George M. Marsden, “C.S. Lewis’s ‘Mere Christianity’: A Biography”

This is a book about a book.  It recounts how C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity came to be written and its remarkable longevity and influence over the past 75 years or so.  Professor Marsden of Notre Dame does a splendid job, and anyone who is a fan of C.S. Lewis’s book — and of course, as you can tell from the title of this blogsite, that would emphatically include yours truly — will greatly enjoy this book.

The book jacket says this is part of a new series, “Lives of Great Religious Books,” of “short volumes that recount the complex and fascinating histories of important religious texts from around the world.”  You can read more about the series on its website, here.  Yet one thought I had while reading Professor Marsden’s book here is how sui generis Mere Christianity is.   There are very few books, particularly if we focus on just the last century, that would merit this kind of treatment.

Most of Mere Christianity‘s text originated in a series of radio broadcasts by Lewis to an embattled Britain during World War II, and the book traces how they came to be collected and published together as one book; in fact, the book recounts how Lewis came to give the radio broadcasts themselves in the first place.  One interesting aspect of Marsden’s book is its discussion of the different receptions that Lewis’s book got among Catholics, mainline Protestants, and evangelicals — and, regarding the latter, how that reception has decidedly warmed over the years.  Marsden discusses Mere Christianity‘s influence not only on groups but also on an impressive and interesting array of particular individuals.  And the scope is international; the evolution of the embrace by Americans of the book (“the most important story regrading Mere Christianity) gets the most attention from Marsden, but its impact in Britain, of course, and in China (the “most remarkable world story”) and elsewhere are not stinted.  Marsden also devotes a chapter to various criticisms of the book; I’m happy to say that, in my humble opinion, the book emerges unscathed.

In the last chapter, Marsden offers this “distillation of the most compelling insights that represent a consensus of opinion” on “the genius and the ongoing appeal” of Mere Christianity:  (1) “Lewis looks for timeless truths as opposed to the culturally bound”; (2) “He uses common human nature as the point of contact with his audiences”; (3) “Lewis sees reason in the context of experience, affections, and imagination”; (4) “He is a poet at heart, using metaphor and the art of meaning in a universe that is alive”; (5) “Lewis’s book is about ‘mere Christianity'”; (6) “Mere Christianity does not offer cheap grace”; and (7) “The lasting appeal of Mere Christianity is based on the luminosity of the Gospel message itself.”

It should be said, too, that while Marsden’s focus is, as advertised, on Mere Christianity, there is inevitably quite a bit on the remarkable influence of C.S. Lewis and his works more broadly.

Other items of interest:

  • “Lewis’s published radio talks had been important in shaping [British theologian J.I. Packer’s] faith in the 1940s” (106).
  • U-2 lead singer Bono uses the trilemma argument (107).  The accompanying footnote includes other “‘Mere Christianity sightings’ in popular culture,” concluding with:  “Orson Bean, in Mail for Mickey … tells of striking interest in Mere Christianity in the world of television (8) and uses the trilemma argument (131).”
  • John Paul II was a C.S. Lewis fan, and Walter Hooper — who was the literary advisor to C.S. Lewis’s estate — became a Catholic (129).