The spread of a fake Screwtape letter about politics motivated me to compile the instances C.S. Lewis used the voice of his fictional demon to actually address politics in a manner much more insightful than any modern counterfeit.
In rereading both The Screwtape Letters and “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” (from The World’s Last Night and Other Essays), I came across yet another instance where Lewis’ insight into culture was well ahead of his time.
On August 14, 1959, the American satellite Explorer 6 sent the first photo of the Earth from orbit. For the first time in our existence, humanity could gain a glimpse of our size in the universe.
Later that year, Lewis recognized our tendency to shrink ourselves even smaller by casting off our individual wills and blindly following those in the spotlight.
In a December 1959 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, he wrote about this demonic strategy in “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.”
As the great sinners grow fewer, and the majority lose all individuality, the great sinners become far more effective agents for us. Every dictator or even demagogue—almost every film star or crooner—can now draw tens of thousands of the human sheep with him. They give themselves (what there is of them) to him; in him, to us. There may come a time when we shall have no need to bother about individual temptation at all, except for the few. Catch the bellwether, and his whole flock comes after him.
Four years before Beatlemania ever swept across England and the United States, Lewis rightly understood the persuasive power political leaders and entertainers would hold.
The world is not trying to empower you to be yourself. It’s trying to enslave you to be like everyone else.
While many blame Christianity for trying to force people into conformity and strip people of their individuality, the opposite is true. Following Christ enables us to actually be ourselves.
We can never truly be who we were created to be while we remain enslaved to sin. Christ frees us from those chains and allows to follow a paradoxical truth—one of many—in Christianity. From Mere Christianity:
The more we get what we now call “ourselves” out of the way and let Him take over, the more truly ourselves we become. There is so much of Him that millions and millions of “little Christs,” all different, will still be too few to express Him fully. He made them all. He invented—as an author invents characters in a novel—all the different men that you and I were intended to be. In that sense our real selves are waiting for us in Him. It is no good trying to “be myself” without Him. … There are no real personalities anywhere else. Until you have given up your self to Him you will not have a real self. Sameness is to be found most among the most “natural” men, not among those who surrender to Christ. How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints.
The tyrants and conquerors, the dictators and demagogues, the film stars and rock stars, they all work to lure you into cultural sameness and away from Christ-centered individuality.
In many ways, the time Screwtape predicted is now. Individual temptation is often not needed. Through mass media and social media, those who hold cultural authority can influence virtually everyone at once.
We crave likes from our friends, retweets from our acquaintances, approval from the cultural taste makers. We craft our life to be Instagram-worthy.
Notice how even among those who name Christ, the temptation is real. We will discard our ethics and moral standards for the chance to gain political power. We will disregard historic theological and moral teachings when culture shapers shame us into doing so.
Much like “IT,” the villain from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, the cultural influencers in our world seek to drown out any true uniqueness. As Meg Murry discovered in L’Engle’s fantasy classic, only self-sacrificial love can conquer the overwhelming temptation to uniformity.
We will all surrender. The only question is “To whom will we surrender?” Will we follow the cultural bellwethers into the snare of this world or will we follow Christ into the true freedom purchased by His sacrifice?