to his nicer new Christian acquaintances show us how snobbery (pride!) might jeopardize his new-found love for a girlfriend who would otherwise support him and help make him a better and happier person. He shows us how to destroy a marriage or other loving relationship by persuading us to believe that each act of generosity is some kind of ‘sacrifice’ to be repaid in full (and in blood by implication) rather than a gift; freely given and asking nothing in return. [I wouldn’t imagine Lewis to be a fan of Ayn Rand]…and by showing us this, he also shows how to keep such relationships alive and happy.
He’s also very witty on the gluttony of ‘moderate’ or slimming diets, and he beautifully accounts for the tooth-clenching anger that people who only want ‘a little’, or who want something simple ‘done properly’ can inspire in generous hosts and friends who put the boat out. Or serve meat. Oops.
He was also bang up-to-date on the glib, empty intellectuals who would one day come to rule Britain; full of moral relativism and itching to tear down the familiar and the good, (here we are then) and an extra ‘chapter’ which was written later than the original wartime letters is as good a commentary on and condemnation of communism and the weakness and absurdities all-too available in consumerism - and a prediction of the bland conformity of our very own bureaucratic age. I’d say it’s a must for all conservatives, Christian or otherwise, and indeed for anyone who doesn’t want to sub-contract their conscience and personal happiness to the jokers who pull the strings in government today.
This book works because it’s funny; especially in the old tempter’s inversions and lies - fair is foul and foul is fair and all that. Screwtape is unconsciously ironic. His glibness about how pointless the virtues and even simple kindness are shows his words up as the lies they are. His libels of morality strike like accidental blessings at the reader’s conscience and they give us hope about the goodness at the heart of our own way of life and encouragement to live it well.
So we laugh at his increasing fury - and hunger - as Wormwood blunders ever further away from the patients’ damnation. Most of all it works and we smile - because the patient's faults are our own; and often easy enough to remedy in ourselves..
Don’t sign anything you’re not 100% sure of.
I recommend the Illustrated letters as the cartoons are fun and for once illustrate points about each chapter.