C.S. Lewis and the Art of Holy Deception

C.S. Lewis and the Art of Holy Deception August 7, 2020

It only recently occurred to me that I am now older than C.S. Lewis was when he first delivered the Broadcast Talks for BBC Radio upon which his later book Mere Christianity was based. Like him, I have been a teacher for decades; but unlike him, I have also spent decades parenting several children and stepchildren. Beyond that, I have also studied theology in a formal setting, something Lewis humblebragged that he had never done.

Does it strike you as ironic that an Oxbridge don would brag about not having formally studied the subjects on which he was so often called to speak? If so, then you are well on your way toward understanding the enduring mystique of C.S. Lewis among evangelical Christians today. He was everything they’ve ever wanted: an atheist-turned-Christian professor who wore robes to teach and who spoke with such pomp and eloquence about how silly intellectuals sound when they use all those big words to make themselves sound so smart.

Educated evangelicals like Lewis love to disparage their own erudition the same way that teenagers love to trash talk the people who taught them how to tie their own shoes and wipe their own butts and, frankly, I am over it. I’ve been around the block enough times now to recognize the distinctive aroma of Lewis’s pseudo-intellectual anti-intellectualism, and I understand why the church still loves him so much for it even to this day.

Feet of Clay

It is finally dawning on me that, at this point in my life, I understand a few things better than Lewis did. I am not saying I will ever be as intelligent or as gifted or as articulate as this wildly successful author and professor was, but I am saying that I know things he didn’t know. For a former evangelical who once thought Lewis was the bees knees, that is a strange realization to ingest.

Rereading his Mere Christianity—now from the perspective of someone on the outside of Christianity looking in—I find myself inundated with premature turns and hasty conclusions and inexcusable leaps of logic that I never noticed before. It is an articulate mess, for the lack of a better way to put it—not really a word salad so much as an argument salad. It is riddled with holes that I somehow overlooked back when I was still emotionally invested in finding it persuasive.

I am beginning to understand why Lewis had such a chip on his shoulder about having found Jesus so late in life, and in such an unexpected academic setting. It put him in a position of defending perspectives that aren’t really defensible for those not already committed to agreeing with his conclusions. Embracing Jesus in mid-life the way that he did made him an instant celebrity among the devout, but his conversion also entailed a walk of shame among his academic cohorts who believed his newfound faith made him soft in the head. I know what it feels like to be surrounded by a culture that doesn’t get you, and the insecurity can make you defensive.

In his case, however, I believe his critics were right. Lewis keeps making these inexcusable jumps from premises to conclusions without detailing the five or six hidden turns required to get from point A to point F. I used to give him a pass on these things, but at this stage in my life I am ready to call him out on this deception. He is selling something, and like most effective sales reps, he is leaving out an awful lot.

Call it the art of holy deception. It’s okay to twist the truth as long as it’s for the glory of God.

What Lewis Leaves Out

Take for example his famous lunatic, liar, or Lord argument. Lewis argues that Jesus said a lot of things about himself which he couldn’t have truly meant for us to believe unless he was either crooked or crazy, or else he was legitimately claiming to be God. Christians who still gush about this argument seem blissfully unaware that Lewis left off the most reasonable option of all: legend.*

If Lewis had formally studied the origins of his faith, he would have appreciated that most scholars had already determined the Jesus we find in the Bible is something of a composite character, an amalgam of layers of tradition originating from multiple locations over decades of development. You wouldn’t have to conclude that he was a liar, lunatic, or lord if it turned out that, like Yogi Berra, he didn’t really say half the things he said.

If Lewis had been born at a later date, his understanding of the world of the Bible would also have benefitted from the discoveries of ancient texts at Qumran and Nag Hammadi, both of which showed us how badly Paul misrepresented Second Temple Judaism in order to provide the ideal backdrop for his own peculiar theology. Even the Pharisees who so bitterly opposed Jesus throughout the New Testament were mostly a work of fiction. They existed, mind you, but in real life they bore little resemblance to the caricatures we encounter within the gospels. They were a convenient foil for Paul’s theology put into the mouth of Jesus.

Whenever Paul’s churches and Paul’s coworkers retold the stories of the church’s origin (via the gospels), the fault-finding legalists were always the bad guys. Somehow those same villains even got the blame for a public execution they had no legal power to enforce. Given the bad blood between Paul and the original disciples, this also explains why in those stories the Twelve always come across as selfish morons who never understood a word Jesus tried to make them understand.

We can forgive Lewis for not knowing the things we know today, but between you and me I have grown resentful of those who intentionally leave stuff out and skip multiple steps in order to sell me on the legitimacy of their faith. If the truth is truly on your side, why use deceptive methods of telling us about it?

But perhaps I am being unfair to Lewis. I have intentionally decided to review each portion of Mere Christianity as I go through it myself, not waiting until I’m finished with the book to begin to respond. I am doing it this way because it will help to illustrate the effect this kind of argumentation has on the person on the other end of this monologue. You miss that perspective when it’s only his voice that you’re hearing, and it helps to hear more sides of the conversation.

You Keep Using That Word

If someone sold you a house but left out a long list of expensive problems that you would have to fix yourself, wouldn’t you consider them dishonest for leaving those things out? Unscrupulous sellers open themselves up to lawsuits, but I suppose they are accustomed to those levels of risk. Maybe you’re okay with this as well because you are in sales yourself, and you know that’s just how the game is played. If you aren’t willing to lie a little, you’ll never close the deal.

In that case, you’ll be proud to find that Lewis is spinning things hard right out of the gate. In the very first argument he puts forward, he lumps two very different things together into the same category by using the same word for both (“Law”) only to make a big deal later on about the fact that the two things are so very different, as if he himself weren’t the one who conflated the two things in the first place.

The law of gravity tells you what stones do if you drop them; but the Law of Human Nature tells you what human beings ought to do and do not. (p. 17)

For those who don’t study argumentation, this is called the fallacy of equivocation. It happens when you use the same word for two very different things only to turn around and predicate your entire argument on the pretense that they are fundamentally the same. Remember back in our elementary school days when someone would ask if you love chocolate, then why don’t you marry it? That was the fallacy of equivocation. Everyone knows it’s insincere, so it’s all in good fun.

But this isn’t just for fun. Lewis may be saying it with a wink and a nudge, but he is asking us to accept the term “Law” to refer to our collective ideas of right and wrong without really establishing why he thinks that’s an appropriate word choice. Reading back through the argument thus far, I see that the closest he ever came to justifying this nomenclature was when he said that’s what it “used to be called,” as if that somehow settles it for him.

For someone who so often complained about chronological snobbery, Lewis seemed blissfully unaware how that knife cuts both ways. For Lewis, something is automatically better if it is older. Full stop. But that’s not an argument, that’s a personal preference. Perhaps for Lewis it was even a tenet of faith. But it’s still not an argument.

Back Door Evangelism

Lewis asks us to embrace his “Law of Human Nature” with a wink and a nudge, as if to say we should trust him on this and just run with it for a moment or two. Since this is a monologue, the reader doesn’t get the chance to push back at his appropriation of a science term in describing something far less given to quantification like philosophy or theology.

Thus far Lewis has done nothing to address the fact that there is a second common meaning to the word Law which evokes a judicial system, ushering in a whole host of associations without ever acknowledging that they are there. Now we start hearing words like ought and should without even being asked if they belong. They were brought in through a back door, as it were.

Lewis is pulling a fast one on his audience the moment he starts casually referencing a Law of Human Nature (capitalized!) as if we all agree that’s a thing. Immediately after, we find him forced to address the accompanying concepts of guilt and blame because of course you would think about that since he’s just used a term that carries more meanings than he is willing to admit out loud.

Can you see how this unspoken duality of meaning makes for a natural pivot from one definition to the other? I feel as if Lewis is capitalizing on that ambiguity in order to build an argument predicated on the conflation of two things that should never have been treated as one. It’s a sleight-of-hand kind of trick, and I suppose I should expect as much from someone who is trying to sell me something.

In particular, you may have thought I was rather hard on the human race. After all, you may say, what I call breaking the Law of Right and Wrong or of Nature, only means that people are not perfect. And why on earth should I expect them to be? That would be a good answer if what I was trying to do was to fix the exact amount of blame which is due to us for not behaving as we expect others to behave. But that is not my job at all. (p.16, emphasis mine)

He brushes aside the notion of blame with the wave of a hand, saying that he didn’t want to bother himself with that particular issue at the moment. He had more important things to talk about first, I suppose. But if this were a real life conversation, this would have been a rude turn to take. I would have interrupted him before he could go on, and frankly I’m not sure how well he would have taken that.

I am not concerned at present with blame; I am trying to find out truth. And from that point of view the very idea of something being imperfect, of its not being what it ought to be, has certain consequences(p.16, emphasis mine)

The moment he frames the discussion in term of perfection, of ought-ness, he has chosen an orientation which requires some kind of standard that exists outside of and above the human race. By sheer choice of vocabulary, the endgame has already been revealed. This is that moment when your old classmate finally asks how your health is doing these days and whether or not you’ve got a good multivitamin or dietary plan in place.

Incidentally, some other time we can chat about why evangelical Christians make such natural recruits for multi-level marketing schemes, but let’s not get too far into that topic today. People my age have been lied to so many times about so many things that we no longer automatically believe what people tell us. We can smell a sales pitch from a thousand miles away, and this talk is setting off all kinds of red flags already.

Used Faith Salesmen

Lewis’s religion worries quite a lot about guilt and blame, and it is highly deceptive for him to pretend it’s a quibble we shouldn’t get into at the moment. Following his hero, G.K. Chesterton, he terms “mere Christianity” those elements of the faith which ring true regardless of denominational schism, but then he wants to set aside the connotations of culpability which unavoidably arise the moment you start talking about the kinds of laws that can be broken. One wonders which organized religion he believes he is discussing?

Bishop Shelby Spong famously said we are not fallen angels so much as emerging beings, but that kind of talk made him an outlier. Framing things that way would have better suited Lewis’s own way of thinking, yet here he is framing the human drive for improvement in terms of falling short of an expectation for perfection—which he has yet to validate, by the way. Why do I suddenly feel like I am being asked to accept a giant wooden horse without asking what could be inside of it?

There’s something about the way Lewis is talking that reminds me of a used car salesman who smiles way too much. By the time he put these broadcast talks into print, he knew plenty well how many holes there were in it, but he knew people would buy into it anyway. Apologists are kind of like used faith salesmen—they’ve gotten all the mileage they can out of it themselves, and now they’re hoping to get a little something back out for all the time and effort they’ve put into keeping that baby on the road.

Maybe I’m particularly sensitive to this right now because my country is being run by an overtly corrupt snake oil salesman who people somehow believe was God’s choice to lead the free world. Clearly not everyone my age learned how to spot an obvious scam, but then again it’s harder to see what’s wrong with a system that disproportionately favors you and your kind of people.

I’m also predisposed to view Lewis through this lens after listening to this podcast by a couple of religion students who went back and compared notes between Lee Strobel‘s real life and the narrative he puts forth in his apologetic book, The Case For Christ. They show how Strobel greatly distorted his story to make his own arguments seem like they were discovered in good non-faith, as it were, rather than being retconned years later to seem like an heuristic journey that someone would find compelling in real life.

Lying for Jesus

There’s a fundamental deceptiveness to faith which intentionally looks away from some things to focus on others. That’s just the way it works. I know this because I myself lived in that space for decades. When things fall apart, you learn to look past it all because acknowledging the losses reflects poorly on the belief system itself.

You can’t very well claim to have a power inside you enabling you to be better if everyone in your tribe keeps screwing everything up. So you learn to focus on the things that are working the way they’re supposed to work according to your belief system, and you trust that the other things will eventually go away. If acknowledged, those losses become cautionary tales about those who don’t stick to the program the way they were supposed to. But no matter what happens, the belief system itself cannot be flawed. That option isn’t ever really on the table.

So you learn to tell the truth but slant, just like Lewis does as he tries to persuade you to believe that a mind rightly used should naturally lead one to Christian theism specifically. If he wants to make that case for someone no longer committed to finding it true no matter what, he is going to need go back and address some of the turns he took but never admitted out loud.

Sneakiness isn’t a good look for those who say they are only after the truth.

[Image Source: CNN/Getty Images]

* I foolishly thought I came up with the legend option for understanding Jesus, but Bart Ehrman beat me to it by several years. Oh, well.

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About Neil Carter
Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture. You can read more about the author here.

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