Next week we're starting a four-week discussion of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. One of Lewis's most famous books, Screwtape takes the form of letters from the titular senior demon to his nephew, a junior tempter tasked with corrupting and winning the soul of a young man for Hell. It's a clever book and full of powerful insight on humanity as seen from the imagined perspective of our spiritual foes. You can order it here, or on Amazon, or anywhere else you buy books. And of course you can get it from the library. We'll start our conversation on Wednesday, September 9 at 6:30 p.m. You can join us at this link (open it in Chrome or Edge web browsers, or download the free Microsoft Teams app).
We're going to look at Letters 1-7 at our first session, which cover topics like "modern" thought, Christians, family relationships, and war (a lot of big topics get touched on in a few pages, which makes the book so fun to read). But as I read ahead to reacquaint myself with this book, which I hadn't picked up in a dozen years or more, I was struck by a moment a little later on. Screwtape talks to his nephew about tempting humans away from both what they enjoy (sinfully or harmlessly) and what they are obligated to do:
"You [the demon tasked with tempting and winning a human soul] no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday's paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and out-going activities which we [the demons] want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at least he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here [in hell], 'I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.' The Christians describe the Enemy [i.e., God] as one 'without whom Nothing is strong.' And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man's best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off."
This experience doing neither what one wants nor what one should is something Christian monks identified sixteen centuries ago as acedia. It's a kind of sullen, restless boredom that haunts all human effort. For Lewis it's in a way worse than actual pleasurable sins, because even a wicked enjoyment relies on some gift of God. This vacancy of thought and enjoyment and intention doesn't even offer that glimpse into God's goodness.
As I read this passage again I was struck by how much more true and urgent it seems today than it could have even for Lewis himself. Acedia is not just a destructive quirk of human personality now. It's central to the business model of much of our lives. When I think about how much time we can spend watching Netflix shows we only half enjoy, engaging in online conversations we only barely care about with people we don't really know, or watching an endless queue of YouTube videos chosen for us because we had a momentary interest in a topic or a game, I feel the shudder Lewis is trying to provoke here.
There are moments like this strewn through this little book. It's got its problems too (which I will probably talk about more than anyone wants to hear), but even those are very interesting. This is the kind of book than can get us to rethink some important questions, assumptions, and habits in our lives. So don't miss out! See you on Wednesday!
God's Work. Our hands.