Blook Back: The Screwtape Letters

I must confess that the only reason I read this book is because I saw that it was listed among the favorite works of David Foster Wallace. The premise is certainly clever enough, with C.S. Lewis using a correspondence between two hellish imps as a vehicle for examining in some depth the particular nuances of a recent Christian convert during the London blitz and the manners by which he might be tempted to the side of evil.

Where the work succeeds is when it dives deep into the psychology of the sinner, eschewing more obvious sins for their more subtle counterparts. Gluttony is not best exemplified by a portly gentleman, Screwtape argues, but by the miserly old lady who insists that her food be cooked JUST SO, which happens to conform to a shifting and unreasonable standard.

Lewis’ grip of the psychology of the burgeoning Christian was no doubt bolstered by the fact that he himself was a late convert to the religion, adopting it late in life and becoming what some eventually called the “apostle to the skeptics.”

As an agnostic myself, I was less than moved by this work, but I don’t imagine that was actually the full intention. I did feel as though I was being judged at points — like the instance where Lewis attacks intellectuals for conceding the worthiness of the “historical Jesus.” He rather adeptly points out that Christ the man left no room in his own work for consideration as merely an adept moral philosopher independent of his divinity. It’s an all or nothing proposition.

As a tool for converting we, the wicked sinners, it fails, because Screwtape and Wormwood are utterly too convenient devices for explaining away perfectly rational arguments against Christianity. As a piece of pop psychology about mid-forties Christians in the UK, it’s utterly brilliant, and has a few shining gems that stand the test of time.

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