Book Review: Mere Christianity

Mere ChristianityI first read Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis some seven or so years ago and tried to write a review, but ended up mainly just listing quotes, which is not a review. It wasn’t hard to read or to follow — for the most part Lewis’s thinking was actually pretty easy to track, and he writes in a logical, almost conversational style rather than like a theology textbook. It was more a matter of there being too much to take in and process and too many goods things to share to reduce it to anything like a review. I read a quote by Elisabeth Elliot (which I neglected to keep track of) something to the effect that she could understand Lewis by reading him through the first time, but needed to read him again to be able reconstruct his arguments. I feel the same way. I’m thankful The Cloud of Witnesses Challenge sponsored by Becky at Operation Actually Read Bible spurred me to pick this up again. I feel I got much more from it this time, maybe just because of a second reading, maybe because of several years of (hopefully) maturing in the meantime, maybe because our church has been talking about “Coffee Shop Apologetics” on Wednesday nights using some of Lewis’s material here and there.

It is interesting to read how Lewis came from an atheistic background and what the Lord used to convince him that Christianity was the truth. Although this book is not his “testimony” per se, he does touch on his own personal journey to faith.

The book is divided into four sections: “Right and Wrong as a Clue to Meaning in the Universe,” in which he argues for Christianity and why it is the best solution to universal moral and logical dilemmas, then “What Christians Believe,” “Christian Behavior,” and “Beyond Personality: Or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity.” Originally the various segments were radio talks in the 1940s which were then tweaked to better fit written form.

I have many more places marked than I can possibly share here. Goodreads has a list of several quotes from the book, some you’ll recognize as classic Lewis. One of my favorite quotes about love comes from this book. Here are a few others hat stood out to me:

From the chapter “We Have Cause to Be Uneasy”:

For the trouble is that one part of you is on His side and really agrees with his disapproval of human greed and trickery and exploitation. You may want Him to make an exception in your own case, to let you off this one time; but you know at bottom that unless the power behind the world really and unalterably detests that sort of behaviour, then He cannot be good. On the other hand, we know that if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do. This is the terrible fix we are in. If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day, and are not in the least likely to do any better tomorrow, and so our case is hopeless again. We cannot do without it, and we cannot do with it. God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we must need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies. Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing with religion. Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger -according to the way you react to it. And we have reacted the wrong way.

From the chapter “The Practical Conclusion”:

[The Christian] does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because he loves us.

From the chapter “Social Morality”:

I may repeat “Do as you would be done by” till I am black in the face, but I cannot really carry it out till I love my neighbor as myself: and I cannot learn to love my neighbor as myself until I learn to love God.

From the chapter “Sexual Morality”:

We may, indeed, be sure that perfect chastity-like perfect charity-will not be attained by any merely human efforts. You must ask for God’s help. Even when you have done so, it may seem to you for a long time that no help, or less help than you need, is being given. Never mind. After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up and try again. Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again. For however important chastity (or courage, or truthfulness, or any other virtue) may be, this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God. We learn, on the one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.

From the chapter “The Great Sin”:

Pleasure in being praised is not Pride. The child who is patted on the back for doing a lesson well, the woman whose beauty is praised by her lover, the saved soul to whom Christ says, “Well done,” are all pleased and ought to be. For here the pleasure lies not in what you are but in the fact that you have pleased someone you wanted (and rightly wanted) to please. The trouble begins when you pass from thinking, “I have pleased him; all is well,” to thinking, “What a fine person I must be to have done it.”

That was immensely helpful to me. I don’t know if anyone else experiences this, but sometimes when you receive a compliment, then you feel a rush of pleasure, that feel guilty for that pleasure and feel you need to redirect the attention to the Lord, and in trying to do so sound awkward and overly pious. For that reason, when someone, say, sings a solo in church that I enjoyed, I try to tell them it blessed my heart rather than just “I enjoyed your song this morning.” Though I mean the same thing by both sentences, the second one makes people feel awkward and self-conscious. This thought did help me to understand it’s not wrong to feel pleasure in pleasing someone else or accepting a compliment.

From the same chapter:

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is a nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who tool a real interest in what you said to him….He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

From the chapter “Charity”:

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. The smallest good act to-day is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or, anger to-day is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.

From the same chapter:

Nobody can always have devout feelings: and even if we could, feelings are not what God principally cares about. Christian Love, either towards God or towards man, is an affair of the will. If we are trying to do His will we are obeying the commandment, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.’ He will give us feelings of love if He pleases. We cannot create them for ourselves, and we must not demand them as a right. But the great thing to remember is that, though our feelings come and go, His love for us does not. It is not wearied by our sins, or our indifference; and, therefore, it is quite relentless in its determination that we shall be cured of those sins, at whatever cost to us, at whatever cost to Him.

From the chapter “Hope”:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.

From the chapter “Faith”:

But supposing a man’s reason once decides that the weight of the evidence is for [Christianity]. I can tell that man what is going to happen to him in the next few weeks. There will come a moment when there is bad news, or he is in trouble, or is living among a lot of other people who do not believe it, and all at once his emotions will rise up and carry out a sort of blitz on his belief. Or else there will come a moment when he wants a woman, or wants to tell a lie, or feels very pleased with himself, or sees a chance of making a little money in some way that is not perfectly fair: some moment, in fact, at which it would be very convenient if Christianity were not true. And once again his wishes and desires will carry out a blitz. I am not talking of moments at which any real new reasons against Christianity turn up. Those have to be faced and that is a different matter. I am talking about moments when a mere mood rises up against it.

Now Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue unless you teach your moods ‘where they get off,’ you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of Faith.

From a second chapter titles “Faith”:

And, in yet another sense, handing everything over to Christ does not, of course, mean that you stop trying. To trust Him means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you (emphasis mine).

From the chapter “Nice People or New Men”:

But we must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world – and might even be more difficult to save.

For mere improvement is not redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man…

If what you want is an argument against Christianity (and I well remember how eagerly I looked for such arguments when I began to be afraid it was true) you can easily find some stupid and unsatisfactory Christian and say, ‘So there’s your boasted new man I Give me the old kind.’ But if once you have begun to see that Christianity is on other grounds probable, you will know in your heart that this is only evading the issue. What can you ever really know of other people’s souls-of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles? One soul in the whole creation you do know: and it is the only one whose fate is placed in your hands. If there is a God, you are, in a sense, alone with Him. You cannot put Him off with speculations about your next door neighbours or memories of what you have read in books. What will all that chatter and hearsay count (will you even be able to remember it?) when the anaesthetic fog which we call ‘nature’ or `the real world’ fades away and the Presence in which you have always stood becomes palpable, immediate, and unavoidable?

There were a very few places I disagreed with him. In “The Perfect Penitent” he thinks the theory “about our being let off because Christ had volunteered to bear a punishment instead of us” is a silly one and says he doesn’t understand the point of punishing an innocent person for a guilty one, though he says he can understand it better in terms of paying a debt. I’m not sure how he could have missed the teaching that God’s just letting us off the hook would be a violation of His justice and righteousness, and Christ’s innocent death satisfied that justice (Romans 3:24-26). In “The Practical Conclusion” he says “a Christian can lose the Christ-life which has been put into him, and he has to make efforts to keep it,” which I would disagree with very much. When we’re saved we are born again: we don’t get unborn. Our spiritual life may get weak and sickly with neglect, and we do need to nurture that life and mature in it, but we don’t lose it. Then in “Counting the Cost” he says that God said in the Bible that we are “gods” and “He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creature…which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness)”. I’m not quite sure how to take him there. Both Psalm 82:6-7 and John 10:34-36 have the term “You are gods,” and, frankly, I am not quite sure what is meant in those cases, either. The Bible talks about us becoming one with the Father and Son and becoming partakers of the divine nature, but we don’t become Deity like Christ is. I don’t think Lewis is saying that we do – I am just not sure what he is saying. If you’ve read his Space Trilogy, you know he portrays the mythical gods and goddesses as some kind of created being more powerful than humans but not like angels, either. Perhaps all he is talking about it what we’ll be like in glory: perfected yet still less than God the Father and Jesus Christ. And in “The Practical Conclusion,” he says that three things that spread the “Christ-life” to us are baptism, belief, and communion (the Lord’s Supper). I would say only faith does: the others are matters of obedience and blessing, but they are symbolic and not life-giving in themselves (see the outline for “Why We Know Baptism Does Not Save.”)

Much more could be discussed, on these points or others in the book. Despite those few caveats mentioned, I feel this is a valuable book and one of those Christian classics that everyone should read at least once, probably several times over.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

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13 thoughts on “Book Review: Mere Christianity

  1. I read Mere Christianity sometime in 2008 I think, and I feel the same way; it is hard to review this book or any of his books like this because his thinking, his logic, his perception is more spot on than any review I can write up. You chose these quotes well 🙂

  2. So much of this classic book has been quoted that I feel as though I have read it, but I’d only started it in the past. I’d just downloaded a library audiobook version recently and look forward to reading your review soon.

  3. I can’t remember if I read this one (probably so?) as a younger adult. Lewis’s writings are SO good, but they’re not exactly lightweight, are they?

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