Book review: “C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography” by George M. Marsden

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Book review: “C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography” by George M. Marsden

Three years ago, during the annual NCAA basketball March Madness, there was a parallel online tournament in which participants voted for the best Christian book of all time.

The brackets, overseen by the Emerging Scholars Network of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an interdenominational evangelical campus ministry, featured 68 works by such spiritual heavyweights as Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Aquinas, Rick Warren, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Calvin, Flannery O’Connor and Dante.

The winner in the final showdown was Confessions by Augustine, not a great surprise since it has been one of the foundational texts of Christianity for more than 1,700 years.

In second place, though, was a book that had been written just 61 years earlier by a self-described amateur theologian named Clive Staples “Jack” Lewis with the unprepossessing title Mere Christianity.

C.S. Lewis, a British university don and an expert in medieval and renaissance literature, is best known today as the writer of such novels as The Screwtape Letters and the seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia, three of which have been made into movies in the last decade.

Mere Christianity is framed as an explanation of Christianity for those who aren’t believers or are nominal Christians. As such, the book avoids issues that separate the various denominations.

Instead, Lewis uses logic and imagination in an effort to entice people to consider the essential — i.e., “mere” — elements of the faith before choosing a particular creed.

 

“Thoughtful Christian faith”

As historian George M. Marsden writes in C.S. Lewis’s ‘Mere Christianity’: A Biography, it is a book with humble beginnings as a series of short radio addresses that Lewis gave over the BBC to an embattled Britain, suffering under the blitz of German bombs and fearing invasion during World War II.

Each of three groups of talks was published as a small pamphlet, and, in 1952, Lewis collected and expanded these into a single volume.

Indeed, its publication, Marsden notes, was something of an afterthought. Yet, over the past six decades, Mere Christianity has grown in popularity worldwide to the point that, since 2001, it has sold more than 3.5 million copies.

Lewis, according to a speaker at a 1998 meeting at Wheaton College, is

“every man’s preacher, every woman’s exegete. He is the thinking Christian’s supreme apologist.”

One Christian publisher has even gone so far as to say,

“Outside the Scriptures themselves, Lewis is probably the greatest authority and example of a thoughtful Christian faith.”

marsden-mere-bio-larger

 

Lives of Great Religious Books

The story that Marsden, a retired University of Notre Dame professor, tells in his chronicling of Mere Christianity is fascinating in its sheer implausibility. And he brings great verve and clarity to his writing.

genesis-job-comboYou don’t have to be a Christian or a believer of any sort to read this captivating book, the latest in a Princeton University Press series called Lives of Great Religious Books.

Fourteen of these “biographies” of spiritual classics have already been published, including those focused on The Tibetan Book of the Dead and The Bhagavad Gita, and 14 more are in the works. It is a series characterized by clear, sprightly writing, such as this excerpt from Ronald Hendel’s The Book of ‘Genesis’: A Biography:

“In our popular and commercial culture, references to Genesis pop up regularly. ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ is an upscale exercise machine, priced around $3,000. “Am I My Brother’s Keeper” is the name of an album by the hip-hop group Kane and Abel. The Methuselah Foundation supports scientific research into extending human life. Adam and Eve is the name of a sex toy company.”

Or consider this example from Mark Larrimore’s The Book of ‘Job’: A Biography:

“Job offers a licensed way to grieve. Submission was one part of it. Rage at misfortune and even at God was another.”

 

“Lewis’s winsomeness as an evangelist”

Genesis, Job, The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Bhagavad Gita have been spiritually nourishing for thousands of years. How did Mere Christianity find itself among their company in this series?

One major reason is that, since the 1950s, evangelicals, including superstar evangelist Billy Graham, have embraced the book and Lewis as their own. Marsden writes:

“Even if Lewis remained reluctant to be pulled into such circles, evangelical leaders recognized that his combination of academic credentials and orthodoxy fit their purposes of reestablishing intellectual credibility for conservative Protestantism.”

Just after the mid-20th century, Graham and other emerging leaders, reacting to the growing liberalism and materialism in the West, began stitching together an international network of fundamentalist Christians, and they saw Mere Christianity and other Lewis books as key texts in their efforts.

Yet, the evangelicals aren’t alone.

Marsden notes that Richard Ostling, the former religion editor at Time magazine and the co-author of Mormon America, said in an interview that he was surprised to discover “the extraordinary interest in C. S. Lewis among Mormons and the belief that Lewis was almost a crypto-Mormon.” Similarly, many conservative Catholics and mainline Protestants embrace Mere Christianity as well.

“Lewis’s winsomeness as an evangelist is directly related to his having confined his task to inviting everyone to the vestibule and leaving to others all debates about choosing particular rooms. Paradoxically, one result is that Christians of many very different sorts regard Lewis as though he were one of their own.”

 

Nothing more than a translator

Even so, many of those who find deep religious truth in Mere Christianity also have some quibbles and even major differences with the book.

For instance, evangelicals revere the book even though Lewis is not a believer in the “inerrancy” — i.e., infallibility — of the Bible. Others find fault with Lewis’s assertion and attempt to prove that husbands should have final say over what a couple does.

There is a willingness to live with such difference, however, because of Lewis’s humble and self-effacing style. Indeed, he calls himself nothing more than a translator.

He writes, notes Marsden, about what he sees as timeless truths in a way that brings the reader along step by step through metaphors and analogies. He has deep insight into human nature.

And he doesn’t try to soft-pedal the demands of living the Christian faith — that it requires a complete conversion from a self-oriented individual into “a little Christ.”

 

Rich and life-giving

Yet, for Lewis, Christianity is rich and life-giving, a gift that he offers his readers.

Marsden notes that Lewis

“points his audience toward seeing Christianity not as a set of abstract teachings, but rather as something that can be seen, experienced, and enjoyed as the most beautiful and illuminating of all realities.”

With a promise like that, it’s no wonder Mere Christianity has had so many readers.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

11.28.16

 

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