When I began my C. S. Lewis journey toward writing my book on his influence on Americans, I determined to re-read everything by him that I’d read before and attempt to delve into the rest of his works that I’d never read.
I’m still not done with that latter part, but I’m making progress. I recently bought a collection of Lewis essays that I had not previously read, although I’d taken notice of some of them through other people’s commentaries. This short collection, put together into a volume called On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, includes some well-known pieces on Lewis’s approach to writing to children and how Narnia came into being.
There are other essays in the collection that display the typical Lewis insight. One, “The Death of Words,” has a passage that I thought was particularly relevant to our age. The essay takes umbrage at how some words have lost their meanings over time, transformed into something else entirely, thereby making the words rather useless.
One of those “lost” words hit home for me as I contemplate what has become of our society. Here’s Lewis:
To save any word from the eulogistic and dyslogistic abyss is a task worth the efforts of all who love the English language. And I can think of one word—the word Christian—which is at this moment on the brink.
To be a Christian in the early church was not a matter of formality but a transformation of life through repentance, forgiveness, and holiness. Lewis sadly notes how that has altered:
When politicians talk of “Christian moral standards” they are not always thinking of anything which distinguishes Christian morality from Confucian or Stoic or Benthamite morality. One often feels it is merely one literary variant among the “adorning epithets” which, in our political style, the expression “moral standards” is felt to require; civilised (another ruined word) or modern or democratic or enlightened would have done just as well.
But it will really be a great nuisance if the word Christian becomes simply a synonym for good. For historians, if no one else, will still sometimes need the word in its proper sense, and what will they do? That is always the trouble about allowing words to slip into the abyss.
One could argue that the official connection between church and state in Europe caused this confusion. To be born in England, for example, meant that you were born into the Church of England and therefore, by the miracle of birth alone, you were automatically a Christian, thereby watering down the meaning completely.
But what of America where there is no official church? I just saw a survey that purports to show that 90% of the members of our newly seated Congress claim to be Christians? Really? What a sad indication of how little that word means today.
Lewis then provides this further insight:
It is important to notice that the danger to the word Christian comes not from its open enemies, but from its friends. It was not egalitarians, it was officious admirers of gentility who killed the word gentleman.
The other day I had occasion to say that certain people were not Christians; a critic asked how I dared say so, being unable (as of course I am) to read their hearts.
I had used the word to mean “persons who profess belief in the specific doctrines of Christianity”; my critic wanted me to use it in what he would (rightly) call “a far deeper sense”—a sense so deep that no human observer can tell to whom it applies.
Turn Christian into a word so vague and pliable that it can apply to almost anyone and the word has lost its meaning. It has gone, as Lewis so artfully put it, into the abyss.