Saturday, December 15, 2007

Review: The Screwtape Letters

Did this review for Norm at normblog. Go here.

C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia books, also wrote a book called The Screwtape Letters, which was and remains very popular with the Christian fraternity.

The book is a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew and protégé, Wormwood, who has just graduated from demon Training College. What the letters reveal are all the tricks of the trade so far as devilry is concerned - the ways in which Satan's demons tempt, trick, and otherwise manipulate us so that we are lost to 'the Enemy' (God) and become delicious morsels for 'our Father below', as Screwtape refers to the Devil.

Screwtape's advice to his blundering nephew reveals his own experience at drawing humans to their doom. He explains how we can be tempted to sin, even while we think we are being virtuous. When Wormwood's first 'patient' finds Christianity, Screwtape advises Wormwood thus:

The most alarming thing in your last account of the patient is that he is making none of those confident resolutions which marked his original conversion... I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble. Have you drawn his attention to this fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is especially true of humility. Catch him at a moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection "By jove! I'm being humble," and almost immediately pride - pride at his own humility - will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother his new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt - and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don't try this for too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed.


Lewis excels at capturing the labyrinthine and often masochistic patterns of thought into which the religious can get themselves. The cycle described above - of humility, followed by pride in humility, which is smothered by second-order humility, which awakens further pride, and so on - is a nice example.

Lewis's book is filled with pithy reminders of how we can slide into doing wrong - worthwhile reminders whether or not we're religious. The surest way of tempting humans to oblivion, Screwtape tells us, is not to get them to commit spectacular sins, but gently to lull them into the habit of little sins, preferably without them even noticing they are sinning.

It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is not better than cards if cards do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.

Even if you're not religious, you'll recognize that there is much truth in that.

Screwtape urges Wormwood to encourage the bond between his patient and two breezy, charming and fashionable new friends who are 'rich, smart, superficially intellectual, and brightly sceptical about everything in the world'. To Screwtape's delight, these trendy individuals introduce him to their whole set - 'thoroughly reliable people; steady, consistent scoffers and worldlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortably towards our Father's house'. The patient, he hopes, will be seduced away from the Enemy (God) by this sceptical and seemingly-sophisticated bunch. Lewis's real point here, of course, is to warn Christians against hanging out with... er, people like me.

One irony about Lewis's book is that, in producing this exposé of how demons psychologically manipulate people, he engages in a certain amount of psychological manipulation himself. A Christian may find that the siren voices of the demons (whom Lewis seems to think really exist) whispering in their ear are now accompanied by Lewis's own muscular intonations: 'Psst. Don't become friendly with those people - they'll seduce you into sinning!'

Lewis believes that reason favours religious belief. Like many philosophically minded-Christians (such as Keith Ward and Richard Swinburne), he encourages us to think and question. That's the sort of Christian I can respect, the sort that stands in stark contrast to Luther, who insists, 'Faith must trample all reason underfoot', and those evangelicals for whom 'Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has' and 'A free thinker is Satan's slave'.

I'm working on a parody of The Screwtape Letters. My Tapescrew Letters are written by a senior guru/priest to his junior in a fictional religion that nevertheless bears a close similarity to many actual religions. Just as Lewis aimed to take the lid off the activities of the demons, so my book aims to lay bare the psychological manipulation applied by gurus and priests. I'm in fact borrowing Lewis's clever little idea and turning it against him.

18 comments:

K. Szklenski said...

Stephen,

That's awesome. The parody you're writing, is it a full book, or just an online-type piece? I can't wait to read it.

On a completely different note, I've been reading Richard Carrier's book called "Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism". Have you read it, and do you have any suggestions for similar books, if you have? Thanks.

Dave M said...

demons (whom Lewis seems to think really exist)

Why do you say this? Surely you can't infer this from The Screwtape Letters alone. Does he mention demons in a clearly non-metaphorical sense elsewhere?

Stephen Law said...

Thanks. No haven't read that book, I'm afraid. Mine will be with Routledge publisher. Title not decided as yet...

I am doing a special issue of THINK on good without God, shortly. Not sure which issue yet.

A really good intro to ethics written by an atheist, which is clear on the Euthyphro dilemma etc. is James Rachels' The Elements of Moral Philosophy. Bit expensive though...

Stephen Law said...

Dave m - I am pretty sure Lewis thinks they are real. But I cannot now remember why I believe this(!) Probably one of his other books. Will have to check...

Stephen Law said...

Just found this on wikipedia:

"A preface included in some older publishings of the book included a short dialog on the subject of whether Lewis believed demons to be fact or fiction, exemplifying Lewis' belief that despite the fictional storyline of the book, he believed Satan and demons were not fictional."

anticant said...

"The deeper the soul plunges into religious devotion, the more it loses all sense of reality, all need, all desire, all love for reality....The dazzling light of their faith blinds them to the surrounding world, and to their own selves. As for me, who cares for nothing so much as to see the world and myself clearly, I am amazed at the coils of falsehood in which devout persons take delight."

Andre Gide: 'The Coiners'.

anticant said...

I have a copy of a reprint of the first edition of "The Screwtape Letters", published in 1942. In the preface Lewis says: "There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. The first is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight."

It would appear from this that Lewis did believe in their existence.

Stephen Law said...

Yes, thanks anticant. I actually remember reading that now, funnily enough, in my father's copy. But it's not in my current copy.

david ellis said...

Since you are thinking of writing a parody of THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS I wanted to point out, in case you werent aware of it, that it is itself written in reaction to Mark Twain's LETTERS FROM THE EARTH. At least that's what I've read and it certainly bears a strong similarity (though a reversal of theme).

You probably already knew that. But if you haven't read it I highly recommend it.

Stephen Law said...

I didn't know that, David. Will order the Twain - thanks for pointing that out.

Stephen Law said...

Just spotted Twains letters available here:

http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/twainlfe.htm

Sam Norton said...

Just on that question of demons - isn't this a good example of where atheism and fundamentalism shares the same understanding? In other words, the language of demons in the Bible has only one coherent sense (literal existence) and so the only issue is whether that existence is affirmed or denied? I don't know for sure, but I'd suspect Lewis' understanding to be a bit more subtle than that.

david ellis said...

Sam, why would you assume atheist's only share the fundamentalists view of demons.

Obviously, we as naturalists do not believe in demons. And the vast majority of us are well aware that there are nonliteralist views of all sorts of biblical stories---including demons.

Sam Norton said...

Well - perhaps I'm wrong - but I detected a note of scorn in Stephen's brief aside about Lewis! I'm picking up on a discussion from an earlier comment thread as well.

Brian Burgess said...

Stephen,

I enjoyed reading your review and appreciate you pointing out that Lewis encouraged Christians to engage in critical thinking. I wouldn't mind seeing more of Christianity moving in that direction.

Thanks,

Brian

Anonymous said...

Your own personal Wormwood is laughing in the utmost pleasure. He can't wait until you write this book. You are convinced that you are not under the influence of demonic temptation and that what really needs to be exposed is the evils of religion. You couldn't be more amusing to the enemy. Sad and ironic.

Stephen Law said...

Haven't you guessed yet - I am Wormwood!

sam said...

Yes, there is something beyond our limited perceptions that has an effect on us. You can assume that Wormwood and Screwtape are mere metaphors, but that is where the demons would have their first victory, that of lulling you into the belief of their non existence. The preface of this book is the very disclaimer.

Demons do exist in the spiritual realm, but we cannot view them with our eyes, that of the flesh. And yes, we are far more that what we think we are