This review is only the opinion of the poster; an opinion that is ever and always changing.
C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, is a humorous series of letters by an imagined devil named Screwtape, “Senior Undersecretary to the Lowerarchy” to his inexperienced nephew, as they plot how best to lead their “Patient” into sin.
Each of the 31 letters can be read in a few minutes, though the bouts of self-reflection they’re designed to invoke can extend the time involved. The book is a treatise on morals, but cleverly told in reverse: Screwtape writes about his disgust for the virtues of humans, and suggests ways they can be perverted to vice. The virtues and vice discussed are not the dramatic type, but focus on the common ways people act against their own self-interest. The format is more effective than a sermon. While direct orders, like that Jehovah gave to Adam and Eve, inspire a rebellious streak, Screwtape’s letters create the same effect in reverse, by speaking of charity and education in the negative, and always emphasizing the great use of marital quarrels and finicky tastes. Instead of giving the message the brush-off, the reader thinks, “is that devil talking about me?!” The call to action is made much more effective.
I’ve concluded that The Screwtape Letters is a much more useful moral book than The Bible. (Or at least that small part of it I’ve read so far.) It is more modern, and little of it has gone out of date in 60 years. And it has a much better understanding of human nature than any of the biblical writers had, focusing not on crippling ideals of obedience and deprivation, but taunting us to modify our petty ways.
And yet, it is still a Christian book, and has the faults that come with that. Lewis has remarked that the work deserved an angelic counterpart, which he had not written. (For the usual Christian reason that such an account must be in every way perfect) But he doesn’t seem to notice what he has done right by not including such. Just like Paradise Lost, which promised to “justify the ways of God to man”, it doesn’t. Lewis has pages and pages of insight. The type that, based on what Christians say about it, the Bible ought to have. But that useful type of moralizing is always temporarily clogged when religion is addressed directly. When Screwtape calls God ‘The Enemy,’ it is meant ironically, though such an epithet is well deserved by the biblical Jehovah. (Satan is addressed as “Our Father”) When he writes that God “really does want us all to be individuals”, and “only wants us to defy our nature briefly during prayer,” it doesn’t ring true with what I know of the bible at all. And his early suggestion that factual information is a valuable weapon of Christianity? Nauseating. It puzzles me how Lewis can have so much insight, and attributes it all to his religion, without seeing how far beyond those archaic ideas he has come.
There is another aspect I find troubling. I will warn: this next part is a spoiler, (but to those of us on this forum, it comes as no surprise) the story ends with the Patient’s sudden, and fortunate death, which since he died as a Christian leads to his salvation. The same revolting turn of events was also the fate of most of the cast of Narnia; which was the impetus for Philip Pullman to write His Dark Materials. (An excellent humanist fantasy that I also recently read) I admit this ending was expected, for how else can a Christian story end? This is symptomatic of Christianity’s rejection of life,* and woefully in contrast with the responsible pursuit of pleasure recommended elsewhere in the Letters.
Like every other Christian book I’ve ever read, The Screwtape Letters commits gaping failures of logic every time it attempts to speak in Jehovah’s favor. But I now know why Lewis is so well-regarded among apologists. He is one of the best; and if the teachings of the bible were as useful as this book, we wouldn’t have nearly as much cause to complain as we do.
*Felt like bringing this up too. In Joseph Campbell’s lectures on mythology, he discusses the serpent’s symbolism of life. The serpent is seen as positive in most of the world’s cultures, but is the principal villain in life-denying Christianity. Shortly after hearing this assessment, it did not take me long to see the pattern. And when I mention to my Christian friend that Zipporah is my favorite character in the bible, he asks me, “How do you know God wasn’t just trying to send Moses to Heaven?”
Note: I acknowledge ahead of time my comparison between this book and The Bible is weakened by admitting I have not finished the latter. What I have read includes the first 3 books of the Old Testament, most of Numbers, and the Thomas Jefferson Bible, which is comprised mostly of Jesus’ parables.