For fifteen years, I taught German and Japanese at a Catholic high school in northwest New Jersey. As if that didn't keep me busy enough, I was asked one year to also teach Theology to a class of sophomores. I did my best to follow the curriculum of the diocese, complete with all the textbooks approved by the bishop. There was just one problem. The students were not the least bit interested. Of course it's easy to blame teenagers for not taking stock in things that adults believe they should. But in this case, I couldn't really blame the students. The material was a dull rehashing of what they'd been hearing from the time they were in first grade. These were boys and girls on the verge of becoming young adults. They needed something to stimulate their intellects.
I shared my dilemma with a trusted colleague. He told me something I wasn't expecting. (He often did that.) He said, "Why don't you read The Screwtape Letters with them?" "The what letters?" was my reply. Somewhat to my embarrassment, I had never heard of this C.S. Lewis work. My colleague just happened to have a dogeared paperback copy in his briefcase. (I swear that briefcase of his was a magical thing.) "Here, give it a read," he said, "It won't take you very long."
He was right. I read it over the course of a weekend. Part of the reason I finished it so quickly was because I couldn't put it down. For those not familiar with the book, it's basically an inversion of the concept of the guardian angel. Just suppose, for every human being who has ever existed, there is a demon in Hell whose sole purpose (semi pun there) is to bring about the spiritual ruin of the human. That's the basic premise of the book, and it's told from the point of view of the bad guys. Through a series of letters, Screwtape (a senior devil) advises his "nephew" Wormwood (a junior tempter) on how to go about this ongoing task.
When I handed my students a copy of the first chapter, they were rather perplexed. "What is this?" they asked. "We're going to do something a little different," I answered. And a little different it certainly was. Their attention was immediately grabbed by the very concept of seeing things through the eyes of the enemy. They found this just as intriguing as I had. One of the things that makes the work so brilliant is how Lewis is able to analyze the way our minds work: how we respond to temptation, how we seek to justify our actions, how even seemingly small sins can infect our virtue, how our self-centeredness affects the way we perceive reality.
One of the benefits of reading this book with the students was that they each had something to gain from it. The non-believing students could still appreciate the truths revealed by the book on a psychological level. Meanwhile, those who naively believed themselves knowledgeable about all things Catholic now found themselves realizing there were perhaps greater depths to be plumbed. We spent an entire marking period (one fourth of the year) on the reading of this book, and I'm convinced it was well worth the time. I daresay that some conversions and reversions resulted from it. I was challenged by the school administration about the use of material not approved by the diocese. I suggested that the diocese might want to consider adding the book to the curriculum. (I suspect none of the administrators at my school had ever read it.)
If you've never read The Screwtape Letters, I highly recommend it. I can almost guarantee you won't be disappointed. I've now read it several times, and I get something new each time. I even saw a one-man performance of it in the theater, and was surprised by how well it translated to stage. When the pandemic began, and churches were shuttered and the faithful unable to receive the sacraments, I woke up one night wondering what the devils might have to say about the whole messy situation. And so I wrote my own Screwtape-inspired letter. It was published in the New Oxford Review (June 2020, link posted below). This is an excellent Catholic periodical to which you may wish to consider subscribing. For the full letter, feel free to check out my personal blog (link also posted).