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!

 

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