Now that we are passed the halfway point in Lent, it wouldn’t hurt to take a moment and examine the progress we’ve hopefully made thus far by looking back at how the season began. Mirroring the forty days our Lord spent fasting in the desert before he began his ministry, Lent is supposed to be a time of prayer, fasting, and other forms of sacrifice. Moreover, we are reminded of how our Lord was tempted by the Devil at the end of his fast when he was hungry, in order to guide and inspire us in our battles with the temptations in our own lives. The various mortifications we engage in during Lent are meant to help us cooperate with God’s grace so that we can develop a level of self-mastery against the wiles of the Evil One. This is why at the beginning of Lent, we read the gospel passages about our Lord’s encounter with Satan and the three temptations Satan proposed to him. These temptations are, as St. Thomas Aquinas has written, the same three and in the same order, that the Devil used in the Garden of Eden to deceive Adam and Eve: lust of the flesh, vainglory, and pride of life.
However, as is the case with other repetitive events in our lives, especially our faith lives, we all have the tendency to take these passages and their meanings for granted; assuming of course we have actually taken the time to learn their deeper meanings at all. Thus, it is not uncommon for many of us to either take the gospel accounts of Christ’s temptations too lightly by not give them much thought, or too loftily by intellectualizing them and not taking them to heart. In either case, I sometimes worry that we don’t sufficiently internalize the meanings of those three temptations and thus end up more apt to fall prey to them without even realizing it.
Other Ways to Understand Temptation
One of the ways that the Scriptural accounts of the Devil’s temptations have been clarified in the past, is through fictional works which have used everything from gravitas to humor to illustrate their points. Many of us have probably read C.L. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters or better yet have heard either the audiobook version of it narrated by John Cleese or the audio drama of the book produced by Focus on the Family. In the same vein as Lewis’s book is Peter Kreeft’s The Snakebite Letters and his popular lecture How to Win the Culture War, both of which are written from the point of view of a demon laying out ways to subtly and every so gradually temp the heart of man away from the narrow path that leads to salvation.
Interestingly enough, although there have been various stage adaptations of The Screwtape Letters, there has never been a movie made of it, which sort of makes sense since the book is just a series of letters. Nevertheless, believe it or not, there was a loose take on the book that appeared on a somewhat popular television series more than 20 years ago. One that you might have missed.
How Did That Get on TV?
Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files, produced a crime drama series called Millennium which ran for three seasons (1996-99) and starred Lance Henriksen as former FBI agent Frank Black. Black was a freelance criminal profiler for an organization called The Millennium Group, who used his psychic ability to see into the mind of the criminals, mostly serial killers, to solve crimes. While the first season was your standard psychological thriller-crime drama series, the second season featured more supernatural story lines, as well as delved into the arcane da vinci Code-esque origins of the Millennium Group. However, many of the story lines had subtle Christian themes, even if their take on the faith was about what you would expect from a Fox television series. Nevertheless there was one episodes in particular that at least presented the demonic influence in our world in rather orthodox manner, and that has stuck with me all these years.
The episode, Somehow Satan Got Behind Me, premiered in May of 1998, and at the time I was still making my back into the Church and I had not read The Screwtape Letters, but I later learned that it was some screenwriter’s attempt to mimic Lewis’s work. The episode begins with four men sitting in a doughnut shop making light banter, when there is a change of perspective and suddenly we see that they are actually devils. For the rest of the episode, each of the devils shares how they go about “gutting souls” in the modern age. However, interspersed throughout the episode, is Frank Black who we learn can actually see the devils (he will see them again in later episodes), and is in the background investigating the crimes committed by the people whom these devils have tempted and turned to evil.
First is Blerk whose tale deals with the aimlessness and disenchanted mood of so many people in our modern age, when he convinces a young man to become a serial killer “just because.” When the other devils are shocked at how easy it was to turn the young man Blerk quips, “You know we were so angry when mankind got freewill, but what has it brought them today but they belief that their lives are controlled by everything but their free will.” Moreover, Blerk’s words to the young man after he commits his first murder are ones that should clearly resonate with any Christian about our tendency to stifle our consciences in our pursuit of sin, “Don’t worry kid, it’s like your first beer. You’ll not only get used to it, but pretty soon life just doesn’t seem the same without it.”
Next comes Abum whose story looks at the banality of sin, and how it is not necessary to be all that evil to damn your soul. He starts off by saying serial killers are too hard to work with because “their evil is too conspicuous…people hear about some pyscho killer and it can lead them to think about the nature of good and evil, which leads to thoughts about right or wrong, bad or good. You don’t want them considering crap like that…you just want them to go through the routine of living their daily lives.” When the other devils mention that they fail to see how that would lead to damnation, Abum says, “And that’s the beauty of it all, because they fail to see it to.” We then see the subject he is tempting, a man who has the most boring and routine work day, with no hope of improvement. Abum comments on how he doesn’t even have to worry about sin anymore because mankind has pretty much dispensed with it as well, “I don’t mean that they’ve stopped committing sins, just the opposite, they sin so often that it has become just another part of their daily routine.” In the end Abum drives the nameless boring man to foolishly take his own life, and I say foolishly, because even Abum mocks the man’s death by saying how, “It never ceases to amaze me how these idiots only learn to appreciate life, just as they are taking it.”
Third in line is Greb whose tale looks at an issue that is far worse today than it was two decades ago, and this is how judgmentalism can quickly turn into a rabid desire to control others, sometimes murderously so. Greb mocks at the boring subtlety he sees in both Blerk’s and Abum’s methods, and prefers to go in guns blazing. He discusses how he tormented a television censor named Waylan Figgleif into thinking that he was carrying the “weight of a nation’s morality on his very shoulders.” When Blerk sneers, “what are you talking about? It’s just TV.” Greb poignantly points out what is obviously still true today, “Ah but you’re forgetting how humans view everything in their lives now as a matter of life and death. Making them crack under the pressure is a snap.” Greb waits until Figgleif is stressed out and then materializes before him because as he explains that when people had faith, they knew a devil when they saw one, but nowadays, “they all assume it’s internal. A psychological breakdown manifesting itself in the form of a visual hallucination.” In the end, Figgleif does in fact “go bonkers” and goes on a shooting spree before killing himself.
Last up is Toby, who is actually tormented himself, because he thinks (rightly so) that Frank Black can see them, and knows what they are up to. The other devils ridicule the idea and ask Toby about his latest work. He feels he is losing his touch because he hasn’t damned a soul for some time, but relates how he impersonated an older gentlemen who meets an aging stripper. Knowing her exact vulnerabilities, he speaks to and courts her in a way that alleviates all of those vulnerabilities, only to dump her in a very tragic way. She then goes off and commits suicide, and when Toby (in “boyfriend” form) visits the crime scene, Frank Black is there and Toby realizes that Black can see his true form. Black simply says, “You must be so lonely”, and leaves. After that, all four devils, are silent and visually disturbed at Black’s words and leave the doughnut shot one by one.
The show is certainly no Screwtape Letters or even Snakebite either, and since it is a crime drama, there is quite a bit of violence for a prime-time TV show. Moreover, the story rightly pegs sexual temptation as the number one sin that plagues our culture in the 90’s and today, so be forewarned that a strip club is a recurring setting during the episode. However, this should not surprise us since we now live in the days we were warned about by both Humanae Vitae and Evangelium Vitae where, as Frank Black commented in an episode from season one, “Sex and death are commingled, risk feeds sensation. Sensation makes risk acceptable.” Thus is should surprise us that both sex and violence are at sharpest tools in these devils’s toolboxes.
Also, there is a tongue-in-cheek cleverness in the way the show situates the devils in human form throughout normal life, and it is hard not to chuckle when we see Abum taking on the form of a traffic citation cop or phone company telemarketer pitching long distance upgrades (oh man did that resonate with me in a not-so-nostalgic for the 90’s sort of way!). However, there is also a lot of other dark humor that may rub some people the wrong way, such as Blerk convincing his serial killer to abduct a Satan worshiper who ends up crying out “Satan save me!” as he tries to escape, causing all the devils to laugh. However, given the context of the story line, these morbid jabs have their place, and that is why I am still recommending this episode. So while it is probably not the best video to show for a mixed company Bible study, it is nevertheless an excellent springboard for further conversation. By looking at what is good and what is bad about this episode, you can generate a lot of fruitful conversation about how it could have been better.
Because of copyright issues, I am not embedding the episode on this site, but you can find it here or on Netflix or some other streaming service. Give it a watch and leave your comments below. Also, since this community is all about men strengthening each other in faith, feel free to leave your own recommendations about books, films, or shows that offer good takes on our efforts to discern the Devil in the details of our daily lives.