Introduction: Is Mere Christianity Enough For A Christian Generation Rapidly Losing Its Influence In the World?
Between sixty and seventy years ago, what has become one of Christendom’s most beloved books, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, came to be written.
I use that passive construction because its origins were different than that of most books. Assigning a precise date is impossible for the simple reason that the contents were first given by Lewis on the radio during the Second World War (in the period 1941-1944). When the weekly fifteen-minute addresses began, Lewis was not well known. He was but an obscure university professor of literature. He had not yet published his first bestseller, The Screwtape Letters, and was contacted by the BBC on the basis of his 1940 publication, The Problem of Pain. Obscure as he was, however, the series was a “hit.”
Lewis’s talks were quickly committed to book form. They were published in three stages—the first aptly titled Broadcast Talks, followed by Christian Behaviour and Beyond Personality—in 1942, 1943, and 1944. A single re-titled volume including all three original short books was released in 1952. It was given the title Mere Christianity and included a new Preface by the author to the whole.
That was over a half century ago. During this time Mere Christianity has exercised a remarkable and singular impact in the Christian world. It has sold multiple million copies and been translated at last count into a host of languages.
Mere Christianity has been influential in my own life and growth on many levels. To call it my “favorite” book describes in a superficial way something that probes far deeper than the enjoyment of what—for anyone interested in the logical underpinnings of the Christian faith—is undeniably a great read. I am not an avid re-reader. Most books I read only once. The fact that I have read Mere Christianity some six or seven times, at least double the readings I have given any other book (with the possible exception of Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion, and George MacDonald’s Malcolm) places it singularly at the apex of works that have fundamentally altered my outlook of what it means to call myself a “Christian.” My primary copy has underlinings (many entire paragraphs!), notes, and annotations on 160 of its 180 pages. Not even my Bible boasts such a high percentage of marked passages.
Lewis’s gifts of communication and logic have proved as stimulating as his spiritual insights. His seamless blend of simplicity and profundity has been not only inspirational to my walk of faith, but also illuminating as a wonderfully effective method of communicating truth. Over the years, the example of Lewis’s style (working in harmony with the theological depth of his mentor George MacDonald) has been ever before me. I have often thought that if people lived by the principles set forth in Mere Christianity, and then followed Lewis’s counsel and moved on from his writings to feed on those of MacDonald, the man he called his “master,” there would never be a need for me to write books at all. Lewis and MacDonald, I felt, said all there was to say. And said it better than anyone else could possibly hope to say it.
A number of years ago, however—as the notes in my copy of Mere Christianity quoted in the Foreword attest—I began to revise that assessment. I realized that there was indeed more that needed to be added, as an addendum or a postscript, to Lewis’s groundbreaking work.
In the 1940s, Lewis was addressing a vastly different spiritual climate and cultural milieu. His broadcast talks on the air of the BBC were directed to a “general” audience. In his A Case For Christianity (the American title of Broadcast Talks), Lewis spoke out of his own experience—to which he liberally referred and which added veracity to his arguments—as one who had come into Christian belief from lifelong unbelief. His perspective was as an observer, an outsider, attempting to evaluate concisely, rationally, logically, and practically whether or not Christianity was true. That done, he turned to “What Christians Believe.” Even here he maintained the same “outsider” vantage point. Such is the flavor of his book, and contributes to the forcefulness of its content. While it is probably true that over the years more “Christians” have read Mere Christianity than “non-Christians,” in tone Lewis consistently conveys the impression that he is addressing the unbelieving world. It is a world he understands well. He gives the impression by implication that he actually feels a closer affiliation with that world than the world of the Christian church. It is this tone of kinship with unbelief that contributes to the genius of the book.
One must not forget, as odd as the phrase sounds, that when Lewis drafted the talks that made up the contents of Mere Christianity, not only was he an obscure professor, he was still a relatively young believer. He had been an avowed “Christian” less than ten years when first contacted by the BBC. Most of his life had been spent as an atheist. The worldview which informs and gives substance to his progressions of thought are that of a man looking at Christianity from the outside trying to make sense of it. Even his use of the term “Christian” often carries the subtle implication that he, Lewis, is standing among the unbelievers trying to put into simple terms what “the Christians” believe.
For example, Lewis opens his chapter entitled Faith by saying, “I must talk in this chapter about what the Christians call Faith. Roughly speaking, the word Faith seems to be used by Christians in two senses or on two levels…it used to puzzle me…that Christians regard faith in this sense…”
He is not exactly admitting to what he believes about faith, but rather takes the position of an observer trying to weigh the evidence of what “the Christians” think. One notices this subtle use of language throughout. It is this fascinating perspective (sort of half in, half out), growing out of Lewis’s life experience, that adds potency and vibrancy to his evaluation of the Christian faith. It is a brilliantly ingenious method. Lewis gives his readers room to maneuver by pretending to be more impartial than he really is.
Yet…though it seems a sacrilege to say about a book one admires so highly, some years ago I began to recognize an anachronistic element in this approach. With it came an awareness of a corresponding limitation inherent in the content of Mere Christianity as a whole. Don’t get me wrong. I value that content as much as ever and will continue to re-read Mere Christianity every few years until the day I die. Eventually I may have notes and underlinings on every page! I recognize, however, that what Lewis has given us is not in itself enough.
It represents a beginning. A wonderful beginning. But once people come into the Christian faith, as Lewis did, what then? How do they continue to evaluate and sift and make sense of the ideas of Christianity—not from the outside…but from the inside? As I began to ask myself that question, I began to reflect on the need for an addendum that picks up where Mere Christianity leaves off.
What is going on inside the rooms?
The gulf separating the times in which Lewis wrote and our own is no mere gulf of sixty or seventy years, it is a chasm of altered outlook and perspective that might as well be centuries wide. It is a tribute to the timelessness of Lewis’s writings that they ring with such vibrancy today. How many other Christian writers of the 1940s are still being read so enthusiastically in our time? Lewis is not just being read, his books continue to sell between a million and two million copies a year! His ongoing appeal is astonishing and diverse.
Yet too, we must recognize how vastly different things are today—both outside and inside faith. If he was just starting to write in today’s climate, as an unknown, without a surging worldwide fifty year legendary reputation behind him…if no one had heard of him, would Lewis’s witty, humorous, occasionally sarcastic cheek play so well to a world, not only more lost in its unbelief, but far more cynical than that of two generations ago? Would non-Christians throughout Britain tune in to their radios, unwilling to miss a single episode of his broadcasts about the existence of God and the elemental doctrines of Christianity? Would Lewis in today’s societal climate be found on the cover of Time as he was in 1947?
Maybe so. But I think the question legitimately arises whether the non-Christian world would even take notice. A radio show about God and Christianity today…it would be lucky to get a 1% market share. I doubt if modernism would so easily laugh, or find Lewis’s folksy treatment and syntax—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg, idealistic gas, Christianity and water, morality and mousetraps, our old friend the devil—hoofs and horns and all, the atonement and vitamins, crazy old tubs, an ordinary decent egg—so convincing. We love it, of course. But it is very possible that the non-Christian world would ridicule Lewis rather than admire him.
Within Christendom it is different. This is clearly where Lewis’s greatest impact over the past half-century has been felt. Christians adore his style and his shrewd, simple, intellectual, inclusive vision of Christianity. And if he was ridiculed by the general public, it would make him all the more popular in the church…as if he could be any more popular than he already is! His unique style has helped Christians understand the fundamentals of their faith in ways too numerous and penetrating to enumerate and continues to do so. Yet those rational foundations by Lewis’s own admission, though profound, are extremely basic. He makes little attempt to carry any discussion into much theological depth as did his Scots mentor. Repeatedly Lewis emphasizes (protesting a little too much) that he is not a theologian. He prefers, he says, to leave the theological profundities of Christian ideas to “more talented authors” than he.
Fair enough. But what of those areas where more help is needed? Once inside the great “house” of Christianity Lewis describes in his Preface, how does one evaluate between the ideas in the various “rooms?”
…”mere” Christianity is here put forward…” Lewis writes, “more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to life in…and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house.” (Mere Christianity, Preface)
If Lewis’s intent is merely to bring people into the outer hall, which he has done admirably and effectively, how are we to move beyond “mere” (that is, basic or fundamental) Christianity into deep and bold and practical lifelong Christianity in the “house?”
Another aspect of Lewis’s approach also necessitates renewed scrutiny and evaluation. The needs of today’s reader are radically different than those Lewis was addressing when he spoke on national radio to the secular population of Great Britain 65 years ago. While any generalization is dangerous, it can safely be said that the church of today, in both Britain and the United States, is filled with millions of people who have been Christians, been in the church, been in Lewis’s “house” of belief most of their lives.
Having come into belief from the outside and thus addressing his audience from that perspective, Lewis spoke as if addressing non-Christians. But he is now, through our written record of his talks, speaking primarily to Christians. His two million new book sales a year (with the exception of Narnia) are selling predominantly within the Christian community and its fringes. I have not once in forty years seen a C.S. Lewis title on the shelves of an airport bookstore. Clearly the sheer volume of Lewis’s sales insures that many of his books do find their way into the hands of non-Christians, and many of these turn to Christianity as a result. Yet it remains undeniable that most of Lewis’s readers have been raised in an environment of a lifetime’s familiarity with Christianity’s ideas. Their need is not to know whether or not Christianity is true. They accept that. They need to know how to evaluate between the myriad theologic orthodoxies of the many camps of Christian thought.
Even more importantly, they need to know how to evaluate their own beliefs with intellectual profundity and sagacity. This is something Christians are simply not taught to do…in any of the rooms.
Building upon Lewis’s foundation, that is my purpose: To help those who have been Christians for years, perhaps all their lives, to evaluate the ideas of their faith in fresh ways. I think of it as bold Christian living beyond the box.
In that “beyond the box” living, I identify five principles that serve as road markers on the quest toward bold Christianity:
1) Ongoing Revelation; 2) Multi-Dimensioned Scriptural Truth; 3) The Continuing Quest; 4) Doctrinal Stepping Stones; 5) God’s Eternal Symphony.
These five, and the scriptural words and concepts associated with them, will be our focus as we progress together. They will comprise the five “parts” of the book.
Lewis addressed those who were in similar circumstances to his own. I am addressing those who are in similar circumstances to my own—who have been in the church a long time and who need encouragement (as I did) to think through the parameters of their belief system beyond the learned boundaries of the particular “room” of the great house where they happen to find themselves.
In that sense, the undergirding rationale of this book is exactly the same as was the foundation for Mere Christianity—to examine the ideas of Christianity logically and with an open mind and common sense. But whereas Lewis began outside the house to examine the veracity of the structure as a whole, I take as my starting point that most of you reading this book are probably Christians. The task before us is to try to figure out how much truth, and how much error, exists within the specific precepts and doctrines of our rooms of belief.
To accomplish that takes what I term “bold thinking” Christianity.