In the dark days of the Second World War, C.S. Lewis published one of his most enduring and endearing books. The Screwtape Letters is a collection of epistles from a senior devil to his junior colleague, outlining how he should handle his “patient.” Lewis wrote the book as a series of articles for The Guardian newspaper and confessed that the letters were not “fun to write.”
Lewis does not apologize for the fact that The 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 says, “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 writes, “The devil…that proud spirit…cannot endure to be mocked.”
Over the years Lewis’ Luciferian Letters have become ever more popular. In 2003 the Fellowship for the Performing Arts did a stage adaptation of The Screwtape Letters which ran for eleven weeks in New York City and is now on a national tour. Walden Media, who produced the 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.
Lewis’ classic has also spawned a sub genre of books. Peter Kreeft wrote The Snakebite Letters. Randy Alcorn has written two books, Lord Foulgrin’s Letters and The Ishbane Conspiracy. Screwtape has featured in a Bono music video, the cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes and there has even been a Mormon book written in the same style. A few years ago a forgettable attempt named Operation Screwtape was published, and not long after my own attempt at the genre—The Gargoyle Code saw light. The Gargoyle Code is structured to be read during Lent and is updated and set in a Catholic context.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the sage of Oxford is being flattered world without end amen. What I learned by writing The Gargoyle Code was that Luther and St. Thomas More were right. One of the best ways to battle against the devil is to mock him. What impressed me more is that mockery is the best pitchfork to pitch against him, as opposed to the dreadful seriousness with which I sometimes engaged in arguing with the enemies of the Christian faith.
From time to time on my blog I would allow myself to be involved in debates with atheists, homosexual activists, feminists, or ideologues of some other sort. What I discovered is that they had no sense of humor and no sense of humility. Their mood was one of unremitting, serious self-righteousness. This mood would usually be expressed in a style of assumed kindness, “deep concern,” and a kind of faux wisdom that was at once patronizing and nauseating in its artificial charitableness.
I realized that this was the serpent of Eden speaking today. Satan always speaks with the same calm reasonableness, the sweet seeming sensibleness of utilitarianism combined with compromise for a good cause and yielding for what seems to be a worthy reason. It was impossible to counter the debaters in any way. Make an inescapably rational point, and they changed the subject. Skewer them with an argument, and they squirmed away. Try to catch them with something called evidence, and they slithered away with yet another statement of their point with an incredible obstinacy.
In the end the only weapon was a joke. If you poked fun at them, their smooth facade crumbled. If you made light of their solemnity and self-righteousness, they began to steam. If you jousted with a jest, they finally showed the rage that had been lurking underneath the whole time. Mirth did not bring them down to earth. Their gravity would not endure an ounce of levity.
This revolutionary approach stands things on their head and books in the tradition of Lewis’ Screwtape Letters do just that. To laugh at Lucifer does not mean that we disregard him 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.
My encounters in the culture wars encouraged me to make another effort in the Lewisean battle with Lucifer. In Slubgrip Instructs the demon Slubgrip has been demoted to teach Popular Culture 101 in Bowelbages University. This gives the reader the opportunity to laugh at the wiles of the devils while learning how Satan and his minions work behind the scenes to dominate human culture and infect it with greed, lust, ambition, and selfish materialism.
For conservative Christians, Lent is not only the season to do good works, but it is also a holy season to engage in battle with the forces of darkness. Laughing at Lucifer in Lent is one of the ways to do so. Jeering and flouting him 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 always of keeping a “joyful Lent.” We are not going about as gloomy defeatists. As we engage in the spiritual battle during Lent we do so with the joyful knowledge that, as St. Paul writes, “we are more than conquerors.” We should therefore ride into battle with the spirit of Cyrano de Bergerac—sword in hand, a joke at the ready and a plume in our hat.
The Christian fights with joy because the devil is already defeated. On Easter Day 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 hoisted on your own petard!”
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, and as her humility shone out the radiance was another painful jab for “that proud Spirit” who cannot endure to be mocked.”