This Letter begins with Screwtape expressing satisfaction that the young man has now been "friended" by the 'cool people' in his social circle: those "thoroughly reliable...steady...consistent scoffers and wordlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortably toward Our Father's (the devil's) house". Apparently, Wormwood has observed and reported back that these hipsters are "'great laughers", and Screwtape takes up this topic as important with his understudy.
The demons are interested in what makes us laugh, apparently, and they have divided our laughter into 4 sources or types: Joy, Fun, Joke Proper, and Flippancy. The first, joy, is a very familiar concept for us as Believers (I wrote a post a while back about joy vs. happiness), and the demons totally get that joy is a God concept. So, pretty much, they know they can never mess with our true joy in the Lord, and they hate that. Screwtape describes joy as a disgusting and "direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell". Now, if that wouldn't make you want to pursue joy, I don't know what would.
The demons are not particularly interested, from a soul-crushing perspective, in human fun, either. As Screwtape laments, fun can promote "charity, courage, contentment, and many other evils" (remember, "evils" to the demons are those things that keep our eyes on God). The only time demons have any potential interest in our fun-having is when it diverts our attention away from God and onto what we are feeling or doing.
Now, Jokes, are starting to get into the devil's territory. Let's be real -- most jokes are based on the inappropriateness of something, usually sex. We laugh at dirty jokes because we are either uncomfortable or because we just like talking about sex. And when we're not laughing and joking about sex, Screwtape says, we're finding humor in "destroying shame" - in other words, making ourselves feel better about our own meanness, cowardice, and cruelty by cracking a joke (as in "practical joke"). As Lewis writes, there's no straighter shot to damnation than when we assume we can do pretty much anything we want "if only it can be treated as a joke".
But, flippancy is the "best of all", according to Screwtape. Flippant people make a joke out of virtue - or, at least, act as if virtue is funny. This clever crowd operates under the assumption that the joke "has already been made, although no one ever really makes it" and approaches every serious subject "in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it". How convenient, I'm thinking. If you can just maintain flippance (is that a word?) about everything, then you can pretty much go through life without any meaningful values, virtues, or convictions. However, as Lewis writes, flippancy is "a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens instead of sharpens the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it" (So true. Mean Girls are even mean to each other).
So, I gotta ask: What makes you (me) laugh? What do I (you) find humor in?
What we find funny says a lot about our spiritual condition. And that's no joke.
I was on a cross country flight recently on my way to visit family. I boarded the plane and sat down next to an older lady who smiled at me even though I accidentally bumped her arm with my bag.
The lady appeared to be African-American, quite small in frame. She was seated next to the window, with her sweater cupped over her shoulders like a blanket. I noticed her dainty hands, they reminded me of my mom’s. Her fingers were slender and crooked, knotted at the joints from a lifetime of use, but still smooth and well-manicured. She wore a diamond band on her left ring finger. The lady’s complexion was the color of a golden brown Bartlett pear when perfectly ripe. She had a few freckles sprinkled across the bridge of her nose like pixie dust that gave her face a sparkle that matched her eyes. Her clothes were classic business that could’ve been purchased last week or 30 years ago, and her hair was neatly coiffed showing less gray than mine.
Early in the flight, the attendant came around to serve drinks, and as I passed the lady’s cup of water over to her, we began one of those typical airplane conversations. I introduced myself and told her I was on my way to visit my grandkids. She said her name was Evelyn and she was on her way to Atlanta to see her grand-niece. Her voice was clear and kind, and reminded me of my favorite teacher from 2nd grade. When the flight attendant handed out the airline shortbread cookies, I told Evelyn I would save mine and give them to my grandkids in reply to their “What did you bring me?” question. Evelyn thought this was a good idea and she would give hers to her great-niece and nephew in Atlanta. But, they would have to read a Bible verse out loud to her first to earn their cookies.
Evelyn and I began to talk about parenting and grandparenting, and how kids are different today than when we grew up. Young people today have no work ethic, according to Evelyn. They want everything handed to them, she said, and when things don’t go their way, it’s always somebody else’s fault. Evelyn spoke these words not with anger, but with truth and integrity, and a bit of sadness. She told me she had completed a career as a writer and curriculum developer for an agency in her home state. Evelyn said she had been retired from that work for 20 years. If I do the math, that probably makes her now in her 80’s. She didn’t mention how many years she had been married, but Evelyn told me that her husband died 10 years ago. Her daughter worries about her still living on her own, and Evelyn thought that was just silly.
I asked Evelyn if she traveled often and this opened up a book of stories from her library of memories. She told me about traveling all over the United States, just too many cities to count. Then, Evelyn began to tell me about a trip she took with her sister in the late 1980’s to China. It was a dream vacation to a place that Evelyn had always wanted to go. She spoke at length and in vivid detail about her trip to China like she had been there just yesterday. She painted pictures with words of the ornate Buddhist temples and the opulent shrines and monuments in Beijing. But, Evelyn seemed most enamored with the people of China as she admired their grace and dignity living under the pressures of their closed society. She described how their Chinese tour guides seemed grateful for the interaction with outsiders, yet nervous about staying on-script and making sure that the tourists didn’t ask too many questions or observe things they weren’t supposed to. Evelyn giggled as she told me about slipping away unnoticed from the tour group once to explore one of the temples on her own. She hoped she didn’t get her tour guide in trouble with his superiors with her rebellion. Evelyn reflected on telling her sister, as they observed the constricted daily lives of the Chinese citizens, “These people are not going to stand for this for much longer”. Enter Tianenman Square. Was Evelyn prophetic? Perhaps. Empathetic? More than likely, as Oppression is a distinct and esoteric club.
Look, I could never know, and I don’t pretend to know, what it meant to be an African American female during Evelyn’s time. But, I do know that she would have every right to be bitter and hateful for what she has lived through. Yet, there was no acrimony in her words, no resentment, no malevolence. All I saw in Evelyn was strength and wisdom and grace.
I said goodbye to Evelyn at the end of our flight. I never saw where she went in the airport, I never saw her great-nieces and nephews meet her. I guess I wanted to see that movie moment when it all came together, all wrapped up in a neat little package. Life rarely happens that way, don’t I know. But, two hours on an airplane with Evelyn taught me that you can be strong without being hard, wise without being judgmental, and beautiful no matter what.
Gray hair is a glorious crown; it is found in the way of righteousness. Proverbs 16:31
My sons are now dads, which makes me a (super cool, way-too-young-to-be) grandma. A couple of my grandsons are entering the teenage years right about now. So, I was talking to one of my sons the other day about how teens will try to push the limits with the parents, how you gotta keep showing them whose still boss, all that, and something I heard way back in Psychology 101 came to mind: Elephant training. Stay with me here....
That chain they hook around the elephant's neck to keep him or her from running away from the zoo, the circus, whatever. Well, you know, an adult elephant could yank that chain right out of the ground any time they wanted to. But they don't. You know why? Because their keepers started putting that chain around their neck when they were young and a lot smaller, while the chain still had a pretty good chance of holding. So, not being particularly knowledgeable on physics, the elephant grows into adulthood believing that chain still holds them, so they never even try to get away.
So, as we're talking, I expertly share this phenomenon with my son, brilliantly applying the elephant story to parenting children - while they are young, maintaining parental authority so they won't question it when they get to be teenagers. Am I a wise sage, or what? But, wait...
A little while later after that conversation, it hit me: the elephant story isn't just about parenting, authority, or animal psychology. There is a spiritual application here!!!
Do you see it?!! In our childhood - literally, when we are young and also in the 'childhood' stage of our faith - we get taught and conditioned to believe certain things. We have bad experiences, people hurt us, life punches in the gut, we mess up, the Enemy convinces us that lies are truth - all forging a "chain" of fear, confusion, or bitterness around our neck. And it stays there and drags us down, over and over and over again. Just like the elephant, we keep that chain around our neck because we don't know (or don't believe) that it can be broken!!!
What chain are you still wearing from your childhood? For that matter, what chain are you wearing from yesterday?
You know you don't have to wear it, right? Jesus broke that thing a long time ago. And, if knowing that's not enough to make ya wanna hoop, holler, and run out into the street and slap somebody, I don't know what would! (Well, OK, forget the slapping somebody part, but anyway).
Oh, and BTW - if the elephant story is a myth, urban legend, or whatever, don't tell me because I really want to like it.
1 Corinthians 13:11
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man,
I put aside childish things. (HCSB)