Cover image via Gospel Media Library.
In “The Screwtape Letters,” by the incomparable C.S. Lewis, a senior devil named Screwtape advises his devil-nephew Wormwood, who is a novice junior tempter. Screwtape refers to God as “The Enemy” and Lucifer as “Our Father Below.” The human being tempted is called “the patient.” The following fan fiction explores how Screwtape might have instructed Wormwood regarding a General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
My Dear Wormwood,
I have read with interest your recent letter in which you naively calculated how long it has been since your new patient received any significant Enemy communications. As might be expected, you neglected to account for dreams—but we shall hope that your patient quickly forgot the comforting ones. It is, of course, a very good thing that he perceives himself to be working alone at present. Still, don’t become too excited at his lack of visions or supernatural hearing.
Have you forgotten that their General Conference is approaching?
Oh, the semi-annual aggravation of it!
Remember, Wormwood, that the Enemy has designed General Conference expressly to hone the members’ spiritual sense of smell. He wishes for them to discern His presence even when they cannot physically see or hear Him. He wants the little beasts to pursue His breath, His voice, His scent with the tenacity of trained bloodhounds.
For church members, smelling the Enemy is like stepping into a gift shop filled with fragrant candles and aromatic flowers—all the odors that you and I despise. They don’t smell Him with their physical noses, naturally, but rather their spirits discern His breath as He whispers to them, and the scent of it enhances their recall of heaven. This in turn renews them more robustly than any aromatherapy or essential oils from this world. Hence you see why we must put a stop to it.
It would be easier if we did not recoil in coughing fits. You have not yet been stationed near the Conference Center itself during a live session. Do you recollect the nasty odor when the Enemy last whispered to your patient individually? Now imagine a stench hundreds of times that strong, emanating from the conference center for blocks in every direction, rolling outward in suffocating waves, infinitely more potent and more repulsive than the stink of home-baked bread or fir trees. I shudder to think of it.
Our best counter-attack, Wormwood, is preemptive. Days before General Conference begins, work on compromising your patient’s spiritual sense of smell. Before he can enter the fragrance of the flower shop, manage to spill some gasoline on his pant leg, or better yet, have him inadvertently step in a mess of dog muck. If you can pull it off, he will then suddenly be distressed to find that every rose or candle presented to him smells like gasoline or excrement. The offerings around him will be polluted by the aroma that he himself brings. The contamination, you see, is not in the candle or flower, but in the poisoned preconditioning.
I’m not referring to our tiresome arsenal of pornographic enticements. These invariably dull all pleasures, naturally. But for General Conference I prefer the internet’s gasoline-and-sewage-bouquet of suspicion, bitterness, and cynicism.
Start with the innocent suggestion that your patient check Twitter for rumors of upcoming changes in the Church. Then nudge him toward a couple of sneering anti-prophetic blogs with comments that insinuate the apostles’ hidden motives. If you can get him to quibble contentiously or self-righteously with other commenters, so much the better.
With all our favorite trolls unwittingly participating, it should be simple to get your patient coated with an oily cynicism that can block Enemy fragrances for days.
Meanwhile, it is clear from your patient’s dossier that he is in the habit of attending every session of conference, and (more’s the pity) not likely to be persuaded to wait for internet archives at a later date. It would be so much easier that way. You could simply bombard his phone with notifications until he abandoned the goal. But since he will be attending—like it or not—let’s consider several common temptation approaches.
You will have limited success with the argument that conference is boring. The Enemy’s absolute resistance to entertainment value at the conference, while irritating to us, is strategic to Him. He knows that if the membership sees or hears things that overpower their bodily senses, they may fail to sniff with their souls. Hence He forbids the use of pulsing rock music or flamboyant lighting effects.
The Office of Our Father Below has strenuously pushed a campaign in which we pummel all general authorities with flashy, theatrical ideas for their talks: sensational stories, comical gimmicks, and visual aid novelties. Thus far, our efforts have been to no avail—the Enemy keeps a tight rein in this domain. Our best infiltrations, when we get them considered at all, are perpetually removed before the speakers’ final drafts. Oh, the stinking loyalty of those in the Enemy’s service! Can’t the fools see how much more popular they could become by accepting our methods?
To enhance the boredom narrative, your fellow tempters will advise you to keep the patient up late the night before so that he’ll nod off. They will tell you to have him to check his social media feeds during every hymn. By all means, employ these tactics. But know that far greater vigilance will be required. Remember that you work at a disadvantage.
The Enemy will be far more active than you imagine, for this is His arena. He wants access to your patient, and intends to wipe off all dust and grit and slime that you have thrown at him. The Enemy intends to heal your patient from every scratch and wound you have inflicted. Simply by virtue of your patient’s intention to tune in, the Enemy’s fumes will almost certainly penetrate to some degree. Those emissions will weaken your voice and neutralize the wisps of smoke you usually blow into your patient’s face.
Your only hope during the conference will be to swiftly dilute the Enemy’s whispers by fanning them off course as they arrive. Suggest to your patient how splendid that speaker’s talk is—and how desperately it is needed by his brother, or his son, or his annoying neighbor. When greater devotion is urged, speedily congratulate him on having already mastered the virtue in question. Steer all his penitent thoughts directly toward either judging others or justifying self. If none of these approaches work, you can always resort to encouraging a sense of guilt and depression rather than meekness and resolution.
Do everything in your power, my dear Wormwood, to prevent the Enemy’s breath from misting upon your patient. To the degree that your man repeatedly breathes in what the Enemy is breathing out, subtle alterations will occur in him at the micro-spiritual level. He will increasingly secrete the same essence as the Enemy himself, and therefore have access to the associated healing.
Do not risk the consequences to you if that should happen.
Your affectionate uncle,