Goodreads: The Screwtape Letters
This collection brings together a series of essays and lectures, addressing topics from the morality of pacifism to learning in wartime to forgiveness.
Despite the tendency of modern readers to declare the independence of the individual from outdated notions of sin, C. S. Lewis continues to speak to contemporary audiences. Something about him seems to bring clarity to the subject, reminding his readers of the deep importance of grappling with questions of morality. He makes big theological concerns seem close, dealing not with abstract notions of sin or illustrating his points with examples of sins his readers would ascribe to someone else, but instead reminding his readers that, yes, this book is about you. This book is about all of us.
Part of his magic lies, I suspect, in his ability to illuminate how everyday actions shape individuals. He does not cry out the usual exhortations to obey the commandments. Don’t murder people. Don’t steal. Don’t, don’t, don’t–all things that seem to be the sins of that guy down the street or that woman in the newspaper. Instead he says, look. Look at what you are doing everyday, and see how you are failing (but also how you might do better).
One of the essays in this collection, for example, focuses on the desire of individuals to belong. Titled “The Inner Ring,” it reveals how that very ordinary wish to be “in,” to be recognized, to be not the person who is on the outside being made fun of, can lead individuals to make moral compromises. You start out by doing something small because everyone else is and because you don’t want to be the uncouth individual who still believes no one takes bribes or no one sweeps things under the rug or no one refuses to speak ill of others. And soon you are corrupted. You have become part of the inner ring. But at what cost?
Another essay, “On Forgiveness,” addresses the modern tendency to excuse sin. Yes, I did wrong, but… He points out both the need to take responsibility for our own actions and to realize that when we forgive others, we do not have to excuse their actions. Indeed, if the action were excusable, it would not need to be forgiven! Again, his essays hits home. Finding a way to forgive an injury is something everyone has had to grapple with. The essays are not about all those other sinners you can think of, but about you, the reader.
Lewis’s ability to make theological questions seem continually relevant and timely, and of the utmost personal importance, is combined with a clear prose style that makes philosophy seem easy. He writes clearly and provides plenty of analogy and illustrations, always writing for the lay person and not for the scholar, always writing with the assumption that his reader is not necessarily already Christian and possessed of all the theological background knowledge. For accessibility and relevance, Lewis really can’t be topped.