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Who in the world is Uncle Screwtape?
If a British person in the 1940s were to look at this title, they probably would have ignored the reference to Uncle Screwtape (they knew who he was) and wondered “what in the world is lockdown?”. Or perhaps not… It was the time of the German air raids and they all had curfews and bomb shelters in their backyards. Just watch The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
However, many of us living in 2020 would probably ignore the word “lockdown” (we are sick of it) and wonder who in the world Uncle Screwtape might be? If you’re one of those, let me fill you in.
The Screwtape Letters is a book written in 1942 by the famous C. S. Lewis. You might know him as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia. This work of satirical fiction contains several letters written by a senior demon (named Uncle Screwtape) who gives advice to his young nephew (named Wormwood) regarding his responsibilities in keeping a British man (called The Patient) away from following Jesus. The book explores various theological issues and is a masterpiece of Christian thought and philosophy.
News, TV, the Bible and Jesus
Like many people in the world today, I have my nose in the news and my eyes on the TV, watching with interest the development of the global Covid-19 Pandemic. But as a Christ follower, I also have my nose in the Bible and my eyes on Jesus, and like many I reflect upon the situation with a special sense of awareness that God is using this time productively in many of his children’s lives.
This is where Uncle Screwtape comes in. You see, in the book the bigger meta narrative of WW2 does not phase Uncle Screwtape. The ebbs and flows of society at large are just the context of much more important things, from his point of view anyway; muddying the waters of people’s spiritual growth.
The Suburbs and the Shacks
What does that have to do with us? I am getting to that…
This is a time where the disparities between those who live in the suburbs are often contrasted with those who live in the shacks. If you’re like me, admittedly I am one of those blessed ones who are actually mostly enjoying the national lockdown. I can say to the rest of my family “julle is lekker lockdown maats!” – and really mean it. There is a lot to like (along with a lot to dislike), but on balance it is a positive experience for me.
Although me and my team had to take a bit of a pay cut I am blessed to remain employed and productive at work, and there are much to like in my new routines.
I enjoy sleeping more, not needing to take Paul-Philip to school at 6:30 in the morning (though I miss our Audiobook time together). I miss the Bloemendal mountain bike trails but I can join Ronel for a YouTube Pilates class before work. I can do a Vitality Home workout with the kids. Or at least squeeze in a quickly-before-9am-level 4-lockdown-5km-radius run!
I can echo the voices on Whatsapp joking about first world problems like our dwindling stock of red wine or wishing Nora could come in again and help with the housework a little.
I love the gift of silence in the early morning when I have my quiet time, now often extended because of less pressure to jump in the car to go somewhere.
As you read this, you might feel some solidarity with me if your situation is similar. If that is you, you also know what comes next, right? You know it… the feelings of guilt that soon follow these thoughts.
The Feelings of Guilt
Why? Because most people in our country can’t say any of these things. They worry about overcrowding, the lack of basic necessities, or where the next meal might come from. Perhaps they’re wishing their kids do not have to listen to the shouting and the fist beatings in the next shack 2 meters away where the frustrations of compressed living space and withdrawal from alcohol overflows into fits of violence.
Now this is where Screwtape enters. What sinful responses might he be wanting to lead us into in a situation like this? Perhaps Wormwood should just try to keep us away from empathy for those less privileged to avoid the guilty feelings? What about blaming the governments of yesteryear, whether it be the Apartheid or Zuma eras, and just leaving it to the politicians to fix this mess? Perhaps we just go to the escapism of entertainment? Focus on work maybe?
It can also swing in the opposite way. Perhaps your heart is being opened and you redirect some money to help the poor or give more to the church. Perhaps you are continuing to pay your domestic while she is in lockdown and you use your Vitality points to help someone in need instead of saving up for your Vida coffee when they finally reopen. Or perhaps you can help coordinate food parcels, join the church’s social justice initiatives, or partake in your local neighbourhood watch’s efforts to identify people are in need. Not only in the shacks, mind you, but in your own middle class 4-bedroom-2-cars-kids-in-good-schools neighbourhood!
Uncle Screwtape’s ploy
Ok, so let’s bring Uncle Screwtape back into the conversation.
As Christ followers, we encourage each other to live in hope, to count our blessings, and to love with open hearts in this time. But sometimes we place this positive outlook on one end of the scale, whilst placing the feelings of guilt and the knowledge that we are in an uneven society on the other end of the scale. We try to balance these thoughts and feelings, and when we can’t quite get the balancing act right we abandon it, but not before we add a little extra guilt just to make sure we are being holy about it.
This is Uncle Screwtape, right there.
He is trying to make us believe that this is an either/or situation. To fall for this ploy is to back off from our posture of gratitude towards God. It is not an either/or situation. It is a both/and, where each weight on the ends of the scale carries weight in its own right. I mean here that the “goodness” of the Lord’s provision is as valid and real as the “badness” of what others might go through at this point in time.
Think about it like this: if you have a pool in your yard, and it is still blue, and presuming the temperate allows for it – does it bring any honour to God if you don’t use it to cool off after a lawn workout just because our brothers and sisters in the shacks don’t have one? Or when you now braai with your wife, or perhaps with your friends in England over Zoom on your iPad, still being able to enjoy a good steak and (maybe the last) bottle of red wine to go along with it – does it bring any honour to God if you don’t enjoy those graces and mercies with gratitude and thanksgiving? No, of course not. What would that achieve? Our heart attitudes are everything to God (Psalm 51:17), because a holy and God-orientated attitude will also channel us to do the right things.
On the one end of the spectrum, it is very sinful to be proud, boastful or deliberately ignorant when we are privileged and others are not. This is a time to seek areas where we can help, share, provide, pray.
Yet let us not have a false sense of humility, or nurture an overarching sense of guilt concerning our blessings. We should be considerate towards blessing others with our resources if we are able, but if it is an attitude of guilt that cause us to do that, we would not be the cheerful givers God loves (2 Corinthians 9:6). We will rather be like the stingy man in Proverbs 23:6, who says to those he helps: “eat and drink!”, but inwardly he is calculating. This will play right into the hand of the Affectionate Uncle Screwtape.
So, we have established that…
- We should avoid Screwtape’s ploy to be ignorant of the needs of others.
- We should avoid Screwtape’s opposite ploy to do good because of feeling shameful of the blessings we have
- We should live with open eyes, open hearts and open hands. It is up to us to figure out what that really means in each of our individual situations (and to some of us it means we have to be the recipients of others’ open eyes, hearts and hands!)
The motivation behind the last point in important, because we want to be “doers of the word” (James 1:22), and we want to make known our desires and supplications whilst having an attitude of gratefulness, and not out of anxiousness (Philippians 4:6).
The crux of the matter is… let’s not allow the Affectionate Uncle Screwtape to steal our joy in this time. And perhaps there is another ploy which we have not talked about here, the one where you are feeling guilty about not being able to help anybody at this time because you need help yourself?
A posture of gratitude, dependance and submission remains something we can strive for, regardless of our circumstances. And no matter what those circumstances are, as a Christ follower there will always be some way in which we will be able to share his love with others.
Let’s serve God with this posture and keep our eyes open for ways in which to serve our neighbours, whether they are 20 meters away next door or 20km away in the informal settlement.