In 1942 C.S. Lewis published one of his most enduring and endearing books. The Screwtape Letters is a collection of imaginative epistles from a senior devil to his junior colleague, outlining how he should handle his “patient.” Lewis wrote the book as a series of essays for The Guardian newspaper and confessed that the pieces were not fun to write.
Over the years Lewis’ Luciferian letters have become ever more popular. In 2003 the Fellowship for the Performing Arts created a stage adaptation of Screwtape. It ran for 11 weeks in New York City and is now on a national tour. Walden Media, which produced The Chronicles of Narnia films, has promised a film version, and various famous actors have recorded audio versions of the book — the most recent being Andy Serkis, who plays Gollum in The Lord of the Rings movies. (This audiobook is sold by the Register’s sister company, Circle Press, at CirclePress.org.)
Lewis’ classic has also spawned a subgenre of books. Peter Kreeft wrote The Snakebite Letters. Randy Alcorn has written two books, Lord Foulgrin’s Letters and The Ishbane Conspiracy. Screwtape has been featured in a Bono music video and the cartoon strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” and there has even been a Mormon book written in the same style.
Lewis didn’t apologize for the fact that Screwtape Letters is an entertaining and amusing read. Indeed, in the opening pages, he quotes Martin Luther and St. Thomas More on the need to take Lucifer lightly. Luther wrote, “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.”
For his part, St. Thomas More said: “The devil … that proud spirit … cannot endure to be mocked.”
A few years ago, on my blog, I started writing some of my own Luciferian letters for Lent. I found the exercise to be fascinating and frightening fun. It was a challenge to see things from the devil’s point of view. Eventually, I fleshed out the letters and added a plotline that begins on Shrove Tuesday and finishes on Easter Day.
What I came to realize as I wrote was that Luther and St. Thomas More were right: One of the best ways to battle against the devil is to mock him. Books in the tradition of The Screwtape Letters do just that.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we dismiss the devil or underestimate his power. What it does mean is that we engage in the battle with a sense of humor and a sense of proportion.
We are not mocking the spiritual battle but, rather, the pride and vanity of one who thinks himself the highest while he is really the lowest.
Of course we must take sin seriously. The reality of the devil must be admitted, and, especially during Lent, we must enter the spiritual battle wearing our full armor. All I am suggesting is that part of that armor should be the swift arrows of good humor and humility.
Laughing at Lucifer is a good way to do just that.
Laughing at Lucifer in Lent means that we are happy warriors. We are launching out on the spiritual battle with a spring in our step and a smile on our face. The Gospel says when we fast we should wash our face and put on a smile, and the spiritual writers speak of keeping a “joyful Lent.” We’re not going about as gloomy defeatists.
This requires a clear understanding of our own faults and the reality of temptation.
As we engage in spiritual battle during Lent, we should do so with the joyful knowledge that, no matter what, Christ’s forgiveness upholds us and that, in him, as St. Paul says, “we are more than conquerors.” When we face temptation, we should overcome it not just with a serious resolve and a whopping amount of self-control, but also with the wisdom and insight it takes to see the temptation for what it is.
Then we can sidestep the attack and parry with a counterthrust in the robust spirit of a jaunty swordsman or a laughing cavalier.
We fight joyfully because the devil is already defeated. On Easter Day he was trampled down forever. Furthermore, he was defeated in a kind of divine practical joke. It was a plot reversal that would make any filmmaker proud. Jesus is down, and the devil seems to have killed God’s Son. Then, in a totally unexpected twist, Jesus rises again, and Satan is defeated by his own wicked plan.
This is the ammunition to fire at Satan. Like a teasing teenager, we can point at Lucifer and say, “Loser! You were hoist with your own petard!”
We fight with confidence because Christ has won the victory. St. Paul again: “[N]either death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Finally, laughing at Lucifer in Lent reminds us to laugh at ourselves, too. When we see his mock dignity, his pomposity, his wounded pride, his vaunted self-importance, his know-it-all attitude and his sublime arrogance, we ought to see our own souls reflected there — for, if we can laugh at his foolish pride, then we ought to be able to laugh at our own, as well.
I am often reminded of a dear old nun who told me that her confessor had fallen asleep while she was making her confession. She smiled ruefully and said, “Oh dear, it seems that not even my sins are very interesting!” Then she laughed, and at that moment, her real humility was displayed.
G.K. Chesterton said that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. This Lent, if we learn to laugh at Lucifer and laugh at ourselves, we might find that, before long, we too are taking ourselves lightly. Then who knows? Come Easter Day, we might just fly away.