Some quotes are so good, making the rounds so widely, because they are both startling and creatively illustrate a profound point.
After finding the quote or its source to be fiction, it leads us to respond, “Well if Billy Ray didn’t actually say it, he should have!” An example for me was a wonderful quote I heard that C.S. Lewis was to have uttered.
A journalist from an evangelical magazine had come to England to do a story on the famous Inklings who gathered regularly at the “Bird and Baby” pub at Oxford to enjoy a pint together and share their recent writing projects. The journalist, after conducting his interviews, wanted to get a few photos of this august group for his article. One of the group—perhaps Tolkien —asked thoughtfully “Should we removed our pints and pipes from the table for the sake of the Americans?” The story has it that Lewis shot back, “No. We should leave them on the table for the sake of the Americans!”
I admired the quote so much—and used it on many occasions—that I wanted to confirm its veracity, hoping it would be authentic. So, one evening over sushi, I asked Dr. Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Marion E. Wade Center which houses the majority of Lewis’ personal library. He agreed it was a great quote, but he had never heard it among the myriad tales people who personally knew Lewis ever related. And it didn’t seem like something Lewis would have said, not being one to poke fun at good Christians.*
This brings me to a similarly powerful and instructive quote that has made the rounds for decades among noted evangelical writers and speakers. It has G.K. Chesterton saying “The man who rings the bell at the brothel, unconsciously does so seeking God” or some such.
Perhaps you’ve heard it and even used it yourself.
It’s meant to explain that the fundamental orientation of the human heart is to seek God and the peace, meaning, and truth that only he can bring; the God-shaped hole we are all created with. And when we chase after everything else—women, romance, riches, power, position, knowledge—we do so seeking God even if we can’t realize it. But, as you might imagine, it was not Chesterton who said it.
But thankfully it does have a source. A great one.It comes from a small and positively delightful 1945 novel, The World, the Flesh and Father Smith written by a lesser-known, mid-twentieth century Scottish writer, Bruce Marshall. His style reminds one of Flannery O’Connor in her hilariously biting sarcasm, coloring for her reader serious spiritual truths in the lives of her larger-than-life idiotic characters.
Our quote appears in a conversation between the book’s protagonist, the dutiful Father Smith, while walking home one day, encounters a beautiful, seductive young woman standing on her front stoop. Miss Dana Agdala is provocatively accented by her “frock blowing all around her lovely legs.” She introduces herself to Father Smith as the author of the scintillating and best-selling Naked and Unashamed, “but perhaps you haven’t read me.”
She asks the priest, “Tell me, do you get much response to the old, old story these days?” She, a modernist had long rejected “[a]ll that poppycock about baptism, and purity and the Virgin Birth…” because, of course, “it’s against all modern science and obstetrics.”
She explains to our cleric that she’d, “been dying for years to meet a Catholic priest, but somehow there never seems to be any at any of the parties I go to.” She had “oodles and oodles to ask you about that I don’t know if I’ll ever have time.”
He invited her to walk along to his next appointment and ask away. Among many questions, built upon her judgment of the silliness of his faith, she asked about his own sexuality and how he manages to, as she put it, “live without us?”
Easily and confidently, Fr. Smith answers that, in his view, “women’s bodies are rarely perfect; they soon grow old and sag, and always the contemplation of them even at their best is a poor and boring substitute for walking with God in His House as a friend . . .”
Miss Agdala judges that Fr. Smith’s answer proves what she had always maintained about Christians, “that religion is only a substitute for sex.”
Fr. Smith counters roundly, “I still prefer to believe that sex is a substitute for religion and that the young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.”
So, there you have it. Man desperately seeks God, even in all the most ungodly places.
Those very true and insightful words are from the mouth of our delightfully unflappable Father Smith, even if the great Chesterton might indeed wish he had said them.
*There are examples of Lewis poking fun at the heterodox though. He took to calling Anglican Bishop John A.T. Robinson, author of the radical book Honest to God and Bishop of Woolwich, the Bishop of Woolworth. When asked, in the last interview he would give, about Robinson’s controversial book, Lewis bluntly responded, “I prefer being honest to being ‘honest to God.’”