C. S. Lewis, Michael Scott, and the Office

First debuting in 2005 as the American version of Ricky Gervais’s British comedy series of the same name, The Office quickly went on to become one of the most popular TV shows of all time. Running for nine seasons, The Office has permanently enshrined itself in the public imagination—with endless memes, quotes, and clips regularly bandied about to express how we feel about pretty much everything.

What makes The Office so popular? Perhaps it is the often unbearable awkwardness in the show that keeps us coming back for more. Or maybe it is that we can relate to so much of the humdrum, boredom, and nonsense that constitutes our daily work lives. However, the most obvious reason for the show’s success is the strength of its characters: Dwight, Jim, Pam, Stanley, and most notably, Michael Scott.

Michael Scott is the regional manager at Dunder Mifflin Paper Company’s Scranton branch. It’s hard to imagine a more unique character. He is rude, crass, irresponsible, lazy, and often incompetent, but he’s also generous and fun. Above all, he is a lonely man who longs desperately to be loved by his co-workers. This combination makes for endlessly awkward and uncomfortable encounters. At moments, we find ourselves utterly disgusted with him, at other times, we feel sympathy for him as his genuine love for people breaks through his self-centered immaturity.

Some of Michael’s best and worst qualities are on display during this scene at the annual office Christmas party:

Loving the Familiar
Now, at this point you are probably wondering, “What does this have to do with C. S. Lewis?” Good question. To put it simply, the case of Michael Scott is a case of disordered love, specifically a kind of disordered affection—something about which C. S. Lewis had a lot to say.

Lewis wrote about affection in his book, The Four Loves. In it, Lewis looks at four Greek words for love: storge, philia, eros, and agape; which he loosely translates as: affection, friendship, romantic/sexual love, and brotherly/Christian love. Among his key points in this book is that the first three loves are beautiful, but they need to be caught up in God’s agape to be true loves.

So, what is affection? Lewis says that affection is the sort of love we have for people (or animals) who have been in our lives for a while and who are there by no choice of our own. We are not romantically attached to them, nor do we freely choose them. They are simply there. Affection is a sort of homely love, a fondness that grows over time for the familiar people (or pets) in our lives.

Think of your mother, your grandpa, your sibling, an elderly curmudgeon who lives across the street, or even your cat. We don’t necessarily love these people (or the cat) because of any particular merit in themselves, but simply because they are there. Even when these people annoy us (and definitely the cat here), we do not feel quite the same when they are absent. We miss what is familiar because we love what is familiar. This is the love of affection.

Michael Scott’s love for his employees is that of affection. They are familiar people, many of whom have been in the office for a long time. He does not necessarily choose everyone in his office, but he does care about them because they are there. There are many brief glimmers where we observe this in the show. Michael is not entirely self-absorbed. He has his moments of genuine encouragement and kindness. Even in the clip above, Michael wants to give someone a nice gift and money doesn’t seem to bother him (though he doesn’t necessarily have a lot of it, as we find out later).

Demanding Affection
But for Lewis, affection in and of itself is not a sufficient form of love. It must be caught up in God’s love. If it is not, it actually can become a kind of hatred. “By itself, left simply to follow its own bent, it can darken and degrade human life.”¹ Strong words.

The problem comes when we demand affection as a sort of right. As Lewis says, “almost everyone expects to be [an object of affection].” We understand that romantic love or friendship require a certain merit or investment on our part, but affection, Lewis says, is a love that we expect to receive simply because it is “natural.” Affection is a love that needs to give, but it also needs to be needed. The nature of affection “thus invites,” says Lewis “a hideous misinterpretation.”

In The Four Loves, Lewis uses the illustration of a Mrs. Fidget, a fictional mother who “lives for her family.” She is the mother who constantly sacrifices her own happiness so that her children can be happy. She is tirelessly making things for them and doing things for them, without ever stopping to ask if these are the kind of things that really make her children happy.

And therein lies the dark side of Mrs. Fidget’s affection:

“Mrs. Fidget, as she so often said, would ‘work her fingers to the bone’ for her family. They couldn’t stop her. Nor could they—being decent people—quite sit still and watch her do it. They had to help. Indeed they were always having to help. That is, they did things for her to help her do things for them which they didn’t want done.”

Mrs. Fidget works herself to death in the perceived service of others. But, as Lewis reveals, her affection is really a needy, selfish demand to be loved. It is truly sinister, a diseased form of love.

In The Office, Michael Scott has fallen under the same disease. He brazenly disdains the gift which Phyllis (one of the kindest and most sensitive characters in the office) has worked hard to make for him. His generous gift of a $400 ipod is revealed as a selfish desire to be praised, coupled with the expectation that others would be equally generous (even though the gift limit was $20). He then turns the entire party into a game of white elephant, showing no concern for the careful planning of Angela or for the thoughtful intentions of each person in their gift buying. Why is he doing this? “Because it’s fun!” Yes, fun for Michael, but not for anyone else. We see that Michael’s perceived affection for his coworkers is really just a cover for his own selfish need to be loved and appreciated.

Unfortunately, this is the kind of behavior that Michael displays on nearly every episode of The Office—a ravenous hunger/demand to be loved by his fellow employees, without ever showing concern for what they really need or want. This unconcern, coupled with Michael’s general rudeness and incivility, combine to make him a truly obnoxious (albeit, sympathetic and often hilarious) character.

If only we could simply laugh at Michael or just leave Mrs. Fidget with a snicker on the pages of The Four Loves! Unfortunately, we can’t, because we know people like this. Whether it’s a boss or coworker, a parent or a sibling, we all know people who demand our affection as a right. And, well . . . we just might be one of those people ourselves. We might be the parent who makes life miserable for our children because we demand their affection. We might be a child who confounds our parents because we place unrealistic expectations on them. We might be a coworker who demands that others pay attention to us. Yes, we might be. Disordered affection is a flaw easy to see in others, but harder to see in oneself.

Caught up in Agape²
What is the antidote to our twisted affection, which masks a selfish desire to be loved without genuine concern for the other person? The answer is to be caught up in God’s agape love. In other words, before we can show others true love, we have to experience God’s love for ourselves. Agape is the sort of love that God demonstrated toward us (Romans 5:8). When Jesus came to earth as a man, he longed deeply for us to know God’s love, because he knew that only in knowing his love, and loving him in return, would we find true life. But he did not demand it. We do not find scenes in the Bible where God whines because people won’t love him. “Look at all the miracles I have done for them, shouldn’t they love me in return? It’s not fair!”

Indeed, it wasn’t fair, because Jesus is God, he actually deserved our love. But he does not demand it. Instead, we see him crying out in genuine lamentation, not for himself, but for those who have rejected him (Matthew 23:37). None of Jesus’ miracles are attempts to earn the praise and affection of the crowds. No, the kind of love that he showed was truly selfless (Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45, John 13:1-17). And it is the kind of love that he enjoined on his disciples.

That’s why he says that when we throw a party, we should invite those who can do nothing for us in return (Luke 14:13-14). We should wash one another’s feet, not because we want to be praised for our “humility,” but because that is the kind of thing that Jesus did (John 13:14). We should give of our time to others, not to put them in our debt, but because we want them to know the kind of love that God has for us—a totally selfless, others-centered love. All that we do without love means nothing, according to Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 13), even showing affection. To be genuine love, our affection must be rooted in God’s agape for us.

This sort of selfless love is not something we can generate, nor is it easy to practice. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to draw us into that love and to enable us to show it to others. Even then, learning to love like God loves takes a lifetime. That’s why we learn this love in the communion of the saints—among our fellow brothers and sisters in the church, for there too we meet people who we do not freely choose to associate with. Despite the illusion that we can choose whatever church we want, the church is really a community that God brings together, so that we might grow up together in Christ.

Like Michael Scott, we learn to love what is familiar and we want to be loved back; but from Jesus, we also learn that affection is not our right. It is a gift. And when affection is wedded with God’s agape love, what a gift it is!

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Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.