Laughing at Demons: Why You Should Read The Screwtape Letters

On second page of The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis provides a framework for reading his work—

“The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”—Luther

“The devill . . the prowde spirite . . cannot endure to be mocked.”—Thomas More

C.S. Lewis takes a swipe, however, in his classic satire about an uncle demon instructing his young nephew in the ways of the diabolical. Each chapter is structured as a letter in the Screwtape’s own hand. As a senior demon, he has much advice for the younger novitiate.

Reading this novel is like chewing the best kind of cake. The texture and flavors are unexpected, satisfying, and, even better, you find out AFTER you’ve eaten it that it’s one of those really healthy kind of cakes that’s barely a cake at all, but full of fiber and those natural sugars that someone named Dawn told you about.

So you eat another slice.

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Announcement: if you’re opposed to learning, skip this book. I’m learning a lot about my own vices, the enemy’s role in using them, and suddenly I find myself highly on the defensive. Therefore, it’s much too practical for those opposed-to-learning types. Avoid at all costs.

I offer you a brief sample, Letter 10, which hit me, well, like a load of cinder blocks. That is, I identified with it grand ways, and I felt as if I were ogling myself with an awkwardly large magnifying glass. (Do not materialize that image of me in your mind.) (Before or after the cinder blocks, you say.)

In this letter, we are warned of the problems of “pretending;” in this case, the “patient” starts pretending in order to be accepted into a group of intellectual elites. If you, or anyone you know, is a Christian interacting with an intellectual community, you would do well to read this letter. Or, if you are not a part of an intellectual community, but you’ve ever felt tension between Who You Are and Who They Are, and you desperately wish to close that gap, and you find yourself no longer being true to yourself (or your Lord), you, too, ought also to read this letter.

Afterward, I’ve posted a few thoughts, and I welcome your questions.

MY DEAR WORMWOOD,

I was delighted to hear from Triptweeze that your patient has made some very desirable new acquaintances and that you seem to have used this event in a really promising manner. I gather that the middle-aged married couple who called at his office are just the sort of people we want him to know—rich, smart, superficially intellectual, and brightly sceptical about everything in the world. I gather they are even vaguely pacifist, not on moral grounds but from an ingrained habit of belittling anything that concerns the great mass of their fellow men and from a dash of purely fashionable and literary communism. This is excellent. And you seem to have made good use of all his social, sexual, and intellectual vanity. Tell me more. Did he commit himself deeply? I don’t mean in words. There is a subtle play of looks and tones and laughs by which a Mortal can imply that he is of the same party is those to whom he is speaking. That is the kind of betrayal you should specially encourage, because the man does not fully realise it himself; and by the time he does you will have made withdrawal difficult.

No doubt he must very soon realise that his own faith is in direct opposition to the assumptions on which all the conversation of his new friends is based. I don’t think that matters much provided that you can persuade him to postpone any open acknowledgment of the fact, and this, with the aid of shame, pride, modesty and vanity, will be easy to do. As long as the postponement lasts he will be in a false position. He will be silent when he ought to speak and laugh when he ought to be silent. He will assume, at first only by his manner, but presently by his words, all sorts of cynical and sceptical attitudes which are not really his. But if you play him well, they may become his. All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be. This is elementary. The real question is how to prepare for the Enemy’s counter attack.

The first thing is to delay as long as possible the moment at which he realises this new pleasure as a temptation. Since the Enemy’s servants have been preaching about “the World” as one of the great standard temptations for two thousand years, this might seem difficult to do. But fortunately they have said very little about it for the last few decades. In modern Christian writings, though I see much (indeed more than I like) about Mammon, I see few of the old warnings about Worldly Vanities, the Choice of Friends, and the Value of Time. All that, your patient would probably classify as “Puritanism”—and may I remark in passing that the value we have given to that word is one of the really solid triumphs of the last hundred years? By it we rescue annually thousands of humans from temperance, chastity, and sobriety of life.

Sooner or later, however, the real nature of his new friends must become clear to him, and then your tactics must depend on the patient’s intelligence. If he is a big enough fool you can get him to realise the character of the friends only while they are absent; their presence can be made to sweep away all criticism. If this succeeds, he can be induced to live, as I have known many humans live, for quite long periods, two parallel lives; he will not only appear to be, but actually be, a different man in each of the circles he frequents. Failing this, there is a subtler and more entertaining method. He can be made to take a positive pleasure in the perception that the two sides of his life are inconsistent. This is done by exploiting his vanity. He can be taught to enjoy kneeling beside the grocer on Sunday just because he remembers that the grocer could not possibly understand the urbane and mocking world which he inhabited on Saturday evening; and contrariwise, to enjoy the bawdy and blasphemy over the coffee with these admirable friends all the more because he is aware of a “deeper”, “spiritual” world within him which they cannot understand. You see the idea—the worldly friends touch him on one side and the grocer on the other, and he is the complete, balanced, complex man who sees round them all. Thus, while being permanently treacherous to at least two sets of people, he will feel, instead of shame, a continual undercurrent of self-satisfaction. Finally, if all else fails, you can persuade him, in defiance of conscience, to continue the new acquaintance on the ground that he is, in some unspecified way, doing these people “good” by the mere fact of drinking their cocktails and laughing at their jokes, and that to cease to do so would be “priggish”, “intolerant”, and (of course) “Puritanical”.

Meanwhile you will of course take the obvious precaution of seeing that this new development induces him to spend more than he can afford and to neglect his work and his mother. Her jealousy, and alarm, and his increasing evasiveness or rudeness, will be invaluable for the aggravation of the domestic tension,

Your affectionate uncle
SCREWTAPE

My Meager Thoughts

1. Anyone who has grown up in an insular conservative community and suddenly finds themselves “outside” knows what is that “subtle play of looks and tones and laughs by which a Mortal can imply that he is of the same party is those to whom he is speaking.” We are try-hards.

2. “All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be.” This is chilling.

3. The pleasure of belonging can be a temptation—wow, Lewis, you’re really on fire.

4. Embracing the paradox of the two worlds… I’ve done this. You’ve done this. You’re really smart, so contemporary, and you’re very glad that you can so easily dance between both worlds. Strange, isn’t it, that C. S. Lewis just condemns it? Pretending is not an option. He really does poke fun at your little urbane dreamworld.

But C. S. Lewis is talking about a young Christian, maybe or maybe not on a university campus, who is dazzled by the intellectual elites. He is probably not talking about all the identity issues of a leftover female Anabaptist who sometimes feels like a polar bear at a rice convention. (But maybe he is.)

Ah well. Perhaps we all are little devils. Because as C. S. Lewis writes, we soon find that he is sniggering at us. In a helpful uncle-y way.

And as annoying as it is, I’m glad.

READ THIS BOOK

 

 

Nicaragua: An Oral Photograph

I didn’t take a picture of bike taxis or red motorcycles, Nicas riding double, triple, or of tanned faces staring out of full, dusty buses.

I didn’t take a picture of clay roof tiles, bright pink walls, turquoise paint, sky blue everything, pottery-colored walls, emerald, yellow, brown ones too.

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I didn’t take a picture of animal flesh, hanging in market, the dark stalls under roofs, to protect in rainy season, narrow aisles, of a man spinning his knife-sharpening wheel, sparks flying into the soft cotton of his shirt, under the hanging canastas, piñatas, effigies.

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I didn’t take a picture of ladies’ beautiful,manicured feet, nor my culturally-inappropriate dirty ones.

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I didn’t take a picture of stepping through dimly-lit hallways into melon-colored rooms where exhausted mamas clutched tiny newborns, and baby bundles and Antorches that we gave them, and glowing fathers, lying with women on single beds, five families in one clinic room, murmuring gracias.

I didn’t take a picture of córdobas, gym-sacks, mochilas, and back-packs.

I didn’t take a picture of the Nica lady, who daily paraded by the front gate, head laden, nasal voice selling comidas.

I didn’t take a picture of tiny, heaped, road-side fires, small ash heaps sending smoke into my nostrils.

I didn’t take a picture of roosters crowing, of lavender sunrises, of reading Scripture early on quiet hammocks.

I didn’t take a picture of dumping Nicaraguan coffee into a pot, cement countertops, drying dishes with rags, of setting out fresh bananas, slicing papaya and scooping out the moist black seeds and tasting fruity flesh, of sweat rolling down my back and legs at 9:00 a.m.

I didn’t take a picture of tacos, Ricardo chicken, chilaquiles, hamburguesas, or Fresca. Of water in a bag, jello in a bag, rice in a bag, plantains sold by a girl in Central, topped with cabbage and dressing, so sweet.

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I didn’t take a picture of a Catholic funeral we barged through at Catedral, the confused old Nicaraguan woman muttering to us about a boat in the street, the girls flocking into world’s most beautiful McDonalds, and me not buying any because WAIT. Are the missionaries buying ice cream?

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I didn’t take a picture of the ugly Santa pictures, curiously covering holes on the back of the bald bus, wind whipping our hair to Latin rhythms, beats.

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I didn’t take a picture of boarding a 12 passenger van forty times, of policía with batons, of homeless people sleeping on cement, of a well-dressed woman on a motorcycle.

I didn’t take a picture of gringo tourists, sun-tanned legs embarrassingly naked, of an americano scoffing, and my pride at her acculturation.

I didn’t take a picture of a university man in crisp khakis and a beret reciting love poetry to my friends and me in Central.

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I didn’t take a picture of the English-speaking man on top of Catedral, who was surprised to find that Mennonites live in León.

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I didn’t take a picture of the jewelry vendor in the shade under the flowering yellow tree in Central, the only time I tried to barter, him laughing at me, because it’s real turquoise, doesn’t even scratch with a pliers. Doscientos, por favor.

I didn’t take a picture of Nicaraguan children singing Spanish hymns, of girls teaching me “Choco-choco-la-la” hand games, of playing kickball in the street with a small ball, of six o-clock sunsets.

I didn’t take a picture of William and me exchanging verses, in line at four-square, the kind I played in grade school, when I made a boy cry. Jehová es mi pastor, nada me faltará, Mas Jehová Dios llamó el hombre, y le dijo, ¿Dónde estás tú?

I didn’t take a picture of the Nicaraguan man whose bicycle screeched to a halt and our soccer ball rolled right up to his front tire, resulting in a glare.

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I didn’t take a picture of Yolanda, Yessenia, Selena, Karina, Julio, Omar, y David.

I didn’t take a picture of missionary men, preaching in Spanish, of missionary mothers and their flocks, their quiet tables, of their cares behind kind eyes, of south-facing blue kitchens, opened to little courtyards and plants, just like the one from Prada to Nada.

I didn’t take a picture of chickens, a small Nebraskan boy clutching his chicken, like his father must have clutched wheat, nor his sandy smile.

I didn’t take a picture of Moron, the missionary cat, nor Pip.

I didn’t take a picture of cows in the road on the way to Cerro Negro, bells ringing, horns in a filed line, wood loads in the carts.

I didn’t take a picture of my hand pressed into the darkened soil on Cerro Negro, and it springing back as the sulfur steam heated the earth, my skin.

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I didn’t take a picture of a scorpion I tried to kill, the ant farm in the cabinet I cleaned.

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I didn’t take a picture of narrating “El foso de los leones,” of working with a missionary to tweak the Google translated script, and his 8-year-old daughter surprising us both with her translation skills.

I didn’t take a picture of a woman sweeping her dirt in the Nicaraguan equivalent of the Projects, or her glare when I forgot my face, shocked at her neighbor’s smoky, chimney-less house, and turned, and locked eyes.

I didn’t take a picture of pulling a number at the meat counter of a grocery, ordering “cuatro pechugas con alas.”

I didn’t take a picture of painting a little boy’s sticky face who must have had a snack earlier. “El fin. Eres un gato.”

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I didn’t take a picture of a beautiful young girl, shyly hiding her smile, at her gate, waiting for the Pied Piper of Hamlin to take her to children’s church.

I didn’t take a picture of Raquel pulling a dictionary out of her gym sack to look up embutidos (means sausages).

I didn’t take a picture of houses with dirt floors.

I didn’t take a picture of León’s zoo, or spider monkeys, and the one whose hairy palm I held, fed a banana.

I didn’t take a picture of the senior girls playing the ukulele, Lancaster caramels melting in our mouths, lying on sandy beach towels.

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I didn’t take a picture of bobbing in the powerful Pacific waves, white-washed pinks, blues, and grays reflecting off the golden foam, salt water in my mouth, the sun ducking behind clouds, swimming and swimming, silence…

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I didn’t take a picture of the drunk man, tottering under the orange street light toward the line of children, seated on a cement embankment, waiting for church to begin, moved along by a missionary.

I didn’t take a picture of the Spanish social kiss, warmly given after el culto. Dios te bendiga.

I didn’t take a picture of my heart, congealing on the sidewalks, of it bubbling in the sunshine, or cooling in the Poneloya ocean, moistened by wave after wave… Of it being pried apart, and a new, fresh memory being lovingly planted, like an unsuspecting oyster, tossed on the beach, a piece of sand finding its way inside…

Who knows what pearl may grow from this beautiful, divine irritation.