Monday, April 4, 2011

Review: Mere Christianity - C.S. Lewis

This volume of work, by one of the 20th century's most noted authors, certainly sits among the modern fathers of Christian apologetic literature. As purely an apologetic piece it certainly has been superseded, and to continue rely solely upon it for justifications of faith would be erroneous in the least, however it does remain valuable. Nigh on 70 years post the development of its content and original broadcast, and 60 since its original publication, I believe that the value of this work extends beyond the boundaries of apologetics. It is useful for discussions on topics ranging from history, sociology, morality and ethics, and probably has always been so.

C.S. Lewis is most famed for his fictional yet powerful Narnia series. Influencing Mere Christianity (a work of non-fiction) is Lewis' background of a Northern Irish immigrant to England, a serviceman during the Great War, and his scholarly career as an English professor with a specialisation in Medieval and Renaissance English. Probably the most telling fact of Lewis' life that would lead him to produce a work of Christian apologetics was that he was from his own admission an atheist until age 29, and not accepting of Christian faith until 32. The famous group of writers and scholars that Lewis belonged to was the 'Inklings'. Included in this group was Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien, a Roman Catholic, who is credited as playing a significant part of Lewis' return to faith.

The work began life as a series of radio lectures broadcast by Lewis to Britain during the depths of the Second World War. He was engaged by the religious arm of the BBC to give hope and education to Britains during a period of such pain and grief. Owing to his own wartime experiences as a young man perhaps Lewis had heightened interest in serving his nation in such a way. Probably because the words began life as orations (later also a series of brief pamphlets) before being edited and compiled into one volume, none are wasted in explanation. I struggled to get more than one or two sentences along before needing to stop, think and extrapolate his thoughts out. This led to the feeling of being immersed in the work at one point, yet I had only completed 40 pages with the best part of 200 to go!

The term 'mere' was not being used by Lewis as a descriptive term for Christianity as a religion, but is part of the name of the topic that he aims to discuss. Lewis is not trying to carry denominational or theological doctrine. What is aimed is to get as close to the core of all Christian beliefs as possible, what Lewis believes all have in common. Neither does Lewis seek to pass judgement on the practices of society. Writing to wartime Britain, Lewis is trying to raise faith among a nation scarred by war and even promote this as a means of reconciliation. He is asking wartime Britain to go beyond the view that the actions of Nazi Germany are bad, and instead identify what the reason behind all Britain agreeing on this view is.

The reason identified for the common attitude is begun by Lewis as some central moral guide. This guide appears common to all – all believe the Nazi actions are wrong – but it cannot be something that comes from humanity and thus begins his exploration of generic faith, followed by the Christian faith. Faith to Lewis, was something in the natural order of life. He calls upon readers natural responses to situations in both thought and action to act as justification for the forgiving God as promulgated by the Christian faith. There is no 'getting of religion' to Lewis, rather you out live out life more honestly and recognise the inherent faith that is there.

From the position of recognising a common morality then that this morality justifies the Christian faith, Lewis moves on to how faith is worked out in life. Chapter by chapter Lewis paints the picture of what the Christian life looks like. These words need not be accepted in full as truth for every reader, but at the very least they are detailed enough to provide adequate base for reflection. Simply brilliant is his chapter on what he believes is “the great sin” of pride. In Lewis' opinion all sin stems from the prideful condition of humanity who seek to rebel against God. Despite his belief that the Christian faith will promote the best of the human condition, Lewis is sure to not place those already of faith as being of higher standing – they are just repentant.

Let me now defend Lewis from criticism he has and continues to receive from theologians on this work as an apologetic. Initially one must first make the distinction between who Lewis was and who such critics are. Lewis by his own admission is not a theologian, he was not an ordained minister, and despite clearly being of high intellect remained as laity in the eyes of the church and theological academia. Furthermore, Lewis is reflecting I believe some of his own path toward faith. While with the benefit of hindsight it may have flaws, one cannot criticise honest reflection. Lewis' justification for Christ's divinity, called the 'Lewis Trilemma', is the most heavily criticised of all his contentions and justifiably so, but I advise using it as a great base for exploring the central contention of the Christian faith.

The language of Lewis and examples used are rooted in the time, and in the experience of his life. Lewis' descriptions include his idea of the Christian battle with sin being a civil war and to read the word of God is somewhat of a battle plan. A life lived throughout the time of great bloodshed no doubt would come through any person's expression and to read such a work permits us a window as to what it must have been like. This in mind, Lewis' reconciliatory request of wartime Britain to worship an omnipotent and loving God is revolutionary given common mindsets rooted in witnessing constant horror.

There are hints of the man Lewis was as well. He seemingly was incredibly pragmatic about faith and how one should behave when accepting of it. Lewis's particular views on marriage, war, capital punishment all come from his own experience. We will certainly have different views but we understand more of the human condition by reading such musings.

His thoughts on marriage I both agree with wholeheartedly in some instances (opinions on divorce) but likewise disagree to the same extent when he describes headship. Despite disagreement, my own understanding is heightened and ultimately I have continued to grow as a person. You need to give grace to Lewis' tone as it is not of this age. He uses the bygone phrase of 'men' when referring to all, and speaks in masculine tones and examples that will be foreign and potentially off-putting. Don't let it be so, trust that he meant well and read through this for the learnings.

Unlike dictators, politicians, even military leaders who write a manifesto there is still an understanding that this work is incomplete and needs more. Lewis draws conclusions but does not draw them as complete, they are his to be expanded upon. This work that began life as an apologetic or promotion of faith, still serves such a purpose, but it can be seen as more across many topics. Let his musings challenge you and drive you toward greater understanding. Do not see this as a work of doctrine, but as a heartfelt musing of a journeying man. Basketballs.

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