Mere Hospitality

Introduction

There is a short quote in Mere Christianity that always sticks out to me. Or more specifically it sticks in my craw, which was his confessed intent.

Sometimes our pride also hinders our charity; we are tempted to spend more than we ought on the showy forms of generosity (tipping, hospitality) and less than we ought on those who really need our help. – C.S. Lewis, Christian Behaviour; Chapter 3

In reading this it as if Lewis has done what my old pastor used to say, “I’m about to walk into your house and put my feet up on your coffee table.” I find myself reading that and making the kind of face I fight if someone had walked into my house uninvited and put their feet up. It is actually compounded by the fact that Lewis chases this with his usual humility.

And now before I end, I am going to venture on a guess as to how this section has affected any who read it. my guess is that there are some Leftist people among them who are very angry that it has not gone further on that direction, and some people of an opposite sort who are angry because they think it has gone much too far…I am just the same, there are parts I wanted to leave out. – C.S. Lewis, Christian Behaviour; Chapter 3

Now I do not plan to play any of the english major games wherein I try to blunt an authors point with his own words. Nor is my intent to justify or even prove wrong. I would never dare to do so to my tutor. But I would like to use it as a spring board to consider how hospitality and charity balance.

A False Dichotomy

I would like to consider first the kind of hospitality to which Lewis is referring and I have, on occasion, been accused of. The sort of ostentatious display that makes the focus of an occasion the presentation rather than the guests. Or to put it another way, the goal is to showboat not to give freely.

I would consider the landscape of hospitality to have changed since Lewis’ day. He was writing in a time when dressing for dinner meant tuxedos, gowns, and multiple courses. And with the brattish obsession with keeping up appearances the middle class strove to replicate the higher classes. Even in Lewis’ own life dinner provided for him at the college included several of the upperclass traits. There was an air of pretension to many forms of hospitality. Or as he termed it, “showy forms of generosity.” Which in reality was not actual generosity. People were spending, paying, other people to be impressed. The focus was in exactly the wrong place. And that kind of thing has happened here in recent memory. Martha Stewart would not have had the career she has had without it. 

However, as Lewis elsewhere has pointed out, “There are two equal and opposite errors.” or as Luther* says, “Human nature is like a drunk peasant. Lift him into the saddle on one side, over he topples on the other side.” there is a ditch on either side of the road. If one error is to fail to be hospitable by caring more about the presentation; the opposite one is to fail to actually be hospitable by not caring at all. True hospitality is a both and situation. Charity is demonstrated in blessing the guest generously. 

The assumption made among those of us that kick around what a theology of hospitality looks like is that there is a natural opposition between well panned and executed hosting and authentic relationships. Or to quote a friend recently, “I just firmly believe that imperfect is okay. Relationships and the good they can do are more important than having everything perfect.” The problem is a base line thought that anything done excellently comes at the cost of good relationships. The straw man of perfectionism is brought up and knocked down by the more noble living thing. I reject this thinking. People who are made comfortable by forethought and preparations of a host are prioritized, the relationship can follow. The exceptional presentation is  leveraged to kickstart or build a new relationship. The mess will come later. But to lead with an uncomfortable, “authentic” chaos is, generally, shorthand for, “you don’t matter that much to me.”

How Should we then Host?

My frustration in how I see the practical application of hospitality playing out lies in the assumption that good hospitality looks like X. Or frequently for the person speaking, “Good hospitality looks like how I do it.” There is very little room for anyone else to do anything differently, and this mindset has the added benefit of creating a model which will never be changed. They become unteachable hosts. 

If hospitality is a form of charity I think Lewis comes charging into the issue with wisdom from earlier in the chapter cited above:

“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.” – C.S. Lewis, Christian Behaviour; Chapter 3

I would suggest that how hospitality looks depends on income. College students will not be setting out the Ferrero Rocher in small towers. They will be serving Little Caesars on paper plates and they will have been hospitable above and beyond. What I frequently observe is the excuse to cheat guests under the justification of authenticity. When Paul instructs in Titus 1:8 that an elder is to be a lover of hospitality (And to aspire to the office of elder is for all christians) this means that we do our best job. When Rosaria Butterfield has a minefield of legos across the floor that have not been picked up that is the best job she can do because of her numerous kids and foster kids. When a childless couple can’t be bothered to sweep the floor this is just laziness. Hospitality is supposed to cost you something. 

Hospitality is supposed to grow over time. There may be an ebb and flow during seasons of life. But it should be on a consistent upward trajectory. It is interesting to note that Lewis was very hospitable but he too had to grow in this skill. Before his marriage Lewis was a firm believer that cigarette ash was good for oriental rugs. I even have a copy of an interview where he instructs the journalist to just ash into the carpet. After marriage his wife did a thorough renovation and cleaning of The Kilns (His home) so that it would be not just presentable but safe (an entire front room had to be rebuilt). Clearly this was his authentic hospitality, but in the grace of God he was further sanctified, and was made a better host for it. 

Conclusion

No host will be perfect. At least not until we have been in the home of The Great Host and supped at His table. The key is a willingness to be sanctified in our hospitality. If something is ostentatious and over done then it should be backed off in humility. If laziness or chintziness is being justified then that should be repented of and generosity of time, effort, and thought must come to the fore. At the end of the day the willingness to display Christ in honoring guests is the goal.

If you will indulge me, I will close with one of my favorite anecdotes of Lewis as host. The story is related by Walter Hooper, Lewis’ secretary. In Lewis’ waining years Bob Jones Sr. was visiting Britain and it was determined that he should meet with the most popular Christian apologist. Lewis knew nothing about Jones but was more than happy to host him for an afternoon. Upon Jones’ arrival Lewis welcomed him warmly, took him to his favorite pub, The Bird and Baby (Eagle and Child proper), had a few pints. brought him back to The Kilns and entertained for a few more hours, chain-smoking as was his habit. Afterward as Jones was departing Hooper, knowing exactly who Jones was and what he stood for, inquired what he had thought of Professor Lewis. The confused response, “That man smokes, and that man drinks, but I do believe he is a Christian.” 

*Another excellent example of hospitality. The book Table Talk is entirely reminiscences of his wit and wisdom that he spoke around his, very large and always full, table.

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