Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Twelve

“My Dear Wormwood,

“The contemptuous way in which you spoke of gluttony as a means of catching souls, in your last letter, only shows your ignorance. One of the great achievements of the last hundred years has been to deaden the human conscience on that subject, so that by now you will hardly find a sermon preached or a conscience troubled about it in the whole length and breadth of the Western World.”

Big shock ahead; Lewis and I disagree quite strongly about whether or not that’s a good thing. Before I go on, I feel I should share something about the Seven Deadly Sins. They are not in the Bible. There are some lists of vices in the Bible, but no list of seven that map exactly to the classical pride, envy, wrath, avarice, lust, sloth and gluttony. Those were a project of early medieval theologians, who liked creating lists of seven virtues and seven sins, for complex theological reasons that can nevertheless be boiled down to really liking the number seven. So when Lewis criticizes modern preachers for neglecting gluttony, he isn’t actually talking about them leaving out anything from the Bible, or even from key doctrinal documents like the Nicene Creed. He’s essentially grumbling about them giving up on a game old monks liked to play.

I will give him credit for one thing, however. He manages to write a whole chapter on gluttony without a single ounce of fat shaming. He pulls this off by ignoring overeating, and talking instead about what Screwtape calls the gluttony of delicacy. To illustrate this concept to Wormwood, he explains how the demon Glubose has used it to make the Patient’s mother what is technically known as a pain in the ass.

“She is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile, ‘Oh, please, please… all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.’ You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognises as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troblesome it may be to others.”

He goes on to give more examples. Rather than just eat some of her food at a restaurant and get a box for the rest, she makes exhausted waitresses take it back and throw away all but a quarter of it. She goes through a string of housekeepers and cooks because either she fires them for not making everything as perfectly bland as she wants it, or they quit out of frustration. Friends dread having her over. Obviously, she is being inconsiderate, and I agree that her behavior is bad. I’d even go further. She is being manipulative, requiring everyone around her to meet standards that would only be reasonable if you’re a mind reader, and then making them feel bad because they put too much butter on her toast, and somehow she still maintains the illusion that she is being reasonable and everyone else is being selfish. This state of self-deception persists because she only measures the reasonableness of her expectations by some vague cultural ideas about what is fancy and what isn’t.

Having conceded this point, I still think there’s a huge flaw in focusing on gluttony as her sin, because really the least of her problems is that her pickiness centers around food. Even being a picky eater would be all right, if she accommodated it in ways that were considerate to others. If she brought her own food or took a bite of what she was offered to be polite and then filled her stomach at home, that would be fine. This is the problem I have always had with gluttony; I’ve never heard it explained in a way that didn’t boil down to “greedy, but extra bad because you’re being greedy about food.”

What if she claimed she had a nice modest house, but has impossible standards of cleanliness for her housekeeper? Or if she made those vague “all-I-want” statements about what she wants for Christmas, and then when she opened her presents she sighs, says, “oh, it’s lovely dear, but, well, it’s just,” and then makes everybody feel bad because they didn’t guess the exact right shade of blue? Wouldn’t that be exactly as bad as the delicacy surrounding food that Screwtape describes? By the logic that gives gluttony its own word, you would need a word for being greedy and particular about the state of your house, your clothes, your car, your toys, your books, your garden, your living room media center, the photographs on your wall, and every other object you could ever possibly come into contact with.

I feel very strongly about talking about morality in terms of actions, causes, effects, how we feel and how we make other people feel, and other such intangibles. These are the things that make up the core of good and bad, kindness and meanness. Objects tend to be incidental, and focusing on them is just a distraction. One of my biggest regrets about the Christian environment I was raised in is the way I was trained to measure people’s goodness by the little cultural emblems they displayed, in addition to how they behaved. A perfectly nice person could have morality points deducted simply because they wore a leather jacket, or had too many piercings, or because their calendar had pictures of forties pin-up girls instead of lighthouses with Bible verses. I was judgmental, and I also felt a very idiotic sort of guilt whenever I privately admired someone’s purple hair.

Gluttony is a word that I rarely hear outside of reviews of the film Se7en. In all the churches I’ve been to and all the sermons I heard, I don’t think it was mentioned once, and I’m completely fine with that. Get to the point about selfishness and greed, and leave out all the crap about how being selfish and greedy over a particular thing is somehow extra bad. I wish I could say the same thing about lust, but as anybody who has paid any attention to modern culture knows, the exact opposite is true there. If you went to some churches, you would think the two qualifications for being saved are belief in Jesus and sexual purity. The tendency of lust to steal the spotlight even pops up in this chapter; the last half of this chapter is about how gluttony is useful in getting people fixated on satisfying their senses, which in turn can weaken their defenses of their chastity. However, most of what he says about chastity and lust boils down to saying he will go into it in more detail in his next letter, so I too will save that topic for next time.

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