Summary of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters by Fr. Richard Conlin

Background:

  • The Screwtape Letters is C.S. Lewis’ fictional novel is a as a collection of 31 letters from one devil to another – from an experienced devil, Uncle Screwtape, to his inexperienced nephew, Wormwood – concerning the corruption of a human soul.
  • By taking on important Christian moral topics from the perspective of the evil, not the good, C.S. Lewis invites the reader to reflect on how the demonic may be influencing him.
  • By giving a perfect “negative” of Christian doctrine, Lewis gives us a thorough guide to how not to be a Christian — and therefore, it’s an equally thorough guide to how to be a Christian. Simply put, the more we hear how a devil hates something, the more we are supposed to like it.

2 Themes to Look For:

1st – Faith & Reason

  • In the 1st letter, Screwtape tells Wormwood that the goal of a devil should be to prevent a human being from thinking. With this opening statement, C.S. Lewis argues that critical thinking about Christianity will actually lead a person to understand the faith and embrace it. In one each of the 31 letters, Lewis tries to logically prove one part of Christianity to be true. Rather than fear critical thinking and focus on blind faith, Lewis wants to use reason & logic to support Christian doctrine.

“Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church… the trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle on to the Enemy’s own ground” (1st Letter).

2nd – Free Will & Love

  • C.S. Lewis presents free will as humanity’s greatest weakness, but also its greatest strength. While freedom does allow humans to sin, and thus go to Hell, it also allows them to overcome their sins, train themselves to choose morally good actions, and go to Heaven.
  • Throughout the 31 letters, Lewis gives a classic image of how humans constantly vacillate between good and evil. God and Satan cannot “force” humans to do anything but rather “encourage” humans to behave certain ways.
  • Thanks to a treacherous Wormwood, Screwtape’s suggestion that God loves humans and wants them to love one another briefly places him in danger of being convicted of heresy by the “Secret Police” (19th Letter).
  • By the end of the novel, the Christian idea that God only allows evil because He can bring about a greater good is made clear (eg. the devil’s tactics usually backfire on them).
  • Screwtape reminds Wormwood that he feels “the same love” for Wormwood that Wormwood feels for Screwtape. In the end, he reminds Wormwood that the penalty for failing to corrupt a human is being eaten alive — and Screwtape himself will be the devil to eat Wormwood.

“The Enemy takes this risk because He has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His “free” lovers and servants— “sons” is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to “do it on their own”. And there lies our opportunity. But also, remember, there lies our danger. If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt” (2nd Letter).

More Quotes:

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them” (Preface).

  • Lewis’s remarks establish a reason for his writing this book. By writing about devils in a light, comic tone, portraying his characters as petty, obnoxious, and clumsy, Lewis shows evil to be second-rate in every way (real but no reason to be shocked or in awe of them).

“Consider too what undesirable deaths occur in wartime. Men are killed in places where they knew they might be killed and to which they go, if they are at all of the Enemy’s party, prepared. How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition!” (5th Letter).

  • Lewis suggests that hospitals, in spite of their reputation for kindness and mercy, endanger the souls of human beings by depriving them of the religious care they desperately need, and by lying to them about their true condition. Paradoxically, it’s better (in terms of the state of one’s soul) for a human being to die in the army than in a modern hospital—at least the army provides chaplains and priests to listen to soldiers’ final confessions before they die.

“All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged” (7th Letter).

  • In this famous passage, Screwtape argues that extremism is always easy to twist into sinfulness (and therefore helpful to the cause of evil) – unless the extremism is a form of devotion to God himself. Extreme devotion to anything other than the true God results in “false idols” (eg. football, Marxism, alcohol, etc).

“He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures, whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct” (8th Letter).

  • Screwtape paints a picture of the universe as God wants it, and as the Devil wants it. By hearing the “inside scoop”, it’s clear that God’s world is the desirable one to choose (both “separate” and yet “united” with God in perfect freedom & fulfillment).

“Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but 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” (8th Letter).

  • God brings humans into the world in a state of doubt because he wants humans to choose to worship him, using their powers of free will.
  • By making humans doubt God, Screwtape only “sweetens” God’s victory when humans eventually see the truth about Christianity.

“Rest assured, my love for you and your love for me are as like as two peas. I have always desired you, as you (pitiful fool) desired me. The difference is that I am the stronger. I think they will give you to me now; or a bit of you. Love you? Why, yes. As dainty a morsel as ever I grew fat on. You have let a soul slip through your fingers” (31st Letter).

  • By the end of the book, we discover that Screwtape doesn’t really care about Wormwood after all but rather despises him, as all devils despise all other devils. Screwtape’s “zero-sum game” emerges once again – Wormwood’s loss is now Screwtape’s victory.

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