Will the Real C.S. Lewis Please Stand Up? (re: that fake quote)
[Author’s note: the fake Lewis quote about politics is making the rounds once again following the inauguration. It was originally passed around in the Fall of 2016, but I suspect it will pop up every now and again. Thanks for landing here, and for sharing these reflections. I still believe the quote below, actually from Lewis, is more profound than the fake one that has been popularized.]
The quote to the right has been making the rounds on social media lately, purportedly from C.S. Lewis’ classic Screwtape Letters. This is Lewis’ imaginative account of a senior demon (Screwtape) training up a younger tempter (Wormwood). While the quotation in question sounds very much like the real thing, it is in fact not from C.S. Lewis. It is what Mickey Efird, a retired professor from Duke Divinity School, would call “pious fiction.” I am not sure of the origin, but I would imagine it was made as an homage to Lewis, though with perhaps not enough clarification that it was essentially fan fiction. I’m not sure if the author intended this connection, but it reminds me of a line from Eliot’s “Choruses from The Rock,”
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
Lewis did, however, conclude chapter 23 of The Screwtape Letters with this reflection on politics that says much to our contemporary situation:
About the general connection between Christianity and politics, our position is more delicate. Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster. On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything—even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that “only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations”. You see the little rift ? “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.” That’s the game,
Your affectionate uncle
To my mind, the real Screwtape quote is even more relevant today than the fictive pericope. Certainly there is a word we need to hear from the latter about focusing on the drama and immorality of others instead of trying to increase in virtue ourselves. The real Lewis, however, offers a subtler and more important point on the dangers of manipulating faith for our own personal and ideological ends. Many, if not most, forms of popular Christianity (read: Protestantism) are proffered either a) as a means of personal advancement or b) as a means of societal advancement. Both fit demonic desires. Screwtape tells Wormwood they want their victims to “treat Christianity as a means,” preferably to selfish ends but also to more noble ends if necessary.
This is a subtle but crucial point – a “little rift” as Screwtape calls it. Christianity turned into a means is thus embraced not because it is true, not because, say, Jesus really is the Messiah of Israel and the world’s true Lord (N.T. Wright’s lovely formulation), but because Christian faith gets you from point A to point B. Even if point B is something desirable like “social justice,” we (Screwtape’s victims) have successfully reduced Christianity from an end to a means, from the truth on which the world turns to just another way of achieving some desired outcome.
St. Augustine noted long ago, there are things that can be used and things that can be enjoyed. Only God can be truly enjoyed, for all other things are to be used or enjoyed only in reference to God. The temptation to make faith a means to anything else is to attempt to use God rather than enjoy God. This makes the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob into little more than a glorified genie.
Much like fictive quotes associated with John Wesley, the real Clive Staples is better than the invented. There is a reason he is still influential decade after his death. Few have put so eloquently or so readably what is at stake in Christian believing and Christian living (which, in his brilliance, he did not divide). So perhaps we’d be better off if we made this last quote famous, since it cuts to the heart of all our idolatries. What better way to honor a teacher and writer whose legacy is the simple but radical project he named “mere” Christianity?
What are you other favorite quotes from Lewis? How else do you see the temptation today to turn Christianity into a means rather than an end? Leave a comment below – and don’t forget to subscribe!
Source: Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, p. 253.
P.S. The first Methodist to say that social justice is a core aspect of the gospel because they’ve conflated it with social holiness loses points.