Archives For Screwtape

csl-humorHumor is an essential element of human existence. C.S. Lewis recognized that our very nature was molded to incorporate joy and laughter.

In a great article on the subject, “The Role of Laughter in the Christian Life,” Terry Lindvall introduces the subject with the story of an early Christian monk who wrote this truth.

In the fourth century, a monk named Evagrius identified key temptations against living the Christian life. He named eight of them, and they became the eight deadly sins. Now we know that Pope Gregory the Great reduced them to seven to fit them in with the symbolic biblical number.

But unfortunately the sin that Gregory conflated into sloth was the sin of sadness. Sadness in the face of God’s grace and mercy was a denial of faith and hope.

But it isn’t the vice that concerns me. It is its corresponding virtue, what Evagrius identified as the blessing of hilaritas as essential to Christian living, even if you were an ascetic monk and especially if you are a lawyer or accountant.

Amen. We can all, whatever our vocation, do with an extra dose of hilaritas. After all, it’s good for your health.

I highly commend Lindvall’s entertaining article, which you can read online here or download as a pdf here.

It is filled with references to C.S. Lewis, as one would expect from the author of Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis.

One particularly beneficial section of the article is his discussion of the four types of laughter mentioned by Screwtape in his epistles.

If you don’t have access to your copy of The Screwtape Letters, the following quotation will provide the context for Lindvall’s remarks.

Because Screwtape is a devil, viewing God as the “Enemy,” his viewpoint is reversed. Keep that in mind as you read.

I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause. What that real cause is we do not know.

Something like it is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven—a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us. Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell . . .

But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny.

Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter.

It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it,

So, a wise person will savor joy and fun, along with jokes proper that are offered in good taste. But they will remain wary of flippancy, from which more ill than good usually flows.

Have a joy-filled life.

Trivial Finale

December 16, 2015 — 9 Comments

catechicAll good things must draw to an end . . . and so it is that we wrap up our running review of interesting trivia questions from Catéchic, “the Catholic trivia game” by Tyco®.

Today we move beyond the miscellaneous historical and ecclesiastical subjects we have thus far considered. Prepare yourself for some serious literary and theological matters.

There were a fair number of questions asked about literary matters. Most related to authors (religious and secular) I have never read. However, some were of greater interest to me.

Who wrote the religious sonnet “Death Be Not Proud?”

John Donne

I hadn’t read that classic poem for years, and I’m grateful to the game for encouraging me to pause to reread it. If you are unfamiliar with this timeless verse, you can read it here.

Was the Gutenberg Bible the first book to be printed?

No. (Printing already existed in China.)

Actually, printing via woodblocks existed in various places. The great breakthrough came in the development of moveable type, and it did indeed exist in China before Gutenberg refined it in the West.

Was the first Bible printed in the New World in the English language?

No. (Algonquian, the predominant language of Northeastern Native Americans)

Now there is an edifying fact which reminds us of the importance of sharing the Good News with all people

Which alphabet is named after a saint?

The Cyrillic alphabet, developed by St. Cyril

And, ironically, used most prominently in the formerly atheistic republics of the Soviet Union.

A triad of questions about Roman Catholic periodicals.

What newspaper is generally thought of as the most liberal American Catholic weekly?

The National Catholic Reporter

Something I believe they are quite proud of. They offer online news here.

What newspaper is generally thought of as the most conservative American Catholic weekly?

The Wanderer

I had never heard of this lay publication, but you can read it online here.

How much does an issue of The Catholic Worker cost?

One cent

Amazing. I disagree with most of its political positions, but I have to admire the statement they make in continuing this practice.

The Catholic Worker newspaper is not online. Subscription or copy requests must be sent by regular mail . . . The newspaper was started by Dorothy Day herself in New York City in the 1930s. The price has been and will remain a penny a copy, excluding mailing costs. It is issued seven times per year and a year’s subscription is available for 25 cents (30 cents for foreign subscriptions) . . .

When the game addresses Roman Catholic history and dogma, it stays close to doctrinal boundaries. However, when it addresses interfaith and “Protestant” subject matter, it raises some issues which require comment.

Saint Olaf is the patron saint of which country?

Norway

I had to include this because my own heritage is half Norwegian. This despite the fact that dear Olaf was free in his use of the sword as an instrument for converting the Norse heathen. My hometown is Poulsbo, Washington, and its nickname is “Little Norway.” It is no surprise Poulsbo’s Roman Catholic parish is named in honor of Saint Olaf.

As far as we know, who erected the first Christian cross in the New World?

Christopher Columbus

Perhaps, but the first Christians setting foot in the so-called New World were likely Leif Erikson and those who accompanied him on the voyage from Greenland.

Name the politically influential American Catholic family sometimes known as “America’s Royal Family?”

The Kennedys

Although sadly some prominent Kennedys have not lived and served in a manner consistent with their religious profession.

As a Lutheran Christian, I was particularly eager to discover what sort of questions dealt with so-called “Protestant” matters. Here are a couple, with my personal observations added:

Before the Protestant Reformation, how many Christian Churches were there?

Two, Catholic and Orthodox

Sorry, only one. Both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions confess a belief that there is only “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” It’s true that there was a schism* between the two, but there remains only one Christian Church, comprised of all who “believe and are baptized.”

During the 19th century, what Protestant group played a key role in settling the American West?

Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints (The Mormons)

The LDS Church is a distinct religion in and of itself. They would not regard themselves as “Protestant,” nor would Trinitarian Protestant traditions regard the LDS religion as belonging under that admittedly stretched label.

What is a member of any of the various Protestant groups characterized by their rejection of military service called?

A Mennonite

Hmmm . . . it’s a bit more complicated than that. Various Christian denominations (e.g. Quakers) discourage military service, along with non-Christian religions (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses). They, along with other individuals from more traditional church bodies whose consciences prevent them from serving in the armed forces, are more accurately called “pacifists.”

What was condemned as heresy at The Council of Trent?

The teachings of Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther.

And then there are those who would consider the Council of Trent itself to be a fount of heresy . . .

For which institution did Johann Sebastian Bach write his magnificent cantatas?

The Lutheran Church in Leipzig.

A gracious (ecumenical) acknowledgment of a musical genius who composed his works “soli Deo gloria.”

It will surprise no regular readers of Mere Inkling to see that we are closing with another reference to our favorite Inkling.

Which British author of children’s fantasies wrote an allegory about the Devil called The Screwtape Letters?

C.S. Lewis

One of C.S. Lewis’ masterpieces. I have blogged on them in the past, as the search bar to the right will reveal. Here is one column I’m particularly proud of, since it contributes a new piece of correspondence to the Screwtape corpus.

_____

* Schism is one of the most mispronounced words in the English language. Although “skizuh m” has become so commonplace that it is now “accepted,” the proper pronunciation is “sizuh m.” Of course, if you say it correctly everyone will think you are wrong . . . just like when you leave the “s” off of the biblical book of Revelation or properly pronounce psalm without the “l” (“sahm” instead of “salhm”).

If you missed the first two columns dealing with Roman Catholic trivia, you can check them out here: A Trivial Windstorm and Curious Christian Trivia.

valedictoriansWell, not quite. But, if you just graduated from Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia, there is a fair chance you might be.

That’s because W&L named one hundred and seventeen—that’s right, 117—as valedictorians. And that was out of a class of 457. That means that each of W&L’s graduates had better than a 25% chance to be the/a valedictorian.

Congratulations.

I graduated 22 out of a class of 224. I thought that was a pretty solid accomplishment (especially since military moves meant I attended three different high schools, with both transitions occurring midyear).

My true brilliance was evidenced not in my own academic performance, but the fact that I was smart enough to marry a valedictorian!

Technically the valedictorian does not need to have the top grade point average in their class, although that is the usual custom. In fact, they simply need to be chosen to deliver the valedictory. (Yes, it is a noun, as well as its more familiar appearance as an adjective.)

Apparently, at our afore-celebrated high school, over a hundred students shared in this honor. (Must have been a protracted ceremony.)

It seems that in the modern era, we are so compelled to boost children’s self-esteem, that we feel compelled to exaggerate their accomplishments. Many have argued that this misguided effort has the reverse effect.

On the United States’ opposite coast, Long Beach Polytechnic opted for a measly thirty valedictorians (presumably out of a class of more than sixty).

Julia Jaynes, 17, who shared the valedictorian title with 29 others, said that if her school chose only one, it would destroy collegiality among her classmates. “If everyone wants to be the best, I feel like there’d be less collaboration,” she said. “It makes it so you’re only out for yourself.”

Unfortunately, poor Julia is likely to encounter more competition than collaboration in the world she is entering.

I found the following fact disturbingly humorous. The “dean of admissions at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, recalled an applicant whose Midwestern high school reported that every student finished in the top half of the class.”*

Okay. Can we get a little remedial education in mathematics for the administration of that school?

Screwtape lauded this elevation of the average. (Mind you, there is nothing wrong with being average; that’s why it’s called the average.) Screwtape, of course, is the devil whose correspondence fell into C.S. Lewis’ hands and was published to warn humanity of some demonic strategies for harming us.

The basic principal of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” . . . Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma . . . by being left behind.

The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.

In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will vanish. The few who might want to learn will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers—or should I say, nurses?—will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time of real teaching.

We [i.e. demonkind] shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us.

_____

You can read more about the peculiar story of Washington and Lee High School here.

 

Plagiarizing Screwtape

October 28, 2014 — 19 Comments

breigHow many letters have you read that were penned in the tradition of C.S. Lewis’ groundbreaking Screwtape Letters?

If you’re a fan of the collection, you’ve probably read similar correspondence that owed its very existence to Lewis’ work.

Now a more sensitive question—have you ever written anything similar to The Screwtape Letters? I must confess that I have. In fact, I’m currently working on a similar collection I hope to finish during the coming year.

Many writers have tried their hand at writing angelic letters, with varying degrees of skill and success. After you finish this column, you might want to check out two examples right here at Mere Inkling: Screwtape Letters Anniversary and Screwtape Goes to War.

Some letters have been composed from the perspective of a heavenly angel (often perceived of as a “guardian” angel). Others have been, like Lewis’ innovative example, written from a diabolical angle. Demons, we recognize, have been cast out of the heavens for which they were created, but they still remain angels, albeit fallen angels.

One of the lures that motivates those who emulate the Screwtape Letters is found in C.S. Lewis’ statement that they were rather easy to compose, once he had undergone the uncomfortable process of placing himself in the mind of an enemy of God.

It is disorienting, to reverse reality. For example, to hate what God loves (i.e. his creation, and especially humanity). And it is this discomfort that Lewis alludes to in describing his reluctance to pursue the genre any further than he did.

Considering Copyrights

For writers, copyrights are precious. It is good news, unknown to many, that current law (at least in the United States) protects everything we write. As soon as it is created (the words are arranged in their unique order), our work is protected by copyright whether or not we use the © symbol.

I say this because the arrangement of words can be protected by law, but “ideas” cannot. (I’m not talking about patents here, but literary ideas or techniques.)

Thus, it’s possible to freely follow Lewis’ example. However, quotations should only be used with permission. (There are, of course, “fair use laws” that describe the acceptable use of quotations in various contexts.)

There was a bit of a scandal a few years after Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters. Well, “scandal” is too serious a word. More like an awkward and uncertain moment, when an American journalist wrote a book that was clearly inspired by Lewis.

I’ve only recently received my copy of The Devil You Say by Joseph A. Breig. It was published in 1952, and the introduction echoes Lewis’ own. While the letters themselves appear to be independent of Lewis, I suspect the following parallel from the two prefaces shocked Lewis when he saw it.

I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to the public fell into my hands. (Lewis)

I have not the remotest intention of disclosing to anyone—not even my confessor—how these choice tidbits of demonology fell into my hands. (Breig)

Following its publication, one of Lewis’ correspondents, Idrisyn Oliver Evans, sent him a copy. Lewis’ response follows.

Magdalen College Oxford

27/ 4/ 53

Dear Evans I am really very sorry. The Devil you Say got put on a pile of ‘books received’– most of them (I don’t include yours) a major plague of my life–and I forgot all about it. I have now read a few pages: there was nothing to tempt one to go on. It certainly seems to be a gross plagiarism: I am writing to New York Macmillan to draw their attention to it. Thanks very much for sending it. With all good wishes, and thanks also to your American friend. Yours C.S. Lewis

I cannot find any record of whether or not Macmillan challenged the publication of the new volume.

Lewis had no objection to another writer developing his idea about devilish correspondence in their own creative direction. He simply desired to ensure his own work was not usurped.

Before ending, I would not want to leave a negative impression about Mr. Breig. In looking further into the work, one sees just how little resemblance it bears to The Screwtape Letters. It clearly is not plagiaristic. In fact, it’s quite possible that the line cited above was actually intended to be an homage to Lewis.

It turns out that Joseph Anthony Breig (1905-1982) was an accomplished and well respected Roman Catholic journalist.

Breig stayed at the Universe Bulletin until his retirement in March 1975. He continued to write his columns after 1975. They appeared not only in the Universe Bulletin but also in several other Catholic newspapers in the USA. Besides being a newspaper writer, Breig also wrote for many magazines (Ave Maria, Our Lady’s Digest, The Family Digest, Crozier, and others) and published eight books and several short stories and plays.

In honor of his work he received two honorary doctorates (St. Vincent College, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, 1954, and Carroll College, Helena, Montana, 1967). He also won several awards, one of which was the St. Francis de Sales Award from the Catholic Press Association in 1966. (The Book of Catholic Authors).

I’ll close with a final quotation from the same biographical source. When writers gaze at a blank sheet of paper they see many things. Some see it as naked canvas, and others as a challenge. I enjoyed the compliment offered by one of Breig’s editors, who praised his prolific literary production.

“Douglas Roche of Sign magazine . . . holds that Breig cannot endure the sight of a sheet of paper not covered with words.”

Introducing Anatole France

August 11, 2014 — 9 Comments

papeThere’s always a new author to meet. Some are more worth meeting than others.

I was introduced to Anatole France (1844-1924) when I saw him listed on the “must read” list of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I’m not a big Fitzgerald fan, but as an amateur literary historian, I was curious about how this particular list was recovered. Apparently, he had dictated it to one of his nurses, several years before his death. However, the list only turned up last year, having lain unnoticed in the nurse’s effects.

The France title that Fitzgerald deemed essential was The Revolt of the Angels. Its importance to him is highlighted by the fact that this relatively short list only included twenty-two titles. And one of that mere score of selections was The Revolt of the Angels.

The angelic dimension of the work is what intrigued me. Angels, of course, are real beings. They’re distinct from people (contrary to the pervasive contemporary notion that when people die they “become” angels).

There actually was an angelic revolt, and there are several references to it in the Scriptures. “How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!” (Isaiah 14:12).

I was curious whether France was writing about this ancient event. I was also intrigued by Fitzgerald’s interest in the volume, given its subject.

I was disappointed.

It turns out that, like Mark Twain, France was sympathetic to the Devil. I’m sure he thought himself quite the wit when he wrote, in reference to the Bible, “We have never heard the devil’s side of the story, God wrote the whole book.”

I don’t have time to read texts like this—when there is more than enough good literature to keep me occupied for several lifetimes. However, it appears to be based on Gnostic concepts with God (the Creator of this world) viewed as an imperfect demiurge. His incompetence, it seems, justifies the heavenly revolt.

Suffice it to say, the book is commended for reading by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. That sort of endorsement speaks volumes.

Here, however, is a random paragraph. It may be illustrative of the tone of the work, even though pulled from its context. The speaker is, I believe, one of the positive characters in the book. While France himself was an atheist, his sympathetic character summarizes a pagan cosmology quite elegantly.

Young Maurice’s guardian angel [said] “I argue, like you, in the language of human beings. And what is human language but the cry of the beasts of the forests or the mountains, complicated and corrupted by arrogant anthropoids. How then . . . can one be expected to argue well with a collection of angry or plaintive sounds like that?

Angels do not reason at all; men, being superior to the angels, reason imperfectly. I will not mention the professors who think to define the absolute with the aid of cries that they have inherited from the pithecanthropoid monkeys, marsupials, and reptiles, their ancestors! It is a colossal joke! How it would amuse the demiurge, if he had any brains!”

That is actually a rather provocative quote, and I’m sure it may lead some to explore the text even further. I certainly don’t object to that, and would be curious to hear back from anyone familiar with the book. I would especially like to see the reaction of Christians to The Revolt of the Angels.

If you are interested in a more creative fictional treatment of fallen angels, be sure to read C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. While the presentation is truly groundbreaking, Lewis’ take on the motives and nature of these defeated beings is actually based on reality. Cast from the heavens they are consumed with rage and hatred of God.

A positive note about Anatole France

Whatever I think about the writer’s theology, I did read several wise quotations attributed to him. I’d like to close with these, as they may be more edifying than our discussion of Gnostic cosmology.

“Nine tenths of education is encouragement.”

“Some succeed because they are destined to; most succeed because they are determined to.”

“If 50 million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.”

“When a thing has been said and well said, have no scruple; take it and copy it.”

And my favorite:

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

_____

The illustration above is the work of Frank C. Papé (1874-1972) an English book illustrator. It comes from another of France’s “religious” works.

Dislike emoticonEmoticons. Some people love them. Others find them irritating. I’m in the latter camp. That’s why I enjoyed a comic in the paper this week.* A fifty-something husband and wife are talking as she’s typing on her desktop.

Jeannie: I wish I was a little more computer-literate.

Charlie: I don’t really care for that term.

Jeannie: Why not?

Charlie: I don’t like ascribing literacy to people who think emoticons are a part of speech.

I am forced to respond with a wholehearted “ditto!”

I find the evolution of alphabets fascinating. Primitive pictographs amaze me. Emoticons, not so much.

I have to admit that I occasionally use the primitive :) to indicate that something is intended to be humorous, rather than serious. It has served as useful shorthand for written speech, conveying what would be evident in the intonations of oral communication.

However, this nouveau-punctuation has mutated into an abomination. Today there are innumerable graphic variations of that once modest “smile.” And some of them are truly bizarre.

Emoticons run amuck are an evidence of humanity’s demand for novelty. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis shows how an incessant demand for something new saps the joy out of the present moment. As the senior demonic tempter declares:

Now just as we pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty. This demand is entirely our workmanship. If we neglect our duty, men will be not only contented but transported by the mixed novelty and familiarity of snowdrops this January, sunrise this morning, plum pudding this Christmas. . . . Only by our incessant efforts is the demand for infinite, or unrhythmical, change kept up. This demand is valuable in various ways. In the first place it diminishes pleasure while increasing desire.

I realize it’s a bit of a stretch to apply this passage to the subject at hand, but the principle remains the same. When is enough enough? When it comes to emoticons, apparently, that level has yet to be reached. 

I am not seriously suggesting that there is a conspiracy going on here, but one never knows.

Please forgive me if I have offended any Mere Inkling readers who may suffer from emoticonaddiction or some other disorder. It is not my desire to upset you. Feel free to continue your unbridled (ab)use of these tiny monstrosities.

Simply include me (and C.S. Lewis) alongside Charlie in saying, “I don’t like ascribing literacy to people who think emoticons are a part of speech.”

Postscript: I must confess to finding one set of emoticons rather amusing. If you are familiar with Spock from Star Trek, you too may enjoy these Vulcan emoticons that exhibit the full range of Vulcan expression.

vulcan

_____

* You can see the strip I am referring to here.

 

Settling for Less

April 11, 2013 — 12 Comments

ammunitionMy wife and I are thrifty people. (Well, in all honesty, she wouldn’t exactly use that word to describe me.) Still, we try to save for the future and spend money sensibly.

We always try to purchase generic products unless we find their quality inferior to the “name brands.” Once I learned that most generics were manufactured in the same plants that produce the more expensive products, that made sense.

Nevertheless, as the illustration suggests, there are some places where it just doesn’t pay to settle for potentially inferior goods. Take, for instance, medical care and your children’s educations. We all want the best we can get. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

No, the “wrong” enters in when we begin to envy those who possess something we think we would like to have. It might be a nicer home, a newer car, or a larger television screen.

Envy is a deceptive thing. It lies to us. It beckons to us, saying, “if only you possessed that one thing . . . then you’d truly be happy.” Envy usually whispers, but it makes up for its lack of volume with its persistence. Once we open the door to our heart and mind, envy suggests—over and over—that if we don’t secure the object we desire, that happiness will elude us.

Envy does more than nag us. It distracts us from all of God’s blessings. With eyes focused on our presumed “needs,” we forfeit the joy that would otherwise flow naturally from contentment with our genuine needs. “Give us this day our daily bread” is not, after all, a request for more of this world’s “treasures.”

Another quality of envy is that it promises what it cannot—due to its very nature—deliver. Envy has a relentless appetite; it is incapable of being appeased. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Envy is insatiable. The more you concede to it the more it will demand.” (“Democratic Education”).

Envy is so ravenous that it is used by Lewis to illustrate part of the torment of Hell. The following comes from his Preface to The Screwtape Letters.

We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.

It’s probably no accident God included repeated prohibitions against coveting in the Ten Commandments.

In light of the demands levied by envy, I choose to reject it whenever I recognize its whisper. I opt instead for giving thanks for the innumerable blessings I’ve received. And, I ponder the responsibility that comes with God’s generosity . . . not least of which is the duty to remain thrifty, so that I have more of those blessings available to share with others.