Book Review: C.S. Lewis & Mere Christianity

C.S. Lewis & Mere Christianity: The Crisis That Created A Classic, by Paul McCusker

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Tyndale House Publishers in exchange for an honest review.]

In some ways it is particularly ironic that Focus on the Families had a large role in the the release of this book about a productive and important part of C.S. Lewis’ life. The irony does not result from any lack of worth in the work of C.S. Lewis, who remains an Christian apologist of great importance more than fifty years after his death [1]. Like the late president Ronald Reagan, I too count Mere Christianity as among my favorite books, and the high regard placed on this book alone will make this book well worth reading by a wide audience. That said, there is an irony in C.S. Lewis being associated as a model of family. After all, during the majority of this period, C.S. Lewis lived in an unusual menage with his alcoholic brother (who also served during part of this time as a soldier in the British army in France) and Mrs. Moore, a woman in declining health who had once been the adulterous lover of C.S. Lewis during his young adulthood and was someone who C.S. Lewis (consistently called Jack in this book) felt obligated to take care of because of his loyalty to her son, who had died in World War I.

This book is remarkably charitable in discussing that issue as well as Lewis’ troublesome relationship with his father, and the graciousness of the author (himself a notable author and dramatist who has adapted all seven of the Narnia books) is a model of Christian restraint and tact combined with honesty [2]. This tone pervades throughout the entire book, weaving biographical information about Lewis with the larger story of England (and to a lesser extent Scotland and Northern Ireland) in World War II. Lewis’ radio broadcasts are told with a look at his able collaborators in the BBC within the general atmosphere of the Blitz and Lewis’ own ongoing work as an Oxford tutor as well as a volunteer for Oxford’s civil defense and a friendly host to refugees from London, whose plight is discussed tenderly in this book. McCusker makes it plain that Lewis was immensely busy during this time, working so hard dealing with correspondence and his many projects that his health suffered. Yet he continued working hard and continued producing works of extraordinary greatness—The Problem of Pain, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, The Abolition Of Man, his Space trilogy, the first few volumes of the Chronicles of Narnia, even as he dealt with the fallout of being a public Christian and academic, which was as controversial in the England of his time as it would be today in the America of our time, and as hazardous for his own career. Yet Lewis persisted despite all of these troubles.

This book not only shows the remarkable nature of Lewis’ prolific creativity in looking at religious and moral problems from the point of view of a lay Anglican seeking to appeal to a broad audience, as a creative writer of fantasy and science fiction, and as a professorial writer interested in deep academic matters, but it also shows how Lewis was ably helped by friends. C.S. Lewis (and others) profited from being part of a tight-knit community of Christians and writers who had a variety of different strengths and perspectives (most of these writers were men, but at least one of Lewis’ writing friends, Dorothy Sayers, was not). The thoughts and perspectives of all involved, though, were enriched by their correspondence. And Lewis’ contacts in the BBC also helped encourage him through providing help and encouragement as a religious speaker able to reach a wide audience and provide Britain with moral encouragement during the difficulty of war, which helped solidify Lewis’ reputation as a public ambassador of Christianity to the masses, a role he has retained even after death.

It is indeed this particular aspect of Lewis’ career that is likely to be the least familiar to Lewis’ fans, who may be vaguely aware (from reading Lewis’ introduction to Mere Christianity) that the chapters of the book were originally based on radio broadcasts but are not likely to have any awareness of the conditions involved in those broadcasts, which faced the threat of bombing, constantly changing airing times and formatting (from fifteen to ten minute segments and back again), to the challenges of recording and finding transportation to and from the studio. These details are likely to be unfamiliar with many American readers, and the compassion that the author has for the troubles of England in the face of immense rationing and massive government intervention (which did not go very smoothly or effectively) in the lives of its citizens is something that can provide readers with a great deal of material for thought and reflection. Overall, this is a work whose research is excellent and that captures the surprise and wonder of how the crisis of World War II brought out the best in an unconventional British intellectual, and how that time gave us works that still inspire readers today.

[1] See, for example:

[2] Not all commentators about Lewis are as generous, often due to their own Calvinist biases. See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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