Literacy 2008: Book 5: Mere Christianity

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

Originally presented as a series of lectures on BBC Radio during World War II, this book is Lewis’s attempt to describe and defend the fundamental beliefs of Christianity, regardless of any particular church or denomination. It’s presented from the perspective of a former atheist who converted to Christianity, speaking as a layman instead of a theologist, and using informal and conversational language throughout.

Sees science and intellect as supplements to religious belief, not opponents of it. Describes the path from atheism to Christianity as a philosophical and ethical question, not as one of dogma or simply faith. Provides contemporary (for the 1940s) examples of the Seven Virtues and other ideals, instead of just quoting parables or passages from scripture. Encourages the reader to reject parts of the book if they don’t provide any illumination for him. Gives the clearest explanation of the Trinity that I’ve ever heard; for the first time, I feel like I understand the concept.

Although the book is marketed as “timeless,” it is very much the product of a man born in the United Kingdom at the turn of the 20th century and coming of age during WWI. His views on patriotism and war, feminism, sexuality, homosexuality, race relations, and non-Christian belief systems are almost comically dated and so conservative as to be offensive. (For example: men should be in charge of the household, because somebody’s got to be in charge, and women don’t have the temperament for it).

Although he doesn’t use the word “faith” when describing the transition from atheism to theism, his arguments still frequently reduce to faith. His position is logical but not airtight, and at some points he still ends up in a circular or empty argument: God must exist because otherwise we wouldn’t want Him to exist; and Jesus must be the son of God because He said He was, and only a lunatic would claim that if he weren’t.

And although Lewis describes himself as a former atheist, he really comes across as a formerly lapsed Christian. When he refers to his old beliefs, they sound like a man raised Christian who’s had a crisis of faith, but is struggling to believe again. As a result, the book doesn’t seem to offer much to “modern” atheists (those not brought up in a religious household), or people of non-Christian beliefs. He’s very dismissive of atheism and other religions, calling them “childish” or “simple” when he deigns to mention them at all.

And he has an irritating tendency to trivialize the Nazis, lumping them in with nuisances like the guy who steals your seat on the bus.

The book is conversational and for the most part pleasant to read; even the “offensive” bits aren’t anywhere near as spiteful and judgmental as modern-day evangelists tend to be, but more a jarring reminder of when and where the book was written. But I can’t really see who would benefit from it apart from people who are already Christians and have never truly tested their faith, or Christians who are having a crisis of faith and want to get back into the fold. Non-Christians will likely be turned off in the early chapters. As it was, I started out the book mostly on Lewis’s side, and I still objected to it more often than I agreed with it.