The story of the life of Mere Christianity has a number of fascinating dimensions. First, there is the story of its origins. The setting during the trying days of World War II is particularly dramatic, and there is a good bit to say about Lewis’s view of his “war service” as an apologist for traditional Christianity. In addition to the broadcasts, he was traveling on many weekends to RAF camps to talk about Christianity to men whose life expectancies were appallingly short as they faced bombing raids over Germany. These experiences helped furnish Lewis with a good sense of how to communicate with the less educated, a skill that was essential for an Oxford don who wished to reach a wide audience with his broadcasts.
Another significant part of the story has to do with the reception of the book. Lewis’s broadcasts and the original paperbacks served a felt need for many people during the war years. So the publications were, with a few notable exceptions, well received both in Great Britain and the United States. Interestingly, in the States his strongest following was among the more traditionally inclined mainline Protestant denominations than among self-identified fundamentalists or evangelicals. As someone known for smoking and drinking, Lewis did not quite fit the American evangelical mold. Though they liked his supernaturalism and frank gospel message, some were suspicious of a few aspects of his theology. It was only in the decade or so after Lewis’s death in 1963, a time when mainline interest in him was fading, that he emerged as an iconic figure for American evangelicals, eventually standing second only to Billy Graham in their hierarchy of “saints.”
One highlight of that story is the conversion of Charles Colson, convicted for involvement in the Watergate conspiracy. Colson’s best-selling book Born Again, emphasizing the role of Mere Christianity in his transformation, appeared in 1976. Since then other conversion narratives, such as that of Francis Collins and multi-millionaire Thomas S. Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza, have added to the reputation of the book. Monaghan was one of many Catholic admirers of Lewis’s work.
Lewis also has some distinguished successor apologists who acknowledge the influence of his work. Among these are J.I. Packer, Peter Kreeft (another Catholic), Francis Collins, Alister McGrath, N.T. Wright, John Piper, and Timothy Keller.
Not everyone, of course, has liked the book. So another part of the story is the criticisms it has received. Interestingly, the argument that probably more people have found persuasive than any other has also been the most criticized. That is the famous “trilemma”—now popularly phrased that Jesus is either liar, lunatic, or Lord. Though the argument had been around for a long time, it became associated with Lewis. Critics point out that it is not an airtight logical argument, since there may be other explanations, such as that the Gospel writers only later attributed divinity to Jesus. One can, for instance, readily find websites such as “Atheism 101, how to respond to the Liar, Lunatic, or Lord argument.” Lewis was aware that the argument was not airtight. In fact, in his original radio script he alluded to and dismissed the fourth possibility, but he dropped that for the publications, probably thinking the point required more explanation. Despite criticisms, Lewis also has some very able philosophical defenders. And many readers continue to find his arguments compelling.
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