C.S. Lewis on BuzzFeed: A Post Only Humans Can Identify With
Ok, ok, I know what you’re thinking! “C.S. Lewis did NOT write about BuzzFeed! The internet didn’t even exist in his time!”
We will see.
Decades ago, C.S. Lewis wrote an essay entitled The Inner Ring. The following excerpt from said essay attempts to define what Lewis means by the term “Inner Ring”:
There are no formal admissions or expulsions. People think they are in [the Inner Ring] after they have in fact been pushed out of it, or before they have been allowed in: this provides great amusement for those who are really inside. It has no fixed name. The only certain rule is that the insiders and outsiders call it by different names. From inside it may be designated, in simple cases, by mere enumeration: it may be called “You and Tony and me.” When it is very secure and comparatively stable in membership it calls itself “we.” When it has to be expanded to meet a particular emergency it calls itself “all the sensible people at this place.” From outside, if you have dispaired of getting into it, you call it “That gang” or “they” or “So-and-so and his set” or “The Caucus” or “The Inner Ring.” If you are a candidate for admission you probably don’t call it anything. To discuss it with the other outsiders would make you feel outside yourself. And to mention talking to the man who is inside, and who may help you if this present conversation goes well, would be madness.
In other words, an Inner Ring is a group that is united by common knowledge, goals or purposes that are not shared with those who are outside of the Inner Ring. Lewis acknowledges that there are all sorts of Inner Rings; some are sophisticated, obvious and popular, while others are quiet and out of the way. If C.S. Lewis was alive today, he would make a distinction between “Inner Rings” and what we have come to define as “cliques.” Says Lewis, “There must be confidential discussions: and it is not only a bad thing, it is (in itself) a good thing, that personal friendship should grow up between those who work together.” So, he is not writing to condemn Inner Rings. We move, then, to try to ascertain what is the point of Lewis’ essay. He writes:
I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.
In The Inner Ring, Lewis’ primary purpose is to discuss what is good and bad about this “desire” and terror.” “It [the phenomena of Inner Rings] is necessary,” he says, “and perhaps it is not a necessary evil. But the desire which draws us into Inner Rings is another matter. A thing may be morally neutral and yet the desire for that thing may be dangerous.” (emphasis mine) In this essay, when Lewis speaks of “desire”, he is specifically referring to “our longing to enter [an Inner Ring], our anguish when we are excluded, and the kind of pleasure we feel when we get in”; our desire to be one of “the people who know.” He is not condemning Inner Rings in themselves; he is talking about the possible dangers that come from wanting to be “in” too much.
Lewis warns his readers that “Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care.” He further warns that people who “merely want to be ‘in'” will never be satisfied, because the novelty will wear off once you are finally “in.”
Much of what C.S. Lewis wrote then was timeless, though I think that if he was alive today, he would be able to identify even more applications from our culture of the Inner Ring principle than he did fifty years ago (I am sure that you can come up with many ways that this principle has played out in your life). I also think that perhaps Lewis did not delve deeply enough into spiritual application in the concluding remarks of his essay. Before elaborating much on that, it may be helpful to identify some possible reasons for this “desire” that rules each of our lives.
First, we are created in God’s image. God is relational in himself, since he is three persons in one. Because we are relational, as He is, we are always searching for fellowship, community.
Second, we are prideful. I say this carefully, since Lewis affirms (and I agree) that Inner Rings are not bad in themselves. However, the quest to become a part of an Inner Ring can be driven by wrong motives, like pride (wanting to be better than other people, wanting to know things that other people don’t know to gain bragging rights, wanting to intentionally exclude people you don’t like). And pride may be a factor in this phenomena, though it isn’t always.
Since C.S. Lewis was alive, I personally think that this principle has become even more prevalent in our culture due to the rise of social media. I do think it applies to real-life also, but technology has added another dimension to the discussion. I want to talk about this added “dimension”, therefore, because I’m sure that the brief summary of Lewis’ essay above has made you think of several real-life applications of the Inner Ring principle. (If you haven’t, do spend some time thinking about it. Lewis gives us a lot of good things to think about.)
Social media has allowed us to create a sub-culture through Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms where we can freely exchange our ideas, and I think that we see this Inner Ring principle playing out online all the time. Due to the growing popularity of BuzzFeed, and other websites that thrive on community contributions, for example, anyone can now post articles like “20 Things Only People With Glasses Can Relate To“, “50 Things Only ’80s Kids Can Understand“, “17 Things That Only Happen to People With Unique Names“, and “30 Problems That Only Introverts Will Understand.” In addition, #hashtagging is on the rise. Hashtagging is a way to group information together that people are talking about online. For instance, soccer fans on Twitter for the next several weeks might hashtag #WorldCup2014 as they post about the games. I was thinking, maybe all of these things serve to group people into Inner Rings. After all, I will never fully appreciate any one of the 15 Things Only People With Sensitive Stomachs Know to Be True, because I do not have a sensitive stomach. I will never fully appreciate #YesAllWomen posts, because I am not a woman.
Really, my purpose is not to bash these internet-related phenomena. I don’t think Lewis would necessarily do that. My purpose is to call into question our motives in wanting to be a part of these Inner Rings.
See, while I do think that Lewis’ article was insightful, I feel like he did not go far enough in explaining just why the quest to be part of an Inner Ring always yields “pleasure that cannot last.” It’s because in the gospel, through Christ, there is always greater pleasure to be had because of Him, and who we are in Him.
Sometimes we desire to be a part of an Inner Ring because we want to feel important, validated. We want to feel unique. And we think that by being part of an Inner Ring, by finding something that others don’t have and making a point of it, we can make something of ourselves. So, we spend a lot of time seeking an Inner Ring to be a part of. We forget that we are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27), that we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:13-16), that He chose us to be His children, guaranteeing an inheritance of eternal life to us (Ephesians 1:4-5, 13-14), that He died for us when we didn’t deserve it (Romans 5:8), and that He gave us His righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). We forget that “our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ…[and] if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:3, 7)
Fact of life: there will always be Inner Rings, and they are not bad in themselves. But who needs Inner Rings when we have fellowship with God and with each other through Him? While Inner Rings are fine and natural, being in one does not make us more human. We don’t need to seek acceptance and validation through the people we hang out with, or the little things about us that set us apart and make us “special.” God Himself has made you “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession… (1 Peter 2:9).” What’s more special than that!? Articles and societies and Facebook groups and clubs and best friends are all good gifts from God; we just need to remember that we are not validated by them. And we don’t have to be afraid of not belonging to an earthly Inner Ring, because so doing does not make the gospel truth of who we are and Who we do belong to any more or less true.
We need to remember that we are validated by Jesus Christ, through His #gospel.