Why 'Mere Christianity' Should Have Bombed
Sixty years ago, London publisher Geoffrey Bles first released a revision of four sets of radio talks by an Oxford literature don. The book was called Mere Christianity, and there was nothing "mere" about it. A somewhat disjointed set of C. S. Lewis's views on a wide range of theological, philosophical, and ethical matters, the book became the most important and effective defense of the Christian faith in its century.
As Mere Christianity (henceforth "MC") goes into its seventh decade of publishing success, rivaled still by no other apologetic, it's worth taking a look at its unlikely success.
Why It Shouldn't Have Worked
The first reason why MC should not have worked is rather basic: It doesn't deliver what its title promises. It does not do even what John Stott's classic Basic Christianity does—namely, outline at least the basics of evangelicalism's understanding of the gospel. Given the title's own promise and Lewis's express intent of offering "mere Christianity," we get something substantially less than that, as I think Puritan pastor Richard Baxter, from whom the phrase comes, would affirm.
Furthermore, MC offers not only less than "MC," but also more: Lewis's own opinions about domestic relationships, marriage, and gender; and his particular take on the vexed question of God and time (which, in my view, has powerfully perpetuated Christian Platonism and its "timeless God" among many people who have never read Plato). The danger here is the danger that resides also in C. I. Scofield's dispensationalist notes to his famous Reference Bible. (I recognize that this is perhaps the first time anyone has claimed that Lewis and Scofield are peas in a pod, but they are both remarkable publishing successes.) The danger is that the secondary and idiosyncratic are bundled with the primary and universal, and taken in together by the trusting reader as being "simply Christian."
A second reason why MC should not have worked is that it is, after all, an extended set of philosophical and theological arguments. Even worse, it is front-loaded with its densest material, a reworking of the moral argument for the existence of God: briefly, all human beings have a strong sense of moral obligation that cannot be explained on purely naturalistic grounds and instead requires a God very much like the Christian God to explain properly. This argument's distinguished heritage goes back through Immanuel Kant to Thomas Aquinas and beyond. It is among the most powerful and controversial of apologetics.
Hard as it is to believe that contemporary readers will sit still for such things, it strains plausibility to contend that modern people a few decades ago would enjoy following such an argument listening to a crackly radio, as MC was first introduced. And while lots of people didn't, and wouldn't, find such exposition interesting, lots of people apparently did—with enough positive response to have Lewis return to the BBC for the subsequent sections that made up the eventual book.
Sixty years on, however, we all know that people nowadays don't want such arguments. Our audiences demand snappy stories and quick changes of subject, in a kind of literary or homiletical MTV.
Oddly enough, this observation leads directly to our next set of considerations.
Why It Did Work
MC works because Lewis was a master at two rhetorical arts, which he combined fluently: argument and depiction. Indeed, his friend Austin Farrer emphasized the latter as his chief talent, and Lewis himself spoke, not only of creating Narnia in terms of "seeing pictures in his head," but of his entire writing career in this way. In the last months of his life, he explained to a friend why he was no longer generating new work. He was ill, but he was not old: only in his mid-60s. The situation was simple, he said: "The pictures have stopped."
Despite Lewis's protestations that he was not a theologian and his profession was a scholar of literature, it must be remembered that his first training was in philosophy and that he evidently took a subsequent degree (and a job) in literature only when he failed to obtain a position in philosophy. Thus we happily find a keen philosophical mind in harness with a lively literary mind—and a literary mind both critical and creative, which is another unusual combination.
MC works, then, because Lewis can both show and tell. He can tell us what he thinks we should think, and then make it appear for us in an image that usually lasts long after the middle steps of the argument have vanished from memory.
MC also works because Lewis pulls off another extremely difficult balancing act: adopting a persona of "just plain folk" who also has a first-class mind. He comes off to most audiences as a likeable chap "down the pub" who lives the same sort of life that the rest of us do, who feels what we feel and speaks to the issues we care about, but who just happens to have the ability to sort out knotty questions of theology, philosophy, and ethics into everyday categories, vocabulary, and illustrations.
This "act," furthermore, is authentic. In the preface to MC, Lewis describes himself as "a very ordinary layman of the Church of England." This is patently untrue, of course. Lewis was, after all, a brilliant scholar. But he was also a war veteran in a generation of war veterans, a family man in a very odd and demanding family system, a late convert who could sympathize with others who were not yet or not yet fully Christian, and a bon vivant who enjoyed beer, laughter, salacious jokes, and tramping about the countryside. Let me offer an American phrasing I suspect is not common among scholars of Lewisiana: he was, I suggest, the Ulstercum-Oxonian equivalent of a "good ol' boy with a Ph.D."
What seems effortless for Lewis is actually extraordinarily difficult to emulate. The market is now flooded with books by Ph.D.s who cannot write an interesting and intelligible paragraph, and by wannabe pop apologists who just aren't very smart.
Lewis's common touch was nevertheless very British. What explains MC's popularity particularly among Americans? Lewis depicts a highly individualistic Christianity in all his writings, a form of the faith that appeals to modern people and especially to Americans, arguably the world's most modern people. But we also must not overlook three other factors that, in combination, help boost sales on this side of the Atlantic: The combination of Lewis's British accent plus his Oxford professor status plus the aura of Anglicanism virtually guarantees big numbers, as others who possess this triple treasure have found to their delight. (No, I'm not thinking of N. T. Wright or Alister McGrath. Well, okay, I am.)
The more serious point here is that, whichever side of the Atlantic you're on, MC gives you permission to be both intelligent and Christian. That is its subtext, and it is crucial to understanding its success.
Having celebrated something of MC's mysterious power, let me offer two warnings to fans who like to plunk a copy on anyone who shows a spark of thoughtful interest in the faith.
First, Lewis's remarks in MC about gender are off-putting to many women and men today. He comes across to many people, frankly, as a sexist. Note particularly the end of the section on "Christian marriage," which fairly bristles with troubling statements and concludes with the assertion that men should handle disputes with the neighbors because women tend to be too protective of their families while men usually are more levelheaded and just.
It doesn't matter that lots of women like MC and aren't offended; what matters is that MC contains pockets of annoyance or even outright offense that render it tactically unwise to give to people who otherwise are willing to consider a good book about Christianity.
Second, weaknesses come packaged with strengths. The very voice of the Oxford don that so many find attractive is also repellent to some. I had a very bright Christian student at Regent College tell me that, as an English working-class girl who had subsequently graduated from a good public university in Britain, she found Lewis to be insufferably condescending in just the way Oxbridgeans can be. (Surrounded as I am on the faculty of Regent College with Oxford and Cambridge graduates, I have nothing whatsoever to say on the matter.) So to the problems of gender sensitivity we must add class consciousness as well.
But now let's look at the staying power of MC—and books like it.
Argument plus depiction still offer a potent combination. Argument without depiction risks being dull to all but highly motivated specialists, while depiction without argument risks confusion and even appropriation by contrary convictions.
The combination of a casual, common persona and high intellectual quality is still appealing, even if it is also hard to pull off. Two contrary currents affect apologetics in this respect. The tug of popular culture on intellectuals and academicians has been tremendous in this last generation. Titles of papers at scholarly society meetings now routinely include attempts at hip references to popular culture. Yet academic discourse, paradoxically, has become more arcane than ever—indeed, perhaps precisely in areas of cultural studies, in which artifacts of pop culture are submitted to endless high-altitude games (without sufficient oxygen, to be sure).
People today do want arguments, but they want them the way Lewis delivered them: in plain language, about issues that matter, in a methodical step-by-step fashion, and with illustrations that literally illustrate and commend the point being made. For scholars to write this way today is at least as much of a challenge as it was in Lewis's day.
MC therefore will continue to work. But it shouldn't have to do it alone, nor should Lewis's apologetic corpus in general. I've tried my hand at it, as have Wright and McGrath and Tim Keller, among others. We need more such efforts, and I hope that reflection on MC—and its genesis as radio talks—will inspire some of us to write blogs, op-eds, and books, and perhaps also create podcasts and videos that communicate with publics outside Christian subcultures.
Missiologists like to talk about targeting "people groups," and I will conclude with this thesis: The category of "thoughtful inquirers"—whether inside the church or outside it—still denotes the "people group" least well served by contemporary Christianity. It is the group best served by C. S. Lewis, and can be better served by us.
John G. Stackhouse Jr. holds the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver.
Note: This article has been corrected from an earlier version. There were four sets of radio talks that later became Mere Christianity.