C. S. Lewis's "Mere Christianity"

A Biography

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George M. Marsden
Lives of Great Religious Books
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , March
     2016.
     280 pages.
     $24.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691153735.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

C. S. Lewis continues to elicit interdisciplinary interest within the academy. In C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography, George M. Marsden traces the origin, context, development, reception, and legacy of Lewis’s enduring apologetic classic, Mere Christianity, which “has been translated into at least thirty-six languages” (1, 134). Marsden’s careful historical analysis complements recent treatments of Lewis’s fiction, philosophy, theology, and spirituality.

As part of the civilian contribution to the war effort in WWII, Lewis was enlisted to give a series of talks on the BBC radio at the height of the German blitz on London and other British cities in 1941. The talks were designed to encourage and edify a beleaguered nation with insights from the Christian faith, broadly conceived. Lewis’s talks were initially published in three volumes: Broadcast Talks (1942, later retitled The Case for Christianity, 1943), Christian Behavior (1943), and Beyond Personality—The Christian Idea of God (1944). These were later collected, edited, and published as Mere Christianity (1952). It has been recently uncovered that around the same time of the BBC talks Lewis was “enlisted by the secret Military Intelligence to record a talk to be broadcast in Iceland on the cultural affinities between Britain and Iceland evidenced in Norse Literature” (30). These were intended to strengthen the bonds between the two nations during the darkest days of the war. As far as we know, Lewis never publicized his “undercover” service.

Especially in chapter 3, “Loved or Hated,” Marsden notes the polarizing reception of Mere Christianity and Lewis himself in Britain and America. While most literary critics on both sides of the Atlantic praised his wartime talks as they began to be published, there were dissenters, especially in the university. Lewis had “committed the unpardonable academic sin of becoming a radio evangelist” (58), which had professional repercussions. Lewis’s popularity drew sharp criticism from his colleagues, since it contravened prevailing academic conventions and sensibilities. In a letter to Walter Hooper, J. R. R. Tolkien explains the vitriol toward Lewis within the academy: “In Oxford, you are forgiven for writing only two kinds of books. You may write books on your own subject whatever that is, literature, or science, or history. And you may write detective stories because all dons at some time get the flu, and they have to have something to read in bed. But what you are not forgiven is writing popular works, such as Jack did on theology, and especially if they win international success as his did” (Hooper, ed., C. S. Lewis: Collected Letters, v. 3, HarperCollins, 2009, xiv). These types of criticism demonstrate the resistance to Lewis at Oxford, despite his first-rate literary scholarship and the undeniable lucidity of his apologetic writing. Then and now, the scholarly dismissal of Lewis from the perspective of academic purity has a whiff of sour grapes, tinged green with envy, turned by the stark contrast between Lewis’s celebrity and the relative obscurity of most “pure” academics. “You don’t know how much I am hated,” Lewis once confided to a friend (86). Nevertheless, after almost thirty years without promotion at Oxford, Lewis was appointed as the inaugural Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at the University of Cambridge in 1954 (98).

Marsden’s astute analysis of dozens of reviews of Mere Christianity highlights the wide range in its reception outside of Oxford, in both Britain and America. The book was critiqued by the secular and liberal left as dogmatic, regressive, and rhetorical, and by the religious right—both Catholic and Evangelical—as modernist and unorthodox. Some later readers found it too erudite and outmoded, so it fell out of favor for a while (109), only to be rediscovered by later generations (111-12). Interestingly, Marsden notes that American conservative evangelicals were initially hesitant about Lewis, but they would eventually champion and “practically canonize him” (74), placing him in their “hierarchy of saints” (113). Mere Christianity, then, found an audience in the wide theological center of Western Christian clergy, public intellectuals, students, and laypeople. Lewis’s facility with language, particularly his ability to communicate complex theological concepts simply through memorable imagery accessible to all readers, helps to explain the continued vitality of Mere Christianity in different cultures and historical periods (176-181).

As a convert from atheism to Christianity, Lewis’s story perennially resonates with new generations of skeptics, spiritual questers, and apologists (for historical examples, see Chapter 6: “Many-Sided Mere Christianity”). His wartime exposition of the faith, Mere Christianity, continues to stimulate conversation and controversy. Marsden’s engaging historical account of Lewis’s signature apologetic work expertly details the emergence of a contemporary classic.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dr. Mark S. M. Scott is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Thorneloe University at Laurentian.

Date of Review: 
August 8, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

George M. Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. His books include Fundamentalism and American Culture, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, and The Soul of the American University. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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