Monday, September 24, 2012

Dear Screwtape, Part VII

Read Chapter Seven of The Screwtape Letters here.

My Dear Screwtape,

I must complement your shrewd insight that our patients’ interest in psychoanalysis and science might eventually “emotionalise and mythologise” our existence among humanity yet simultaneously preserve their disbelief in God. Your lucid prophecy has been fulfilled before our very eyes. In the minds of many, “Beelzebub has a devil for me” is only a figure of speech for one’s personal problems, whether emotional, circumstantial, psychological, or physical. And the depersonalization of deity through our post-modern propaganda about Eastern Mysticism, Star-Wars Kabalism, and quantum physics fulfills your hope that humans will begin to describe the Enemy as a merely ambiguous “Life Force,” indeed, a useful tool of deception. Moreover, your keen admonition to “make the World an end and Faith a means” has been used effectively to bog down the church in time-consuming, passion-exhausting quagmires such as politics and dynastic eschatalogical fantasies. Just as you have suggested, these sensational substitutes have thus helped to subsume the more ominous spiritual and theological concerns of pure religion into the primarily material. But besides these devilishly effective devices, I find that your Seventh Epistle is fraught with a number of serious miscalculations.

For instance, you debate whether or not I should keep my patient ignorant of my existence. You suggest that this creates a double problem for us, a true dilemma. If humans do not believe in us, you worry that such disbelief will result in a loss of our aptitude to attack our patients through what you call “direct terrorism”; yet, on the other hand, you fear that if humans do believe in us that this will jeopardize our ability to make them materialistic. Really, now Uncle, do you think that changing humans into materialists is what we’re all about, much less haunting them through “direct terrorism”?

Certainly, I understand that the materialization of a god constitutes idolatry, and that humans must worship either God or Mammon, but your suggestion that our ultimate purpose is to turn our patients into materialists betrays your failure to understand either human nature or our mission. You see, we need actually do nothing to make humans materialists; they are such by nature. Perhaps materialism does have some indirect bearing upon our objectives. For instance, the idolatry of Israel at the foot of Sinai violated the Enemy’s First Prohibition that His people should have no other gods before Him; their idolatry also transgressed His Second Prohibition that forbade their attempts to replicate His likeness. But idolatry is nothing but Mammonism sanctified, a shadow cast by the wicked imaginations of the human heart. So I must remind you that the human tendency to materialize the Enemy and other gods is a phenomenon only accidentally and secondarily related to our primary strategies of spiritual seduction, deception, and perversion in order to corrupt humans’ imagination about the Enemy’s true nature.
 
You also are apparently confused about another key aspect of our mission, what you call “direct terrorism” (45). By “direct terrorism” I presume you mean frightening humans by overt revelation of our existence. Undoubtedly you are in error here. Your description of our mission sounds more like Halloween than Hell. We’ve never really been in the bug-a-boo business, nor have we been particularly interested in divulging our existence and identity to humans. Contrary to what you imply, humans’ disbelief in our existence is only slightly more advantageous to us than their belief in our existence, and under certain conditions humans’ belief in us is actually more beneficial to our strategy than disbelief. For instance, where belief in us exists among humans, we have seized the opportunity to greatly distort our true nature, description, and mission. Half the victory is camouflage and counterfeit. Technology has been especially helpful here as it has enabled some of our more popular media to bombard humans with sensational but distorted auditory and visual images of us. They now think our tongues are forked and not smooth, our countenances hideous and not beautiful. Even some of the Enemy's most popular writers have aided our efforts by following this errant path of distorting our likeness and misrepresenting our true nature and purpose.

As for your contention that the church is its weakest when it is small, the opposite has proven true, at least in this century. Weaving popular culture into religious fabric has created a comfortable coat of many colors that shrouds many would-be worshipers with the delusion that they are in the Enemy's camp. Our Father Below greatly admires this technique, both for its pleasing appearance and its soft texture. Even better, the Enemy calls it “filthy rags.” Indeed, we have broken through what was once a wide and high wall between our wilderness and the Enemy's garden, and sown many tare among the wheat.

So you see, dear Uncle, religion robed in the guises of social morality, political passion, psychoanalysis, science, and a media-hyped belief in us - such factors fit our plans like a glove. So don’t waste your energy endeavoring to make humans into materialists or squander your time trying to frighten them by twisting young girls’ heads off their torsos while spewing green vomit. Hell is all about comfort, you know.

    Your Affectionate nephew,
    WORMWOOD 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"Finish Strong"

The Dallas sky loomed grey with thick, low-hanging clouds, not ominous, but dull like unpolished steel. A heavy mist shrouded Tom Landry Stadium, no rain, but the atmosphere was heavy and wet and the sharp wind unkind. The runners took their places on the red cinder track and bolted at the starter-pistol’s crack. The grey smoke from the barrel swirled skyward like a silver snake and slithered into the ashen firmament. As the competitors made the first turn through the wintry veil, I noticed a lone runner different from all the rest: tall, athletic, tanned, muscular, and doggedly determined. But he was already several yards behind the pack. When he hit the straightaway on the track, now lagging even further behind, I noticed something else. Every two or three strides he would, almost violently, jerk his head sideways and downward to his right shoulder, and then jerk his head erect again. Stride, stride, jerk, erect. The motion of his head was magnified by his long hair that flopped back and forth with every jerking movement. Then someone said, 

“He has hydrocephalus, water on the brain.” 

Besides the jerking movement of his head, he occasionally veered to the left or to the right as if he were drunk and about to fall down. Hydrocephalus also causes disequilibrium.

But he didn’t fall down. He just kept running.

It was the grueling, sixteen-hundred meter run, and before the runners had reached even a half lap, everyone in the stands knew who would finish last. But I wondered,

“Will he even finish at all?”

I focused my binoculars on him. His crimson track-jersey declared one word across his chest, woven in gold,

“Saints.”

He was a junior at a Christian Academy.

“Saints,” I repeated to myself.

By the fourth lap of the race, he was only on his third. The winner flew by him and crossed the finish line. The other runners, one by one, swiftly lapped him as well: Lions, Tigers, Trojans, Eagles, and even other Saints, all sped ahead to the finish line.

But he would run his last lap alone. Would he finish? He kept running, veering, jerking, nearly falling, but running, running to the finish line.

When he made the final turn, I experienced the most wonderful scene I ever witnessed at an athletic event. As he crossed in front of the grandstands, the spectators rose like an undulating wave. Their voices rose as well with encouraging, appreciative, and tearful cheers, and their hands began to applaud loudly, reaching a crescendo as he approached the finish line. Someone shouted,

“Finish strong.”

Except for that day, I have never before or since seen a standing ovation for last place at a track meet. But, apparently indifferent to the thunderous crowd, the runner persevered until he crossed the finished line. All the other Saints – his teammates – were there cheering for him, high fives and pats on the back, and someone else was there for him as well - the head coach – who fully embraced him. Then someone else said,

“That’s his Dad.”

Although the debilitated runner finished last, he finished strong, and he certainly did not lose the race. In fact, he was the real winner that day; his was the greatest victory, for he had won every heart in the stadium. And so were his teammates victors - the Saints - for every one of them had finished the race with him. He had honored their golden name inscribed across his crimson heart - “Saints.”

Now, it should be obvious why I share that story. The Christian life is also a grueling race, not just because of the distance we must run and the obstacles we face, but also because every one of us is in some way a handicapped runner. Sometimes we wonder, “Will I even finish?” But we have “a great cloud of witnesses” watching us from the celestial grandstands, and though we might find the race difficult, Paul admonishes us that we should “run in such a way as to get the prize.” After all, we’re Saints, aren’t we?

If we do not finish strong, then the world can rightly ridicule and say, “They lost the race. What’s wrong with them? Why were they even running?” But we do not run this race to win the world’s accolades and trophies. We pursue one mark, and desire one prize – a Father’s embrace at the finish line. He knows our disabilities, our infirmities, our weaknesses, our veerings left and right, and our often stumbling strides; and He also knows our hearts, especially whether or not we have the courage, commitment, and perseverance to do what the young runner did that day to bring such joy to his father’s heart.

Our Father commands us to “run with patience the race that is set before us,” to run in such a way that would please Him and encourage one another. After all, we’re Saints, aren’t we? Each of our hearts is woven with crimson and embroidered with gold. 

Do you hear that voice?

“Finish strong.”

Monday, September 17, 2012

Dear Screwtape, Part VI

Read The Screwtape Letters, Chapter VI, here.

My Dear Screwtape,

Military service creates few pangs of conscience or cogitations of fear in what the humans call “the post-modern world.” If any anxiety exists concerning war in our contemporary patients, it is only the anxiety of hope that anticipates brutal excitement and gratified bloodlust from smiting a fellow human being who happens to be a temporary enemy. Images of death saturate the current psychological and cultural milieu. From gangs in ghetto streets to warmongers in presidential palaces, human culture drinks violence like vultures drink blood. Humanity hovers, with wings spread, over its own rotting carcass. Directing malice toward one’s immediate neighbors has never been difficult, nor has moving benevolence from the patients’ inner circle of acquaintances to the outer sphere of people they do not know. Let me briefly explain how we are succeeding in these areas.

To direct malice towards an immediate neighbor is easier today than at any previous time in history. We owe our success here largely to the media, particularly the humans' infatuation with video games, television, and movies. I know you’ve heard the statistics about how many media-murders a neophyte sees before he actually fulfills his crimson fantasies. Frequent images of murder (and other vices) radiate daily upon the minds of young patients and work psychologically to desensitize their moral consciousness by cauterizing their consciences, a sort of ineffable photonic brand we burn. Video games are especially helpful here, since digital slaughter enables one to contemplate the joyous passion of the kill without getting one’s hands bloody. Such fictional images of death dehumanize our patients to the real thing, especially children and young men in arrested adolescence, establishing a habit of brutality in their minds, a habit that anticipates the throbbing ecstasy of the actual deed (I’m quite breathless about the prospects of video-based virtual sex, but we’ll leave that to another day.) The recent onslaughts against our Islamic allies beautifully reenforce this sterile form of killing, for modern weaponry technologizes warfare and distances the manslayer from the actual torn flesh, splattered blood, and splintered bones that accompany the humans’ cruder, more primitive methods of killing. If your career had extended to this generation, no doubt you would have been ecstatic to see the progress we have made in warfare.

As for moving benevolence to the outer sphere of people whom the patient does not know, this has never been difficult for us to achieve. In the Enemy’s camp, we still use the propaganda device often mislabeled as “missions” to ensure that our patients love only their neighbors whom they can keep at a distance. For the more secular-minded patients, money squandered through social programs works effectively to salve the public’s conscience on an even broader scale. So, take heart, dear Uncle, immediate violence and distant benevolence still beat human’s ploughshares into swords and their pruninghooks into spears.

    Your affectionate nephew,

    WORMWOOD

Monday, September 10, 2012

Dear Screwtape, Part V

Read The Screwtape Letters, Part V, here.

My Dear Screwtape,

You chide me because I rejoice that, once again, our patients fight one another in what they call a war. You fear that “terror pictures of the future” will agitate my patient’s awareness about the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death (37). But, Screwtape, you must recognize that, especially in wartime, political opinions and patriotic passions easily disguise themselves in religious regalia. How easy it is to seduce our patients into the delusion that patriotism equates with actual defection to the Enemy’s cause. That old strategy still works splendidly. What success we attain when we wrap the cross in a flag, thus blurrig the distinction between civitatem Dei and hominis civitatem. One of the worst Defectors pointed out this absurdity to the humans nearly 2,000 years ago, yet they insist upon that error. By such tactics we divert the humans’ thoughts and passions from the Enemy’s real work to fleeting, temporal pursuits in the name of “God and country.” Such a device works especially well when we interweave human and religious concepts in advantageous settings, such as political rallies, news conferences, or military briefings in the context of crisis. As for my patient becoming an extreme patriot or ardent pacifist, the latter probably requires more reading than interests him, the former easily accomplished.

With regard to the patient’s sleeplessness in the face of war, don’t be over alarmed, Screwtape. That’s a normal gut reaction to the flash of gunfire, but insomnia rooted in fear usually works to our advantage, especially when war rages. I know the Enemy sometimes uses sleeplessness to leverage His position in the patient’s thoughts, but we win midnight battles as well. When trepidation supplants a patient’s sleep, we should cultivate that seed of fear. Seventy-five percent of the time we harvest bountifully on that soil. When the fowls can’t steal the seed, we simply throw a stumbling stone of self-preservation or sow a thorn of circumstantial angst in the Enemy’s garden, and the seed burns up or chokes before yielding fruit. When we nurture the wrong kind of fear, we prevail. I’ve seen this triumph over and over again since The Great War. Surely you have observed the descending moral vortex following the war-ravaged forties. Foxholes produce many False Defectors, but once the smoke clears, their “faith” and “virtue” fade and fly like a dying leaf in the autumn wind. Now we have such a foothold on that ground that a few thousand dead here and there produces religious fervor for about a week or two; then the humans turn to our business as usual. That strategy has been more successful than even our Jailhouse Salvation Program. I do acknowledge, though, your cautious warning that war has “certain tendencies inherent in it which are, in themselves, by no means in our favour” (38). But a delightfully humorous shift has occurred in more recent wars, a shift that is greatly to our advantage.

The shift to which I refer involves war’s relationship to soothsaying. Humans, as you know, especially the evil and adulterous ones, love to search out “the signs of the times,” but they have almost insurmountable intellectual difficulty transcending the sphere of sensory experience into the realm of abstract and symbolic thought. Especially problematic for the humans is our Enemy’s Strange Book of Signs; they think the book points primarily to a physical, not a spiritual battle. In fact, a great number of our patients relish the prospect of bloody war as a necessary step to fulfill our Enemy’s cosmic plan, and therefore they nervously rejoice at pending Armageddon. One predominant view even necessitates a Second Holocaust and probable nuclear devastation. Yum!

But enough about war. I’m quite annoyed by your self-contradictory rantings about faith and virtue. In one breath you claim that “a faith which is destroyed by a war or a pestilence cannot really have been worth the trouble of destroying,” but in another you tell me that I have the ability to undermine my patient’s faith and prevent “the formation of virtues” in him. Really now, Screwtape, which is it? Such virtues as you describe are no virtues at all, nor such faith any faith at all. Once the Enemy produces faith and virtue, His work cannot be undermined much less destroyed by war and pestilence. Bad times may demolish their counterfeits - mere belief, human goodness, and altruism - but I regretfully report that war and pestilence only fortify their dangerous opposites: genuine faith, real virtue, and sacrificial selflessness. As for your ridiculous contention that our Enemy “often makes prizes of humans who have given their lives for causes He thinks bad on the monstrously sophisticated ground that the humans thought them good and were following the best they know,” that is nothing but a toothless roar and, ecclesiastically speaking, a testimony to the tepid territory you roam. Never does the Enemy esteem or reward virtue grounded upon humanly conceived standards, as you imply; to the contrary, He rejects noble intentions wrongly conceived, no matter how earnestly pursued. Remember the first Pope’s noble concern for the Enemy’s Offspring when he forbade Him to speak about His death, or when he cut off Malchus’ ear? “Noble” actions arising from “good” intentions and “best” standards motivated Cephas, but what did the Offspring say? “Get thee behind me!”

Screwtape, more often than not, war is our ally, not our foe, especially when fear preoccupies our patients’ minds with earthly ballistics, politics, and ethics - these are incisive wartime swords and productive peacetime plows, fertile fields in which we continue to sow many tares.

Your affectionate nephew,

WORMWOOD

Monday, September 3, 2012

Dear Screwtape, Part IV

Read The Screwtape Letters, Chapter IV, here

My Dear Screwtape,

I acknowledge a degree of insight on your part in the matter of prayer, especially your partial mastery in the art of vain jangling. Conjuring false mental images of the Enemy and taking refuge in superficial feelings associated with prayer - indeed, these facades effectively masquerade artificial prayers and deceive our patients into believing that they actually pray and that the Enemy truly hears such prayers. But why do you insist that mental images of the Enemy derive primarily from physical misrepresentations of Him, especially pictures and icons, and upon what basis can you discern between true and false feelings in prayer?

Indeed, portraits that disfigure the Enemy abound from bathrooms to board rooms. One would think that the Enemy had abolished His Second Prohibition. No Sunday School worth its denominational pablum operates effectively without a full array of papier-mache Messiahs. Not even the Louvre hangs better impressionism.  Why, recently I saw a perfidious portrait of the Enemy on one of our leading religionist’s office walls; the garbled image looked like a Semitic version of a handsome thespian, but with a better tan and coiffure, nothing at all to do with “no form nor comeliness,” much less “no beauty.” The only thing more spurious than that exquisite distortion is this patient’s own warped mental image of the Enemy, roughly carved upon his mind twice every Sunday by a dull-bladed tongue. And this is the point you overlook, Screwtape. I ask you, what really constitutes an image, and what is the best way to distort it?

Be not deceived, although our patient lives in a visually-oriented world, his religion remains essentially oral and auditory - even televangelists can talk; therefore, contrary to all the currently popular anti-video sentiment among more thoughtful Defectors, my patient’s image of the Enemy derives largely from what he is told, not what he sees, so as long as we pierce his ear with prevarication, we do well. For example, when we press the Enemy’s propaganda to an extreme, we successfully desecrate the Enemy’s image in the patient’s mind, like our intemperate emphasis on “the Enemy is love.” That one really rocks him to sleep because it whispers the smooth things he desires to hear and easily excuses any old habits or compromised behaviors. Such imbalanced misrepresentations of the Enemy, in turn, misinform the patient about the Enemy’s attributes, misdirect his prayers, and misguide his worship towards, not a false material image, but a false mental image of the Enemy, erroneous ideas informed by spurious words. Do you see how this works? If the Enemy’s offspring is “the Word,” then our primary tactic is to bend words about the Enemy. By bending words, we effectively present to the patient’s ears and mind a distorted representation of the Enemy, and therefore we refocus his affections and devotions upon a delusory phantom of what he calls “God.” The patient thinks he worships the Enemy but in actuality he vainly worships he knows not what. Our success with this approach is not just within the Enemy’s camp but worldwide. Books and religious media have been especially helpful to that end. Remember, we are the “other spirits” who preach another Gospel and thus “another . . . “ [I shudder even to think of the name].

As for superficial feelings in prayer, I’m afraid your description underestimates the danger of feelings, at least for the truly sick patient. We must be most careful here. You see, not only do false images of the Enemy nauseate the True Defector, his emotions also run much deeper than those superficial feelings you describe. I warn you, do not be so confident where legitimately deep feelings are concerned. Indeed, among religious pretenders there are counterfeit feelings which we may easily and effectively exploit, but real feelings - emotions ignited by the Enemy’s Spirit - these pose a threat that can storm Heaven and stop Hell. We recognize such dangerous feelings by what happens after they become aroused. More threatening symptom are a heavy sorrow that breaks the patient’s heart, followed by a militant humility which makes drastic efforts toward repentance, an inflamed indignation that kindles vengeance against us and what the Enemy calls “sin,” and an inexpressible joy that buoys the patient above our reach, repulsive emotions indeed.

So, you see, dear Uncle, in order to achieve our most effective ends, let us not attack the eye to the exclusion of the ear, nor the feelings without due consideration of their inherent dangers. Let us continue to exploit false mental images of the Enemy and exacerbate shallow feelings to our advantage, but let us also recognize the limitations (and even impotence) of these strategies with the more truly dangerous patient.

Your affectionate nephew,

WORMWOOD