Before Narnia: What gives C. S. Lewis’s classic book about Christianity its enduring appeal?

Sofia Howard, First Year Theology and Religion

Image by drewplaysdrums from Pixabay

On 6th August 1941, in the midst of the Second World War, the BBC broadcast the first in a series of talks by C.S. Lewis introducing the listener to the basics of Christianity. These talks were later collected into a single volume, and to this day Mere Christianity remains a bestseller. Why is it that, nearly 80 years after its debut, Mere Christianity is still widely considered to be one of the best introductions to the Christian faith?

First of all, it is highly accessible. Lewis was not writing for highly-educated academics, but to whoever happened to be listening to the radio at the time, and to those with perhaps little or no knowledge of the faith. He needed to grab their attention, and he did so by creating vivid images that conveyed complex ideas while making them easy to understand. Though he was not a theologian at the time, Lewis was a literary writer steeped in the knowledge of the classics and mythology (he was good friends with Tolkien). He had yet to write his classic saga The Chronicles of Narnia, but he already had a natural flair for creating images that stuck in the minds of his readers and listeners.

Why is it that, nearly 80 years after its debut, Mere Christianity is still widely considered to be one of the best introductions to the Christian faith?

One famous example is his metaphor of Christianity and its multiple denominations being like a hall with many doors. Each door leads into a ‘room’ or particular sub-section of Christianity, with the hall being a period of waiting whilst you pray and learn which room God is calling you into – a complex idea which he develops further:

When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.

Lewis explains to listeners how, in his view, every single decision we make, no matter how big or how small, shapes us

Another reason for the book’s enduring popularity is that the issues Lewis tackles are as relevant to us today as they were then. Whilst written in the context of the wartime suffering of the early 1940s, evil and suffering continue to permeate our society to this day. Those picking up Mere Christianity now will find that the subject matters explored still resonate with their own experiences (3.5 million copies have been sold since 2001 alone). For example, the basic questions have not changed. How are we best to live our lives in the face of such persistent evil and suffering? Lewis explains to listeners how, in his view, every single decision we make, no matter how big or how small, shapes us: we are either progressing towards becoming more Christ-like, or we are heading in the opposite direction. To illustrate this, he uses the everyday and familiar example of compound interest, thereby bringing the huge concept of the persistence of evil and its cumulative effect down to the everyday experience of his readers:

Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance.

Mere Christianity remains popular because it provides a straightforward presentation of the core tenets of the Christian faith that are widely by shared by most denominations. In a time of considerable global change, it is an appealing prospect for many to have an unchanging understanding of the faith as it has been passed down through the ages. It can itself be a source of unity – another theme Lewis discusses. He encourages Christians not to argue with one another, as this will only put people off becoming Christians in the first place.

Mere Christianity remains popular because it provides a straightforward presentation of the core tenets of the Christian faith that are widely by shared by most denominations.

This is not to say that Mere Christianity is without its limitations. Some of Lewis’ views, particularly in Book 3: Christian Behaviour, are likely to be jarring to the ear of many modern readers. There are areas of morality that in Lewis’ time would have been generally accepted but which in our own are more contested. This raises questions about what the truly unchanging parts of Christianity are, what is contingent and if there is such a thing as ‘mere’ Christianity. If so, who gets to decide what it is? Mere Christianity is Lewis’ attempt, in his time, to answer that question. We may agree or disagree, but our perspective is as context-bound as his, as it is limited to our own time and experiences. However, our own reflections are deepened by engaging with the writings of great thinkers of the past, and C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity is an example of this.

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