Join our Lenten Campaign 2024.
With its publication in 1942, C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters became an instant classic. Written as a satirical correspondence between a senior demon (the titular Screwtape) and a junior demon (Screwtape’s “nephew” Wormwood), the book purports to relay Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood regarding how to ensnare his “patient” for eternal damnation.
Screwtape has had a profound impact, sparking an unlikely Latin correspondence between Lewis and an Italian priest who would later become a canonized saint and inspiring numerous imitations, as well as an audio drama featuring Andy Serkis (famous for his portrayal of Gollum in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings). More importantly, it has given countless Christians deep insight into the spiritual life and the nature of temptation. The book led some to suggest that Lewis must have studied moral theology in great depth, when in fact he simply had a profound, first-hand understanding of the human heart.
The key strategy Screwtape commends to Wormwood is subtlety and misdirection, rather than shock and awe. To paraphrase a well-known saying, for Screwtape the path to hell is trodden by infinitesimal steps — steps so small that they can be easily overlooked by the careless observer (and even more by the one who fails to observe altogether). Lewis brilliantly shows how it’s not just the “big” sins like murder or embezzlement that can lead a person away from God. Little things like focusing on the annoying habits of our family or friends can be just as effective, if not more so.
The definition of a classic is a work of such quality that it speaks to multiple generations over time. Would Lewis’s Screwtape still speak to today’s college students?
Last spring I had the opportunity to find out by co-teaching a course on Lewis as part of Providence College’s Development of Western Civilization program. At the end of the class we surveyed the students, asking them, among other things, which reading was their favorite and which their least favorite. Several chose Screwtape as their favorite, and even more insisted that the book should remain on the syllabus for future classes.
Far more interesting than the survey results, however, was the primary writing assignment for the course. Students were given the option of composing a series of letters in imitation of Screwtape, with the “patient” being an average Providence College student. In a few cases, the results were spectacular, far exceeding my expectations.
Some students really entered into the demonic mindset (an exercise in which Lewis took no pleasure) and applied Screwtape’s strategies brilliantly to the Providence College experience. These students’ demons draw on seemingly innocuous things, such as complaining about the food at the dining hall, skipping a reading assignment for a course, or cultivating an attachment to one’s schedule. A key strategy in all of them is gradualism, moving step-by-step rather than all at once. As one of the letters cleverly puts it, “Rome didn’t fall in a day.”
If the response and work of my students is at all a reliable indicator, then Screwtape deservedly belongs to the category of a “classic.”
Read below these remarkable letters written by college students:
The threat of being busy by Duncan Brown
The perils of studying the classics by Dan McNamara
Temptations of the flesh by Katie Sklarosky