A local primary school recently gave me a gift of a beautifully-bound copy of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. It is many years since I first read this famous satire, and re-reading it again has only increased my admiration for Lewis’s insight and wisdom.
This classic piece of Christian literature has entertained and enlightened readers the world over with its ironic portrayal of human life from the vantage point of Screwtape, a highly placed assistant to “Our Father Below.” It is very comic, deadly serious, and strikingly original, as C.S. Lewis gives us the correspondence of the worldly-wise old devil to his nephew Wormwood, a novice demon in charge of securing the damnation of an ordinary young man. Some commentators claim that The Screwtape Letters is the most engaging and humorous account of temptation — and triumph over it — ever written.
The short sequel essay Screwtape Proposes a Toast, first published in 1959, is an addendum to The Screwtape Letters. It takes the form not of a letter but rather an after-dinner speech given by Screwtape at the Tempters’ Training College for young demons.
What struck me, especially in the light of recent local news stories, was his brillant and uncannily relevant description and critique of Pharisaism, a disease that still affects many members of the Christian church. Screwtape concludes his speech like this:
But now for the pleasant part of my duty. It falls my lot to propose on behalf of the guests the health of Principal Slubgob and the Tempters’ Training College. Fill your glasses. What is this I see? What is this delicious bouquet I inhale? Can it be? Mr Principal, I unsay all my hard words about the dinner. I see, and smell, even that under wartime conditions the College cellar still has a few dozen of sound old vintage Pharisee. Well, well, well. This is like old times. Hold it beneath your nostrils for a moment, gentledevils. Hold it up to the light. Look at those fiery streaks that writhe and tangle in its dark heart, as if they were contending. And so they are. You know how this wine is blended? Different types of Pharisee have been harvested, trodden and fermented together to produce its subtle flavour. Types that were most antagonistic to one on earth. Some were all rules and relics and rosaries; others were all drab clothes, long faces and petty traditional abstinences from wine or cards or the theatre. Both had in common their self-righteousness and their almost infinite distance between their actual outlook and anything the Enemy really is or commands. The wickedness of other religions was the really live doctrine in the religion of each; slander was its gospel and denigration its litany. How they hated each other up there where the sun shone! How much more they hate each other now that they are forever conjoined but not reconciled. Their astonishment, their resentment, at the combination, the festering of their eternally impenitent spite, passing into our spiritual digestion, will work like fire. Dark fire. All said and done, my friends, it will be an ill day for us if what most humans mean by “religion” every vanishes from the Earth. It can still send us the truly delicious sins. The fine flower of unholiness can grow only in the the close neighbourhood of the Holy. Nowhere do we tempt more successfully as on the very steps of the altar.