By George Marsden | Reviewed by Marilyn Unruh
Sometimes a book will have a life of its own. Such a book warrants having a biography of its own. Such a book is C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.
In his biography of Mere Christianity, George Marsden first gives us some background of Lewis’s life and his gradual shift from atheism to Christianity. From there he writes about the circumstances in which the book was written, its reception, and its enduring popularity.
Mere Christianity, first published in 1952, was not originally planned as a book, but came out of a series of talks Lewis had given on BBC radio during World War II. Lewis later slightly edited the talks and issued them together with a preface explaining the meaning of the title. By using “mere” in the older sense, as Lewis made clear, he meant to identify a center and present a set of core teachings held in common among all Christians of all denominations and all ages.
Our central belief is that there is one God and Jesus Christ is His only Son. The whole of Christianity, Lewis said, is that “We are meant to be united to Christ.” Further, “The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ.” Our goal is not to be made nice, Lewis maintains, but to be made new. In the script of a broadcast called “The New Man,” Lewis said that “Christians who give up preoccupation with self and are united to Christ are, in a sense, a new step in the evolution of humanity.” Essentially, Christianity is a way of life in a story moving toward a purposeful end.
Lewis’s radio talks drew some negative reactions, but were mainly well received. The book also had some opposition, but for the most part has continued to grow in popularity. Of particular interest to me was Marsden’s mention of Dr. Clyde Kilby, a professor of English at Wheaton College, as having been instrumental in defending and promoting Mere Christianity when it reached the United States. Dr. Kilby, who went on to initiate and develop the C.S. Lewis Collection at Wheaton, taught a popular class called “Modern Myth,” and I had the good fortune to get in on the class Dr. Kilby’s final time teaching it. We read all of Lewis’s fiction, as well as some by J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and George MacDonald.
Mere Christianity has had a phenomenal success across a wide range of audiences and denominations. The book has been translated into at least thirty-six different languages and has had a breadth of influence, as well as a serious impact, on countless people of all walks of life.
In exploring what qualities give Mere Christianity its ongoing “life,” or lasting vitality, Marsden identifies seven traits contributing to the book’s genius. Among them is Lewis’s use of images and analogies that awaken the imagination. One example that stood out for me was when Lewis, in saying we are meant to be united to Christ, wrote that “we humans are like eggs that need to be hatched if we are ever to fly, something that happens to us but also something that we have to do.” This ties in with another trait of Mere Christianity, which is that “the journey on which Lewis invites readers to join him is fulfilling because it is demanding.”
I highly recommend this biography as an insightful and enjoyable read, and also as a guide to point the reader to read or re-read Mere Christianity for a mere vision of our Christian calling.