Tuesday, May 2, 2017

"The Screwtape Letters": In Search of Wasted Time

Search for the word “sin” in news stories on Google, and it occasionally has a political connotation. Politicians who have admitted some religious affiliation are asked in Western democracies whether they think abortion or homosexuality is a sin, or whether certain vices may be considered eligible for “sin taxes.” Racism is often referred to as a sin in language that sounds almost evangelical. Each party has its own sins, and can make a sin of the other party’s virtues.

Sin is not necessarily the same thing as breaking a society’s law. Murder is a moral outrage, but a sin may be something less obvious and more sinister, because it testifies to a bent soul. Even someone who does not believe in a higher power uses the word as though a kind of supernatural bulwark has been breached. The Hebrew word has the same meaning as an archer who fails to hit the target – missing the mark. We presume that we know sin when we see it, but we are also aware that we do not always want to recognize it. While we apprehend what it might be within ourselves, we at the same moment justify it as necessary, or even, laudatory. 

 How then to account for the enduring popularity of “The Screwtape Letters,” C.S. Lewis’ novel about the proposed corruption of a new Christian? Written in 1942, it was Lewis’ most popular novel before the Narnia series. No less a figure than David Foster Wallace called it one of the best novels ever written; not presumably, for the cleverness of its construction but because of its presumed truth. He is not alone.  I was amused to learn from one commentary on the book that “Screwtape” offers “a reassurance that there is something in us that is naturally resistant to corruption - and that by being true to ourselves we can succeed in increasing that resistance.”

I was curious about what book this person read thinking it was “The Screwtape Letters.” I don’t think any reading of “Screwtape” bears this particular verdict out. Screwtape’s dialogue with Wormwood suggests endless ways the heart can be willingly corrupted - can even cooperate in its own corruption -and being true to ourselves is one way to allow that corruption. Our truest reflection is a diabolical one.

I think the narrative rules of “Screwtape” are suggested by the Parable of the Sower – one of Jesus’ signature stories and one recounted in all three Synoptic Gospels. (In fact, it is used to illustrate why Jesus taught in parables) In it, Jesus describes a sower whose seeds fall along a path, on rocky ground, among thorns and on good soil. When he explains it later to the disciples, he reveals that the seeds represent people who hear “the word of the kingdom.” Some will not understand it, some believe but fall away at the first sign of trouble, and some hear but do not act on it due to “the cares of this world” or “the deceitfulness of riches.”

The story suggests that the condition of a person’s heart has much to do with whether the Gospel can work on them. The point of the parable is that some people will hear, and “bear fruit,” as that is the point of a seed – it grows into a fruit producing tree. God is interested in fruit - good fruit, and as Jesus later says, a tree is known by the fruit it produces. 

 But what of the novel’s form? “The Screwtape Letters” is, of course, epistolary in nature. The demon Screwtape is writing letters of advice to his nephew Wormwood on the corruption of his charge, the newly converted Christian referred to only as “the Patient.” We do not find out much about Screwtape or Wormwood, or the Patient, other than that he is an Englishman who has a mother he cares for, he becomes involved with a woman, and that the action takes place during a conflict we might recognize as World War II. The Patient’s anonymity is to be expected, as he is simply another victim. Later, the Patient is killed in an air raid and goes to Heaven, despite the best efforts of Wormwood, who proves a comically inept fiend. Satan is “Our Father Below.” When God is referred to, it is as “the Enemy.”

The novel sketches out a design of Hell as a stark, humorless bureaucracy, full of human beings seemingly hoodwinked into an eternity of enslavement through a litany of devices which Screwtape knows well through practiced experience. They are tormented, in life and death, by a cringing bevy of lesser demons devouring each other in a totalitarian maze of deceits, flatteries and lies. There aren’t conventional scenes or dialogue as much as situations and humorous turns of phrase, ironic sentiments that project a negative image. Lewis flirts with having created an elaborate, one-note joke, but he has the good sense to keep moving the pieces and eschews long sermons in favor of short asides. By the time the reader senses his patience waning, the story draws to its hopeful close – hopeful, except for Screwtape and Wormwood.

There is an amusing conflict between what the reader supposes a demon would be interested in accomplishing, and the reality as Screwtape identifies it. Some of this might also be inspired by Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives several examples from the Law of Moses well known to His listeners, but goes a step further in showing that God isn’t just interested in outward shows of virtue. Happy that you don’t commit adultery? Lust is just as bad. Satisfied you haven’t killed anyone? Calling your brother a fool will still get you in danger of Hell.

So many temptations are based not on introducing ideas into the Patient’s mind, but keeping them out. Other temptations have to do with enticing the believer into appropriating ideas that are not his, in hopes of adopting popular attitudes that undermine his authentic spiritual growth. On still other occasions, substitute ideas are switched out with admirable ones in order to give the human second-hand and unsatisfying satisfactions.

The superficial must triumph over the everlasting. Humor is useful so long as it is scornful. The demon is sometimes admonished not to push his charge into threatening behavior as much as keep them frozen in place. Vanity, as the author of Ecclesiastes tells us, is often the stuff of life. The demon enjoys it when we pile up waste upon waste, killing ourselves an hour at a time as we kill hours. The trick is to keep us a slave to our appetites, cutting ourselves off in our own conceits and delicacies, foreclosing our interest in the souls around us. And all the time, we congratulate ourselves on the tiny kingdoms we create of our own deficiencies, smug that we believe they are much smaller than anyone else’s.

Perhaps the book remains popular because we sense its truth, and the humor allows us to laugh at the same time we recognize ourselves. The sins it documents are hardly “spectacular.” (This makes for good writing. Norman Mailer’s last novel documents the demon in charge of corrupting Hitler. It’s the kind of book that defies one to read it for pleasure.) For example, time wasting. In Screwtape’s twelfth letter, he diagnoses the uneasiness of the modern man and his avoidance of considering God as “intensifying a whole vague cloud of half-conscious guilt.” The point is not to edge the man toward murder and violence, Screwtape announces, but out into nothing, gradually, a little at a time.

“They hate every idea that suggests Him, just as men in financial embarrassment hate the very sight of a bankbook. In this state your patient will not omit, but he will increasingly dislike, his religious duties. He will think about them as little as he feels he decently can beforehand, and forget them as soon as possible when they are over.”

The best thing is moving the contact with the Almighty toward the abstract realm and away from the personal. When God is fashioned into an impersonal force with little care for the individual, when His unending love is unrecognized and unengaged by us, then our actions mean nothing. Thoughts can be focused inward and twisted to the point of exhaustion, until one arrives at the gates of Hell saying, “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.” And to think – Lewis didn’t have an iPhone or social media or video games or Netflix.

Other sins – substituting causes for faith, suffering annoyances, hopelessness, vanity, chasing after the future at the expense of the now. One might be tempted to think calling these sins a bit priggish. After all, aren’t this just foibles? Don’t we all have rough places in our dispositions? The novel does its own business trying to head this criticism off. We might also be tempted to chalk the novel’s sensibilities up to shifting mores. I wondered how Screwtape’s temptations might have played out to someone in another time or another part of the world. As might be expected, the novel’s demons sound very much like a highly educated professor teaching in an English university in the 1940s.

But Lewis’ Screwtape isn’t interested in inspiring the kind of evil that slaughters other human beings on a grand scale, as useful as that might be. (Remember, that very thing was going on at the moment the book was written, just as it is now.) This is a different kind of “banality of evil” altogether – because it seeks merely to deny God a victory in the life of one man. Hell is as much about misdirection as malevolence. Where one life passes without glorifying God, that means others will be inspired to the same end. Screwtape wants a kind of universal moral paralysis which conforms and infects, cheats and devours, even as it congratulates itself. Hell is filled, like Heaven, one soul at a time. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

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