Cox News Service, Oct. 18, 2002
AUSTIN, Texas — During World War II, after the blitz but before the end of rationing, as spirits flagged and tensions rose, an author and teacher sat in front of a microphone and spoke in simple, soothing words of Christianity.
C.S. Lewis, at the request of the BBC, introduced his fellow Brits to his faith in a series of accessible and good-natured 15-minute radio talks. From 1942 to 1944, the World War I veteran and former atheist brought intelligence and humor on a deep subject to the radio waves during a time when the big box in the living room typically brought only news of death and destruction.
A decade after starting the talks, Lewis gathered them into a book, “Mere Christianity,” that became the centerpiece of his apologetics, the defense and proofs of Christianity. It also became a classic reader for anyone studying faith, religion or philosophy that continues to sell almost 250,000 copies a year. This year marks the book’s 50th anniversary, an event publisher HarperCollins commemorated with a new edition.
“This is a book that begs to be seen in its historical context, as a bold act of storytelling and healing in a world gone mad,” poet and author Kathleen Norris writes in the foreword to the new “Mere Christianity.” “This book does not consist of academic philosophical musings. Rather it is a work of oral literature, addressed to people at war.”
It remains valued literature today because of its universality, says Terriel Byrd, an assistant religion professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He first read and fell in love with the book decades ago as a freshman at Cincinnati Bible College. And the freshmen in his classes today appreciate it just as much.
“The living legacy of C.S. Lewis is in the young people who are still fascinated and intrigued and inspired to read his work,” says Byrd, who still uses Lewis’ work often in his classes. “The themes he deals with are relevant for any age, and that’s the beauty of it. The themes seem to resonate with any generation.”
Much of the reason for that, Byrd believes, is Lewis’ ability to avoid denominational issues while addressing the core issues of faith. Instead of discussing the Blessed Virgin Mary, Lewis talks about decency, fair play and the difference between right and wrong.
“The reader should be warned that I offer no help to anyone who is hesitating between two Christian ‘denominations,’ ” Lewis writes in the preface. “You will not learn from me whether you ought to become an Anglican, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, or a Roman Catholic. This omission is intentional (even in the list I have just given the order is alphabetical).”
The omission also allows Lewis to reach a much larger audience. It doesn’t feel like Lewis is trying to convert the reader, Byrd says.
“He’s really coming across as an observer of the Christian experience,” he says. “That makes it a lot easier for people in the secular world to accept, rather than from someone coming in as an ‘evangelist.’ But in many ways he’s doing just that. He’s taking the back door.”
Lewis does that by writing about the basics of Christianity, starting with “the law of human nature” that says basic standards of decent moral behavior exist throughout humanity.
The simplicity of the idea isn’t the only appeal. It’s the way Lewis keeps things simple. In this case, he explains his law with a discussion about people quarrelling. Everyone hears complaining when someone jumps ahead in line or fails to share his orange as he promised.
“Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him,” Lewis writes. “He is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about.”
Lewis discusses this standard and objections to it, building on it throughout the book. But he emphasizes that he isn’t writing in hopes of growing his own Church of England. And that’s where the book gets its title.
“I am not writing to expound something I could call ‘my religion,’ but to expound ‘mere’ Christianity, which is what it is and what it was long before I was born and whether I like it or not,” he writes. “. . . I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions — as if man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else.”
He again uses a simple analogy to explain his point. He compares mere Christianity to a hall with many doors on either side and considers his book successful if it brings someone to that hall.
“But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals,” he writes. “The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose, the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable.”
Name: Clive Staples Lewis. His family called him Jack.
Born: In Belfast, Ireland, on Nov. 29, 1898.
Died: In Oxford, England, on Nov. 22, 1963, the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Education: University College, Oxford, England, after spending two years fighting in World War I in France with the Somerset Light Infantry. An injury in 1917 ended his career. During his convalescence, he met Janie Moore, a much older woman and mother of one of Lewis’ contemporaries. After getting healthy, Lewis lived with Moore until her death in 1951.
Career: Author of more than 30 books, including “The Chronicles of Narnia,” the fantasy series for children, and “The Screwtape Letters,” a fictional work of satire that was a bestseller after its publication in 1942. Also a fellow and tutor in English at Oxford University from 1925-1954 and a professor of medieval and Renaissance English at the University of Cambridge from 1954 until his death.
Family: Married American poet and novelist Joy Davidman Gresham in 1956, not long before she was diagnosed with cancer. She died in 1960 but became the subject of the Richard Attenborough film “Shadowlands” and of Lewis’ own work, “A Grief Observed.”
Faith: Lewis considered himself an atheist well before his 20th birthday, but he returned to his Christian roots through a conversion experience in 1931 at age 33 after discussions with friend and fellow British fantasy writer, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Lord of the Rings.” Lewis’ conversion is described in his autobiography “Surprised by Joy.”
Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, C.S. Lewis Web sites
Elizabeth Clarke writes for The Palm Beach Post.