Monday, 22 August 2011

Book Review - The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

London : Collins, 1955 (1964 impression), many different editions extant.

I've had a copy of this book with me for about 20 years - it's followed me on my moves, and spent the last year or so in a box, awaiting a new home. When I unpacked that box on Friday, I finally opened the covers to have a look - and finished the book in one sitting.

The Screwtape Letters was written by C.S. Lewis in 1941, for weekly installment in a Church of England Magazine, and takes the form of 39 letters written by one Demon, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood. We get no letters from Wormwood back to Screwtape. Screwtape, is a relatively senior demon (an "undersecretary of the lowerarchy"), and it seems from his letters that Wormwood is trying to snare his first soul.

This premise allows Lewis to expound on what it is to live a life faithful to Christ, and to show how the devil works in the human mind to try and thwart such a life. Each letter tends to turn to a specific topic (sexual desire, pride, cowardice), and discuss how such things can be forces for good or evil, depending on how a person reacts to them.

One of the themes that runs through this short work (160 pages in small paperback format), is how easily modern life can distract people from concentrating on the important eternal truths of existence and faith. Lewis emphasises the importance of the now, as opposed to what is past and what is yet to come - one must live in the moment and do good, without thought for the future or the past.

Lewis also has Screwtape write about religious activity that is actually not effective, such as rote prayers, going to church just because it is the done thing etc. Although this book does betray it's age at times, some of the things Lewis has to say certainly are applicable now, such as people "church-shopping" until they find something that fits their idea of what religion should be, or where they feel they are amongst equals. He also nails the feeling of superiority so many people get over others because their religion makes them different (something that is true regarding followers of other ideologies of this and other times).

Given that this book was written during World War Two, it could be seen as somewhat surprising that Lewis does not directly refer to the war, and certainly not as something that necessarily brings out the evil in all men. While of course he acknowledges the evils that occur in a time of war, Screwtape also points out that war can bring out many virtues in men and women who are faced with the ultimate adversity. He also rightly points out that in a time of war mankind's minds tend to be lifted to higher things than the mundane of everyday life (which is something for a young demon to avoid in the soul he's trying to capture).

The book is also humourous, in an Oxford Don kind of way (Lewis was one), with some little digs at human foibles, and of course some jokes about hell, "lowerarchy" being one of them.

This small work is in no way one of the great theological tomes, yet it has sold over a quarter of a million copies since it was published, and it does make the reader think about his or her habits of mind, and how they might be quite unhelpful to living a better life than the one they're living.

If you at all think about questions of faith and belief, or good and evil, this book might be worth a look - in quite simple terms it discusses a few of the big questions.

The Screwtape Letters should be available at your local library, or from Amazon.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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