Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

"Do not be deceived, Wormwood.  Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys." Pg 40

Here's a book that's hard to classify: Christian theology, comedy, satire, fantasy, philosophy, a poor effort of a novel, a collection of comedic essays; The Screwtape Letters will fit under just about any heading a new bookstore has to offer.  How to read and interpret the book is perhaps just as varied.  If you are looking for a story in the typical narrative sense you maybe let down, or at the least could find room for improvement.  No matter what your intentions in reading the book--and those intentions will probably change the further along one goes--I think it best to take things in small chucks, a letter at a time, in a effort to give yourself a moment to appreciate all that the author has given and to digest the absurdities that will come to mind after reading has planted certain seeds of thought.   
Screwtape is an Undersecratary in the Lowerarchy of the service to "Our Father Below."  He is also mentor to his nephew, a tempter to a young English man near the time of world war II.  The "Letters" are all one-sided and we have to infer much of what Wormwood, Screwtape's nephew, relates as we never see his letters.  What we do learn is that devils, or perhaps, the nature of temptation is never satisfied.  Screwtape is never happy with Wormwood, not when things go his way, or when he wants to share some small success, there is always more to be done.  While temptation from the Christian path may be the theme of the book, what Lewis writes could just as easily be applied to near anything that threatens to steer people away from what they want in life from alcoholism to laziness.
There is a little narrative in the book following the young man around as he finds a woman of interest, lives in fear of the war and it's bombings, finds the Church and owns up to his doubts, but more interesting than this is the duplicity that Lewis expresses when writing about these various topics.  Screwtape writes (a bit too competently for a devil in my mind, but who is to say demons can't be well educated--perhaps, even English professors?) from a perspective that readers will not be accustomed to hearing from.  "The Enemy" is not who we are conditioned to believe it is and the point of view is so startling unique and the intelligence and insight revealed for all Screwtape's points and arguments make it extremely difficult to objectively see some of the absurdities that are otherwise so transparent in discussions of faith.  
Another interesting point of duality is that in which Screwtape is trying to corrupt and Lewis trying to teach: by way of Lewis being the author, both happen at the same time.  The result isn't so much tongue-in-cheek humor, but more often than not laugh out loud funny.  "When two humans have lived together for many years it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other.  Work on that."  Surely that describes no long standing marriage I've ever heard of.  His thoughts on education and temptation are not only comically insulting but mark the point in which many people refuse personal responsibility and turn to--and sometimes blame--faith or other 'worldly' forces.  "It is funny how mortals always picture us (devils) as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out."  
Screwtape, acting as Lewis, is very tough on the church: clergy and members and the complacency of each, multiple denominations and the ignorance among their followers, and he is most hard on the Church of England.  Screwtape is difficult to get a solid fix on (as Lewis tells us in the opening forward).  There are times he encourages extremism, in all areas except faith, of course, yet he continually ask that Wormwood employ subtlety and misdirection as his primary weapons in securing his 'patient's' soul.  "Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick.  Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signpost,."  The difficulty in discerning the sermon from the satire is not the only fun part.       
I usually never spend this much time writing about a book that already has such great exposure but whether or not you're a believer Lewis succeeds on multiple levels with this novel in making the reader not only think but posing interesting insight into a host of ideas and questions that will always give the human mind cause for concern: marriage, love, death, morality, and many more.  It's not Narnia and there certainly is no obvious heavy-handed Christian pandering (subtly and misdirection remember).  The Screwtape Letters is perhaps as easy or difficult of a read as you wish it to be.  If only church were as entertaining or half as thought provoking…    

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