I would like to begin a journey through C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity that will take some time—over half the year. In a journal entry about the book some years ago I wrote, “I don’t think we can underestimate the value of this book for having a kind of road map to understand the world we live in.” We’ll see if that holds up.
The plan is to read one section each week, beginning this morning, with the Preface (and Foreword by Kathleen Norris, if your edition has it). My idea is to ask and answer questions raised by the text as a way to try and understand what Lewis is saying. By the way, someone pointed out that if you have an Audible membership, Mere Christianity can be downloaded for free.
For those who do not plan to read the book, I hope what I write will still be of value. This is at least my fourth time reading the book, although it’s been about seven years since I last looked at it. There’s not a page where something isn’t underlined. Perhaps talking about the things I thought were important to me will be of benefit to you.
For those who are reading along with me, use this as a kind of reader’s guide, either to prepare you for what you are about to read or to give you an opportunity to reflect further on what you have read. Sometimes when we hear someone talk about something they have read, we find ourselves thinking, “That’s exactly right” or “That’s not it at all” or “I understand it differently.”
Also, Lewis is not always easy to understand, at least for me—confirmed again as I read and listened through the Preface, and it may be helpful to see how someone wrestles with this text as you yourself wrestle with it. Feel free to reach out when you sense I’ve missed the mark.
It may take me a few weeks to get this right. I can already see the temptation to write too much, as is certainly true today (and is quite unsustainable). Apologies. For you, I want this to be an encouragement and not a burden. For myself, I want it to be a spiritual practice and not the spiritual practice that takes over my life.
Q | How did this book come about?
A | During World War 2, the BBC invited Lewis to give some talks on the radio, discussing his Christian faith with a people in the midst of war. Lewis knew war from his experience in the trenches of World War 1. This lead him, as Norris describes it, “to speak about the problems of suffering, pain, and evil.” Norris reflects, “How strange it must have seemed to turn on the radio which was every day bringing news of death and unspeakable destruction, and hear one man talking, in an intelligent, good-humored, and probing tone, about decent and human behavior, fair play, and the importance of knowing right from wrong.”
Lewis turned the BBC talks into three books, which turned into this one book.
Q | What was Lewis’ challenge in converting his talks into print form?
A | As this began with “a ‘talk’ on the radio,” he wanted it to sound like “real talk” and not an essay, so he included contractions (don’t instead of do not) and where he emphasized a word with his voice, he used italics. But then Lewis the writer later evaluated all of this and thought “this was a mistake.” A writer works differently to emphasize things, and so for this edition, the contractions were expanded and sentences reworked with the hope that the tone would remain “familiar.”
He also gave himself permission to add or delete where he thought he understood his material better or thought he “had been misunderstood.”
Q | What does Lewis mean when he writes, “The reader should be warned that I offer no help to anyone who is hesitating between two Christian denominations”?
A | Lewis was a member of the Church of England, but he wasn’t going to tell anyone which denomination they should belong to. His interest was in helping his “unbelieving neighbors.” And so he thought his “best, perhaps the only, service” he could do for them was “to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”
Lewis makes two points about this. One, the things that divide Christians from each other are complicated matters of theology and church history and Lewis doesn’t consider himself an expert. (Note to self: If Lewis doesn’t think he’s an expert . . .) Further, he thinks there are plenty of people already doing this.
Second, and most important, discussing points of disagreement doesn’t really bring anyone into the Christian community. On this second point, Lewis has strong words: Only talk about disagreements with people “who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is His only Son.”
Q | Who is Baxter and what is “mere” Christianity?
A | Interestingly, Lewis doesn’t really tell us anything about Baxter, so I had to do a little searching to find that Richard Baxter was a Reformed pastor who lived from 1615–1691 and was both a popular and prolific writer in his day. Baxter is the one who famously declared that he preached “as a dying man to dying men!” In a book to pastors, he includes this very sharp warning:
“Take heed to yourselves, lest you be void of that saving grace of God which you offer to others, and be strangers to the effectual working of that gospel which you preach . . . and lest you famish yourselves while you prepare food for them.”
Whoah. In light of this book, Baxter once wrote, “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.” That seems to be something that Lewis has embraced.
The idea of “mere” has to do with the essential. Funny, I’ve always thought of the word “mere” as a kind of putdown, but it’s not that at all. Lewis wants to describe a “common Christianity” and not anything that is particular to one group or person. To help him, Lewis consulted an Anglican, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, and a Roman Catholic on the chapters where there might be disagreements between denominations. Lewis uses a term, “H.C.F,” which means Holy Catholic Faith. The idea of Catholic here means universal, and gets at the heart of his project. This is what he was going after.
Q | What are we to make of Lewis’ silence on “disputed matters”?
A | We are not to draw any conclusions from the things Lewis is silent about. He might be undecided or have strong views, but he wasn’t interested in telling people about “his” religion. Rather he wanted to describe the Christianity “which is what it is and was what it was long before I was born and whether I like it or not.”
Q | Does Lewis give any examples of these “disputed matters”?
A | The subject of Mary comes up and Lewis writes at length about her. If you want him to say something definitive, you will be very disappointed. The problem is that to disagree with someone who is Roman Catholic and has a very high view of Mary means if you say anything against her, you are both rude and “a heretic.” On the other side, there are Protestants who are concerned that the high view of Mary blurs the distinction between the Creator and the created and believe the idea of One God is imperiled. Lewis says this topic would wreck a book about the essence of Christianity. As he puts it, “if any topic makes utterly unprofitable reading for those who do not yet believe that the Virgin’s son is God—surely this is it.”
Q | Why has Lewis stayed silent on some issues of morality?
A | Here Lewis makes a powerful war reference, “Ever since I served as an infantryman in the first world war I have had a great dislike of people who, themselves in ease and safety, issue exhortations to men in the front line. As a result I have a reluctance to say much about temptations to which I myself am not exposed.”
Another Whoah. This is one of the most powerful moments in the Preface for me. It’s a bit of a guidepost for me: Be careful how you talk with people about issues that you don’t struggle with.
Q | What problem do some have with Lewis’ use of the word “Christian”?
A | By Christian, Lewis means “one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity.” Some object that there are better and worse Christians and so the term should only be used for those who are “closer to the spirit of Christ.” The answer Lewis gives is fascinating as he describes the history of the word, “gentleman.” There was a time when gentleman had the specific meaning of someone who “had a coat of arms and some landed property.” So to say someone was not a gentleman was to state a fact and not insult them. Someone could be a liar and a gentleman. There was no contradiction. By adding behavior to the idea of gentleman, we’ve taken the usefulness out of the word. It’s not longer a description of facts about a person, but a statement of our opinion about them. It’s a term we now use to praise (“What a gentleman.”) or insult (“You’re no gentleman.”) someone. Lewis says, “When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object.”
Long story short, Lewis wants the word Christian to have a specific and useful meaning. And if you want to evaluate the person (which I don’t think Lewis is advocating for), then say they are a “good” Christian or a “bad” Christian. For the meaning of “Christian,” Lewis takes us to Acts 11:26, where we find the first use of Christian was intended for those “who accepted the teachings of the apostles” and not a way to evaluate how well they did following those teachings.
Q | How are the ideas in this book supposed to relate “to the creeds of the existing communions”?
A | Lewis makes it clear that this book is simply a starting place. He thinks of it as a hall from which doors open into rooms. The hall is the essence of Christianity, but there is no “communion” (spiritual fellowship”) there. Communion is to be found in the adjoining rooms where “there are fires and chairs and meals.”
Lewis has some guidance for those in the hall: Find your room. Which one is true? Which one calls you to holiness? Not Which one do I like? In the meantime, “you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house.”
I think Lewis’ closing lines are affecting:
“When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.”
* * *
I am privileged to pastor a small congregation that is a room off the hall. We have chairs and a fire and a place for fellowship. I am grateful for all who are part of it. I pray that we at the center of our fellowship find, as Lewis says, “something, or a Someone, who against all divergences of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice.”
And I pray that we may exist to help others find their place in His House.
An old hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation,” came to mind as I reflected on the Preface. It seems to get at the heart of where Lewis wants to go. This is a song people in many different rooms sing as they speak of the House to which they belong. (Note: You’ll need some volume for this to really have any sort of effect on you!)
Here’s the first verse:
The Church’s one foundation
is Jesus Christ, her Lord;
she is His new creation,
by water and the word.
From heav’n He came and sought her
to be His holy bride;
with His own blood He bought her,
and for her life He died.