The Common Good
September 2004

E-Mail from Hell

by Jim Forest | September 2004

Words of wisdom for a devil-in-training

"There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them."

—C. S. Lewis, preface to The Screwtape Letters

Demon-to-demon correspondence is not the kind of writing we often gain access to or even imagine exists. Aren’t devils a figment of our superstitious ancestors’ fevered imaginations? A pre-scientific way of explaining madness, illness, wars, plagues, famines, and other misfortunes? A way of blaming invisible beings for all those actions once regarded as sins but now seen, in the clear light of scientific day, as mistakes or misunderstandings?

It’s not a bad age to be a demon. They have a freer hand so long as we regard them as nonexistent. How can something that doesn’t exist do us any harm? Would that they were the nothings we imagine. Unfortunately, not only do they exist, but they are damnably clever. They even write letters. Below is e-mail sent by a demon named Wormwood to an up-and-coming junior devil named Greasebeek. Unfortunately Greasebeek’s half of the exchange wasn’t part of the file I intercepted, though it’s easy enough to guess his side of it.

I freely admit there is no way to prove these messages are what they claim to be. No doubt there are those readers who will be tempted to think I’m descended from the Mad Hatter. I console myself by recalling that C.S. Lewis must have endured similar suspicions when he published his collection The Screwtape Letters more than half a century ago.

TO:Greasebeek
FROM: Wormwood
SUBJECT: The real world

My dearest Greasebeek,

In your previous e-mail message you were nervous about a shift in your client’s musical tastes, but can you imagine what might happen if he were to disconnect himself, even partially, from his TV? What good is a guardian devil who notices dust but overlooks boulders?

You consigned to a mere P.S. the decision made by your client and his wife to shift their television from the living room to the spare room in order "to get it out of the center of their lives." Especially disturbing is his remark about needing to take steps "to build up a spiritual life."

At least they haven’t completely gotten rid of the TV. Even so, this has the potential of moving many things in the wrong direction. How could you fail to see this danger approaching and neglect to take appropriate preventative measures?

You might at least have suggested placing it in the bedroom, which in many cases is a better location for a television than the living room. It is not unusual for bedroom sets to run all night, with those who doze in the electronic glare waking up fitfully to catch disturbing fragments of whatever happens to be on as the night progresses—scenes of murder and mayhem, or often violent, semi-pornographic films. In fact these days there might be nothing "semi" about it.

Even in the case of those who at last turn it off, the presence of bedroom television will usually mean less reading, less talking, and less quiet unwinding before falling asleep—thus a more tired, more irritable person the next day. Most important, an active television, even when it is running only as background noise, means less prayer, or none.

But perhaps your man is another type and may succeed in reducing the time he spends paralyzed in front of a television. You mention several programs your client used to watch regularly, programs generally regarded as "wholesome," "inspiring," etc., suggesting it might actually be in our interest that he intends to see less TV. You seem to think it’s a triumph that he might miss the occasional documentary about pilgrims making their way to some pathetic shrine or nuns serving the poor or something else equally distasteful. But all these things are entirely harmless so long as they are just images on a television screen. The viewer will feel virtuous simply because he is watching charitable ladies doing good deeds in distant places that he will never visit and among the sorts of people he carefully avoids in real life. The main fact is that, watching these holy nuns, your man is safe in a dream world, doing nothing, not lifting a finger for anyone, not even saying a prayer or parting with his loose change. It hardly matters what he fantasizes about from time to time so long as it’s only stargazing—or saint-gazing.

What is dangerous is your client taking charge of his eyes. I don’t think you yet grasp that if we can turn a man’s eyes in the right direction, he’s ours right down to his toenails. Own a man’s eyes and you own the man.

Take heart. You have lost a battle but certainly not the war. At the very least, you can count on your client’s friends to be raising their eyebrows at this repositioning of the TV. If you play your cards right, he’ll soon be worrying that he is being seen by his friends as slightly cracked, if not a total nut case. Keep in mind that peer group disapproval, even when only imagined, is no small thing. The average human being would rather be regarded as a criminal than a crackpot.

Yours warmly,

Wormwood

TO:Greasebeek
FROM: Wormwood
SUBJECT: War

My dearest Greasebeek,

I am amazed that you are so ecstatic about the outbreak of war, as if this were in fact a whirlpool that could unfailingly drag your client forever out of the Opponent’s reach. If only it were that simple.

You write that your client is thinking seriously of joining the army and that you are doing all you can to "cheer him along" so that the idea becomes a firm resolve. I am not saying it would be a disaster if he joined the army, only cautioning that you mustn’t assume that once he is in a military uniform things will inevitably go our way. Granted, war tilts many things in our favor. The general who said "War is hell" wasn’t a bad theologian. There is no human endeavor so merciless as war. Of its nature war makes killers of harmless, law-abiding people who formerly took care to stop at red lights. War also has the attraction of destroying many people long after the cease-fire is signed—consider the high suicide rate among veterans.

There is magic in the word "war." It creates a quality of unity and obedience that is rare in periods between wars. (I cannot say peacetime, which human beings cannot imagine.) There are other advantages. In wartime few will seek to practice the Opponent’s bizarre teaching to "love your enemies and pray for them." Even if they dare think of what such a teaching implies, to practice it during war would create far too many problems. There is the occasional Francis of Assisi, but such individuals are rare and are regarded as insane and unpatriotic. Admiration comes only after such people die and the wars they refused to join in are seen in the cold light of day. While war is being fought, any good deeds done to an enemy are likely to be seen as criminal, even traitorous acts.

War has the great advantage of distorting the way human beings see each other. War generates a kind of mass fever that makes it all but impossible for those afflicted to see anything good in whoever is designated as the enemy—in reality a people no less cared for by our Enemy than themselves. Often they are a people who used to be regarded in friendly terms and who, in the not distant future, may well become the best of allies. But for now they are perceived, to put it simply, as something like us, like demons, which hardly does justice either to them or to us.

But it must be noted that today one rarely encounters the pure, high-quality hatred that one could count on in former times. In this regard your client is typical. You describe his outrage while seeing a television report about the enemy’s treatment of dissidents and prisoners and his imagining what he would do "to those bastards" if he could "only get them in his gunsight."

His response sounds promising, but the thoughts stirred up by propaganda may well prove a short-lived fantasy. If you look closely at your client’s attitude toward his nation’s current enemy, you will almost certainly be disappointed. Today’s hatred is more like a tincture of enmity compared to what one would have found as recently as the First World War. In those days one could rely on people to swallow propaganda whole. Today they remain responsive to propaganda but at the same time are vaguely aware that to some extent—perhaps a large extent—they are being lied to.

A final suggestion to mull over: You may find that there would be certain advantages were your client to become a conscientious objector, so long as it is not undertaken with a motivation pleasing to the Enemy. Causes of any kind, even the cause of peace, tend to distance those taking part from actual people. There is nothing like manifestos and movements to get people arguing.

Today he may be daydreaming about joining the army, but there will be moments in the days and weeks ahead when, far from wanting to join the army, he will be horrified at the thought that he might become one of those maimed or killed and then start thinking desperately about how to avoid the risks of combat. At that moment, with a slight nudge from you, it may cross his mind that war is after all not something altogether good and that one way out is to take the moral high road. With good guidance, you may soon have him despising everyone in uniform and anyone waving a flag—each and every person who isn’t doing what he’s doing. You would be amazed at how a person who talks constantly of peace can be more a captive of hatred than any soldier on the front lines of war.

Yours warmly,

Wormwood

TO:Greasebeek
FROM: Wormwood
SUBJECT: Holy writ
My dearest Greasebeek,

I am sorry to hear that your client is reading the Bible in his effort to decide about how to respond to the current war. This suggests yet one more lapse on your part. On the other hand, with the right guidance, this need not be disastrous and might even prove helpful. There are so many books in the Bible, so many stories, such an avalanche of sayings, so many things that a modern reader can hardly understand or even imagine.

First and foremost, you must do your best to keep him away from the New Testament, because here the ground for confusion is much smaller. Luckily, the New Testament is at the back of the Bible. Assist him in thinking he must start at the beginning. In most cases that means he will read less than a hundred pages, decide that’s more than enough, and decisively close the execrable book.

The problem with the New Testament, as presumably you learned in the Academy, is that it provides not the slightest encouragement for killing anyone, or any sanction to despise even one’s worst enemy. Can you imagine? But in what Christians call the Old Testament, there are entire wars that are described as enjoying Heaven’s blessing. Also you will find numerous actions, some of which are not at all rare in today’s world, that are to be punished by death. Best to try to get him to focus on that kind of material, because he will see it as not only sanctioning war but also blessing enmity.

However, take care. Even in the Old Testament you must watch a client’s thoughts very carefully. Don’t let your attention wander for even the blink of a human being’s eye. There are many passages that are every bit as bad as the New Testament: not fearing evil, rejecting death, choosing life, letting mercy and justice embrace, walking undisturbed through the valley of death, fleeing from all evildoers, commandments against poisoning an enemy’s wells or destroying his orchards, and on and on. There is even a commandment not to kill. Be aware that the more one reads of the Old Testament, the more one gets into a swamp of mercy. Steer him away from the books of the so-called prophets.

If need be, you can also remind him that many people now regarded as saints were soldiers. No doubt he will have seen images of some of them in church windows where they are shown wearing armor and bearing swords—people like Saint George fighting the dragon. Encourage him to think of George as a man for whom being both a soldier and a Christian was not at all problematic. Let him imagine that George was canonized because he was second to none in killing people rather than because he was an impudent young man executed for proclaiming his faith instead of pleasing his superiors by hiding it.

Take care, however, about the "dragon." That of course is a symbol for us, but with careful guidance your client will see it as evidence that Christians long ago were a simple-minded people who believed in monsters.

Yours warmly,

Wormwood

Jim Forest, general secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation for 12 years, directs the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in Alkmaar, Netherlands. This article is excerpted with permission from the forthcoming The Wormwood File: E-mail from Hell available from Orbis Books (1-800-258-5838) in October 2004.

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