C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity: A Biography, by George M. Marsden
I must admit that this is the first time I have ever read a biography of a book, at least that I can remember. To be sure, there are a great deal of works that deal with the textual criticism that a particular book or author has received, whether this involves the Bible or other works. Yet this is the first time that I have read a book that saw itself as a biography of a given text, and this is likely the case because the book in question, C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, is widely viewed as a 20th century classic work of Christian apologetics. Yet how this book came to exist and how it came to be viewed as a classic is certainly a very worthwhile story, and even where some parts of it are familiar, and some parts I have even witnessed myself, this book is a compelling and worthwhile one in the way it relates C.S. Lewis’ writing and public speaking with his efforts at helping the British war effort in World War II and how that got connected with the American evangelical movement, all of which makes for a fascinating tale of divine providence.
At a length of a bit less than 200 pages, this particular book is by no means a long one, but the story told is quite detailed. After beginning with an introduction, the writer discusses the genesis of Mere Christianity in a series of talks that C.S. Lewis gave for the BBC during World War II that were aimed at servicemen as well as the general public relating to Christianity (1). The author discusses these talks and their reception and content in some detail (2), and discusses the polarizing way in which Lewis’ approach was either loved or hated by those who listened to or read it (3). Interestingly enough, the text that is now a classic was an afterthought (4), an edited version of three smaller works that Lewis quickly tossed off without a great deal of thought, but a work which ended up getting picked up in the evangelical orbit of American religious thought, which saw (rightly) in C.S. Lewis’ writings a thoughtful and intelligent preparation for a Christian effort of evangelism (5). After this the author discusses the many sides of Mere Christianity (6), a variety of critiques that the work received (7), and notes that the work did not fade out after Lewis’ death as he expected it to, but was lasting and vital and remains to this day (8). The author then concludes with a brief appendix that shows the changes Lewis made to the text of Mere Christianity when compared to the three short volumes that it was collected from.
There are a lot of different elements of Lewis’ thinking that shine through in this thoughtful and immensely worthwhile book. For one, they demonstrate that Lewis himself was a complex figure, a Christian who was by no means fanatical who had been an atheist during his teenage and young adult years, and who saw it necessary to prepare audiences for genuine conversion by giving them a proper understanding of sin as well as the fundamental purposes of a rigorous but ecumenical Christianity that would have been familiar to a figure like Bonhoeffer or Billy Graham. For another, the author demonstrates that Lewis did not want readers to see Mere Christianity as a new book if they already had copies of the original three works, as he was sensitive to the publishing problems of repackaging old books under new names, something some “Christian” writers like John Maxwell are less sensitive to in our own day. The author does a great job here of explaining how it was that a series of radio talks during World War II became a small but worthwhile classic in Christian literature.