More or less by accident, the worlds of broadcasting and publishing have created one of the literary marvels of Christianity. It's a book called Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis, the scholar who became famous by writing the seven fantasy novels that make up the Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis died in 1963 but Narnia keeps him alive in the children's section of bookstores. Mere Christianity keeps him equally current among religious teachers and students. Christianity Today, a magazine for Evangelicals, called him "the Aquinas, the Augustine" of his time. A poll of American teachers chose Mere Christianity as the most influential religious book of the 20th century. Lewis is often described as a master of Christian "apologetics," meaning the vindication of the faith.
Today he's a phenomenon, endlessly discussed and praised, sometimes criticized. One recent book carries the title C. S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. Another is The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis. Scores of articles about his work flow to the surface every year, including one bearing the unlikely title, A Mormon Atheist's Quick Review of "Mere Christianity." There's a C. S. Lewis Foundation in California, and the C. S. Lewis Review, an online journal from Ohio.
Lewis's special role in religion began during the Second World War, when the BBC asked him to do radio talks explaining what Christians believe. In 1952 he revised his talks as a book, which was not initially a great success. Within a few years it was largely forgotten. But soon new editions began appearing, and never stopped.
Anglicans (like him) were among his first enthusiasts but as the book caught on, especially in the U.S., he became accepted across the mainstream Protestant spectrum. Roman Catholics found his ideas agreeable: In March, Princeton University Press will publish an enthusiastic book about Mere Christianity by George
M. Marsden, an emeritus professor at the University of Notre Dame. For a while Evangelicals denigrated Lewis because he was known to be a hearty drinker but soon they too began to praise him.
His tone is a key to the success: It's outspoken, often blunt, and clearly directed to those who possess little or no religious knowledge. It deploys his great talents as storyteller and arguer, always in a way that makes Christianity seem a common sense solution to the world's most basic questions.
As a Christian writer, Lewis was strikingly ecumenical. He swept aside any special sectarian theology and devoted himself to the core belief, as he saw it - that's what he means by "mere" in his title. He may have taken this position because he was dismayed by the sectarian hatred in his birthplace, Belfast, but it's just as likely that he wanted his work to reach anyone who might conceivably be converted.
Lewis had the authority of a Christian who had lost his faith and regained it after 17 years. As he said, he knew what it was like from the outside. He was born in the Church of Ireland but became an atheist at age 15, a decision he described as the impulse of an adolescent "angry with God for not existing." When finally he made his way back, joining the Church of England, it was partly through discussions with his Oxford colleague, J.R.R. Tolkien, professor of Anglo-Saxon English and author of Lord of the Rings. (In 1961 Lewis nominated Tolkien for the Nobel Prize.)
In Mere Christianity he argued for the existence of an instinctive, God-given Natural Law or Universal Morality. He claimed that people everywhere know this law and know when they break it. There must be someone or something behind these universal principles. That, over-simplified, proves the existence of God. Lewis became especially cranky when someone said "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God." No, no, Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, you can't get away with that foolishness. "That is the one thing we must not say." He believes that Jesus, if not God, was either a lunatic or a Devil. "Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse."
Lewis assumed his readers hoped to live a good life and offered much advice on how that might be done. His ideas are practical, as useful to non-believers as to Christians. True humility, he declares is not thinking less of yourself - "it is thinking of yourself less." He advises his readers not to worry about whether they love their neighbours. Instead, he suggests, just act as if you do. "When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him." On the question of temptation, he says that only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. Someone who quickly gives in to temptation does not know what it would have been like an hour later. "That is why bad people know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in."
A great teacher of literature and mythology, a spectacular success as a lecturer, he inspired love in some of his students and animosity in some others. He was a quirky gent. At Oxford, he was the tutor of at least two famous Englishmen - John Betjeman, poet laureate in the 1970s, and Kenneth Tynan, the most brilliant drama critic of his time. Their memories of Lewis were surprising. Betjeman, while conservative and religious like Lewis, despised him. Tynan, a radical left-winger and intensely anti-establishment, admired him and remained grateful for his encouragement.
Lewis used concrete visual images to persuade his readers. In Mere Christianity he says that accepting God involves a basic renovation of the mind: "Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof but ..."
Lewis maintained that all of his writing, fiction or non-fiction, was inspired by the pictures he saw in his head. During his last months a friend asked why he had not been writing lately. His answer was simple: "The pictures have stopped."