The Wilier Wiles of the Devil

With Fall in the air and Halloween approaching, everywhere we go the images of goblins and devils have become prominent − in stores, on billboards, you name it. Perhaps that’s what writer Jennifer Senior had in mind in her recent New York Magazine interview with Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.scalia

This Senior/Scalia conversation moves quickly from one topic to another, but the writing has a curious subtext (at least as I read it). Senior appears baffled that a man of Scalia’s brilliance still holds firmly to Christian beliefs, tenets many (including Senior apparently) consider antiquated.

The interview paints the portrait of a distinguished jurist (as one might expect) but also sheds light on the gentle, reflective soul whose affinity to Catholic doctrine is unapologetic. Halfway through the interview, Scalia implies an afterlife and Senior asks, “You believe in heaven and hell?” One can almost hear Senior’s horrified gasp!

More questions follow, but looming ever larger is that proverbial elephant in the room. Finally, Senior can no longer contain herself and asks, “Isn’t it terribly frightening to believe in the Devil?” Scalia’s answer delivers a much-deserved get-thee-behind-me-Satan rebuke. He notes that people more intelligent (than he and Senior) believe in the Devil. (Indeed, a September 2013 survey found 57% believe in the Devil!)

Realizing she’s offended him, Senior expresses regret but Scalia answers back with a question of his own:  “Have you read The Screwtape Letters?” Senior replies “Yes” and quickly pivots the interview to an inane question about pop culture, a line of questioning with which Senior must have felt less awkward.

For 21st century people, Scalia notes the Devil has become “wilier,” succeeding to convince people “not to believe in him or God.” So Scalia’s question is apt:  “Have you read The Screwtape Letters?”


In the summer of 2001, an announcement of the HarperCollins Publishers and C. S. Lewis Essay Contest called for entries. The invitation summoned writers:  “Now it’s your turn to play devil’s advocate.” Using Lewis’ beguiling work The Screwtape Letters, writers were encouraged to envision − and write an essay describing − the techniques a 21st century Screwtape might employ when training Wormwood, his student of demonic instruction.

As someone who has always enjoyed Lewis’ creative vision via Screwtape, of course I decided to try my hand. I harbored no lofty ambition to surpass (or even match) the mastery of Lewis; I believed the essay might stretch my writing muscles and be a worthy learning exercise. (It was.) Certainly, I was hopeful (as always when entering a contest) to win the grand prize, a six-day trip for two to Oxford. When winners were announced, I was fifth (of 10) runners-up from a total of 250 entries.

My entry incorporated seven letters from a modern-day Screwtape to his demon-charge Wormwood. The contest entry deadline was July 1, 2001. Winners were to be announced on September 1, 2001, but notice was delayed until mid-November 2001. Think back. Is it overly dramatic to assert our pre-9/11 world bears faint resemblance to today? Considering my Screwtape in context, the wickedness he encourages seems tame by today’s post-9/11 standards.

The first of my seven letters refers somewhat obliquely to a “non-descript yellow truck.” Some may still remember the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was destroyed in 1995 when a rented Ryder truck became a lethal weapon to end the lives of 168. Though memories from that horrendous event had grown distant, the June 2001 execution of Timothy McVeigh returned his evil act to the front pages.

Over the next seven days, I’ll reproduce each of the seven letters exactly as they were written for the essay competition. Though I frequently find ample opportunities for fine-tuning my compositions, I prefer in this instance to present the letters as originally written. As always, I invite your comments and interaction.