The Screwtape Letters

The Screwtape Letters, by CS Lewis

Have you ever read The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis? I’ve read the whole thing a couple times. The audio version, which is brilliantly narrated by John Cleese, is also available on Youtube. I’ve listened to that as well.

In this book, Lewis created a character called Screwtape who is the uncle of a junior tempter named Wormwood. They are both demons, in the traditionally Christian sense. The setting is entirely Christian, but from a demonic point of view. Screwtape has some position of authority within the demon hierarchy, “an under-secretary of a department.” The nephew has been assigned to tempt a young man so that he ends up in hell. Screwtape writes letters to his nephew containing instructions and advice towards that end, and he does this as both an uncle and as an under-secretary.

Each chapter is called a Letter, so chapter 1 is Letter 1. I have often reread this Letter because I have found it helpful and comforting. After the 2012 general election I printed it and taped it to the door of my office so that I could pause and reflect on it from time to time. It comforted me to be reminded that our God is a God of logic and reasoning. I learned from Lewis that we should never abandon making solid arguments; arguments are God’s territory, not the devil’s.

Here are some other ideas from that Letter that I have found helpful or comforting (remember that the viewpoint is Screwtape writing to Wormwood).

I live in a grand historical context with events from the past that influence me today:

“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…”

“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.”

Because our God is a God of logic and reasoning, I can and should alter my way of life as a result of a chain of reasoning:

“[A few centuries earlier] 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.”

I should weigh ideas and assertions in terms of whether or not they are true, not by some other standard. According to Screwtape, Wormwood’s charge,

“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.”

I’ve been nourished by the substance of that Letter and have chewed on it for a long time.

What about you? Have you read The Screwtape Letters? What did you think about it?

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Author: JJ

Accounting instructor at a major university in the midwest.

17 thoughts on “The Screwtape Letters”

  1. John Walker:
    I read some of Screwtape while in high school, and listened to an audio book of the whole thing (narrated by Ralph Cosham) in 2008: here is my review.

    There is so much that can be said about this book. Hope others read your review, as I find it very accurate. 🙂

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  2. Roughly 15 years ago we attended a church that had a thriving dramatic arts program.  I was approached by the pastor in charge of that program one day.  He had developed a sketch based on Screwtape and was looking for someone to play the title character.

    What a blast!  I’m a relatively big guy – 6’3″ and built large.  The pastor found a guy to play Wormwood who… physically fit the name.  Probably about 5’7″ and 120 lbs or so. My character was developed as blind, carrying a hefty walking stick, dressed in a black suit, black shirt and crimson ascot.  I definitely have a voice that can project.  I know there were some times where the gentleman playing Wormwood was honestly cowering, not necessarily acting.

    As an amateur actor I’ve played everything from that role to the  Voice of God.  I can honestly say that it is way more fun to play a villain! 😉

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  3. I thought of something else. I learned that I need to be careful about my appetites (emphasis added):

    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 halfway to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won.

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  4. Joss Ackland narrates the audio version I have. As you know, the arc of the story is that Screwtape’s attitude changes from enthusiastic to frustrated and finally  to utter contempt when he realizes his  feckless nephew is going to be forever stuck at Junior Tempter last class. Worse, the little twerp snitches to the infernal thought police when his uncle is indiscreet enough to mention the forbidden truth of God’s eternal love. Anyway, Ackland does a great job of tracking this growing hostility till the very end when Wormwood, having screwed up so utterly, is scheduled for spiritual liquidation by the forces of darkness. The sneering glee in Screwtape’s voice at the prospect of his nephew’s fate is pitch perfect.

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  5. JJ:
    GA, what was your favorite scene in that role?

    I guess you’d call it an “original screenplay” – kind of a sequel of the Letters.  Wormwood is now a mid-level manager and has a new junior tempter reporting directly to him.  ST is now second in command to Satan himself. WW is threatening the jr tempter and ST enters from behind WW without WW noticing.

    Had to dig the script out of my archives!

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  6. JJ:
    AF, I’d like to listen to that.

    OK, here:[audio m4a="https://www.ratburger.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/5-02-My-Dear-My-Very-Dear-Wormwood..m4a"][/audio]

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  7. Lewis is a powerful  writer.  I didn’t read Narnia  until I was in high school, but I read the sf trilogy: Out of the silent Planet, Perelandra,  That Hideous Strength , when I was about ten.  they had a profound effect on me.   And very soon thereafter I read Screwtape.  (Well, I had been haunted by the idea of the interior “tempter” since early childhood, soI was  quite susceptible) . Just recently a friend of mine, an environmental lawyer, picked up one of the Narnia books when he was visiting here— and was very quickly reduced to tears by it!  (At least, I hope it was due to Lewis’ eloquence,  and  not an indication of pre-senile dementia…)

    I remember reading about his conversion: he went to the zoo, and when he left home he wasn’t a Christian; when he returned home, he was! He wasn’t even sure exactly when he became convinced of Jesus’ divinity!
    My father found Lewis’ writings about grief very sustaining when my mother died.  He dealt with the death of his own wife, Joy, so honestly.

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  8. This proves my point that Oregon Ducks fans are from the devil. The first thing a pastor sees in an Oregon Ducks fan is a Tempter with no need of a red suit and a pitchfork. It should also be pointed out that the Oregon Ducks will be in the Rose Bowl because they sold their soles to the devil.

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  9. 10 Cents:
    This proves my point that Oregon Ducks fans are from the devil. The first thing a pastor sees in an Oregon Ducks fan is a Tempter with no need of a red suit and a pitchfork. It should also be pointed out that the Oregon Ducks will be in the Rose Bowl because they sold their soles to the devil.

    I wasn’t aware that Satan wears size 13s. 😉

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  10. Great Adventure:

    10 Cents:
    This proves my point that Oregon Ducks fans are from the devil. The first thing a pastor sees in an Oregon Ducks fan is a Tempter with no need of a red suit and a pitchfork. It should also be pointed out that the Oregon Ducks will be in the Rose Bowl because they sold their soles to the devil.

    I wasn’t aware that Satan wears size 13s. 😉

    It was a Nike contract, GA. Next year I bet their there will be Three Stripes against them. (I was weak I should have ignored this tempter.)

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  11. 10 Cents:

    Great Adventure:

    10 Cents:
    This proves my point that Oregon Ducks fans are from the devil. The first thing a pastor sees in an Oregon Ducks fan is a Tempter with no need of a red suit and a pitchfork. It should also be pointed out that the Oregon Ducks will be in the Rose Bowl because they sold their soles to the devil.

    I wasn’t aware that Satan wears size 13s. 😉

    It was a Nike contract, GA. Next year I bet their will be Three Stripes against them. (I was weak I should have ignored this tempter.)

    I suppose if I were a TTT (Truly Talented Tempter) I could have offered to provide your UW Huskies another year with the Conference Championship.  There are some tasks, however, that even Satan couldn’t achieve.

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  12. From John Walker’s review:

    “…the preface Lewis wrote for a new edition of Screwtape in 1961, in which he says the book almost wrote itself, but that he found the process of getting into Screwtape’s head very unpleasant indeed.”

    Lewis did a great job.   The letters from Screwtape to Wormwood are so good they are creepy.

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