A Year of Reading Lewis: Mere Christianity

During World War II, the people of Britain were glued to their radio not only to catch the latest news of the war, but also to escape for a time from the daily stress of wartime by listening to various radio programs for entertainment.

In the midst of all this came the voice of C.S. Lewis, then an Oxford professor, giving a series of radio talks explaining Christianity, which eventually were compiled together and adapted by Lewis for print to become the book Mere Christianity, published in 1952.

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Lewis had been invited to do these talks by Rev. James Welch, BBC Director of Religious Programming, who had read The Problem of Pain in 1940. The talks were very popular, so much so that the first set of talks were expanded into two, and then to three, and then four. The book itself followed this same format, more or less, and was divided into the following sections: Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe; What Christians Believe; Christian Behaviour; and Beyond Personality, or, First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity. 

(Just as a treat, here is the only audio recording of the original talks that still survives. I had no idea this existed (isn’t the internet a wonderful thing?). I have to admit I was slightly taken aback …I had imagined him to have a deeper, more hearty voice!).

The book is now going into its seventh decade of publishing, and that alone should give you a hint as to its popularity and staying power.

As you can tell from the titles of the sections of the book, Lewis covers a lot of ground here. But in his trademark highly intellectual yet easily accessible style, he makes it all so very fascinating, and if you are a Christian, gives you much to meditate upon. I have underlined and starred so many quotes it’s hard to pick from them all, but just for one example, this is what Lewis says in the chapter on “Charity”:

Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. 

The first part of the book contains Lewis’ philosophical arguments for the truth of Christianity, covering some of the ground he explored in The Abolition of Man (which was published in 1943, in the midst of these radio talks), explaining how all of mankind have a common set of values (called the Tao in Abolition, here referred to as the Law of Nature) and that therefore must mean that those values came from somewhere outside of mankind. He also explains why understanding this is central to our understanding of Christianity. For, as he says,

It is after you have realized that there is a real Moral Law, and a Power behind the Law, and that you have broken that law and put yourself wrong with that Power–it is after all this, and not a moment sooner, that Christianity begins to talk.

Section II, What Christians Believe, delves into the core beliefs of Christianity, including the nature of God, and the Incarnation. It is in this section that one of the most famous quotes of the book is found:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him [Jesus]: ‘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. 

Section III, Christian Behaviour, covers topics such as The Cardinal Virtues, Social Morality, Sexual Morality, and The Christian Marriage. It is in this last chapter on marriage that Lewis has been roundly criticized by some, as they claim that in it he presents a sexist and insulting view of women, in the midst of his explanation of the headship of the man in marriage. While I have some sympathy for this, for myself I am not much bothered by what he writes in this chapter.  He states at the beginning of the chapter that he is writing it as a bachelor, but says that in all honesty he feels he must tackle the subject of marriage in covering Christian morals. And he doesn’t shirk from the controversy of the teachings on the headship of the man in marriage, but gives his explanation of why it should be so. His views are of course coloured by the time he lived and the society he kept.  One wonders if his comments on this would have been different if he wrote it after his marriage to Joy Davidson, who by all accounts had an intellect equal to his and was nobody’s pushover. But suffice it to say, as a woman I take those comments with a grain of salt and don’t let them negatively colour my impressions of the book.

Section IV, Beyond Personality, covers Lewis’ explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity and contains his thoughts on how the process of maturing in Christ as a Christian as described in Scripture really works. The best thing to do to explain this would be to include this final quote, which concludes the book:

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. 

I really enjoyed re-reading this book. It was foundational to my understanding of the Christian life when I first read it when I was in high school, and it still has much to say to me now.

I love the image of people gathered around the radio in wartime, perhaps fresh from a bombing raid, worried about their loved ones both near and far, and listening to Lewis explain in his clear and engaging style the great tenets of the faith in a way that is understandable to all. Lewis provides many simple illustrations of these sometimes complex topics and in so doing gives us a way to begin to see what they really mean. I can only imagine how many conversations were began after the radio turned off.

How wonderful a gift this book has been to so many people, myself included. I highly recommend it to all, for those seeking to know more about the faith, and for those who are walking a little further down the road. You will find Lewis a wise and helpful guide.


 

If you want to know more about C.S. Lewis and the making of Mere Christianity, have a look at this post from the Pilgrim in Narnia:

C.S. Lewis at the BBC

It’s hard to believe, but my Year of Reading Lewis is almost up! And there are so many more of his books I wanted to read. Sigh. Well, I would have liked to have read a few more of the ones I haven’t yet read, but I just can’t let the year go without revisiting one of my favourite Lewis books: The Great Divorce. This delightful and thought-provoking book will wrap up my series, and then…well, yes, I do have another “Year of” series planned for next year. I am eager to get started, as much as I hate to leave Lewis behind. I hope those of you who have joined me for this series will continue on with me for the next!

 

Reblog: C.S. Lewis on the Paris Attacks

It’s been a week since horror was unleashed in Paris. There have been myriads of words written about this, and in the midst of them all I found this post. As my week has been crazy and this week’s blog post has fallen through the cracks, I thought I would share it with you here. It’s from my fellow Lewis-lover (and scholar!) Brenton Dickinson over at The Pilgrim in Narnia.

Good thoughts here to reflect on, from The Screwtape Letters.  Enjoy.

C.S. Lewis on the Paris Attacks

 

I’ll be back next week with my Year of Reading Lewis and a review of Mere Christianity….

 

 

Featured image: Pray for Paris by AyyaSap on DeviantArt

Everything Means Something, or, How to Think Like a 7th Century Celtic Christian

I sat on my chair, reading, the afternoon sun pouring through the windows. My dog, a big goof of a Labrador/Newfoundland mix, came into the living room and I watched as he walked around the room, sniffing at things. I had to watch him carefully; at this stage in our lives together he was known to not stop at sniffing, but to take the next step of grabbing some treasure in the hopes of inducing a mad chase around the house as I attempted to get the treasure back. But no, he was content to wander and sniff this time, circling the coffee table a few times as he did so. I watched him carefully, seeing that he was circling the table counter-clockwise, and he did it three times, before settling down, and I thought about “widdershins” – circling counter-clockwise – and the number three. I wondered the deeper meaning of this, what sign could I read in it?  Three is the sign of the Trinity, true. The movements of Creation, in this case my dog, often held deeper meanings than the obvious, so why counter-clockwise? What did it all mean?

It was a brief thought, fleeting, only, and in the next split second I snapped back to modern-day rationality. But I treasure that small split-second, because it gave me just a tiny glimpse into the mindset of a Celtic Christian back in the 7th century.

At that point I had been studying the Celts and their unique take on Christianity for a couple of years, on and off, all part of my research for my Traveller’s Path trilogy. I had also started writing the book (which turned into three), and had come smack up against one of the great difficulties of writing historical fiction: how do I, as a 21st century novelist, truly represent the worldview of a 7th century person?

The short answer is, I can’t. Not really. If you think about the gulf that exists between here and then, the changes in the world, the history that lies behind us which the 7th century people could not even imagine, it becomes pretty clear that to write with the “true” point of view of someone from that time and place is nearly impossible. However, I believe that this element of historical fiction is often where the “bad” is separated from the “good”, and the “good” from the “excellent”. When I finish a historical novel, do I feel like I have truly visited that time and place, or do I feel like the characters reacted in a far too “modern” fashion to the events of the day? Writers come their work with lots of ideas about religion, equality, wealth, democracy, etc that, for most people in most of the world’s history, would be utterly incomprehensible. If they are not careful, those ideas can leak through into a story in inappropriate places.

So what is a historical novelist to do? How do you step into the mind and worldview of a time so far removed from your own?

Well, I don’t want to speak for all historical novelists, as I’m sure every one has a different method, but I can tell you what I did.

First of all, I cheated. Hah. I knew from the outset that I couldn’t do justice to the time and place in a way that I would be satisfied if I tried to make my POV character someone from that time. And besides, the type of novel I  love to read is the portal fantasy, in which a person from our time/place is somehow transported into another. Think of the Pevensies going through the Wardrobe, or even Harry Potter entering Hogwarts. So I decided that my main POV (point of view) character would be from our time, who, on Halloween, has an unfortunate encounter with demons and ends up in the 7th century.

This enabled me to write about the 7th century from a modern mindset, and allowed me to insert some explanations of events or culture that the person native to that time and place wouldn’t think twice about. And I could do that without too much difficulty or awkwardness in the narration.

After I got going, I did some writing from the POV of some of the characters in the book, just to help me get into their heads, so to speak. Some of those made it into the book, eventually. Hopefully they will “sound” realistic to the readers!

Secondly, research. Which goes without saying, of course. I found this fascinating, but also harder than I expected. For example, one of the best ways a historical novelist can learn about the mindset of people who actually lived in the time they are writing about is to read documents and letters actually written during that time period. There isn’t much of that available for 7th century Northumbria. This wasn’t an especially literate age. So while you can extrapolate a certain amount of things, in the end a lot of what the scholars have to say about the lives of ordinary people is speculation. So at times I felt like I was skating on thin ice as I wrote, but I consoled myself with the fact that, hey, this is fiction, after all, not a strict historical survey of the times.

Immersing myself into the people and times of the book, and imagining in fictional form what life was like from their point of view brought me to that day as I watched my dog wander around the living room.

The Celts practiced a polytheistic religion, worshipping many gods which controlled many different aspects of life, especially nature. When they converted to Christianity, this sensitivity to the natural world was enhanced, for now they recognized God Himself, the Creator, as being responsible for everything around them.The pagan Celts would see significance in the direction a crow would fly, so too would the Christian Celt, but in a slightly different way. God created all and directs all, they reasoned, and since God is a loving, intelligent, all-powerful Being, it is obvious that everything that happened was directed by Him to happen. Christians today still believe this of course, but the Celtic Christians took this very seriously. So, in their view, if my dog was circling around the table counter-clockwise three times, he was prompted by God to do so, and therefore there was divine significance in it, and if I would meditate on this, and prayerfully ponder it, the message might become clear.

To live as a Celtic Christian was to live in a world that was hyper-saturated with God’s presence, where the natural world was a form of revelation to us in a way we find hard to understand today. It takes a certain form of seeing which we dismiss now as superstitious, but in reality was far from it. As the title of this post say, basically Everything Means Something, and not just “something”, but in particular, Everything is a message from the God of Creation to us, if we would but have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Which is why, that day in my living room, when I got a tiny flash of what it would mean to live in a world like that, I was profoundly grateful. It was a very small link to some of my ancestors in the faith, and it gave me a glimpse of a world drenched in meaning and haunted with God’s presence in a way I hadn’t experienced before.

I don’t have the ability to stay in that world for too long, my mind has inherited the Enlightenment and the Age of Rationality and Materialism and all the other schools of thought between that time and our own.

But that’s why historical fiction is so much fun. For a short time we can leave our time behind and enter another one, and get a taste of what it was like “back then.” And for the writer, this is both a terrifying challenge and a deeply satisfying exercise, if your words come out just right.


Photo credit: Celtic Cross, St. Patrick’s, Drumbeg, by Albert Bridge 

Review: The Serpent Sword, by Matthew Harffy

I first encountered Matthew Harffy as we were both wandering around cyberspace, tracking down interesting bits of information about 7th century Northumbria. As it turns out, we were both writing books about this time and place, although in different genres. Matthew’s book is strictly historical, while mine is historical fantasy.

Matthew is a little ahead of me in the journey to publication; his book, The Serpent Sword (Bernicia Chronicles, Book One) was self-published in May of this year, and it is garnering some impressive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I was eager to read it, but a very busy summer got the best of me and I finally finished it last month.

The Serpent Sword is the story of Beobrand, a young man from Cantware (modern-day Kent, in the south of England) who is propelled from his everyday life as a farmer by his mother’s death from the plague and the mysterious death of his abusive father. Beobrand is left alone, and heads north to join his brother, the warrior Octa, who is serving in the king’s war band in the Bernician fortress of Bebbanburg.

But life is never that simple, especially in this violent and unstable time. The year is 633 AD, and Edwin is on Bernicia’s throne, but forces are gathering against him, namely Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon of Gwynedd, a kingdom of northern Wales. Beobrand quickly discovers that his brother has been murdered, and he sets out on a journey to find his brother’s killer and bring him to justice. Along the way we see Beobrand evolve from callow youth to seasoned warrior, and by the time he finally meets his brother’s murderer, we are thoroughly caught up in his search for justice.

This is violent book, reflecting the times, so be warned. Harffy does a good job of letting us know what it would have been like to be a warrior in the sheildwall. We are right there with Beobrand as he fights for his life and for the glory of his king. We feel his fear and the excitement of battle, and see the blood fly. Not for the faint of heart!

Harffy is a good writer, and the story moves along smoothly for the most part, although I will admit to struggling a bit with the “head-hopping” from one character’s point of view to another within the same scene that happens here and there in the book. It can be a bit distracting at times. But this is Harffy’s debut novel, and I know he will only improve. For the most part the writing  is skillfully executed, with just enough details to fill in the picture for us of the time and place, but not so much that we get bogged down, which can be a danger for historical novelists.

Harffy has obviously done careful research on the setting. Northumbria in the 7th century is presented with skill, and we get a realistic portrayal of what life would have been like in this time and place. Beobrand is a sympathetic character, with weaknesses that he must overcome along the way to his final goal. I liked the way his journey is portrayed; he doesn’t always make the right choices, but they are the best choices he can make at the time considering the circumstances, and he is left to wrestle with the consequences of some of those choices.

Along the way he makes some friends and enemies, and is even given a chance at love. But it all must wait until he avenges his brother’s death. The climax of the book is exciting and satisfying, although we are certainly left wanting to know more of Beobrand’s story.

Which is a good thing, as Harffy is currently working on Book Two of the Bernicia Chronicles, The Cross and the Curse, due sometime next year!

Bottom line: The Serpent Sword is exciting, gritty, and realistic, with an engaging main character. Fans of Bernard Cornwall would like this one!