by David C. Downing
C. S. Lewis’s earliest biographers, Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, wrote that if they were going to a desert island and could take only one Lewis book, it would probably be Mere Christianity. That’s a fascinating choice, considering that both men were thoroughly acquainted with Lewis’s whole body of work, including his children’s classics, the Narnia Chronicles, his international best-seller, The Screwtape Letters, and his ground-breaking literary studies such as The Allegory of Love and The Discarded Image.
Yet I’m sure many other readers would agree with Green and Hooper. Mere Christianity is often cited as the single best introduction to Christian faith, a book that has been a spiritual milestone for thousands of readers. Both Charles Colson, founder of the Prison Fellowship, and Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project, have discussed the pivotal role played by this book in their own journeys to faith.
Mere Christianity, first published in 1952, is based upon four series of radio talks that Lewis gave during World War II. The first broadcast, in August 1941, was heard by over a million listeners and created an unexpected sensation. Lewis’s careful reasoning, his folksy analogies, and his calm bass voice quickly caught on, and it is said his voice became the second most recognized in Britain, after that of Winston Churchill.
Lewis’s first series of broadcast talks argued that we all have an inborn sense of right and wrong, and that we all must admit we don’t live up to our own sense of decency and fair play. From this starting point, Lewis makes the case that all cultures share similar standards of right and wrong, moral laws that point to a lawgiver, a “Somebody” who is best sought not in the material world, for all its magnificence, but in our own hearts. Lewis concludes that, sooner or later, we will all meet the “gaze of absolute goodness,” an encounter that is sure to be both comforting and terrifying.
In his second series of talks, Book Two in Mere Christianity, Lewis compares competing world views such as atheism, pantheism, dualism, and Christianity. Not surprisingly, he finds fatal flaws in each of the non-Christian worldviews he examines, suggesting that the Christian understanding of the world best fits the facts—that we live in a fallen world and we can’t fix it ourselves; that the Creator needed to enter himself into the stream of history in order to redeem humans from their own bad choices; that Christians are not simply those who try to behave well, but rather those who are allowing an all-good Creator/Redeemer to begin transforming them from within.
Book Three, “Christian Behavior,” outlines the morality that grows out of Christian faith. One early commentator wrote, “Mr. Lewis possesses the rare gift of making righteousness readable.” That gift is nowhere more evident than in Lewis’s discussion of Christian ethics. Taking dowdy old words such as Prudence and Temperance, Lewis explains what they mean in contemporary practical terms. Prudence is simply common sense, “taking the trouble to think out what you are doing and what will come of it.” Temperance is not simply an old-fashioned word for tee-totalism. Rather it is the virtue of moderation in all things, one that applies not only to alcohol but also to anything as extreme as sports-mania or runaway consumerism or excessive attention to one’s pets. In discussing all the virtues and vices (the worst of which is Pride, “the complete anti-God state of mind”), Lewis stresses that these are not simply arbitrary rules by which we seek to placate an all-demanding Creator. Rather they are the operating manual for the “human machine,” a machine that is ultimately fueled by God and his goodness, not by any motive power of our own.
In Book Four, Lewis reviews the basic doctrines of Christian belief, showing that theology is not merely a collection of abstract affirmations best left to specialists. Rather it is by grappling with the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and Sanctification that we come to understand the true nature of the Christian life. As Lewis puts it, “The whole purpose for which we exist is to be taken into the life of God.” He adds, “The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose.”
First-time readers of Mere Christianity may find it to be both less and more than they had expected. The book is not a wide-ranging apologetic for Christian belief. It does not address in detail the difficult question of how a good God could create a world with so much suffering and injustice. (Lewis tackled that thorny issue in The Problem of Pain, first published in 1940.) And it does not attempt to defend the inescapable supernaturalism of Christianity, the belief that natural laws may sometimes be superseded by the Lawgiver. (Lewis explored that question at length in Miracles: A Preliminary Study, first published in 1947.)
Yet Mere Christianity is also something more than a “defense of the faith.” Its purpose is not only to argue for Christian faith, but also to help readers understand the faith more fully and live it out more authentically. Modern readers may struggle with passages of the book. Some wish that Lewis had said more about simple agnosticism, a refusal to consider any worldview at all. And Lewis reaffirms the apostle Paul’s teaching on the headship of men in marriage, a statement that Lewis knew was unpopular in his own time and must surely be moreso in our own.
Besides his non-inclusive language, Lewis has been taken to task by some critics for his “logic-chopping” and by others for his sometimes startling similes. Yet Mere Christianity remains a modern classic less because of its arguments or analogies, but because of the compelling vision that shines through every page. For Lewis, Christianity is not simply a set of rules to be followed or a set of creeds to be affirmed. It is rather a glad and glorious cosmic reality, a chance to slough off our vain attempts to find happiness in our shabby amusements and our vain attempts to find goodness in our own ideals or self-effort.
Many people, even believers, think of Christian faith as a kind of bargain with God: if you lead a good life, he will reward you with a good afterlife. There is nothing particularly selfless or spiritual in this arrangement; it is a matter of mere self-interest. It is rather like an employer who tells his workers that if they do a good job for many years, he will give them a good pension when they retire. As for “goodness,” people may see it in the same prosaic terms they think about faith. We may think “virtue” consists mainly in abstaining from many of life’s pleasures in order to avoid the disapproval of our grumpy grandpa in the sky.
Mere Christianity explodes these misconceptions about the life of faith, offering a much more radical and engaging vision of the place of each human being in the cosmic drama. As Lewis himself summed up his view of the Christian life: “If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror that reflects back to God . . . his own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less.”
For many readers, that “Nothing less,” as Lewis defined it, is the Something more they have been seeking in their own spiritual quests.
David C. Downing is the R. W. Schlosser Professor of English at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous articles and reviews on C. S. Lewis, as well as four books: Planets in Peril (University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), a critical study of the Ransom trilogy; The Most Reluctant Convert (InterVarsity, 2002), an examination of Lewis’s journey to faith; Into the Wardrobe (Jossey-Bass, 2005), an in-depth overview of the Narnia Chronicles; Into the Region of Awe (InterVarsity, 2005), a study of how Lewis’s wide reading in Christian mysticism enhanced his own faith and enriched his imaginative writings.
Downing serves as a consulting editor on Lewis for Christian Scholars Review, Christianity and Literature, and Seven: An Anglo-American Literary Review. His most recent book is A South Divided: Portraits of Dissent in the Confederacy (Cumberland Press, 2007). His college website may be found at http://users.etown.edu/d/downindc/)