book cover imageC. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography
by George M. Marsden.
Lives of Great Religious Books series.
Princeton University Press,2016.
Hardcover, 264 pages, $25.

George M. Marsden, the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, notes that since 2001, Mere Christianity has sold over 3.5 million copies in English and been translated “into at least thirty-six languages.” “So,” Marsden continues in his introduction, “the question the present volume seeks to answer is this: what is it about this collection of informal radio talks that accounts for their taking on such a thriving life of their own?”

The genesis of the book is worth a story of its own. Up until World War II, C. S. Lewis was becoming well-known for his literary criticism, especially for The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (1936). He had also written a science-fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet (1938), a Bunyan-like account of his conversion from atheism to Christianity in The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), and, by invitation, one work of apologetics, The Problem of Pain (1940).

On February 7, 1941, during the prolonged Luftwaffe bombing of London known as the Blitz, the Rev. J. W. Welch, director of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC, wrote to ask Lewis if he would be willing to help. The BBC at that time “had an explicitly Christian dimension” and Welch was trying to find a balance between creating interest and not generating controversy, an assignment seemingly tailor-made for Lewis, the apolitical Oxford don. Lewis accepted, and, working with Eric Fenn, Welch’s assistant and a Presbyterian minister and theologian, he prepared an “attempt to convince people that there is a moral law, that we disobey it, and that the existence of a Lawgiver is at least very probable …” He had given lectures on Christianity to the RAF and discovered most Englishmen had no “sense of sin.” Soon, as Marsden writes, the BBC knew it had a winner. Lewis was deluged with letters and the BBC asked him for a second set of talks.

Fenn suggested the topic of “What Christians Believe.” The resulting texts delighted Fenn. Marsden comments:

Without watering down Christianity to meet modern tastes, he summarized basic teachings that might often be dismissed as far-fetched and explained why he, as a former unbeliever, had found them to in fact make far better sense than any other view.… Classic Christianity, which one might have thought was outdated and on the defensive, emerged in Lewis’s telling as the only sensible alternative left standing.

The third set of talks was on Christian morality, and the final set covered theological topics, among them the Trinity and the Incarnation. They were initially published as Broadcast Talks, which contained the first two sets of talks, and then Christian Behaviour, and finally Beyond Personality.

The talks did not please everyone; as Fenn reported to Lewis, “They obviously either regard you as ‘the cat’s whiskers’ or as ‘beneath contempt.’” Those who hated the talks in England included George Orwell, who “ridiculed its chummy tone” and said it was a “silly-clever religious book … endemic in England for quite sixty years.” Liberal clerics especially disliked it. Overall then, in England, Lewis was popular but divisive:

Dorothy Sayers captured how controversial he still was when she wrote to a friend in 1948: “Do you like C. S. Lewis’ work, or are you one of the people who foam at the mouth when they hear his name?”

He was much more popular in the United States. Though Alistair Cooke, the America-loving Englishman and future host of Masterpiece Theatre, loathed his work, for the most part, Lewis’s apologetics were much admired in America. The New York Times loved him as did Saturday Review and Time, which both featured him on their covers. Ironically, evangelicals were at first cautious about him because of his views on biblical inerrancy (on which he didn’t go the whole hog) and his sacramentalism. Catholic theologians criticized him for his relaxed ecclesiology.

All these reactions were based on the publications of the separate volumes of the talks. Mere Christianity itself, the small books combined with slight revisions and a new preface, appeared in 1952 and inspired a fresh round of critique and appreciation. According to Marsden, no one knows whose idea it was to do this. The book appeared “with no trumpets and fanfare,” and for a while, “Lewis was still typically presented as ‘The Author of The Screwtape Letters.’”

Sales of Mere Christianity continued, however, and though Lewis was still a divisive figure in England, in America evangelicals began to laud him. Attacked by liberal theologian Norman Pittenger, who linked Lewis with Billy Graham’s crusades and said Lewis represented “the old fundamentalism in disguise,” Lewis fought back with a response in The Christian Century, which had published Pittenger’s essay. Clyde Kilby of Wheaton College defended Lewis in Christianity Today, and other evangelical leaders including J. I. Packer and John Stott joined him. In the 1960s, Marsden writes, Lewis’s star faded, but Walter Hooper, his co-literary executor, Kilby, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship kept his flame alight.

Then in the 1970s Lewis’s popularity soared. This was at least partly because Mere Christianity often changed the lives of its readers. Chuck Colson, Nixon’s former hatchet man, became a Christian partly through its influence, as he wrote in his bestselling memoir, Born Again. There have been many other similar stories since: the genome scientist Francis Collins, Anglican theologian N. T. Wright, Presbyterian minister Timothy Keller, and theology professor Alister McGrath, along with such Catholic converts as philosopher Peter Kreeft, literature professor Thomas Howard, priest Dwight D. Longenecker, and Walter Hooper himself. Lewis’s work, especially Mere Christianity, is used and loved by Orthodox clergy too; even, apparently, by Mormons.

Marsden includes a chapter of critiques of Mere Christianity. Some have attacked the book as a mere triumph of rhetoric over logic, but such critics mistakenly assume Lewis rested his case for Christianity purely on reason. Although he had “high regard for reasoning” he appealed to “the whole person.” Basically, his supporters argue, these were radio talks and not summas; Lewis sacrificed “fine distinctions” for “readability.”

The last chapter is the best. Based on his reading of Lewis and the extensive secondary literature on his life and writings, Marsden presents seven reasons for what he calls, in the chapter’s title, “The Lasting Vitality of Mere Christianity.” The first, that “Lewis looks for timeless truth as opposed to the culturally bound.” He eschewed “chronological snobbery,” distinguished between science and scientism, timeless truths and “latest insights,” and avoided political and social issues. Second, “He uses common human nature as the point of contact with his audiences.” Marsden writes:

When Lewis took the assignment to speak on the radio to virtually every sort of person in England, he recognized that, going beyond just finding common linguistic ground, he would have to find his point of contact with his audience in common human experience.

The third argument for Mere Christianity’s vitality is that “Lewis sees reason in the context of experience, affections, and imagination.” As Oxford theologian Austin Farrer wrote, “we think we are listening to an argument; in fact, we are presented with a vision; and it is the vision that carries conviction.” Fourth, Lewis “is a poet at heart, using metaphor and the art of meaning in a universe that is alive.” Marsden writes that Lewis believed the universe “is animate and personal … So the meanings of all higher things and most of all divine things are best apprehended by metaphor and analogy that points to actual and ultimate personal interrelationships.”

Fifth, “Lewis’s book is about ‘mere Christianity.’” This ecumenism appeals to many and was based on his deep conviction: “It was the prize of his quest to rely on timeless truths rather than recent fads.” Sixth, “Mere Christianity does not offer cheap grace.” As Marsden notes, “readers find that they are being drawn in to an understanding of Christianity that is going to extraordinarily demanding of them personally.”

Seventh, and finally, “The lasting appeal of Mere Christianity is based on the luminosity of the Gospel message itself.” “So,” Marsden concludes, “Lewis points his audiences 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.”

Marsden’s book is fascinating and well-written and researched. It makes one want to go back to read Mere Christianity itself.  

Frank Freeman writes from Saco, Maine.