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.

Lewis.jpg

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

 

 

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7 thoughts on “Laughing at Demons: Why You Should Read The Screwtape Letters”

  1. I get this. As a Mennonite living in two worlds and currently mostly living in the college world I needed this. It is far too easy to laugh at things that really are quite appalling. Thank you

      1. Yes, and he does it with the strong but gentle voice of authority that comes from experience and much thought. I discovered C.S. Lewis rather late, due to bias against him by people who did not understand his work. I am finding his writings say what I so desperately need to hear, to be set straight again. I shall read The ScrewTape Letters next.

  2. Although I have several of C.S.Lewis’s works on my bookshelf waiting to be read, I have not yet delved in to any of his work. I enjoyed reading your commentary at the end. I also attended college and I completely ‘got’ what you were saying. Good words and thoughts.

  3. One of my favorite moments in C.S. Lewis is in The Great Divorce when the main character is talking to the cultured, enlightened ghost:
    Main Character: “Will you come with me into the mountains? It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?”
    Enlightened ghost: “Well, that is a plan. I am perfectly ready to consider it. Of course I should require some assurances . . . I should want a guarantee that you are taking me to a place where I shall find a wider sphere of usefulness–and scope for the talents that God has given me–and an atmosphere of free inquiry–in short, all that one means by civilisation and–er–the spiritual life.”
    Main character: “No,” said the other, “I can promise you none of those these things. No sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.”

    Bang.

    (that was the cinder blocks)

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