This Tuesday we will begin our autumnal study of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. In his brief preface, Lewis writes that he has discovered a bundle of letters written by a demon named Screwtape. All of these letters are written to Screwtape’s nephew, Wormwood, on how best to tempt a British man, called “the Patient,” into sin and, eventually, into Hell. Wormwood is an inexperienced devil, and Screwtape shares with Wormwood his knowledge, experience, and skill derived from his many years of tempting humans to abandon God.
There are a total of thirty-one letters in the collection. Each letter is fairly short, usually about five paragraphs, and focuses on one discreet issue of how to draw the Patient away from God. In most of these letters, you should be able to see yourself as the Patient.
We will spend eight weeks in The Screwtape Letters and discuss about four letters per week. If you want to look at deeper questions that each chapter raises, there is a wonderful Study Guide created by the C.S. Lewis Foundation as well as Spark Notes on the book. I am using a Study Guide of discussion questions by Alan Vermilye. If you would rather listen than read the book, John Cleese’s version is brilliant. The answer key to literary and cultural references in the book is HERE. And a one-sentence summary of each chapter is HERE
Letter 1: Everday Trifles
In Chapter 1, Screwtape encourages Wormwood to keep the Patient’s mind on the ordinary, everyday trifles of life and particularly whatever the newsboy was selling at that moment. Wormwood wants to engage the Patient in argument and deep inquiry believing that this will definitively move the Patient away from the Enemy (i.e. God). Screwtape warns against this because “the trouble with argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground.” Screwtape cautions that under no circumstances should the patient think too deeply about anything.
Letter 2: Distractions and Disillusionment
This letter opens with Screwtape chastising Wormwood into allowing the Patient to become a Christian. However, Screwtape encourages his nephew to not give up. Wormwood’s task is to cause the Patient to become disillusioned with the church, and thereby disillusioned with God. Wormwood can accomplish this end by highlighting the strange habits and hypocrisies of churchgoers, or simply by making the Patient feel superior to the ordinary people he encounters at church. As Screwtape explains, the Patient is most vulnerable when the dreaming aspirations of being a new Christian devolve into the “laborious doing.” According to Screwtape, this vulnerability is baked into the human condition because the Enemy allows for freedom, and as the rush of the newness wears off, it will become easier for Wormwood to slowly move the Patient away from God.
I hope you can join us in reading through this book together.
For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.Ephesians 6:12