2017-07-12

Last April, HarperCollins and Beliefnet.com challenged readers to update C.S. Lewis's famous exchange between two devils, "The Screwtape Letters," with a Screwtape letter of their own. We received 250 essays from around the world, which were judged by four independent scholars and editors.

We are pleased to announce that the top prize has been awarded to Amy Schwartz of Washington, D.C. Schwartz is a journalist and a member of the Washington Post editorial board. "It may seem odd for an observant Jew to nourish a lifelong passion for the works of a Christian theologian," says Schwartz. "But I find much of Lewis's humane wisdom to be universal, and this is especially true of the psychological and spiritual insight that fills 'The Screwtape Letters'."

Schwartz will receive an all-expenses paid trip for two to London and Oxford. Her essay will be published in two anthologies, The Best Spiritual Writing 2002 and The Best Christian Writing 2002. Click here to see the ten runners-up.

By Amy Schwartz

My dear Scrapetooth,
You may wonder at receiving a communication from someone of my Abysmal Seniority. The truth is, I was on an errand in the Second Circle and happened to pass by the student notice boards, where the new patient assignments are posted.

Permit me to congratulate you on being assigned a television anchorman. I look forward to seeing what you do with him. The task is significant and complicated enough to have attracted considerable attention Below; you may consider it a chance to show your paces and impress prominent diabolical figures, among whom I number myself.

You may think I refer to the importance of tempting a subject who, if properly turned, can help mislead, confuse and ultimately recruit to our side the many millions of additional souls in his viewing audience. Not so!

Or, at least, not primarily. One can attain brilliant successes and deep professional satisfaction through the corruption of a completely private person. (And one can fail abjectly . ah, that miserable, delicious Wormwood! But I digress.) What makes this particular task truly noteworthy is the combination of a private person of limited gifts with a powerful and outsized public persona. Purely from a gastronomic perspective, the potential rewards are awesome. Such twistings and turnings of insecurity and self-justification, such excellent and succulent depths of self-deception!

Some of us already have begun to salivate. Do not disappoint us. Many interesting tactical choices lie before you--for instance, whether to let your man become progressively more entranced with the power and influence of his position, and more committed to enhancing that status at any cost, or whether instead to whip him with the sense that what he does is "only" journalism, a game of surfaces and hurried deadlines, and let him lose himself in reveries of someday doing something more "serious."

The first strategy will gradually render him unbearably arrogant and unreachable by normal scruples. The second will prevent genuine engagement with the task before him, with the attendant career stagnation, frustration, and hostility. Either dish can be satisfying; it is really a matter of personal taste.

Feel free to call upon me any time. We have not met much, but I am still a senior devil and as such command my small degree of influence Down Here.

Your affectionate third cousin twice removed,
Screwtape

My dear Scrapetooth,
You ask how I come by what you call my special knowledge of TV journalists, yours in particular. Dear boy, I hope I did not mislead. I have no direct knowledge of the creature who is under your supervision. I merely extended to him the observations I have made of the hapless members of his profession who have found their way here before him. (A habit you ought to practice, by the way. Relegation of the individual case to a general category based on under-informed assumption is an essential skill to master if you wish to descend the ladder of Nether Administration.)

But back to my supposed expertise regarding your patient. The explanation is simple. Novice devils are not generally aware that here and there in the nether regions--specifically, in portions of the Fourth, Fifth and Eighth Circles, on the southerly side--it is possible to pick up a steady stream of terrestrial television signals.

You would be surprised how many devils while away their time between shifts decoding and imbibing these emissions, especially the all-news channels. They are not as satisfying to the appetite as the direct draughts of human fear, anguish and confusion that we enjoy in the course of our duties, but they serve well as a snack between meals and as a reminder of those ultimate pleasures. We are led to believe that television reception is even better in the Other Place but that its denizens do not share our interest in it.

My direct impressions of your man have been--of necessity--superficial, but a few thoughts present themselves. He reads the news slowly and sonorously, plainly enamored of his own voice. This affords you opportunities to feed his vanity, encouraging him to concentrate more on the figure he cuts doing his job than on the satisfactions of the job itself.

And that is essential if you are to block any chance of his striving to use his influential position for good deeds. The more you can enhance his feeling that he enjoys special status, the likelier you will be, in any given situation, to persuade him that on this occasion it is better to keep his powder dry--after all, he is a very important man; he ought to husband his influence and save it for a time when it will do the most good. With a little work on your part, you can make sure that that time will never come.

Your cousin,
Screwtape

My dear Scrapetooth,
You and your patient gave me quite a scare yesterday evening. Watching him host his special in-depth program on the future of public assistance, I was distressed to hear him delve at length into questions of what human creatures at the moment are pleased to call "ethics." At one particularly alarming moment--I need not remind you of it, surely--he turned those well-known deep-set eyes directly toward the camera, furrowed that striking brow, and asked, "We know this will balance the budget. But is it the right thing to do?"

For an awful second I feared you had already lost control of your subject. I feared for your continued well-being. Had the man developed the habit-the rare, noxious habit-of weighing the morality of everything that passed his lips? The phenomenon has been known to occur, even among journalists. Generally it means some devil has relaxed his vigilance in elementary matters.

Over the last few generations we have been highly successful in limiting the damage done by the popularity of ethical codes in private life--the humans' unaccountable attraction to, if not success at, being truthful, faithful, loving and so forth. We have done this by gradually inculcating the unexamined idea that those codes must be interpreted differently, at any rate less literally, when one is going about the business that furnishes one's livelihood. How many exemplary cases have I seen who, while committed firmly to the Enemy's service at home and on the weekends, spend their working hours telling the untruths known fashionably today as "spin" or advancing policies or projects whose likely bad effects they studiously avoid thinking about on the grounds that an employee's foremost ethical obligation is to advance the interests of the company!

What a surprise for them when they discover their real home is with us. Journalists--did you wonder when I would return to the business at hand?--suffer a special, rather subtle case of this confusion, and as a result they must be handled with delicacy. As a rule they do not simply suspend their moral codes while working, but, rather, consider their work to be subject to an ethical code of its own that is different from the everyday one but just as rigorous.

A primary feature of this professional code is the insistence that the journalist should not think too much about the likely consequences of publishing his story or about whom it will hurt or help. This is called being objective. It is asserted that a focus on the (unknowable) consequences of reporting a news story would make it impossible for stories to be reported fairly or effectively.

I cannot claim that this potentially useful element of your patient's professional formation is the work of our Research Department. No, it bears some of the Enemy's hallmarks--I believe he has some notion of getting the creatures to focus their attention on the parts of their lives they can control and de-emphasizing those they cannot.

Nonetheless it is a tool we have been able in many cases to turn to our purposes. The first step is to heighten the patient's sense that, since his work falls under the jurisdiction of its own code of ethics, it exists in some real way separate from ordinary life and its "ordinary" rules. The second step is to enhance that feeling of being outside the rules until it begins to color all his non-work life as well.

I have known cases where this sense of journalistic detachment was so successfully advanced that the patient declined in private life to make contributions to charitable causes, to perform routine community obligations such as volunteering for his children's school events, to develop opinions on the great political issues of his day--even, in one case, to vote in national elections. All to maintain the status of journalistic observer in its most pristine form! This is excellent; this is ideal.

So you can imagine my concern on hearing your patient express, first, a direct ethical concern about the contents of his story, and second, an implied solidarity with ordinary citizens' interest in the morality of public programs. My concern gnaws at me; it pains me. I await with tense eagerness any explanation you can offer.

Your very impatient, very distant cousin,
Screwtape
My dear Scrapetooth,
The calm audacity of your reply amazes me. You assert in unruffled tones (a trifle too unruffled, in truth, to address someone of my Depth in the administration) that you have the situation well under control.

The man, you say, is not becoming moral at all; he is merely going with the fashion. Yes, among the humans of today, a dip into morality is now considered the latest thing! The temper of the times, you say, is against the journalistic presumption of objectivity; in the patient's city and in the circles within which he moves, not so much his colleagues but his confidential sources and high official contacts, one's credibility is enhanced by being "born again."

You claim to have impressed laboriously on your patient's mind the disadvantage he suffers from not being thus newly "born again," his lack of access to the inner circles of power, their shared language, their bible study classes and men's fellowships and prayer breakfasts. You point with pride to your success in keeping him away from any notion that he might actually join this world by converting.

Rather, under the influence of the drumming envy and discontent you inflicted, he conceived the notion of presenting himself as a sort of morally struggling, questing figure--not just different from his journalistic colleagues but in active contrast to them.

If this tale of yours is true, I must express my admiration. I have not seen so neat a spot of moral jujitsu since an episode in my own early career, when, faced by a patient being importuned to embrace the Enemy's service, I realized that a pretended conversion for social gain would mire my man in a lifetime of hypocrisy while also giving him endless hours of fear and anxiety lest he be found out.

It sounds as if you have had a similar brainstorm. In allowing your patient to salt his broadcasts with moral-sounding but empty verbal gestures, a sort of surface moral vocabulary, all for the purpose of signaling his membership in a select peer group, you are using the Enemy's dearest tools in the service of mere snobbism. This is delightful, and it promises more gains in future.

Moral postures struck for the purpose of keeping up with the fashion are not necessarily disqualifying for the Enemy--he, our Intelligence Service tells us, clings in such cases to the chance that outward habit will inculcate inward purpose--but there is no doubt that they are at least initially corrupting. And moral postures struck in the plain sight of several million news viewers, most of whom will take the posturing at face value, exert a uniquely corrosive effect on the man's other professional values.

But how can we be sure in the long run that the surface posturing will not become the real thing? For that matter, my dear Scrapetooth, how can I be sure that this explanation on your part is true and is not just a highly original way to cover an impending disaster?

No doubt we will know soon enough: I, for one, intend to watch assiduously whether the patient's moral posturing helps his immediate career prospects, as he expects it to, and what use he makes of any advancement. A large new dose of responsibility has been known unaccountably to sober up its holder and turn him to serious thoughts, of the sort that endanger our project. On the other hand, it can serve merely as a bigger and faster car with which he can drive himself where he was going anyway.

>

As I compose these sentences I note a broadcast announcement that your man will soon anchor an hour-long special on how ordinary citizens can combat the moral vacuity of everyday life. It looks as if his, and your, career strategy is paying off smartly: He is being given a chance to fill a journalistic niche as Moral Philosopher. How will he handle this initial foray--with continued superficiality or, perish the idea, with sincerity and thoughtfulness? The stakes, my dear Scrapetooth, are high for you also.

Your urgently interested cousin,
Screwtape


I cannot be the first to congratulate you--others in the structure of authority Down Here are too quick for that. But I hope I may add my voice in admiration for the way in which your patient acquitted himself. And so soon after his elevation to the moral-philosopher role he craved, with the assignment of hosting a series of taped specials on moral conundrums!

It is true he is not safe in Our House yet--that must await his departure from the mortal world. Still, certain actions taken during the taping of his latest show point him firmly in our direction. It would require a real contravention of what he is pleased to call the Moral Law for him to end up traveling any other way.

It was delicious, was it not? He had just gone on air to engage two pundits and a research scientist in a discussion of what the government could do to help families whose children suffer from some dread disease. (I forget the particulars already; physical suffering is always welcome, but its details bore us.) Earlier in the show he had convened another panel of families involved, tragic figures struggling to save their children from agonized untimely death. One of these desperate parents after going off the air had asked him to broker an introduction between themselves and the second panel's research scientist--nothing dramatic, nothing to catch a devil's eye, just one of those tiny insidious actions from which some good might result.

And what was our patient's response? He forgot to do it. He had no particular reason to make or not to make this small connection; the thing merely slipped his mind.

Such a result, my dear Scrapetooth, testifies to your alert presence at your patient's elbow and to the finesse with which you had previously worked him over. It proves beyond a doubt that your analysis of his moral state all along was correct. The honors now being heaped upon you are well-deserved, and your future success seems guaranteed.

As you progress Downward I sincerely hope you will spare a thought for those of us who offered you advice along the way. And one other thing: Your continued close relationship with your patient ought to put you in a good position to recommend guests for future specials. Tell me, if a senior devil such as myself--experienced, authoritative, photogenic--were to obtain the necessary clearances from Below, do you think your patient would be interested in putting him on TV?

Your attentive and sympathetic third cousin,
Screwtape


more from beliefnet and our partners