Aside from The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis’ most famous and widely-read book is probably Mere Christianity. It is certainly the reason that most people think of him primarily as a Christian apologist. As World War II raged on in the 1940s, Lewis gave several talks on BBC Radio on the arguments in favour of Christianity and what the Christian life was like. The talks were originally collected into small books; it wasn’t until the 1950s that they were then compiled, and somewhat edited, into the book we know today. For all its fame as a work of apologetics, I discovered on my first time reading straight through that it feels like it’s only mildly concerned with proving Christianity’s truth. Or at the very least, it’s a concern that is dealt with only in the first section of the book. Before too long, the book seems to grow past the need to convince any doubters and begins to feel much more descriptive of what Christian theology and belief simply is in relation to itself. From there it quickly moves on to what seems to be Lewis’ main concern: what the Christian life is like and, perhaps just as importantly, what the Christian life means.
This is very likely what makes the book so popular, at least among those who have read it. It is not a work dedicated solely to a single audience or message, but in some ways can be profitably read by many kinds of people who are at different points in their spiritual journey. Giving answers to skeptics is certainly part of what Lewis does, but not the whole. Reminding committed Christians of what their commitments mean is also part of Lewis’ goal, but not everything. For some authors, this would mean that their book was flabby and pointless, a Jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none affair. For Lewis, it means that his book is inclusive. He is pointing everyone in the same direction: the perfection of humanity by the Triune God. Wherever we are on the road, he says, and however slowly or quickly we may be walking, we’re all on the same road. The stakes are the same, the struggles are the same–and so is the destination.
This inclusiveness is evident in the title, and in Lewis’ explanation for it in the preface. Where Christians can get bogged down in discriminating between denominations–Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican, low church, high church, evangelical, and so on–Lewis is interested in clearing away many of those barriers. He intends to speak not about what different denominations believe, but about what all denominations believe; the foundational elements of faith that all Christians accept, at least if they want to call themselves Christians. Instead of a specialized Christianity, it is mere Christianity that is Lewis’ subject. He mostly succeeds, although I suspect that different kinds of Christians will take issue at different points with how he’s phrased things. But on the whole he really does stick to the mere basics. Helping this inclusiveness is that he illustrates his points through everyday, ordinary experiences; he helps you see the common truth by relating it to common life. And then there’s his immense humility. He doesn’t expect everything he says to be helpful, and at least once freely advises people to skip the chapter if they aren’t interested in the topic. He doesn’t expect everything he says to be perfectly right, only to be perfectly what he sees.
Morality is the thread that ties the book together. Indeed, our moral awareness of right and wrong is the starting point for Lewis’ apologetic argument. It’s also the backbone of his discussion on what the Christian life looks like, which is framed as an exploration of virtue as well as sin. But it’s also a framework that he recognizes is necessary only for our current situation; it’s needed for travelling the road, but it can be safely shed once we’ve reached where the road is going. In reviewing this book filled with little gems, we can end with one of my favourites:
I think all Christians would agree with me if I said that though Christianity seems at the first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke. Every one there is filled full with what we should call goodness as a mirror is filled with light. But they do not call it goodness. They do not call it anything. They are not thinking of it. They are too busy looking at the source from which it comes. But this is near the stage where the road passes over the rim of our world. No one’s eyes can see very far beyond that: lots of people’s eyes can see further than mine.