A Screwtape Letter

My Dear Wormwood,

      It is with great pleasure that I respond to your latest query about vocabulary.  You ask whether or not there isgargoyle1real value in paying close attention to words, and whether or not your patient would just as well come to the same conclusions no matter what words you teach him.

      Clearly, everything hangs on the words.

      I have talked to you of the great use we have made of “Puritan,” destroying the real purity of the concept so that it comes to mean “prude.” You know that we are up all night doing construction on the word “Christian,” hanging on it all sorts of images and attachments that either have nothing to do with the meaning, something equivalent to “nice,” or sliding the impression of the word far away from the majority of the people to whom it actually applies and instead towards the extremists.  Our hope is that they might one day look at any common racist, sexist, hate-monger, and muse to themselves, “He must be a Christian.”

      However, there is one word over which we have presently taken full control, which I want you now to employ at every turn.  The word is “progress” and its derivation “progressive.” See if you can’t lean pretty heavily on it each time some Christian value conflicts with the modern world.  When his mother refers to the sexual mores of their faith, strike the word “progressive” in his head like a gong, and contrast the image of his mother with that of his girlfriend.  You will most likely win that debate without even having it.

      I will reveal to you the secret of why this works so well, on the condition that you do not even whisper it in your sleep, for fear that a few of them catch on and begin to discuss it in one of their dreadfully boring Bible studies.  The word progress originally implied development against a standard.  A piano player progresses by learning to play the notes on the page more accurately.  The baseball player progresses by hitting more often and running faster along the rules of the game.  However, we’ve got your patient already thinking that progress only means doing it differently than it used to be done.  If his grandparents did it a certain way, and he does it differently, it must be because he is more educated and experienced than they, and must therefore have progressed.  With our new twist on the word, the piano player could just as well bang out handfuls of random notes and call it progress because it is different than what came before.  The baseball player could hurl the ball up into the crowd and run in circles yelling, “I’m playing better than ever before!” simply because he’s doing it differently.

      The real danger of the original word “progress” was that the standard of the notes was straight and true for all time.  We can’t very well have him believing in everlasting truth, can we?  The rules of the game did not change, and that’s why the player could progress, playing better along the lines of those rules.  What we are now calling progress is really hiding the word that the humans mean, which is “change.” But we have baptized the word change by teaching them to call it progress.

      So when one of them abandons the faith for modernity, because no new thinkers hold to religion anymore, he calls himself progressive.  However, as we know, at that moment the only ones making real progress are down here.  And his senseless philosophical decision, like banging on the keys of the piano, is music to our ears.

Your affectionate Uncle Screwtape