The Screwtape Letters/Book & Study GuideThe Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It would seem I am going to hell.

Let me start over. Mr. Lewis is incredibly insightful into the human condition, particularly into the condition of those who happen to be middle or upper class, from and residing in a developed western nation, and male. This is a demographic into which I fit, and there are passages here that seemed to be pulled from my own life.

I must also reveal that I do not ascribe to religion of any kind, least of all Christianity. One could chalk this up to some negative experiences with religion early in my life, or the fact that my parents never actively practiced religion. Whatever the reason, there came a point in my life when I decided that worshiping a deity was not really for me, come what may. I don’t feel the need to judge others for their beliefs so long as they allow me to have mine.

That said, I knew basically what I was getting with this book going in. It would therefore be in bad form to criticize The Screwtape Letters for being a religious book. That is, in fact, why I picked it up to begin with. What I expected was a fictionalized thesis of the inner workings of evil. Not just any evil, but the Great Evil against which religious practitioners the world over style themselves as warriors. This is meant to be the Hell that wants to rise up and swallow the world, casting us all into darkness and fire and consuming our everlasting souls, forever separating us from the light. All in all, I felt that the demons in this book who ostensibly have such lofty aims were perhaps too concerned with how grumpy you may act toward your mother or how rude a person might be to the wait staff. The demons of Lewis’s imagination appear to suffer from a lack of creativity.

I think, though, that this is the point. Lewis wishes to convey the dangers of evil for us at every turn. It is there, he says, in a cross word with your family. It is there in the taking of pride in your own accomplishments. It is there in the belief that you are the owner of your own physical form. I joke a bit, because I don’t share the belief that these things are evil, but I can’t pretend I didn’t hear these things in Sunday School when I was a boy. They make sense when you operate from a certain set of parameters. He is not writing this book for a poor Chinese man from a Hindu background. He is writing solidly for the middle class white Brit, and he is at home with that demographic.

Lewis paints a world of black and white in which actions are evil or good, sins or virtues, and human beings can be swung like pendulums between the two extremes. Gray areas do not really exist, and one must be ever watchful for the poison-tongued snake dangling from the tree. Lewis’s insight into the mind of a certain type of person is at times astonishing. I do not deny that I saw mistakes I have made written out in exacting detail in the pages of this book, but in every one, his examination stops before it gets too deep and points the blame for human failings squarely at an external force. Men do not have to take responsibility for themselves so long as they are not too confused by their own personal demon to lay their burdens at the feet of God, because as our demons lead us astray, our God will right our path. All we have to do is realize it. If I could only believe in magic, the world would be a much shinier place.

I do agree, however, that Hell, if it exists, is almost certainly a bureaucracy. If Lewis is right, I shall find out soon enough.

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