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.

Three steps to recovering our stolen identity in Christ

In the introduction for Identity Theft: Reclaiming the Truth of Who We Are in Christ, Melissa Kruger, an author, speaker, and editor for The Gospel Coalition, writes:

imagesAt some point or another, we’ve probably all assumed an identity not our own. [. . .] The problem arises when we dress ourselves up with counterfeit identities and wear them on a regular basis. We believe we aren’t enough, so we find ways to make ourselves appear better. [. . .] There’s also the opposite reality that someone may attempt to steal our identity. [. . .] Sometimes we knowingly live duplicate lives: we act one way with one group of people and quite differently with another group. Other times, we put on a pleasant Christian exterior, but inside we’re angry, bitter, and boiling over with frustration at God and others. We’re also prone to becoming victims of identity theft in a spiritual sense: the Devil seeks to steal, kill, and destroy us with his lies and accusations.

Our three enemies – the world, the flesh, and the Devil – all seek to discourage and dishearten us from living in the fulness of who we are in Christ. The world wants to conform us into its mold, our flesh craves self-glory, and Satan reminds us of past sins and present failings in an attempt to paralyze our faith. [. . .] It’s a struggle to remember who we are in Christ. We need a biblical understanding of identity to guard our hearts and minds as we seek to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.

To answer the question, “Who does the Bible tell me I am in Christ?“, Kruger and the other contributors in the book consider a three-step process that I want to remember:

  • Identity theft: Expose our false notions of identity.
  • Identity truth: Understand the biblical truth of our identity in Christ.
  • Identity transformed: Reflect on what it looks like to live in our new (and true) identity.

In his Christianity Today review of the book, Louis Markos writes: “While most of us would like to jump ahead to the transformation part, we cannot assume our true and full identity in Christ before first seeing through the false identity thrust upon us by society and then searching the Scriptures to determine what exactly it is that Christ desires to do in and through us.”

QUESTIONS: What are your false identities? Who do you understand yourself to be in Christ?

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree | In the Bleak Mid-Winter

DCD34192_RGB-600x600.jpgAdvent season begins this Sunday (December 2, 2018). To prepare my heart for the Christ Child, I am listening to Christmas carols on an exquisite album called, O Holy Night: A Merton Christmas (Delphian, 2016), which features the Choir of Merton College at Oxford University. (Incidentally, J.R.R. Tolkien was Merton Professor of English Language and Literature from 1945 to 1959). This album includes two of my favorite songs because of their imagery and lyricism: the 18th century song “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” by composer Elizabeth Poston and the 19th century song “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” by poet Christina Rossetti. Read the lyrics while watching a video of both songs performed by King’s College Choir, Cambridge University.

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree

The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit, and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.

His beauty doth all things excel:
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ the apple tree.

For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
I missed of all: but now I see
’Tis found in Christ the apple tree.

I’m weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree.

In the Bleak Mid-Winter

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Waiting for the Gift

Screen Shot 2018-11-25 at 11.52.43 PMThe devil of commerce is behind Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Just prior to the Advent season, he distracts us from the truths of Nativity, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer articulated in a letter to his fiancée from prison on December 13, 1943: “God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment.” Nothing could be more opposite to the commercialization of Christmas than the idea of “wealth in poverty.” Our affluent society has given rise to the lie attributed to Malcolm Forbes, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” The New Yorker cartoon above is a trenchant rebuttal to the vulgar capitalist, and his impatient acquisition of material goods. More is not more. Wealth in poverty means less is more, which is why I need Advent, “a season of waiting,” which teaches me that Jesus Christ is the most good and perfect gift “coming down from the Father of heavenly lights” (James 1:17). I am poor, but He is rich. I cannot buy the Gift. I can only receive the Gift with a heart that waits, Advent to Advent, for “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” hidden therein (Col. 2:3). In the poverty of his prison cell, Bonhoeffer discovered, more acutely, the poverty of his own heart — a prerequisite to celebrating the Nativity. He says to his fiancée: “I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious; the emptier our hands, the better we understand what Luther meant by his dying words: ‘We’re beggars; it’s true.’ The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth.”

Is the Christ-life given through impartation or imputation?

In my theology class, we recently finished C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, which I have read a few times in my life. To reflect more deeply that work, I consulted Reading C. S. Lewis: A Commentary by Wesley A. Kort, a professor emeritus of religion at Duke University. Since Lewis is reluctant to use much theological jargon in his minimalist account of Christianity, Kort lifts the curtain on the ideas that inform Lewis’ view of atonement. First, Lewis mentions three theories of atonement, favoring the moral theory and curiously omitting penal substitution, which evangelicals give pride of place in their understanding of the Cross. Second, Lewis holds that Christ imparts the “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4) more than imputes it, which runs counter to the Protestant emphasis on God’s judicial declaration of righteousness. Third, Lewis advances an inclusivist position on salvation rather than exclusivist, which entails a rejection of the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement. All this reinforces that Lewis’ centrist style of traditional Christianity makes him a peculiar candidate for canonization by conservative Protestants.

Kort writes:

The doctrine of atonement, that in and by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ human relations with God are restored, is a central Christian principle. Despite its centrality, however, it does not explain how this change occurs. Lewis makes a characteristic distinction between the principle and various theories about how and why it is consequential. It may be helpful to think of the various applications of the principle of atonement as versions of one of three options: those that direct the effects of Christ’s life and death toward God, those that direct those effects toward Satan, and those that direct those effects toward human beings. The first of these has its most famous spokesperson in St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). He argued, to simplify a bit, that Christ’s death was a sacrifice to God that satisfied God’s demand for justice. The second option, directed toward Satan, is usually associated with the church father Origen (185-253) and suggested by the language of Mark 10:45, which describes the death of Christ as a ransom. On this theory, this is a price paid not to God but to Satan who, because Adam and Eve had sinned, had gained a claim on human souls. The third option, often called a moral theory of atonement, is directed toward humans, and Peter Abelard (1079-1144) offers a good example. The death of Christ, because it is an act of self-surrender and obedience, has power to cause humans to act similarly. Lewis varies in his loyalties among these three options. Here he seems to favor the third: the remedy for sin lies in the ability and willingness to lay aside claims for oneself, and one can do this by participating in the death of Christ. That participation takes three forms: baptism, belief, and Holy Communion.

We should note that Lewis stresses in his description of atonement what is often called “impartation” rather than “imputation.” That is, the alteration in human life is not simply declared; it is imparted. Sacraments and beliefs have the consequence of spreading “the Christ-life to us.” They are “conductors of the new life.” This imparted life enters persons and begins to change them in such a way that they are increasingly able to undergo the kind of voluntary and obedient death that Christ himself accepted. Christians actually become the body of Christ in the world, reenacting or actualizing his death and experiencing the new life that it brings.

Lewis ends by looking at a difficult question, the doctrine of limited atonement. Are the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection confined to those who explicitly are or become Christian? Lewis argues that, while the new relation to God is made possibly only by Christ, it is not clear that people must know that in order to be affected by it. On the other hand, Lewis is not a universalist, as was George MacDonald, a Christian author he greatly admired. However, he was inclusive. His earlier statements about truth in other religions prepare the ground for this move. Not only, one can infer, do other religions possess truths concerning human morality and the existence of deities: there is also soteriological truth in other religions, that is, truth having to do with overcoming evil and its consequences in and for human life. [1]

[1] Lewis is quite clear and consistent on this point: “Of course it should be pointed out that, though all salvation is through Jesus, we need not conclude that He cannot save those who have not explicitly accepted Him in this life. And it should (in my judgment) be made clear that we are not pronouncing all other religions to be totally false, but rather saying that in Christ whatever is true in all religions is consummated and perfected. But, on the other hand, I think we must attack wherever we meet it the nonsensical idea that mutually exclusive propositions about God can both be true.” C. S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. 

Elsewhere in the commentary on Mere Christianity, Kort further emphasizes the distinction between impartation and imputation:

On the matter of a person’s relation to God, Lewis prefers, as we already have seen, impartation to imputation. That is, he affirms that in a relation with God something actually is given or imparted to the believer. What is given is God’s own life, what earlier he called Zoe. That is, a person has a relation to God that is somehow continuous with the relation that God has within God’s own personal life. Lewis calls this impartation a “good infection.” He differs from those Christians who think that God’s relation to people is more a matter of declaration, of a status imputed to them.

Reader of Bensonian: What is your opinion about impartation versus imputation? Are these views mutually exclusive? Or, can both be true? Leave a comment, if you are so inclined.

Staying alert to place and time

In The Pastor: A Memoir, Eugene Peterson memorably writes about his vocation, which combines the pastoral ministry and poetic office. Mindfulness about the conditions of space (topo) and time (kairos) are just as important, he says, as mindfulness about the holy mysteries:

I am a pastor. My work has to do with God and souls — immense mysteries that no one has ever seen at any time. But I carry out this work in conditions — place and time — that I see and measure wherever I find myself, whatever time it is. There is no avoiding the conditions. I want to be mindful of the conditions. I want to be as mindful of the conditions as I am of the holy mysteries.

Place. But not just any place, not just a location marked on a road map, but on a topo, a topographic map — with named mountains and rivers, identified wildflowers and forests, elevation above sea level and annual rainfall. I do all my work on this ground. I do not levitate. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” Get to know this place.

Time. But not just time in general, abstracted to a geometric grid on a calendar or numbers on a clock face, but what the Greeks named kairos, pregnancy time, being present to the Presence. I never know what is coming next; “Watch therefore.”

I don’t want to end up a bureaucrat in the time-management business for God or a librarian cataloguing timeless truths. Salvation is kicking in the womb of creation right now, any time now. Pay attention. Be ready: “The time [kairos] is fulfilled . . . ” Repent. Believe.

Staying alert to these place and time conditions — this topo, this kairos — of my life as a pastor, turned out to be more demanding that I thought it would be. But Montana gave a grounding for taking in the terrain and texture of the topo. And John of Patmos showed up in New York City at the right time; the city was a midwife to assist in the birthing, at my come-to-term pregnancy, my kairos, as pastor.

How do you mature a spiritual life?

merlin_145720086_cc7f672d-fe1f-4d68-8a7e-ee667db364fd-popup.jpgI am sad. One of our great contemporary Christian writers has died. Eugene Peterson (1932-2018) served as the pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church (Bel Air, Maryland) and wrote over 30 books, including The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, The Pastor: A Memoir, and five volumes of “conversations” in spiritual theology, notably Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology and Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. Consider the ministry lessons from his life.

To remember the man, I watched a 10-minute documentary featuring Pastor Peterson and U2 lead singer, Bono, and listened to an excellent interview by Krista Tippett, the host of On Being, a public radio show and podcast. This excerpt is worth highlighting:

MS. TIPPETT: Once you wrote, “People ask, ‘How do you mature a spiritual life?’” And you said the one thing you do is you eliminate the word “spiritual.” It’s your life that’s being matured. It’s not part of your life.


MS. TIPPETT: But the word “spiritual,” much more than when you first became a pastor, is everywhere now.


MS. TIPPETT: And I want to know how you hear that, respond to it, what you think of it.

MR. PETERSON: I think it’s cheap. You’re taking something, and putting a name on it, “spiritual,” which means it’s defined. The whole world is spiritual and it’s — and the word “spirit” is wind. It’s breath. Well, people are breathing all over the place. They’re all spiritual beings, but they — if you have a name for it, you can compartmentalize it. And that just wrecks havoc with the whole thing. Spirituality is — and that’s why I don’t like the word, because it’s so easy to just say, “Well, he’s such a spiritual person, she’s such a spiritual person.” Well, nonsense. You are too.

And I guess that’s where I think the church has a place, which is maybe more important than it’s ever been. But it’s — done well, there’s no spirituality that you can define.

MS. TIPPETT: Because it is in everything you do?

MR. PETERSON: That’s right. And if you don’t recognize that that’s possible, you just subtract a whole part of your life. And so, I think that’s — those of us who are teachers, preachers, pastors, we don’t do people any good by trying to make them more spiritual.

Memorization, or how poems become authorless inside us


Gari Melchers, “Woman Reading By a Window” (1895)

As a literature teacher, I have been reflecting on my neglect of memorized and recited poetry. Why own “poetical real estate” in the mind? What is the good of “mental husbandry”? With the convenience of technology, why fix any verse in “the architecture of the brain”?

Molly Worthen, a scholar of North American religious and intellectual history, wrote an article in The New York Times, “Memorize That Poem!“, that accounts for the rise and fall of this practice in homes and schools. Here are the salient excerpts:

Since ancient times, humans have memorized and recited poetry. Before the invention of writing, the only way to possess a poem was to memorize it. Long after scrolls and folios supplemented our brains, court poets, priests and wandering bards recited poetry in order to entertain and connect with the divine. For individuals, a poem learned by heart could be a lifeline — to grapple with overwhelming emotion or preserve sanity amid the brutalities of prison and warfare.

Yet poetry memorization has become deeply unfashionable, an outmoded practice that many teachers and parents — not to mention students — consider too boring, mindless and just plain difficult for the modern classroom. Besides, who needs to memorize when our smartphones can instantly call up nearly any published poem in the universe?

In fact, the value of learning literature by heart — particularly poetry — has only grown. All of us struggle with shrinking attention spans and a public sphere that is becoming a literary wasteland, bereft of sophisticated language or expressions of empathy beyond one’s own Facebook bubble.

For students, who seem to have less and less patience for long reading assignments, perhaps now is the time to bring back poetry memorization. Let’s capitalize on their ear for the phony free verse of Twitter and texting and give them better words to make sense of themselves and their world.


Susan Wise Bauer, a writer whose best-selling home-school curriculums are based on classical and medieval models and stress memorization, told me that “you can’t express your ineffable yearnings for a world that is not quite what you thought it was going to be until you’ve memorized three or four poems that give you the words to begin.” She learned William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood” when she was 8. “Every decade I grow older, I understand a little more what he means about that sense of loss of wonder,” she said.

Understanding a good poem is hard — all the more reason to memorize it. Ask students to write a paper on Wordsworth, and once they turn it in, they consign the text to oblivion. But if they memorize his lament, years from now — perhaps while they are cleaning up their child’s chocolate-smeared face after birthday cake — they may suddenly grasp his nostalgia for “Delight and liberty, the simple creed/Of Childhood” and the bittersweet truth that “Our noisy years seem moments in the being/Of the eternal Silence.”

Is it difficult to learn a poem by heart? Of course. But it is mainly a matter of diligent practice, with many pathways to success. Do you struggle with the printed page? The Poetry Foundation’s website will recite poems to you over and over again, and YouTube is packed with fearless souls declaiming to the internet. Do you dread the thought of speaking up spontaneously? You might find a memorized text empowering — as Ms. Huggins, the Poetry Out Loud winner, did. “That was a hidden part of me that I didn’t know I had,” she said.

The challenge is partly the point. When Jason Jones told students in his survey of British literature at Central Connecticut State University that they would have to memorize three poems of at least 20 lines each, he was prepared for groans and cries of outrage. “I was interested in messing around a little with the mutual nonaggression pact between teachers and students, the one that says, ‘As long as you don’t expect too much from us beyond a couple of papers, a midterm and a final, we’ll perform for you and we’ll all get through this,’ ” he told me. “I was interested in things that will bring students into closer contact with the material in the class.”

Colleagues teased Mr. Jones about “how there’d be lines outside my door of students quietly weeping or looking like they were about to vomit,” he said. “I’d stare at a copy of the poem to prompt them, or turn and look away if they wanted.” In the end, he said, “their worst fears were typically not confirmed.”

Mr. Jones didn’t try to sell his students on a profound spiritual experience or practice in public speaking. Memorizing a poem is just as valuable as an exercise in close reading, a chance to observe the exertions of our own brains. “When you memorize, you start to notice the things that you notice, your own habits of attention, your habits of reading,” said Mr. Jones, who is now the director of educational technology at Trinity College in Hartford.

In his New Yorker article, “Why We Should Memorize Poetry,” Brad Leithauer, a poet, novelist, essayist, and teacher, posits:

The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”

Writer Jim Holt addresses the process of memorization in his New York Times article, “Got Poetry?“:

A few lucky types seem to memorize great swaths of poetry without even trying. George Orwell said that when a verse passage “has really rung the bell” — as the early T. S. Eliot invariably did for him — he could remember 20 or 30 lines after a single reading. Samuel Johnson, according to Boswell, had a similar mnemonic gift. Christopher Hitchens — who carries around in his head a small anthology of verse, all of which, as his friend Ian McEwan says, is “instantly neurologically available” — also seems to absorb poems by osmosis. (Or maybe he swots them up late at night after his dinner-party guests have all passed out.) Richard Howard once told me that he eased into the memorization habit as a child, when his parents rewarded him with a dime for each poem he learned.

For the rest of us, the key to memorizing a poem painlessly is to do it incrementally, in tiny bits. I knock a couple of new lines into my head each morning before breakfast, hooking them onto what I’ve already got. At the moment, I’m 22 lines into Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” with 48 lines to go. It will take me about a month to learn the whole thing at this leisurely pace, but in the end I’ll be the possessor of a nice big piece of poetical real estate, one that I will always be able to revisit and roam about in.

The process of memorizing a poem is fairly mechanical at first. You cling to the meter and rhyme scheme (if there is one), declaiming the lines in a sort of sing-songy way without worrying too much about what they mean. But then something organic starts to happen. Mere memorization gives way to performance. You begin to feel the tension between the abstract meter of the poem — the “duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA” of iambic pentameter, say — and the rhythms arising from the actual sense of the words. (Part of the genius of Yeats or Pope is the way they intensify meaning by bucking against the meter.) It’s a physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one. You can get something like it by reading the poem out loud off the page, but the sensation is far more powerful when the words come from within. (The act of reading tends to spoil physical pleasure.) It’s the difference between sight-reading a Beethoven piano sonata and playing it from memory — doing the latter, you somehow feel you come closer to channeling the composer’s emotions. And with poetry you don’t need a piano.

Last month I came across an arresting passage on memorized poetry in He Held Radical Light, a memoir of the contemporary poet Christian Wiman:

I met Seamus Heaney in person only once, at a dinner in Chicago after a reading he did for Poetry during my last year in the magazine. A few months later he would be dead. Meeting him was a momentous event for me, though in a way it was impossible for me to meet the man, for I knew so much of his work not simply by heart, but by bone and nerve. The poems had become authorless inside me, so unmediated that I flinched whenever he got the cadence “wrong” in one of my particular favorites.

As soon as I read it, I realized that I do not know an author’s work “simply by heart,” let alone “by bone and nerve.” Accepting the challenge for poems to “become authorless inside me,” I have joined my students in memorizing the most beautiful speech that occurs in Goethe’s drama, Faust: Part 1. Already, I am discovering things that may go unnoticed if only reading the poem: the rhythms are internalized, the images are alive, and the diction is felt.

In conclusion, hanging a poem in the gallery of our mind helps us —

  • to better appreciate poetry
  • to cultivate a habit of loving attentiveness
  • to care for words in a world marked by empty and flat discourse
  • to have words at our disposal in a moment when our own words falter or fail
  • to grapple with the exigencies and vicissitudes of human life
  • to express ourselves more fluently
  • to interpret poetry more profoundly
  • to feel more deeply
  • to connect with the divine
  • to entertain others
  • to enter imaginative spaces that expand the self
  • to intuit how language works
  • to boost self-confidence in public speaking
  • to channel the poet
  • to improve mental health, recollection, neural plasticity, and creativity