Mere Christianity at 70

Reading Time: 3 mins

Armed with great analogies, airtight logic, and razor sharp wit, Lewis keeps you spellbound from one chapter to another as you find yourself going “further up and further in.”

During the NCAA Basketball Tournament several years ago, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship held a competition entitled, “The Best Christian Book of All Time.” Sixty-Four first-class competitors went head to head round by round in this epic literary contest. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis was a #1 seed, and easily made the Elite Eight where it handily defeated Augustine’s City of God. In the Final Four, it beat out Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, only to be edged out in the finals by Augustine’s, Confessions.

These results ring true for me. And while I would have liked to see Martin Luther make it to the semi-finals, it is indeed difficult to name a book with more influence and lasting impact than Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of its publication in 1952, but it actually didn't start out as a book. The genesis of this Christian classic was a series of radio talks given by Lewis which were broadcast by the BBC. The director of religious broadcasting had read his book, The Problem of Pain, and asked him if he would be interested in taking part in a radio program. England was knee-deep in the trials and travails of World War 2 at the time, and these talks by Lewis from 1941 to 1944 were quite popular and comforting to the British people. It has been said that the voice of C.S. Lewis became as recognizable as that of Winston Churchill during this time.

From our vantage point, we might say that the voice of C.S. Lewis was one of the most recognizable in the 20th century. Personally, I began to recognize his voice when I went off to college. Sure, I had read the Chronicles of Narnia as a child and enjoyed them, but like most did not understand the full weight and scope of these “children's” books until later in life. It wasn't until I was in a basic Christian Doctrine class at Christ College Irvine taught by Rod Rosenbladt that Lewis really began to speak to me. Rod not only quoted Lewis often in that class, he actually embodied him in such a way that made me want to read everything I could get my hands on. In short order I had read The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, Surprised By Joy, and of course, Mere Christianity.

Armed with great analogies, airtight logic, and razor sharp wit, Lewis keeps you spellbound from one chapter to another as you find yourself going “further up and further in.” Beginning the book with a bang in his section, “Right and Wrong as a Clue To the Meaning of the Universe,” he goes on to describe “What Christians Believe” and to detail “Christian Behavior,” before finishing off with “Beyond Personality (First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity.)”

One of the more famous passages of the book comes in the “What Christians Believe” section and is affectionately known as the “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” passage:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg - or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon, or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

There are too many great quotes and passages from Lewis to mention in a brief article like this, so I will just share one more which comes at the end of the book.

“The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”

In the years after Lewis' death in 1963 (on the same day as JFK and Aldous Huxley), many thought his continued impact would be minimal. When Dr. Peter Kreeft considered writing a book about him in the late 1960's, he was told that no one would be reading Lewis twenty years from now. Well, let's just say that the reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. Seventy-five years later, Mere Christianity continues to be one of the most impactful and influential Christian books of all time.