Archives For Generosity

The Value of Money

October 19, 2021 — 11 Comments

America exerts a major influence on global financial health. And our current unrestrained printing of new dollars will doubtless have repercussions around the world.

I’m no economist myself, but there seems to be growing concern among professionals of that persuasion that we’re headed for über-inflation. And, if our dollar drops in value the way some people predict . . . well, it seems many nations may be in for the proverbial “rough time of it.”

Shortly after WWII, C.S. Lewis commiserated with an American friend about the effects of inflation on the price of commodities.

I take it that your [comment] indicates not a saturation of the home market, but a shortage of purchasing power due to inflation? That is the situation with which we are faced at the moment; I see that the clothing concessions for instance have not resulted in an increased sale of home market goods.

The stuff is in the shops, but people can’t buy. Though with us the problem is complicated by the inferior quality of so much of the stuff on the home market.

Years later, in 1951, Lewis could still write “war and inflation are still the background of all ordinary conversation over here.”

. . . to which has just been added the railway jam; our new railway organization has succeeded, so far as I can understand, in blocking every goods depot in the country. The trades people are grumbling, and the effect is just becoming apparent to the consumer.

When I was in high school, collecting coins from around the world, I purchased samples of German currency when hyperinflation was destroying their already-shattered economy. These bills were called notgeld, which means “emergency money.”

So much of the worthless paper was printed that you can still purchase genuine pieces for reasonable prices. Many of them are quite interesting, and you can see a variety of examples online.

Some are quite lovely, like this 1 Mark note printed in Prien am Chiemsee in 1920. Lovely indeed, but virtually worthless in terms of its initial value.

Postwar Germany offers a cautionary example. Similarly, Robert Mugabe’s destruction of Zimbabwe after he gained dictatorial powers shows the danger. You can read about the unbelievable crisis in a variety of places, including this thorough article published in a European economics journal.

You might have thought that the picture at the top of this column was a joke. After all, what country prints a one million dollar bill? Well, Zimbabwe did!

In fact, with an inflation rate of 231,000,000% they ended up printing off one hundred billion dollar bills. That’s not a typo. $100,000,000,000 – you can see one in this Guardian article.

And we won’t even consider the one hundred trillion dollar bill.

Inflation Aside, Is Money Moral?

That’s a false question of course. Morality cannot be attributed to objects. After all, it is not money itself that is “the root of all evil.” It is a fallen human being’s love of possessing wealth that may lead “into ruin and destruction.”

C.S. Lewis expands on this truth, and wisely points out that the danger of idolatry and false security extends beyond money itself.

Christ said ‘Blessed are the poor’ and ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom,’ and no doubt He primarily meant the economically rich and economically poor. But do not His words also apply to another kind of riches and poverty?

One of the dangers of having a lot of money is that you may be quite satisfied with the kinds of happiness money can give and so fail to realise your need for God. If everything seems to come simply by signing cheques, you may forget that you are at every moment totally dependent on God.

Now quite plainly, natural gifts carry with them a similar danger. If you have sound nerves and intelligence and health and popularity and a good upbringing, you are likely to be quite satisfied with your character as it is. ‘Why drag God into it?’ you may ask (Mere Christianity).

C.S. Lewis powerfully portrays this peril in his fiction. In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a boy named Eustace has surrendered to his lust for treasure and the corruption of his soul becomes quite visible.

He had turned into a dragon while he was asleep. Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.

You can include me among those who like money. First, for its function – allowing free commerce, in contrast to crippled systems of barter. And, for its intrinsic curiosities – I am, after all, a numismatist.

Still, appreciating the existence of money is a far cry from echoing John D. Rockefeller who said “I believe it is a religious duty to get all the money you can.” (To be fair to the robber baron, his full quote was “I believe it is a religious duty to get all the money you can, fairly and honestly; to keep all you can, and to give away all you can.”)

To gain riches honestly is, of course, not objectionable. But as to reconciling the keeping and the giving away . . . Rockefeller’s logic eludes me.

Bonus Insight

As I noted above, I’m no economist. C.S. Lewis declared the very same statement in Mere Christianity as he explored the concept of usury (loaning money with significant interest charges). His thoughts on the matter speak to the entire subject we have been discussing.

As for the entire section you can find Lewis’ position at an interesting site called Generosity Monk, which “is committed to serving the Church by providing spiritual and strategic guidance to help people understand and practice biblical generosity.”

Who doesn’t enjoy getting new clothing, especially when what we’re wearing is showing its age? C.S. Lewis could hardly be accused of a passion for keeping up with the latest fashions, but he was grateful to be adequately clothed when engaged in public endeavors.

A man of simple tastes, in 1953 he wrote an American correspondent about not attending Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. The reasons he offers are revealing.

You are quite right, I didn’t go to the Coronation. I approve of all that sort of thing immensely and I was deeply moved by all I heard of it; but I’m not a man for crowds and  Best Clothes.

I was surprised by a discovery in a long-stored box of clothing that contained five pairs of pants in near mint condition. They were none the worse for their lengthy preservation. And I would be wearing them right now if they still fit. (The length matches my current legs; the waist, not so much.)

Oh, there is one other problem. They are corduroy. Extremely popular, when they were purchased. Less so now, although I understand “the comfy fabric has made a comeback in recent years, especially with the rise of thrifting, since corduroy is an incredibly durable fabric that is a common find in vintage shops.”

Returning to C.S. Lewis, we see he didn’t possess the embarrassing surplus of clothing most of us take for granted. In fact during WWII (1939-45) and its aftermath, Europeans suffered great deprivation. Britain’s recovery from the Second World War took some time, and the Lewis’ weathered the hardships with the assistance of friends in the United States.

Because of C.S. Lewis’ generosity, the gifts Americans periodically sent to him were shared with many beyond his own household. Although clothes rationing had formally ended in 1949, food continued to be rationed five more years, until 1954.

Edward Allen was one of Lewis’ benefactors. He began sending personal support parcels in 1948. As the following letter from Lewis shows, these included clothes as well as food items.

That perfection of packing, parcel no. 184 has just arrived, and I have spent a pleasant ten minutes dismembering it. Normally we won’t open your parcels when we get them, but reserve them for that moment of domestic crisis which so constantly arrives—“We shall have to open one of Edward Allen’s parcels” we say. But I tackled this one at once on account of the clothes.

The suit is just the thing I want for the summer, if there should happen to be a summer, which at the moment looks unlikely. (My brother skillfully annexed the last one you sent, and is still wearing it: on the strength of which he had the impudence to recommend this one to me)!

Once normalcy had returned to Britain, Lewis went to great effort to discourage continued generosity of this type. In 1956 he wrote another regular American friend after receiving an unsolicited Christmas present.

A thousand thanks. But look: you must stop. We never send any one any presents, so why should we get any. Our real name is Scrooge.

In truth, C.S. Lewis’ generosity abounded. In Mere Christianity he discusses the question of how generous Christians should be. I most strongly commend this principle to everyone wondering how they should arrange their own finances.

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.

For more about Lewis’ personal generosity, read “The Generous Heart and Life of C.S. Lewis.” The author points out, “as Lewis’s books became popular, large royalties poured in. Rather than upgrade his lifestyle, Lewis decided to maintain his current standard of living and give the rest away.”

As I mentioned above, C.S. Lewis also shared the contents of the post-war parcels he received. Presumably this extended to elements of clothing, as well. No doubt though, if he had received a fine corduroy suit, even the “endlessly generosity” of C.S. Lewis would have been stretched to its limits.

space trilogyChristmas is the season of giving, and as a grandfather I can truly say it’s more wonderful to give than to receive. Those little smiles and squeals of joy are precious indeed.

Sadly, many children (and adults) will be forgotten this season. Worthwhile programs to reach out to the overlooked are sponsored by countless churches and communities. One of the most highly regarded, Angel Tree, provides gifts to the children of men and women who are incarcerated. These innocent children are already suffering due to the poor choices of adults; God alone knows how special the most modest Christmas gift might be to these little ones.

That is one end of the spectrum—those who have little. Equally sadly, many children (and adults) will overindulge this season. They will bury themselves under piles of soon-to-be-forgotten presents. Most will also bury themselves further under mounds of debt.

C.S. Lewis colorfully captured this quandary in “Xmas and Christmas.”

And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians [British] profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

Striving for balance in gift exchanging is important. For years now my father has said it’s unnecessary to give him Christmas or birthday gifts. It’s true. He’s able to purchase whatever he wants, and even the most thoughtful gifts are either redundant or undesired. He’s grateful, of course, but only out of courtesy. Last month, for his birthday, I took him up on his words. Instead of spending money on a gift, we made a special donation to the Gideons in his honor. He was delighted. I’ve known others who made the same request, that gifts intended for them be diverted to the benefit of others. It’s a grand custom.

After the homily on selflessness above, it may sound strange to hear that there is a Christmas gift I would like to suggest you consider giving to yourself. Actually, I’d advise a friend or loved one to purchase it for you, but since you probably haven’t encouraged them to subscribe to Mere Inkling (yet), I must satisfy myself with advising you to check out this special offer.

During the holiday season, HarperOne is running a special on C.S. Lewis’ Cosmic Trilogy (often referred to as the Space Trilogy). You can get them in various digital editions for only $1.99 each. Quite a bargain. And it leaves you plenty of resources to practice the truth that it’s better to give than receive.

Out of the Silent Planet, the first of these science fiction works, was the first Lewis book I read. A friend in a college fellowship group suggested it, and it introduced me to one of the greatest mentors a person could ever have! The books are available through this link: Cosmic Trilogy.

Oh, and if the Cosmic Trilogy is already in your library, or not your cup of tea, they are also discounting an illustrated edition of The Screwtape Letters.

The Trilogy is suitable for Christian and secular readers alike. It’s not overtly “religious.” In fact, in his C.S. Lewis: Companion and Guide, Walter Hooper says many of the intial reviewers of the title were rather confused about its intended meaning. (This despite offering positive reviews.) One person who did comprehend its significance was an Anglican theologian named Eric Mascall. In a 1939 issue of Theology he wrote:

This is an altogether satisfactory story, in which fiction and theology are so skillfully blended that the non-Christian will not realize that he is being instructed until it is too late. It is excellent propaganda and first-rate entertainment.

I’m certain he meant “propaganda” in the most positive, pre-war sense. Actually, one does not need to be a follower of Jesus of Nazareth to appreciate the series. If you’ve never read it before—and you don’t have a 100% aversion to the science fiction genre—the two dollar price means you’ll rarely have a better opportunity.