(Re)discovering Mere Christianity

It took me some time to discover the writings of C. S. Lewis. While many people enter the world of Narnia, like the human characters in the stories, as a child, I was married and in my twenties before I discovered who Aslan was.

As far as I remember, it would also have been around the same time that I discovered Lewis’s writings on Christianity, and Mere Christianity in particular.

Over the past few months, I have been re-reading this remarkable book once again. And, once again, I have been struck by the memorable phrases in Lewis’s prose, the astonishing success of the book, and its significance in the experience of so many people.

And yet it seems like such an unlikely recipe for a success story. A middle-aged professor of literature; and a collection of wartime radio broadcasts, lightly edited. There was nothing ‘cool’ about Lewis, and the language certainly feels a little ‘quaint’ (if not worse) to modern readers (‘it might lead you to become a prig’, p. 70). And yet numerous Christians testify to some role for this little book in their own conversion.

To recognise the success of Mere Christianity is not, of course, to claim that it is faultless. There are plenty of places where I would disagree with comments made by Lewis, or would express a thought in different words. Yet, overall, Lewis does a masterful job of presenting key aspects of Christianity in a manner that can be understood and appreciated by a wide range of readers.

Almost a year ago, Justin Taylor published an interview with Professor George Marsden, relating to the publication of Marsden’s ‘biography’ of Mere Christianity. This interview contains some interesting detail concerning Marsden’s own encounter with the book, as well as an outline of the stages of development of the material up to its final form.

Lewis’s form of argument might be considered ‘philosophical’, in that it appeals to what seems evident to people in general (he suggests that his argument might be considered ‘philosophy’ on p. 28). As you read through the pages of the book, you will look in vain for biblical exposition, even when Lewis assumes information drawn from the Bible.

So, for example, Lewis concludes his opening chapter with the following two summary points:

First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in (p. 8).

Some Christian readers will struggle with the lack of reference to Scripture. And it is certainly the case that only Scripture can serve as the Christian’s authority for faith and practice. Yet, Lewis also denies the sceptical reader the opportunity to reject his argument on the grounds that it is based on Scripture.

If it is valid to describe Lewis’s approach as ‘philosophical’, we should not assume that this implies ‘abstract’ or ‘academic’. One of the most striking characteristics of Mere Christianity is how ‘down to earth’ it feels. Lewis constantly draws on analogies from daily human experience to illustrate his points. Yet, he also challenges sloppy thinking, pressing his readers to examine their own reasoning. An example of this involves a measure of autobiography on Lewis’s part:

If a good God made the world why has it gone wrong? And for many years I simply refused to listen to the Christian answers to this question, because I kept on feeling ‘whatever you say, and however clever your arguments are, isn’t it much simpler and easier to say that the world was not made by any intelligent power? Aren’t all your arguments simply a complicated attempt to avoid the obvious?’ But then that threw me back into another difficulty. My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning (p. 38).

Perhaps the most famous part of Mere Christianity is Lewis’s ‘Trilemma’, the choice of three possible responses to Jesus:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to (p. 58).

It is true, as Craig Blomberg has pointed out, that a further option might be added to ‘Liar, Lunatic, or Lord’: ‘Legend’. Yet, in my opinion, the rhetorical power of Lewis’s presentation of the content of the gospels remains.

Although the passage just quoted is particularly famous, I have come to appreciate deeply a very short statement:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world (p. 136).

Here Lewis appeals to the concept sometimes described by the German term, Sehnsucht (‘yearning’, ‘pining’, ‘longing’). In this memorable little saying, Lewis expresses the ultimate hope of all desires that are not, perhaps cannot be, fully satisfied in this life.

Is Lewis’s book an irresistible apologetic for the gospel? No! Many have read it, and rejected Lewis’s arguments, sometimes dismissing them as unsophisticated. But many others have found Lewis’s careful thought, expressed skilfully in memorable phrases and images, to be captivating and a means by which they are persuaded to accept the truth of the Christian gospel. Many have also found in Lewis’s arguments a model for persuasively presenting the Christian faith to a sceptical world more than half a century after Mere Christianity was published.

Lewis’s closing words in this remarkable book demonstrate as clearly as any just how well he had grasped the gospel, and how fully the gospel had grasped him.

The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in (pp. 227-28).

What more needs to be said?

If you haven’t read Mere Christianity, or if, like me, you haven’t read it for a while, why not (re)discover it today?