Readers like it, and share it. It pops up a lot on my Facebook page and has done so for several years. It’s obviously true. The lines appear in “Answers to Questions About Christianity,” first published in 1944 as a pamphlet by the Electrical and Musical Industries Christian Fellowship. You can find it in the posthumous book God in the Dock.
But why do we like this meme so much? The answer is not entirely to our credit in one way, but it is to our credit in another.
An interviewer asks Lewis which of the world’s religions makes its followers happiness. “While it lasts,” Lewis says, “the religion of worshipping oneself is the best.” He tells the story of a very elderly acquaintance, “who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and self-admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know.”
And then come the popular lines. Lewis reminds the interviewer that he wasn’t always a Christian. “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy,” he says. “I always knew a bottle of port would do that. If you want a religion to make you really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity. I am certain there must be a patent American article on the market which will suit you far better, but I can’t give any advice on that.”
Lewis enjoyed his swipes at Americans. In any case, he gets this right. In the gospels, Jesus sometimes tells us we can walk right in and other times he’s tells us we can’t. “Come to me all you who are heavily burdened and I will give you rest,” he says. And also “straight is the gate and few there are that find it.” Those who don’t find it “will go away into eternal punishment.” He has impossibly high standards. The rich man, the camel, and the needle’s eye, for example, especially worrisome because the rich men include most of us, and few of us live like Dorothy Day or St. Teresa of Kolkata.
And if we live like him, he tells us the world will hate us too. Then there’s his order to take up our cross and follow him. People carrying crosses carry them to their death.
Christianity may make us joyful, but it’s not so likely to make us comfortable and happy in the merely worldly sense. Lewis saw that. Not everyone does. A lot of Christian preachers and evangelists, including Catholic ones, speak as if Christianity will make your life good.
Why is the meme so popular? One reason is that it’s a great excuse to attack other Christians. Whatever the truth, some Christians will use it against other Christians. That just happens.
We know that Christianity won’t make us comfortable. Christianity lived as we’re supposed to live it, that is.We know Jesus tells us to take up our cross and follow him. But they’ve relaxed the rules and made Christianity too easy, given into the world, turned a revealed faith into worldly one, reduced Christianity to a belief, not an action, rearranged the Faith to fit the culture, and so on.
Traditionalists can say against the liberals, and liberals can say it against the traditionalists, and both can say against the poor everyday Catholics in the middle. You know the lines: They don’t care about the unborn. They don’t care about anyone else. They hate the Catholic tradition. They idolize a tradition that never existed. Both can say of the other that they’ve made Christianity comfortable for themselves.
And fair enough, actually. We all want to have our faith, and almost all of us want to have our culture. (When I say “we,” by the way, I mean we. I know all these temptations much too well.) We synthesize the two, usually by cutting Christianity to fit the culture’s limits or by coming to a “middle point” neither too religious nor too worldly. Nearly every Christian does this, and every generation. The saints don’t do it nearly so much, which is why they’re saints. But most of us do it. As per usual, we can legitimately point fingers at others, but they can legitimately point theirs at us.
But it appeals also for a better reason, too, I think. We know we’re more comfortable than we should be, and we should be better, that is, much less comfortable. It’s an aspirational meme, for an aspiration we actually have. To some extent, an extent we recognize as inadequate and want to do more. Not that Lewis intended it as an inspiration, but he managed to say something inspiring while being amusing in an interview.
For one thing, many people recognize that that too much of the way official people present Christianity is a kind of false advertising. It promises a life you probably won’t have. The smiling priests and eager laymen on the book covers think they’re talking about a joy that transcends worldly happiness — the kind of joy a martyr might have when he’s not feeling happy, exactly — but their sales pitch still promises that Jesus and the Church will make your life work out.
A lot of people, even people who seem to have it all, live in a lot of pain. But Christianity doesn’t cost the average middle-class Christian much, certainly not as much as it gives. Most of the really discomforting things Christianity might tell us to do, we don’t really have to do. We can find work-arounds. The Church is there when you feel like it or you need it.
Lewis’s words remind us that the salesmen are not telling us the whole truth. His observation prods us to see that we’ve let ourselves settle for mediocrity, for the comfortable life rather than the deeply Christ-like life. And that appeals to us at our best. We want, you might say, to be unhappier than we are. We’ve signed up for the Marines, not a membership at the club, where a bottle of port may make us happy.
David Mills is the Senior Editor (US) of The Catholic Herald. His previous article for Chapter House was Old People Don’t Need to Have Sex, and his previous article for the homepage was The Crucial Lesson Anti-Masker Hypocrisy Teaches. He is also the “Last Things” columnist for the New Oxford Review.
Photo credit: St Thomas a Becket is brutally murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, at the request of King Henry II. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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