This short book is comprised of thirty-one letters. Each one begins with “My dear Wormwood” and is signed “Your affectionate uncle – Screwtape.” Weird names, no doubt, and weird characters to go with them. Wormwood and Screwtape are not human beings; they are demons of the spiritual world, existing only to prey upon human souls. Screwtape is an experienced tempter, while his “nephew” Wormwood is new on the scene. The latter’s task is to entrap and destroy one particular human to whom he has been assigned. Each of Screwtape’s letters consists of advice to the inexperienced tempter as to how he might best exploit the human’s circumstances to secure his soul for hell.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this is not a serious book, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Yes, it’s laced with humour; yes, it contains the most ridiculous character names (Slubgob & Toadpipe are a few incidental demons you’ll meet); but this book is actually trying to be deadly serious. “What about?” you might ask. “How to send someone to hell?” Quite the opposite. In reading The Screwtape Letters, the reader gets clued into the subtle strategies of Satan so that they are exposed for what they are, and the reader is able to withstand them. Here’s one example which stood out for me, on the subject of how to pray:
Whenever they [the humans] are attending to the Enemy Himself [God] we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds are trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.
Being a Christian, I believe in the existence of demons, and I’ve picked up a thing or two from the Bible about how they operate. The details are sketchy at best, and it makes me unsure whether everything Lewis talks about is related to demonic activity in human life. But that’s not really important, becuase the purpose of each letter is to communicate warnings about dangers which Christians can fall into unawares, and those dangers are real, whether they are related to spiritual warfare or not. It’s a stroke of genius that Lewis decided to write a book of this nature in this highly entertaining format.
There are thirty-one letters in all, one for each day of the month, if you like. I found that some topics were more relevant to me than others, but I came away with a sense that this is a book I should read again in the future, when fresh insights would be gained.