A Biography of Mere Christianity - page 3


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From the Spring 2017 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

A Biography of Mere Christianity

by George Marsden
Professor of History Emeritus at University of Notre Dame

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  One challenge in writing this “biography” of Mere Christianity was to find a way to go beyond the stories of origins and reception, as interesting as each of those is. So I chose to consider the “life” of the book as also involving its “vitality.” What gives this book its ongoing vitality, contributing to its growth in popularity over the years? What is the genius of this book? The answers are, of course, not original with me. I am in a sense distilling what has been said by many writers who have reflected on Lewis’s marvelous effectiveness as an apologist. Here I’ll just summarize the seven traits I identify as contributing to the book’s genius in the hopes that these will whet the reader’s appetite for more.
  1. Lewis looks for timeless truths as opposed to the culturally bound. Lewis is well known for his rejection of “chronological snobbery” or the idea that the latest fashionable ideas are likely to be the best. He maintained, rather, that the beliefs that had lasted the longest were more likely to be true. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Mere Christianity is not dated in the way most other mid-twentieth-century books seem to be.
  2. Lewis uses common human nature as the point of contact with his audiences. As a literary scholar, Lewis looked for what was common in human experience. He combined that expertise with a good ear for listening to his less-educated neighbors or tradespeople. So when it came to speaking on the BBC to just about every sort of person, he knew where to begin—with our common sense that there is a right and a wrong. And unlike what one might expect of a university don, he could speak in simple terms that just about everyone could understand. As in writing the Narnia tales, he knew how to put himself in the shoes of his audience.
  3. Lewis uses reason in the context of experience, affections, and the imagination. Some people are reluctant to open Mere Christianity, because they think it is mostly a set of arguments. Lewis was indeed sharp in argument and debate. But he put whatever arguments he presented in the context of first appealing to his audiences’ imagination, longing, and desires. He used reason to remove some of the modern obstacles to belief. But his appeal is to the whole person who intuitively recognizes that there is more to reality than modern culture may allow. Lewis speaks of the disenchantment of the modern world, and one of the things he tries to do is to re-enchant it by, as he says in his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” weaving a spell.

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