Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Lewis' Neglected Masterpiece

Screwtape LettersScrewtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Of all the works in the C.S. Lewis canon, the one I think is most under-appreciated is The Screwtape Letters. In fact, I would say that this short, epistolary novel is also one of the most neglected literary works of the past century. I suspect it has flown under the radar because of a combination of two problems: On one hand there are those who refuse to see Lewis as anything but a spiritual teacher (though he would have scoffed at the idea, particularly concerning his fiction). On the other hand is the prejudice that modern literary scholars have toward Christianity. If it isn't Milton or Donne, they will have none of it, and even those two are eyed with suspicion.

The Screwtape Letters is a masterful tale of a senior devil (Screwtape) teaching his nephew (Wormwood) how to corrupt the person Wormwood is charged with drawing to Hell's Gates. This is done via what Lewis called "diabolical ventriloquism." Readers are reminded in the Preface that the devil is a liar, and should remember the book is satire--that Lewis himself is not advocating any such actions against the soul.

But because the book is satire, it is automatically pulled out of the hands of many modern readers who have had critical thinking surgically removed from their systems by politics, poor schooling, lousy instruction of the Bible, and a general distaste for reading of creative works spread by many sources. Thus, the book has been attacked by the religious and the anti-religious. References to Jesus Christ as "the Enemy" many bother those who have always considered Satan the nemesis. That the battle is over a soul many don't believe exists may be hard for others to take.

One could see the book as a sort of handbook on how people are drawn away from God, and thereby learn some sort of lessons from it. But this vision leaves the book looking like poor art, and merely a tool. We could see the book as a primer for those unacquainted with the Christian concept of sin. But then it would be merely an amusing anthropomorphic study. One might even look at the story as a portrait of fear and uncertainty during the tumult of war. But that only confuses those have no interest in looking within.

The Screwtape Letters does provide readers with a unique perspective on how the mind works, particularly the mind engaged in spiritual matters. Read in the right light, this book could appeal to people outside the Christian religion, and even those who are outside religion completely. However, it cannot, and should not be looked at as a definitive (or even partial) picture of Christianity or as a "witnessing tool." It helps the reader to know something of the basics of Christianity -- the story, not the doctrines -- but I don't think that knowledge is mandatory.

As satire, the humor in this book is likely to be lost on many readers. People looking for an easy to spot good guy versus bad guy tale or who are not used to the villain providing the narrative will have a very hard time laughing through this book. It is easy to forget that the most interesting characters are often the villains, and thus many cannot see their own foibles been lampooned, or worse, they may see them and instead of laughing at themselves, will be offended and toss the book aside.

As with a number of books by Mr. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters might be read considering its historical perspective. World War Two (called the European War by the author) is a backdrop for the story. Screwtape does comment on the war and differentiates it from other wars, and in fact differentiates this time in history from other times in regards to philosophy, education, and popular thinking. We could see the conflict as a metaphor for the spiritual warfare going on for the "patient," and also as a chaotic reminder of what it means to be "a house divided." I have always found it a little baffling and quite amusing that Screwtape keeps telling his charge not to get so excited about the pain and suffering caused by war, but at the end says that--spoiler alert you probably didn't need-- Wormwood has failed when the "patient" dies and goes to Heaven.

Included in many editions of this book is the fictional essay "Screwtape Proposes a Toast," written only a couple years before Lewis' death. Here the title character is not writing a letter, but giving a speech at the graduation celebration for the college where junior tempters are educated. The distinction made between Democracy as political idea (all are created equal) and democracy as philosophy ("I'm as good as anyone") is both hilarious and frightening.

The Screwtape Letters deserves greater recognition and attention. It might not be for everyone. But it should be attempted by most readers, and studied by a few.

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