Reading Classics - Mere Christianity (I)
Here we are, at the beginning of another round of Reading Classics Together. In the past months we’ve read four great Christian classics—Holiness by J.C. Ryle, Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen, The Seven Sayings of the Saviour on the Cross by A.W. Pink and The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards. And now we add to the list Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I trust that this will be a slightly easier read than Edwards, whose great work we finished just a few weeks ago.
If you are interested in joining in this effort, please feel free to do so. Simply buy, borrow or download a copy of Mere Christianity and start reading. Our assigned reading for this week was nothing more than the Preface and Foreword, so you will not be far behind. Every week we will read a portion of the book and then return here on Thursdays to enjoy a little bit of discussion. It’s a good, easy way of making your way through some of the classics of the Christian faith.
This week’s reading was, by design, very simple. To help set the stage for the book, we read just the Preface and Foreword. Essentially, we learned a little bit about the book’s genesis and Lewis’ rationale for writing it. And, of course, we learned what he meant by the term “Mere Christianity.”
Lewis wastes no time discussing the book’s origins. “The contents of this book were first given on the air, and then published in three separate parts as Broadcast Talks (1942), Christian Behaviour (1943) and Beyond Personality (1944).” The book has been adapted slightly to fit the print medium, but is otherwise consistent with what he taught over the radio. In the Foreword, Kathleen Norris provides further context by setting these messages in the midst of the Second World War, in a day when people were asking questions about the nature and existence of God. Lewis “gave talks to men in the Royal Air Force, who knew that after just thirteen bombing missions, most of them would be declared dead or missing. Their situation prompted Lewis to speak about the problems of suffering, pain, and evil, work that resulted in his being invited by the BBC to give a series of wartime broadcasts on Christian faith.” This is not a work of academic philosophy but a work of oral literature, delivered to people at war.
In the Preface, Lewis addresses the inevitable question of “what is mere Christianity?”. He says it is “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” While he does not hide his own Anglicanism, he says that he will not be arguing for one particular denomination. Nor will he concern himself with issues of secondary importance since, as he says, these tend to fracture rather than divide and are not very useful for purposes of apologetics. “I am not writing to expound something I would call ‘my religion,’ but to expound ‘mere’ Christianity, which is what it is and what it was long before I was born and whether I like it or not.”
Norris writes this: “The ‘mere’ Christianity of C.S. Lewis is not a philosophy or even a theology that may be considered, argued, and put away in a book on a shelf. It is a way of life, one that challenges us always to remember, as Lewis once stated, that ‘there are no ordinary people’ and that ‘it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit.’ Once we tune ourselves to this reality, Lewis believes, we open ourselves to imaginatively transform our lives in such a way that evil diminishes and good prevails. It is what Christ asked of us in taking on our humanity, sanctifying our flesh, and asking us in turn to reveal God to one another.”
And so mere Christianity is the essence of the Christian faith—those beliefs that have been held in common by all true Christians through all of the church’s history. And on that basis, I think we are ready to move forward, knowing what it is that Lewis hopes to accomplish through the book.
For next week, let’s read Book I. It’s not as bad as it sounds. There are five short chapters that together come in at less than 30 pages (which together are probably easier to read than 5 pages of Edwards or Owen!). I think this section is best read as a unit so we’ll treat it in that fashion. So read those pages and come back here next Thursday!
The purpose of this program is to read these classics together. So if there is something you’d like to share about what you read, please feel free to do so. You can leave a comment or a link to your blog and we’ll make this a collaborative effort.