Book Review – ‘Mere Christianity’

Mere Christianity cover from Wikipaedia

Mere Christianity cover from Wikipaedia

When I used to commute between work and office I used to do a regular(ish) item on here called ‘The Bus Book’ in which I reveiwed the book I’d been reading whilst on the commute.  One book I intended to review as part of that series, but never managed it because the commuting finished, was C. S. Lewis’s ‘Mere Christianity’.

C. S. Lewis is probably best known for his children’s classic ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’, part of the ‘Narnia’ series of stories about a fantastic land in which magic has true power.  The books are also deep Christian allegory, reflecting Lewis’s great abilities as a writer on the topic of Christianity and Christian apologetics.

‘Mere Christianity’ grew out of a series of radio lectures that Lewis was asked to do in the Second World War.  The BBC approached a large number of writers and artists to develop radio programmes in the war – Orwell and Priestley were amongst Lewis’s fellow contributors to the literary war effort – and Lewis contributed a series of programmes describing the ‘guts’ of Christianity – the common issues that the Christian Faith of all denominations has to deal with.  And these programmes, after the war, became the basis of ‘Mere Christianity’.

I’ve often commented that the mental processes that led to my eventual Confirmation in to the Church of England were started by two men – Johnny Cash and C.S. Lewis – both of whom came to their belief via what’s best described as a ‘non-standard’ route – Cash through feeling the presence of God when he’d decided to give up and die in a cave, and Lewis coming back to belief after many years as an Atheist.

‘Mere Christianity’ is a relatively slim book, but heavily laden with ideas.  Stylistically it hasn’t aged well in the 60 years since the material was originally written, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  The style is best described as ‘no-nonsense’ and the book approaches Christianity from, in my opinion, a very Anglican perspective, although the theses within are applicable to all Christian denominations.  The Anglican faith is often said to be based on three cornerstones – Faith, Tradition and Reason – and it is this statement that Lewis uses as the basis of his ideas in the book.

The book is split in to 4 sections –

  1. Right and Wrong as a clue to the meaning of the universe
  2. What Christians believe
  3. Christian behaviour
  4. First steps in the doctrine of the Trinity

Central to the arguments of the first part of the book, where Lewis puts the case for Christianity, is the idea that there exists a general ‘law of morality’ – a rule about right and wrong known almost implicitly by all humans.  Whatever our beliefs, most people would argue that the Holocaust was wrong at any number of levels, that child-murder is abhorrent, etc.  (This was written 60 years ago – I guess it says a lot about the changes in morality in the last 60 years that I had to think hard when writing that last sentence!)  Lewis argues that for such a universal rule of right and wrong to be known to people irrespective of culture, there must be something above and beyond us to impose such a rule.

Lewis then posits what is now known in theological circles as the ‘Lewis Trilemma’ – an argument that is now a little dented by modern theological studies but that stated that Jesus was either divine, lying, or insane.  As His behaviour didn’t seem to indicate insanity, and his works did not indicate the moral turpitude associated with lying, Lewis was left with the conclusion that Christ was indeed divine.

He explores the virtues and the sins – I have to say that on reading this book for the first time the idea of  ‘pride’ being a sin – maybe THE sin -came as something of a shock to the system but when Lewis explores the idea that extreme pride is often at the back of the other sins, such as gluttony and lust – then perhaps it’s not such a long shot.  He then points out that Pride was what separated the Devil from God in the first place, so that rather put the hat on it!

Lewis’s exploration of virtue, sin and morality from a Christian perspective are interesting and well grounded.   He states very clearly that his intention with the book is to bring people who might be intrested in becoming Christians in to a sort of spiritual ‘waiting room’ where they can determine which particular branch of Christianity their calling will be for.  And it works very well on that level.  he does not intend the book and the ideas within it to be a doctrine of their own.

I think the only issue I woudl take with the book is the language and general style – it’s a little ‘stuffy’ and in a couple of places distinctly politically incorrect – and whilst that doesn’t bother me one jot I can see some people being put off.  My advice would be to persevere – the book was written 60 years ago by an upper-middle class male academic, but the issues it deals with are eternal.

I agree wholeheartedly with Anthony Burgess’s comment about the book : “…the idea persuader for the half-convinced, for the good man who woudl like to be a Christian but finds his intellect getting in the way.”  It’s a great and useful book – I wish I’d come across it earlier in my personal spiritual journey.  An excellent companion for Lewis’s religious novel in ‘letter’ form, ‘The Screwtape Letters’.

2 thoughts on “Book Review – ‘Mere Christianity’

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed the book, Joe. It’s certainly worth reading. I first read it aged 19 and it heavily influenced my understanding of my faith. I would have agreed back then with the view that Mere Christianity is helpful for the person who’d like to be Christian but finds their intellect getting in the way. For a long time it did satisfy my intellect.

    15 or so years on, I’m starting to feel uneasy about the fundamental pillars of logic in the book. One famous one is that Jesus must have either been telling the truth (and therefore be the son of God) or telling a lie (and therefore have been a madman). A third logical possibility that I have since come across is that he may have been a good man and honestly mistaken. Believing something in error is something any human is capable of, and doesn’t stop many humans being extremely good and loving people. There are other examples too, where I originally thought “that’s brilliant logic and quite correct”, but where I now think, “hang on a moment, life just isn’t quite so simple”.

    I still believe the book to be full of value. But it feels as though the core project of Christian apologetics is misguided. Many aspects of my Christian faith *are* illogical. Maintaining hope in today’s world is often mind-numbingly illogical. The expression of love is rarely logical. Pure logic as a tool for explaining our faith in something beyond ourselves is, I think, too reductionist.

  2. I very much agree, Mark. The ‘Lewis Trilemma’ is flawed, and there are some other issues I have with it, but I do regard the book as an excellent starting point.

    Logic applied to faith is reductionist – having said that I think that the first port of call for many people coming to Faith from a scientific background is to build that initial bridge between their intellect and the nearer shores of faith. One cannot argue issues of faith, irrespective of how much logic is applied. But I do believe that you can make those first steps on that distant shore by applying logic where logic can be applied.

    I don’t believe that apologetics is misguided; after all the Church of England rests on Faith, Scripture and Reason, and I think that it’s worth recalling that in it’s orginal greek ‘aplogetics’ comes from ‘in defence of’ – very definitely part of the ‘reason’ side of things. Mt own view is that apologetics allows faith and reason to co-exist. I believe that we’re intended to question; otherwise we would not come with free will. Christianity is an adaptable faith, nor cast in dogma so firmly that no questioning is allowed. I’m not sute that maintaining hope is illogical today – the argument I’ve always made is that if you are still alive, you have hope. Were you to be truly hopeless, you would have killed yourself by now – it would be the logical thing to do. (I don’t seem to keep many friends who are Existentialists… 🙂 )

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