My friend Shane Morris whipped up rather a remarkable storm recently on Twitter with this:

If I recall correctly, someone told me it took all of four hours for him to hit 10,000 quote tweets, a figure the thought of which is enough to give me a headache and strengthen my resolve to avoid the bird site. Even so, there was something striking about the particular responses Morris’s post elicited.

In The Screwtape Letters one of the chief images that C. S. Lewis uses to talk about the demonic relationship both to humanity and to one another is that of consumption. Consumption is an act that is, by its very nature, focused on and terminating on the self. This isn’t always wrong, of course. There are appetites and needs we have that are naturally sated through an act of consumption.

And yet the good life, Christianly speaking, is also one of creation, of making, of fruitfulness. Consumption is a fairly narrow band of human activity—and even there it’s always paired with other elements of our lives that are creative, generative, etc. We grow the food before we consume it. Consumption, rightly understood and practiced, then is something that exists within a broader relationship of creativity and renewal which occurs alongside use and consumption.

But what Lewis has in view with Screwtape is something different:

One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself – creatures, whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His.

We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.

What was striking about the backlash to Morris’s comments was how critics read into his remarks. Virtually all of his many, many critics read him as suggesting that children are essentially a consumable good we create to console ourselves and deal with our own loneliness and unhappiness as we reach middle age.

But that’s not what Morris said, nor is it how Christianity imagines the life of the family or the purpose of children. And the imaginative failure of virtually any of his non-Christian critics to understand this points to a core failure of our day, I think. It’s not as if Morris was describing some hitherto unimaginable way of living in the world; he was describing something that describes the way most human beings across time have lived. Our lives are governed by distinct phases. As we enter into middle and old age, it is normal, right, and good that we would be surrounded by children and, eventually, grandchildren and that their youthfulness, energy, and work would provide support as we age as well as a reminder that the story of our lives will go on after we are gone. This sort of assumption is everywhere in the work of someone like Julius Nyerere, the Kenyan Catholic socialist and politician.

To be sure, this is not to say that the celibate or those who cannot have children are cut off from the good life. Indeed, Christianity offers a high and lofty calling to celibate Christians which, in many ways, is superior to the calling given to the married. Similarly, it is precisely within the logic and imagination of Christianity that we can define other forms of fruitfulness, care, and authority available to those unable to conceive. All I am saying here is that the ordinary course of most human lives is to pass through a number of phases, often culminating in a time as they reach middle and old age when they are surrounded by children and grandchildren, not as some kind of consumable good but rather as the natural fruit of a life defined by fruitful, faithful love.

What interests me about the hostility to Morris’s remark is what it implies about our shared imagination as it concerns phases of life, succession, and the consolations we expect as we age, as well as any idea of what kind of legacy we might leave behind after we are gone.

I’ve long been struck by the way that C. S. Lewis depicts two contrary visions of the world through the two dominant communities described in his novel That Hideous Strength. One is Belbury, the fortress of the demon-inspired technocrats at the NICE. It’s perhaps worth noting that another rendering of “Belbury” might be “fortress of Baal”—bury being a common term for a fortress in old English and Bel being a modified spelling for Baal. And just as in Scripture when the prophets of Baal were marked by cruelty as well as an apparent belief that they could manipulate their god for their own ends, so too the men and women of Belbury are marked by a certain cruelty and inhumanity as well as a desire to use their god to remake the world in their own image.

At Belbury, animals are hoarded into cages and experimented on, employees are treated like cattle, and plans are made for the destruction of both environmental life and many forms of human life. The foil to the fortress of Baal is St Anne’s-on-the-Hill, an old abbey so named for the mother of Mary the mother of God. So the idea of motherhood is implicitly built into the very name of the place.

In the story’s climactic scene, two things happen: The animals at Belbury arise and (literally) devour the scientists and magicians of the NICE. So nature bites back. It’s a striking and frightening reminder for us, living as we are in an era of both mass ecological destruction and the destruction of the family. Alongside nature biting back at Belbury, however, we see nature in its rightful state at St Anne’s, where virtually all of the creatures living at St Anne’s, human and animal, pair off in couples as the story ends. Indeed, the final scene of the novel is when the two protagonists, Mark and Jane Studdock, married but separated for most of the story, come back together. The two visions of life represented here, then, are divorce and marriage, consumption and fruitfulness. What we have today, in contrast, is a regime in which divorce and marriage have too often been rendered indistinguishable, as Wendell Berry long ago observed:

Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate “relationship” involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided. During their understandably temporary association, the “married” couple will typically consume a large quantity of merchandise and a large portion of each other.

What I find so dispiriting in this moment is the basic absence of visions of human life that are generative, that presuppose that fruitfulness of all sorts is normal and good and right. If you look at our dominant political fights, they nearly all center around questions of consumption.

The right wing is hedonistic and argues for basically limitless consumption of all sorts (environmental, agricultural, sexual, and so on) while the left is moralistic, but their moralism chiefly manifests in terms of regulating consumption rather than offering a positive moral vision of life together. What is missing is any vision of a common project we are pursuing together as a people, goods we are trying to lay hold of collectively, and so on.

And what I want to see Christians doing is refusing to accept these terms. But as the Christian right has been MAGA-ified, we’ve seen them form alliances with the barstool right that basically no one wants to break (probably because plenty of prominent Christian right leaders basically live like the barstool right folks already). Meanwhile, what remains of the evangelical left that hasn’t gone fully exvangelical, increasingly buys into visions of life and reality that presuppose primordial conflict and violence in ways that make true Christian reconciliation impossible. And so there’s no one left arguing for anything outside of the consumptive framework.

Yet the reality is looking for generative frames for imagining common life isn’t really an option at this point. Between the violence being done to the world and the violence done to the family, if our life together is to continue into the future, we will have to abandon the consumptive frame. Christians should lead the way in this pursuit.

I just wish I had any confidence that we will.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).

7 Comments

  1. […] Open the full article on the mereorthodoxy.com site […]

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  2. Good article, but I would give some pushback on the rightist hedonism vs leftist moralism dichotomy. Leftist hedonism is extremely common–I will guarantee you that if you polled the attendees at any kink fest it would be mostly leftists–and rightist moralism about financial choices is still very much in play.

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  3. There is no necessary contradiction between regulating consumption and having a positive of life together especially when we have so many people on the earth, that consumption results in both the short term and long term destruction of earth’s capabilities to support human life on earth.

    The problem with hedonism is complicated by the number of people who live on earth. Hedonism then just isn’t a personal sin, but a sin that effects more people than an individual can know.

    The perspective of some on the Left, we cannot speak of either the Right or the Left as being monolithic, is that everyone has a voice in how to address our problems. What makes that approach unfeasible at this time is that there is too much public apathy for enough people to use their voice. Some would rather look for an authoritarian hero to save the world while they focus on maintaining their current lifestyle.

    What I caution my fellow religiously conservative Christians against is to suppose that we can lead the way. That is nothing more than seeking permission to lord it over our unbelieving fellow citizens and image bearers of God. And such lording it over hurts our ability to carry out the Great Commission because people will see our presumption of superiority and efforts to rule over them before they can hear our evangelism.

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    1. That last paragraph sounds all humble and such, but fails to answer the question of who will lead instead.

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      1. Tom,
        Your question demonstrates our problem. Why are we insisting on having a leader or, to be more precise, being leaders? Democracy is about sharing power and a representative republic is a kind of democracy.

        Perhaps because we religiously conservative Christians have a penchant for hierarchy and even authoritarianism, we feel compelled to have a or be the leader. There are times when egalitarianism is called for. My last paragraph is about us sharing society with unbelievers of all stripes as equals. My last paragraph is a call for collaboration rather than seizing control.

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  4. Thanks for this post. I read it just after having a conversation with an agnostic friend, and we both agreed on the sadness of those who focus on consuming rather than creating. “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” are the first words God speak to mankind in Genesis One. Fruitfulness today does not necessarily require having children, but it cannot be less than exercising faithful stewardship over the creation God has given us.
    FYI: I also had difficulty with the left/right dichotomy expressed in this post. Both left and right are guilty of hedonistic character, and both are moralistic, yet the different forms these take range widely within every tribe.

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