The lasting vitality of ‘Mere Christianity’

9780691153735In my theology class, we begin with C. S. Lewis’ classic work of apologetics, Mere Christianity (1952). To supplement this primary source, I read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity: A Biography by the historian George Marsden, which belongs to a fantastic series from Princeton University Press called “Lives of Great Religious Books.” “Though there have been analyses of Mere Christianity before, none has been so comprehensive or serious as this one,” says C. S. Lewis scholar Michael Ward. “Marsden has subjected Lewis’s book to an assessment more searching and satisfying than anything so far in print.”

In Chapter 7 “Critiques,” Marsden writes:

Wherever Mere Christianity has been read, it has been hated as well as loved. Nonetheless, as a popular presentation of the faith it has drawn less systematic criticism than would a book that purported to be a definitive treatise on Christian apologetics and theology. Literary scholar Margaret P. Hannay summarized the mix of attitudes well in 1981, noting that Lewis’s Mere Christianity is “the most popular the most disparaged of his works, probably because its fans have spoken of it as a profound piece of theology, while it is, as was designed to be, only a primer.” Hannay adds that “anyone ignorant of Christian doctrine can learn much from it, but anyone seriously interested in theology must go beyond it, reading both Lewis’s sources, the patristic writers like St. Augustine and St. Athanasius, and more contemporary theologians. But the very simplicity of Mere Christianity makes it likely to endure.”

 In Chapter 8 “The Lasting Vitality of Mere Christianity,” Marsden offers seven perceptive answers to the question, “Why has it not faded in the way almost every other nonfiction book of the 1940s and 1950s has?” Each one of these answers is developed in the book.

  1. Lewis looks for timeless truths as opposed to the culturally bound.
  2. He uses common human nature as the point of contact with his audiences.
  3. Lewis sees reason in the context of experience, affections, and imagination.
  4. He is a poet at heart, using metaphor and the art of meaning in a universe that is alive.
  5. Lewis’s book is about “mere Christianity.”
  6. Mere Christianity does not offer cheap grace.
  7. The lasting appeal of Mere Christianity is based on the luminosity of the Gospel message itself.
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