Screwtape’s Four Types of Humor

I’ve long been a fan of C.S. Lewis’s classic work The Screwtape Letters1. Lewis was uniquely gifted by God with a view of the world and theology distinct from the masses and an ability to communicate complex truths in simple ways. Such is the case with Screwtape, in which Lewis writes as Uncle Screwtape, a seasoned demon tempter writing letters of advice to his nephew, rookie tempter Wormwood. In Letter XI, Screwtape advises Wormwood regarding humor. He lays out four types of humor, some of which advance the Enemy’s (Christ’s) cause, and some advance the cause of the demons. Which do you favor?

Joy

Screwtape starts off with joy, the most detestable, in his opinion; though by his own admission, a total mystery to him. As a demon, of course, he can observe only the actions of men; he cannot search their hearts as his Enemy, the Lord Christ can. Joy, according to Screwtape, is the laughter found in relationships.

He tells young Wormwood, “You will see [joy] among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause. What the real cause is, we do not know.” 

Do you know this type of joy? I hope you’ve experienced it among your family or friends. One word, or, as is the case for many of us, one movie quote, may send the group into fits of laughter. Sometimes, words aren’t even necessary. All that’s required is eye contact to bring about the laughter of shared experience and love. It mystifies Satan because he doesn’t have any true relationships. He doesn’t love his minions. He loves only himself. Any laughter or happiness brought about because of the bond of love confounds him.

This type of humor is rare. I daresay that in some homes it may be non-existent. Joy of this type is a gift of the Father and is a tool in His hand, not the tempter’s. Humor of this sort makes others feel warm and wanted, never cut down and ashamed. Joy leads to deeper intimacy and foreshadows at the joys that await us in heaven.

Fun

The second type of humor that Screwtape mentions is fun, a close cousin to joy, but not as intimate. He describes fun as,

“A sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct.”

We know all about fun. In fact, we as a society have (rightly, I’m afraid) been accused of “amusing ourselves to death.”2 As I write this, I’m fighting the urge to check the score of a Sweet Sixteen game in the March Madness tournament. The bracket-busting Cinderellas, heart-stopping buzzer-beaters, and odds-defying comebacks make the NCAA tournament my favorite sporting event of the year. Maybe like my family, you and your loved ones fill out brackets and engage in some friendly competition. This “emotional froth,” as Lewis calls it, is just plain fun.

But maybe brackets aren’t your thing. For you, fun comes in the form of upcycling or creating, or perhaps in gardening or birdwatching. All of these things are good. As Screwtape advises Wormwood, they do very little to benefit the cause of hell. However, we also get a warning from the veteran tempter: “It can also be used, of course, to divert humans from something else which the Enemy (Christ) would like them to be feeling or doing.” Fun is great, but it can also be distracting.

Joke Proper

Screwtape moves on to a third type of humor, which he calls the “joke proper.” The joke, he says, “turns on sudden perception of incongruity.” While we don’t often think about it, this usually why we laugh at things: they take us by surprise or highlight an absurd juxtaposition. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Who doesn’t love a good joke? However, duplicitous Screwtape knows just how to twist this type of humor to his advantage.

The most useful advantage for Satan and his troops is to make the joke into a type of armor. Rather than admitting a fault or facing possible shame, rather than appearing vulnerable in any way, we tend to make jokes. Even worse, the joke can turn an audience’s attention from cruelty or cowardice as well. Screwtape uses the example here of a practical joke. While a simple April Fool’s Day caper could certainly fall into the second category of humor (Fun), it could also be used to disguise cruel hazing of another person. However, when couched in humor, the malice can be written off. We do this so well and so often that we might not even realize that we’re doing it. This, of course, sends Screwtape soaring.

I have spent most of my adult life working with teenagers and have often seen this type of humor at play. What could properly be defined as “bullying” is rationalized with the simple phrase, “I was only kidding.” But it’s not just teens, is it? How easy it is for any of us—whether in person or online— to use humor as a weapon. We must learn to unmask this fraudster and deal with the sinister root underneath.

Flippancy

Screwtape’s final and favorite use of humor he calls flippancy. I’ll let the demon himself describe it:

“Only a very clever person can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; anyone can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people, the joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious side is discussed as if they have already found a ridiculous side to it.”

Flippancy builds up a callus against a topic so that no serious conversation or dialogue can be had. Purity before marriage, male leadership in the home, a biblical definition of marriage, a biblical worldview—these no longer need a joke in order to be a punchline. They’re a joke all by themselves. Our society thrives on flippancy.

Because of its ubiquity in the world, flippancy needles its way into our homes and churches as well. We often swing the door wide open through our screens as we stream our favorite show or scroll through our favorite social media feed. Hollywood and the internet thrive on flippancy. Soon, just as Screwtape–and his master– no doubt intend, we’ve become inoculated to it, without ever knowing what is happening.

However, as Solomon warns in Ecclesiastes 3, there is a time for everything, including weeping and laughter (v.4). We must know when to be serious and when to enjoy some “emotional froth.” We can’t allow the subtle devices of Satan to creep in and undermine our theology while we’re busy laughing.

“A joyful heart is a good medicine” (Prov. 17:22). Indeed, at times it’s been the very medicine we’ve needed in the past year. I love to laugh, and I love to make others laugh, both of which are gifts of God’s grace. I’m convinced that heaven will be a place of much joy and mirth. May our laughter and humor here reflect the joy to come as we eschew flippancy, make wise use of fun and jokes, and embrace joy.  


1 I’m obviously hugely indebted to this classic work for this post. If you’ve never read it, please pick up a copy. It’s insightful, challenging, and (perhaps best of all) brief. You can purchase it here.

2 This is the title of a prescient work by Neil Postman, delving into, as the subtitle says, “Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.”

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