NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, the 6th of August. So glad you’ve joined us today for The World and Everything in It. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Well, it’s time now to talk with book reviewer, Emily Whitten, for this month’s classic book recommendation.
Emily, thanks for joining us today.
EMILY WHITTEN, BOOK REVIEWER: Happy to be here.
REICHARD: So, tell us about your book selection this month.
WHITTEN: Sure. I pulled out my old high school copy of The Screwtape Letters by British author C.S. Lewis. It’s really been a treat to go back to this book now that I’m a few years older. I guess you’re familiar with this one, Mary?
REICHARD: Oh my yes! One of my favorites of all time. Entertaining and wise and told in a way that sticks.
WHITTEN: To me, this is one of the most accessible and fun books by Lewis. For busy folks, it’s nice and short—about 150 pages, depending on the font. But it’s packed with rich theology and practical advice for Christian living.
REICHARD: Well, let’s start with that fun part. What makes this book fun?
WHITTEN: To begin with, the format. In this story, right and wrong are turned upside down. Up is down, down is up. And that’s because the book consists of 31 letters from an older. experienced demon named Screwtape to his undersecretary, Wormwood.
In those letters, Screwtape explains how to entice Wormwood’s human quote “patient” away from God and into hell. Some authors might write this as a horror story, but Lewis portrays Screwtape as a kind of bungling bureaucrat—he’s very British. Yes, he’s also very evil, but because he’s a defeated foe and because of the way Lewis paints him, he’s ultimately comical.
Listen to this short clip read by British actor John Cleese—and as you listen, keep in mind that the “Enemy” mentioned here is actually God:
SCREWTAPE: I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British museum. One day I saw a train of thought beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy of course was at his elbow in a moment.
Before I knew where I was, I saw my 20 years’ work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defense by argument, I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man that I had best under my control, and suggested it was just about time he had some lunch.
So, rather than fight God (or the Enemy) intellectually, Screwtape lures his patient with something like a turkey sandwich. Lewis makes plain that sin is often very different from what we might think.
Mary, if I ask you to name something or someone that’s the epitome of evil, what comes to mind for you?
REICHARD: The epitome of evil…Someone who comes to mind? Hitler, Pol Pot,…I could go on and on. Or mass shootings today.
WHITTEN: Yeah, Lewis wouldn’t deny that kind of in-your-face evil. But he sees it as almost incidental to the biggest reasons individuals end up in hell. Keep in mind Lewis wrote these letters in 19-41. World War II and the bombing of England were just getting started, and they play a large role in the plot…but not in the way you might expect.
Screwtape reminds us that although the war destroys and maims, it also awakens people from their everyday, self-focused lives. Fear may drive them to pray and seek God’s help.
Screwtape says, “The safest road to hell is the gradual one, the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
REICHARD: Yeah, that’s not the usual way of looking at sin.
WHITTEN: Right. And you know, I recently spoke with an author named Gina Dalfonzo—she is currently working on a book about the friendship of Lewis and Dorothy Sayers —who’s a contemporary author of Lewis —and she told me Sayers once sent a note to Lewis in the form of a Screwtape letter:
DALFONZO: What you might call the Screwtape genre is not my favorite. That is not to put down anybody who has tried it. It’s tempting, I’m sure. A lot of the attempts that I’ve seen have just been people using this format to comment on their culture. Sayers does that but uses it to comment on herself. The demon’s name is Sluckdrib. He’s her own personal attendant. He is mocking her, commenting on her faults. She gets it.
So, what I take away from Dalfonzo’s comment is this—Lewis’ letters aren’t an attack on the big cultural sins of his day: atheism and materialism, for instance. His view of evil is much more personal than that. And for that reason, his letters apply to us just as much today.
REICHARD: Really useful. I would guess this book remains pretty popular. Any suggestions for folks who might consider reading this for a second or third time?
WHITTEN: Well, Wheaton College professor Jerry Root gave a series of talks for the C.S. Lewis Institute several years ago, and he had some helpful insights. While I don’t agree with everything he said, I did learn a lot.
Root focused on three themes in his talks. Those themes include pride, the rationalization of evil, and the temptations of the flesh. Here’s some of what Root said about pride:
SCREWTAPE: So Screwtape seeks to take good things and corrupt them with pride. Even humility. Even prayer. Even the church. Lewis allows Screwtape to write this to Wormwood: ‘Your patient has become humble,’ in letter number 14. ‘Have you drawn his attention to the fact [that] all virtues are less formidable to us, Screwtape writes, once a man is aware that he has them? But this is especially true of humility.’ Screwtape is not creative. He takes the good thing and perverts it.
REICHARD: I’ve heard that before—that evil is always a perversion of the good.
WHITTEN: Yes, Lewis definitely believed that. And that’s why for all Screwtape’s ingenuity, he can’t win. Ultimately, God is our Creator, His purposes for us will prevail, and that’s why we can trust Him.
REICHARD: Amen to that. Thanks for your time today, Emily.
WHITTEN: You’re very welcome, Mary. Happy reading.
REICHARD: Today, Emily recommended The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. If you visit worldandeverything.org and look up this particular segment, you’ll find links to some of the resources we mentioned today.