On Mere Christianity
A guest post by NOAH BARRATT
Like many, I first read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity shortly after being called to faith, which occurred in my early twenties. At that time, I was ignorant of any especially intellectually rigorous element to Christianity. I actually picked up the book on a whim while browsing nonfiction at the public library. Of course I was knocked backward by the simultaneous depth and ease of Lewis’ prose. I wondered why people still had disagreements about spirituality; this guy had obviously thought it all out for us. Now, reading the book a second time after some years of really living as a Christian, I find Lewis’ primer just as thought-provoking and refreshing, but I no longer feel compelled to subscribe to every stance he lays out, no matter how airtight and neatly British it comes across. Maturity must shorten our heroes’ pedestals.
Many of the points Lewis makes in Mere Christianity, though they appeal to commonsense through creative illustrations, land more in the realm of opinion than well-defended argument. This quality of the work is not so much a weakness as simply the kind of book it is. Mere Christianity is a collection of various writings and radio talks, and so, by design, cannot attain the level of intentional thesis building present in Lewis’ other apologetic works. Further, it doesn’t aim to be other than a simple presentation of Lewis’ unique thoughts on some complicated subjects. Although Lewis claims matters of theological consequence “ought never to be treated except by real experts,”1in reality Mere Christianity brings theological musings back to the “common” people where they belong.
The material on social morality in the “Christian Behavior” section of the book stands out for me as particularly founded in personal opinion. I highlight this section too, because after having my own experiences following Jesus, my opinions diverge significantly from some of those Lewis offers here. Lewis often brings up a possible objection readers might have and then knocks it aside as somewhat of a straw man. When giving his outlook on social morality, he states, “People say, ‘The Church ought to give us a lead.’”2
He goes on to assert that “they ought to mean that some Christians — those who happen to have the right talents — should be economists and statesmen, and that all economists and statesmen should be Christians, and that their whole efforts in politics and economics should be directed to putting ‘Do as you would be done by’ into action” (italics mine).3
This image of a society in which the Christian ethic is the dominating influence by means of civil power is just not congruent with the role Jesus has assigned to his people in this church age. Certainly it is true everyone ought to live according to the truth of Christ, including politicians and bankers. But I disagree that, if Christian morality were successfully put into legislation by Christian people, “then we should find the Christian solution for our own social problems pretty quickly.”4 I see that the glimmers of justice brought about through God’s church come from person-to-person relationships, not legal or economic systems. By Jesus’ victory, legislated morality has been robbed of its rule. The resultant overthrow of strongholds of injustice is accomplished with equal efficacy through believers in fields as diverse as politics, foodservice and parenting.
The strongest portions of Mere Christianity are those in which Lewis takes on heady, heavily theoretical aspects of theology with signature understated agility. I especially appreciate his approach to atonement theory. Lewis doesn’t present his thoughts on the subject as definitive. Instead, he admits that even established experts “would probably admit that no explanation will ever be quite adequate to the reality.”5 Lewis’ concession that his picture of atonement is just one more learning tool that can be safely disregarded, is actually a helpful teaching point in itself.6 A Christian writer is expected to convey truth, to not fight for his own ideas just to be proven right, and to confess ignorance when such is the case. C.S. Lewis models this vocation for us.
And, despite his humility, the insights he gives about the atonement are sublime. He describes repentance as a sharing of Jesus’ death that “is not something God demands of you before He will take you back and which He could let you off if he chose: it is simply a description of what going back to Him is like.”7 While one is still meditating on that observation, Lewis sums up his take on the atonement with the visceral metaphor of a meal. “A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works; indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.”8
Perhaps this section of Mere Christianity resonates more profoundly with the person who has experienced salvation than with the general audience at which the book aims. However, Lewis does not waste the opportunity to close “What Christians Believe” with an invitation to faith to the general reader.9 Such evangelism is really at the heart of all apologetics, and we can rejoice to think of all the people who have met the living God by picking up this popular little book.
1 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 6.
2 Ibid., 79.
3 Ibid., 79.
4 Ibid., 79.
5 Ibid., 57.
6 Ibid., 61.
7 Ibid., 60.
8 Ibid., 58.
9 Ibid., 66.