If you’ve been on social media lately and you run in any sort of Christian circles, you’ve likely come across these words that C.S. Lewis wrote in 1948:
“This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts — not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”
First, let me say that I dare not speak a word against C.S. Lewis. It is impossible to imagine how much good he has done illuminating and clarifying Christian concepts to millions of people — myself included. And these words, like nearly everything he ever wrote, are stirring. They move us and call us to action.
But they have nothing to do with the coronavirus.
More than that, because of the differences between World War II England and coronavirus planet Earth, this quotation actually works against the incredibly important work of social distancing and self-quarantine. Let’s quickly consider three ways this message — as beautiful and motivating as it is! — misses the mark:
1. The absence of an enemy
Look at the final sentence of Lewis’s quote: “They may break our bodies… but they need not dominate our minds.” One reason it was important for his audience to go on living normal life is that it represented a triumph over an enemy. It amounted to a refusal to allow terrorists to rob them of their quality of life. But this weaponization of playfulness and normalcy has no place when we battle a contagious disease. This is a minor point, but it sets the stage for our most important observation next.
2. The consequences of “doing sensible and human things”
There is no connection between how we spend our time and whether or not the atomic bomb falls on us. Whether we party, study, worship, or cower in fear, the bomb will either fall on us or it won’t. This is clearly on Lewis’s mind when he says, “If we are all going to be destroyed…”. But a global pandemic is not the same as the threat of an atomic bomb. How we spend our time — and who we spend it with — will very much affect how many people get sick and die. We do not have the luxury of doing all the normal things we like to do: many of those things put people at risk.
3. The effect of this quote today
I understand that some people sharing this quote on social media do not intend to flout the many warnings, suggestions, and mandates to quarantine, or to convince others to do so. But while intent matters, so does impact. And this quote paints a moving image: in the face of fear and threat, instead “chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts.” Of course it’s possible to imagine embracing the spirit of Lewis’s quote without breaking isolation — and I think we should! After all, we can read and listen to music at home. We can pray and teach over the phone or video chat.
But Lewis’s words also implicitly and explicitly draw us to the joys of social gatherings. And this is, for a time, a joy we must sacrifice for the flourishing of our fellow human beings, created in God’s good image.
Jon Mathieu is a fellow at the Newbigin House of Studies and a Master of Divinity student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.