Years ago, a friend suggested that I read The Screwtape Letters. The only thing I knew about C.S. Lewis at the time was that he was the author of The Chronicles of Narnia series. I had a vague memory of the main points from the first book in that series, which I read when I was in elementary school. I remembered that it was a fantasy/adventure kind of story for kids.
It wasn’t until after I’d finished reading The Screwtape Letters that I did some research and learned that one of the most well known books by C.S. Lewis is called Mere Christianity and that the author converted to Christianity in 1931. Perhaps my friend, who is a pastor, had an ulterior motive when he suggested that I read The Screwtape Letters.
Years ago, I worked in a bookstore that was located near the town I grew up in. As such, it wasn’t unusual for me to encounter people I knew from school (either as a fellow student – or as their teacher) while I was at work. One day, a friend who I went to high school stopped to say hello when he saw me dusting bookshelves and rearranging books.
He and I got along, but we weren’t the kind of friends that hung out together after school. I remember him mentioning that he had become a pastor, and I think he may have handed me a business card. He suggested I read The Screwtape Letters and said that it was a story that involved demons. My response was that my favorite video game was called Diablo and that I found stories with demons to be interesting. Looking back, I suspect this wasn’t the sort of thing my friend the pastor wanted to hear.
The best thing about The Screwtape Letters is the format it was written in. The entire narrative is given to the reader via a series of letters that were written by Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood. Both of these characters are demons.
The reader is given access only to the letters that Wormwood sent to his uncle Screwtape. This results in a one-sided view of the story that forces the reader to sort out for themselves the pieces that are missing. There are other books that are made up of a series of letters between two characters, or that are the sequential letters from one character to another. However, The Screwtape Letters was published in 1942, so I’m going to guess that perhaps it was the among the first to use this style of storytelling.
Wormwood writes to his uncle Screwtape for help. Wormwood has been assigned the task of turning a man (called “the patient”) towards “Our Father Below” (the devil) and away from “the Enemy” (God). Wormwood has recently graduated from his studies as a tempter and is struggling with his first assignment. Screwtape is a highly placed assistant to “Our Father Below”, and is giving his best advice to his nephew.
On page 2, the letter from Screwtape states that he once had a patient who was an atheist. On the next page, the letter explains how easy it was to turn that patient to “Our Father Below”. Within four paragraphs, C.S. Lewis managed to make atheists, like me, feel very unwelcome. Either he intended this book to be read only by people who were Christians, or he figured that threatening an atheist reader with Hell right away would somehow make them fearful enough to turn to Christianity.
Needless to say, I didn’t find The Screwtape Letters to be very interesting. It feels very preachy. Almost anything is enough to cause a patient to end up with “Our Father Below”. This includes – enjoying food, making jokes, having any sort of fun, or spending time at church but not being fully mentally involved while there. I came to the end of the book with the idea that Wormwood must be an absolutely pathetic excuse for a tempter, if so many simple things can send a patient to hell. And yet, Screwtape’s letters make it clear that Wormwood is trying his best to get his assignment done.
What kept me reading it was the unique use of letters as a narrative format and the “reverse engineering” the reader must go through to sort things out. For example, if Screwtape suggested to Wormwood that he try and get his patient to do something – it’s clear that the “something” was the type of thing people can go to Hell for. But, the “something” is presented as a good thing – because that’s what it is to Screwtape and Wormwood. The book presents the reader with a logistical puzzle, of sorts.
It is the juxtaposition that troubles me. C.S. Lewis has created a story where the only way to avoid going to Hell is to give over oneself entirely to God in every action, and every thought, for one’s entire life. He posits this viewpoint in a book that is designed to force the reader to think for themselves about the things that Screwtape suggests to Wormwood. So, the lesson about what not to do is presented to the reader in a way that causes them to do that exact thing – to think for themselves while having fun reading.
If you are an atheist like myself, and wish to read The Screwtape Letters, I suggest you view it entirely as fiction. I found the book more enjoyable when I divorced it from religious dogma. Do that, and the book becomes a series of letters between an astute demon uncle who is trying, and failing, to advise his bumbling nephew through a task he should be prepared to undertake – but is woefully terrible at.
I didn’t get around to reading The Screwtape Letters until years after my friend the pastor suggested it to me. By then, I had moved across the country and lost track of everyone that I had gone to high school with. Part of the reason was I wasn’t bumping into them at work anymore. The other reason was that I had quit using Facebook after I found it too frustrating and anger-inducing to deal with. If there is a Hell, I am certain it is located within Facebook’s “walled garden”.