Updated: Feb 18, 2020
Trends that C.S. Lewis discerned about seventy years ago seem to have reached maturity in our day. While he often seems prophetic in that sense, perhaps he was really just an especially astute observer. Reviewing The Screwtape Letters recently, I came across this passage in which he explores how people become connoisseurs of the churches. Screwtape is writing to Wormwood:
“You mentioned casually in your last letter that the patient has continued to attend one church, and one only, since he was converted, and that he is not wholly pleased with it. May I ask what you are about? Why have I no report on the causes of his fidelity to the parish church? Do you realise that unless it is due to indifference it is a very bad thing? Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.” Connoisseurs of Churches in Development
Lewis proceeds to list several disadvantages of the parochial organization to the demons. He notes that it is a “unity of place and not of likings.” That statement is worthy of contemplation in its own right. But he goes on from there. The disadvantages to the kingdom of darkness include diversity in the church, the inability to reduce the church to a club, and the added difficulty in reducing people to critics. While demons want turn people into critics, God wants to turn them into learners. The last thing Screwtape wants for Wormwood’s patient is to humbly receive the spiritual nourishment offered. The kingdom of darkness gains ground when people are connoisseurs of churches.
Connoisseurs of Churches in the U.S.
In the United States, I’m not sure to what extent we’ve ever really reaped the benefits of a parochial system. That being said, I have little doubt that being connoisseurs of churches is an acute temptation. There’s probably a delicate balance here. No doubt there are too many churches that don’t deserve the name. They are best avoided by all Christians. But the problem is even more pronounced on the other side. Christians constantly move from one church to another. They search for the perfect one. The perfect one, often, by their peculiar definition. Often the criteria used to find the perfect one is more a matter of taste than substance.
The problem is found among pastors and laity. The church is the bride of Christ. But sin remains a part of her in the present life. The ugliness of sin will continue to mar her stunning beauty until her bridegroom comes to cleanse her once and for all. Her filthiness is often difficult to miss. The church corporately reflects the glorious ruin that is also true of each of us personally. We would do well to remember that fact. In our own lives we tend to tolerate it too much. In the church we tend to tolerate too little. Thus we become connoisseurs of churches.
Is Lewis’ assessment about connoisseurs of the church correct? What does he mean by the term “connoisseur?” Have you observed this phenomenon? Have you participated in it in the past? How should we deal with the glorious ruin that is the church, especially in the day-to-day reality? What do you think is the antidote for the connoisseur of churches?