One of the defining gospel readings during Lent is the account found in the synoptic gospels of Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days and then, when he was weary and hungry, being tempted by Satan. It is a reading that is rich in meaning as well as being a stirring narrative that is meant to illuminate and strengthen our faith.
St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote a collection of reflections for every day of Lent, discussed and explained much of the symbolism present in the account at great length in the Summa Theologica. Some of the insights he points out are that Christ allowed himself to be tempted because “the temptations of the devil assail those principally who are sanctified, for he desires, above all, to overcome the holy” and thus we should follow Christ’s example and pursue holiness. Or that Christ went out into the desert to be alone (which is when the Devil loves to strike at us), “as to a field of battle, to be tempted there by the devil” for the “purpose of provoking the devil.” And finally, St. Thomas explains that the basic pattern and “character of all of Satan’s temptations towards all men for all time from Adam and Eve to the present as the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and to the pride of life.”
However, oftentimes these sorts of deep meanings are lost on those who are not up for or interested in any substantive theological reading. Moreover, because it is a reading that we have (hopefully) heard once a year throughout our lives, it can be tempting to take the symbolism too lightly by not giving them much thought, or too loftily by intellectualizing them and not taking their meanings to heart. Most will just accept the basic premise of the gospel account- trust God and refuse the Devil- and leave it at that.
This is unfortunate, for the narrative of Christ's temptations is more than just a story for building up a Christian’s faith. In truth, it is in many ways a story for everyone because it is a basic blueprint of human nature about how we are tempted and led astray from God or others, in order to pursue our own selfish desires. So much so, that this gospel tale has been expanded upon in intricate detail, in one of the greatest classics of Christian literature.
An Insider’s View of Temptation
C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, aside from Mere Christianity and his Narnia books, is arguably his most famous and insightful book. Written in 1942, it is a satirical series of letters supposedly written by demon named “Screwtape” trying to give advice to his nephew “Wormwood” on the diabolical art of tempting human souls. A short sequel, Screwtape Proposes a Toast, was published in 1959, but after that Lewis vowed never to write “another letter” as he said he found the process was very taxing. This is understandable, as there are few other works that have delved into the darker side of human nature in such an excruciatingly clear way.
Nevertheless, the book has been popular since its publication and its style and format has been emulated in numerous books such as Fr. Dwight Longnecker’s The Gargoyle Code: Lenten Letters between a Master Tempter and his Diabolical Trainee or Peter Kreeft's The Snakebite Letters and his popular lecture How to Win the Culture War. It has been turned into numerous stage productions, Focus on the Family produced an audio drama about it, and the audiobook version of it narrated by the iconic John Cleese was nominated for a Grammy Award. So if you are looking for a book to read this Lent, with your teens or with a book club at your church, you cannot do better than The Screwtape Letters.
Interestingly enough though, the only format that the The Screwtape Letters has not appeared in is on television. Well, sort of. There was once a rather dark but humorous homage to it that appeared on the Fox channel some two decades ago that I’m guessing you missed.
Wait...That was on TV?
Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files, produced a crime drama series called Millennium which ran for three seasons (1996-99) and starred Lance Henriksen as Frank Black, a criminal profiler who possessed a psychic ability to see into the mind of the criminals he was pursuing. While the first season was your standard psychological thriller-crime drama series, the second season featured more supernatural story lines, some of which had subtle Christian undertones, even if their take on the faith was about what you’d expect from Fox television. Nonetheless there was one episode in particular that gave its own over the top spin on The Screwtape Letters format in a very unorthodox but relatable manner.
The episode was called “Somehow Satan Got Behind Me” and it opens with four men sitting in a donut shop making light banter, before the perspective changes and we see that they are actually devils named Blerk, Abum, Greb, and Toby. For the rest of the episode, each of the devils shares how they go about “gutting souls” in the modern age. However, interspersed throughout all of their twisted tales is Frank Black who (because of his psychic ability) can actually see the devils when he investigates all of the death and mayhem these devils incite. Some of the highlights are as follows.
His tale deals with the aimlessness and disenchanted mood of our modern age, and has Blurk convincing a young man to become a serial killer “just because.” When the other devils are shocked at how easy it was to convince the young man Blurk quips, “You know we were so angry when mankind got freewill, but what has it brought them, but they belief that their lives are controlled by everything but their free will.” Moreover, Blurk's words to the young man after he commits his first murder, are perfect description of our tendency to stifle our consciences in our pursuit of sin, “Don't worry kid, it's like your first beer. You'll not only get used to it, but pretty soon life just doesn't seem the same without it.”
Abum story is a skewed take on what has been called the “banality of evil” but instead examines the banality of sinning. He starts off by saying serial killers are too hard to work with because “their evil is too conspicuous...which leads people to think thoughts about right or wrong, bad or good. You don't want them considering crap like that...you just want them to go through the routine of living their daily lives.” When the other demons mention that they fail to see how that would lead to damnation, Abum says, “And that's the beauty of it all, because they fail to see it too” as we see the man he is tempting living a painfully boring life, but who sins so often it has become part of his daily routine. Eventually, Abum drives the man to foolishly take his own life, and I say foolishly, because even Abum mocks the man's death by commenting that, “It never ceases to amaze me how these idiots only learn to appreciate life, just as they are taking it.”
Greb tale is about how protecting and safeguarding others can turn into judgmentalism and a rabid desire to control others, sometimes murderously so. He discusses how he tormented a television censor named Waylan Figgleif (a play on fig leaf- as in that of respectability) into thinking that he is carrying the “weight of a nation's morality on his very shoulders.” When Blurk says, “What are you talking about? It's just TV.” Greb poignantly points out what is still painfully true today, “Ah but you're forgetting how humans think everything in their lives now is a matter of life and death. Making them crack under the pressure is a snap.” Greb waits until Figgleif is stressed out and then materializes before him because as he explains, when people had faith they knew a devil when they saw one, but nowadays, “they all assume it's internal." In the end, Greb drives Figgleif “bonkers” and incites him to go on a shooting spree before killing himself.
Toby is depressed, for not only does he think (rightly so) that Frank Black can see them and knows what they are up to, but feels he is losing his touch because he hasn't damned a soul in a long time. He relates how he impersonated an older gentlemen who met and dated an aging stripper. After learning her vulnerabilities, he treats her in away that alleviates those vulnerabilities, before dumping her in a very tragic way. She then goes off to commit suicide, and Toby comments on what pathetic creatures humans are to take their own life over biological urges. However, when Toby is in his “boyfriend” form and visits the suicide scene, Frank Black is there and Toby realizes that Frank can see his true form. Frank simply says, “You must be so lonely”, and leaves. After that, all four devils, are silent and noticeably disturbed at Black's words, before getting up and leaving the donut shop one by one.
Darin Morgan, the writer of the episode, is certainly no Lewis (or Kreeft or Longnecker for that matter), but the episode is a clever tribute to The Screwtape Letters given the time and format of a prime-time crime drama. What the story gets right is that it pegs sexual temptation as the number one sin that plagued our culture in the 90's and now, but also a sense that when life has lost all purpose or a sense of the transcendent, moral and cultural entropy ensue. Thus, in the episode as in real life, it should come as no surprise that sex, violence, and indifference are the sharpest tools in the Devil's toolbox. The episode can be watched here, but be warned, even though the episode is obviously using satire to tell the four stories, it is not for everyone. It contains violence and salacious content (within the limits of 1990’s broadcast standards) such as a strip club being a recurring gag/setting for the episode.
Furthermore, while there are several humorous scenes that portray the devils (disguised in human form) playing people that no doubt would tempt us to sin in real life, such as a traffic citation cop or a telemarketer (“It’s time to start saving on your long-distance calls!”), there is also a lot of black humor that may rub people the wrong way. For instance, when Blurk convinces his serial killer subject to abduct a Satan worshiper, the worshiper cries out “Satan save me!” which causes all of the devils to laugh and joking about a lack of divine intervention. However, given the context of the story line, these morbid jabs have their place and can generate a conversation about what it the episode got right and how it could have been better. So while the episode my not be the best choice for mixed company, some may find its insights surprisingly illuminating.
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