Screwtape on Time, Virtue-Signaling, and the Wrong Side of History

What might a senior statesman of Satan’s kingdom teach us about life in today’s world? Quite a lot, I’d say.

Late last year, on a walk through Cambridge, Andrew Wilson mentioned to me that he recently read The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis. (For the Mere Fidelity podcasts on the book, which I’ve since greatly enjoyed.) I made some ill-considered comment about exegetical fallacies, having in mind overly rigid distinctions between agape and eros and so on. Andrew replied with something like, “Maybe, but the depth of psychological and spiritual insight in the book is astounding.”

Andrew’s comment struck a chord, since I’ve always been struck by the same in Lewis’s writings. And it dawned on me that I hadn’t read much of his non-fiction lately. So Andrew’s comment sent me on a bit of a C. S. Lewis spree: in the last few weeks I’ve read or re-read several of his classic works, which I hope to write a bit about in due time. Having re-read The Four Loves, I’m not sure the lexical fallacy I quipped about is in the book at all—each term Lewis uses becomes in his hands something of a term of art. But that’s for  another post.

In this post I simply introduce a few passages that struck me in the work of Lewis’s I most recently re-read, The Screwtape Letters, published in 1942. If you’ve somehow managed never to hear of the book, the premise is a senior devil, Screwtape, writing to a junior devil, Wormwood, about how to more successfully destroy his “patient’s” newfound Christian faith and ensure his eventual arrival in hell. Lewis’s uncanny scrutiny of Christian experience and expert diagnoses of modern maladies are nowhere on fuller display than in this work. So here I simply introduce three of my favorite sayings of Screwtape, discussions that struck me as particularly pointed and timely. It should go without saying that what I endorse in the following is not Screwtape’s demonic agenda, but Lewis’s wisdom disguised therein.

(1) Do you think of your time as your own? Do you view interruptions and intrusions as violations of your sovereignty? Is there anything you think of as inviolably your own? All to the good, as far as Screwtape is concerned.

They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own’. Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious way, his own personal birthright. . . . The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon as his chattels. . . . The sense of ownership in general is always to be encouraged. The humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in Hell and we must keep them doing so. Much of the modern resistance to chastity comes from men’s belief that they ‘own’ their bodies–those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of Another! (112-14)

(2) Might online virtue-signaling be a knock-on effect of Screwtape’s policy regarding “fashions in thought”?

The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. (137-38)

(3) Finally, Screwtape would be delighted by today’s vogue moral put-down, “You’re on the wrong side of history.” No phrase could better sum up his strategy:

But the greatest triumph of all is to elevate this horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy so that nonsense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will. It is here that the general Evolutionary or Historical character of modern European thought (partly our work) comes in so useful. The Enemy loves platitudes. Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?’ they will neglect the relevant questions. And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them to make. As a result, while their minds are buzzing in this vacuum, we have the better chance to slip in and bend them to the action we  have decided on. And great work has already been done. Once they knew that some changes were for the better, and others for the worse, and others again indifferent. We have largely removed this knowledge. For the descriptive adjective ‘unchanged’ we have substituted the emotional adjective ‘stagnant’. We have trained them to think of the Future as a promised land which favoured heroes attain—not as something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is. (138-39)

2016 Reading: Favorite Fiction

In this second reflection on books I read in 2016, I continue, Noah-like, to lead books in two by two. My two top books I lauded first; now I commend two favorite works of fiction. They have much in common: both by women, both post-apocalyptic, both quietly hopeful, and both gripped me start to end. I foolishly failed to take notes or quotes from either, so I’ll shabbily attempt to conjure something of the magic of each.

First, Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. For an appetizer of its prose, see Nick Roark’s excerpt (#13). The premise of the book is that 99.99% of humanity is wiped out by a virus. Among the few survivors, we meet a traveling Shakespeare company, who wander dusty roads between the shells of cities. While the book is about more than this company, their existence distills the book’s premise: even in near-total ruin, beauty persists.

I started listening to the book via a very capable narration on Audible, but the prose was so achingly gorgeous that I had to take it in by eye. The story flashes back and forth from pre- to post-catastrophe; eventually each plot line satisfyingly converges. Through the loss of everything we now take for granted, the book renders modern life as the miracle of shared ingenuity that it is. I defy you to read the book and not at least once look up stunned and blinking.

Second, the Osiris Project trilogy by E. J. Swift. I saw this warmly commended on twitter by Adam Roberts. The series focuses on Osiris, a city pile-driven above the middle of the ocean, which is, as far as its inhabitants know, the only civilization to survive a nightmarish global warming scenario of droughts, storms, and pandemics. Set four-hundred or so years in the future, the book evinces an anthropologist’s precision in imagining realignments of culture and customs, of ways people might find to live. I could understand if some readers would find the pace slow in the second and third volumes, but I devoured the series whole and could’ve gladly read several more.

Imagine you live in a city with no land, no trees, no animals. No real summer, only a slight ease in cold. No survivors anywhere else. And your city is, like an intensified Berlin, split in two, between a cosseted, lavish East and a starving, shanty-town West. In this city, what hope would you have for life itself, what power of spirit to transcend the merciless ocean and the clawing cold?

2016 Reading: Best Of

It’s a couple weeks late for a post like this, and about thirteen years late to start a blog, but I’ve always been a late adopter. I end my blog-silence now because I was provoked to jealousy by friends sharing year-end reading reflections. I can’t promise anything more at this space than sporadic reflections on reading. So I start as I mean to go on, with books I especially enjoyed in 2016.

I’ve been a lover of books long enough to have had high hopes for a new book go kerplunk in the first few pages more than once. I’ve learned to hold pre-publication press at arm’s length, preempting the letdown. But sometimes I can’t help being unguardedly eager for a new book. And in a small delicious subset of those “sometimes,” a book not only only meets my hopes but blows past them. So I begin in this post with two books that managed to reward the romantic book-lover in me. For the two of you who care, these two are my books of the year.

Two Books That Exceeded Even My Unreasonably High Expectations

First up, William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days. I’ve stood in awe of Finnegan’s powers of description since discovering and repeatedly devouring his classic New Yorker piece “Playing Doc’s Games” (Part 1, 2). Surfing literary types used to call that the best piece of surf writing; the honor now passes to Finnegan’s book, along with a Pulitzer. I had the joy, now bittersweet, of reviewing this for Books & Culture. A taste of Finnegan’s prose:

I couldn’t get enough of their rhythmic violence. They pulled you toward them like hungry giants. They drained the water off the bar as they drew to their full, awful height, then pitched forward and exploded. From underwater, the concussion was deeply satisfying. Waves were better than anything in books, better than movies, better even than a ride at Disneyland, because with them the charge of danger was uncontrived.

Another book that easily cleared the high bar I had set for it was Fred Sanders’ The Holy Trinity. Sanders offers a programmatic exposition of just how it is that the Trinity is a biblical doctrine. As he puts it,

The goal of this book is to secure our knowledge of the triune God by rightly ordering the theological language with which we praise the triune God.

Sanders lucidly shows how the saving missions of the Son and the Spirit are what reveal God’s triunity to us, and how this revelation is both presupposed and attested in the New Testament, and adumbrated in the Old.

This is a mid-to-upper shelf academic book, and Fred is doing some serious creative retrieval in it, but he writes with such lucid elegance that you barely notice that you’re breaking a theological sweat. Here’s a teaser from near the end, on how all of Scripture’s promises and prefigurations converge in the trinitarian revelation of Christ’s incarnate mission:

All the major authors of the New Testament advance similar claims to the finality of what they have seen in Christ, and that eschatological definitiveness is what makes the Trinitarian interpretive moves not just possible, but urgent and necessary. There are no other hinges in the canon to compare with the one between the covenants; there are no further divine persons to identify retrospectively; and there is only one convergence point of the lines of messianic hyperfulfillment.

Up Next

Thankfully, these weren’t the only two excellent books I read this year. More posts to come. In the next post, if I hold to purpose,  my favorite fiction of the year.


(Photo credit: Lee Jonsson at