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The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

September 6, 2012

My friend Rich once told me how much he loved this book, and I’ve had it on my shelf ever since. Recently, I was reading something about David Foster Wallace and it mentioned how much he loved The Screwtape Letters, which compelled me to take it down and give it a read.

The book is a collection of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew and lower-level tempter, Wormwood. The lesser demon is in the process of trying to tempt a young English man, referred to only as “the patient.” There is a bit of a story here, but mostly this book is a series of musings on the human condition and our moral struggles. What makes this book brilliant, however, is that because it is written from the point-of-view of a demon, everything is flipped on its head. Good is bad, bad is good, etc. Lewis called it “diabolical ventriloquism.” This technique gives the book a comic charm, but also keeps it from feeling to preachy.

Although there is humor in the relationship between Screwtape and his apparently inept nephew, the book is really about our moments of weakness, “opportunities” for the demons, in which a person might be led astray. Greed, gluttony, lust, pride, envy—Lewis more or less digs his blade under each of the seven sins and flips it over to see what bugs are attached. But he also gets at less biblical truths, large—probing the link between fear and hate, the ability of love to launch us toward grace or defilement—and smaller truths—our tendency to give credibility to thinking simply because it’s old, or the anger that can be produced by simply taking away from a person time they think is their own.

This book could easily have been a good, straightforward collection of essays, Musings on Sin. There’s a lot of wisdom packed in here, and every reader will identify with different points. But the way the wisdom is delivered is what makes The Screwtape Letters such a great read.


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