Thursday, January 06, 2011

Review: Mere Christianity

Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis seeks to expound "mere" Christianity, that is, Christian belief independent of denominational distinctions.

Lewis comes to the subject as a convert to Christianity, and a somewhat reluctant one at that. He is sympathetic to the resistant. Perhaps because I was a reluctant convert myself, I find this helps me read his work, picturing him not as harsh schoolmaster but as understanding friend.

Three important caveats for the reader:
  1. Lewis writes in the language of his day. For example, he uses "Man" and "men" both specifically (to mean male) and generically (where a contemporary writer would probably use human or humankind). Despite the additional effort required to apply his words to myself as a woman, I truly hope this language is never updated in future editions. I liken it to the effort required when I read Shakespeare — I accept it, knowing that an update with today's language would mean a loss of history and beauty. The truths conveyed are no less universal because they are cast in the language of an earlier era.
  2. Lewis's writing reflects his time and location in other ways as well. Of course, there are the British spellings (e.g., behaviour) and other Britishisms, but it goes beyond that. For much of the book, he speaks (since the book started out as a series of radio broadcasts) and writes from an England that is in the midst of World War II. The wartime influence is not at all oppressive, but it's there.
  3. And Lewis's writing reflects his personal development — that is, where he was in life at the time. When the first portion of the book was published in 1943, Lewis was 45: teaching at Oxford, giving lectures, and living a comfortable life with his brother Warnie. It would be another five years before the publication of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and two more years after that before his first meeting with Joy Gresham, the woman who would become his wife. It would be a mistake to read 62-year-old Lewis back into 45-year-old Lewis; in many ways, they are very different people.
For the skeptical or the curious, this book is a good explanation of Christian belief. So often, Christianity is seen by those outside the faith as a set of loudly-preached moral rules. (Little wonder that when those who claim to be Christians fail to live up to their own behavioral standards, they are jeered for their hypocrisy by those they preached at.) Lewis, however, spends the first ten chapters establishing the reason behind the beliefs that form the basis for Christian behavior, and does not even touch on the subject of morality until the eleventh chapter.

For the new Christian or the believer with little theological training, this book is a helpful supplement to personal Bible study. (In fact, I found myself wishing I'd read it much earlier in my faith journey.)

The early chapters, especially, build on one another, so it's important to read them in order. This is not the type of book to dip into and pick-and-choose from (though later in the book Lewis himself tells the reader to skip chapters if they don't address something the reader needs to hear about at the moment). But the book is arranged in 33 very short chapters, plus a preface. So a reader, whether skeptical or devout, could easily read this book over the course of a few weeks of daily readings.

Lewis makes great use of analogies, showing the reader spiritual truths in earthly terms. For example:

I think every one who has some vague belief in God, until he becomes a Christian, has the idea of an exam, of or a bargain in his mind. The first result of real Christianity is to blow that idea into bits. When they find it blown into bits, some people think this means that Christianity is a failure and give up. They seem to imagine that God is very simple-minded! In fact, of course, He knows all about this. One of the very things Christianity was designed to do was to blow this idea to bits. God has been waiting for the moment at which you discover that there is no question of earning a pass mark in this exam, or putting Him in your debt.
Then comes another discovery. Every faculty you have, your power of thinking or of moving your limbs from moment to moment, is given you by God. If you devoted every moment of your whole life exclusively to His service you could not give Him anything that was not in a sense His own already. So that when we talk of a man doing anything for God or giving anything to God, I will tell you what it is really like. It is like a small child going to its father and saying, "Daddy, give me sixpence to buy you a birthday present." Of course, the father does, and he is pleased with the child's present. It is all very nice and proper, but only an idiot would think that the father is sixpence to the good on the transaction.
from Book II, Chapter 11
Though I had never read the book in full before, it has been quoted in so many other works that I kept running across pieces I recognized from other sources. And it is tremendously quotable. Every few pages, I found myself flagging a quote, thinking I'd include it in the review. When I'd used up all my little post-it flags before I was even a third of the way in, I realized I might be overflagging. Lewis is just that quotable.

A couple more examples:

Oddly enough, you cannot even conclude, from my silence on disputed points, either that I think them important or that I think them unimportant. For this itself is one of the disputed points. One of the things that Christians are disagreed on is the importance of their disagreements. When two Christians of different denominations start arguing, it is usually not long before one asks whether such-and-such a point "really matters" and the other replies: "Matter? Why, it's absolutely essential."
from the Preface
But perhaps we have already spent too long on this question. If what you want is an argument against Christianity (and I well remember how eagerly I looked for such arguments when I began to be afraid it was true) you can easily find some stupid and unsatisfactory Christian and say, "So there's your boasted new man! Give me the old kind." But if once you have begun to see that Christianity is on other grounds probable, you will know in your heart that this is only evading the issue.
from Book III, Chapter 10
As I finished reading, I thought, No wonder this book is such a touchstone for Christians. There's so much here to come back to at different points on the journey of faith. I know I'll keep coming back to it.

Perhaps even as early as the next review.

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