Mere Christianity: Relic or Relevant?
Published in 1952, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis began its life as a series of radio talks first aired between 1941 and 1944 on the BBC. The book covers a lot of ground ranging from a moral argument for the existence of God to Christian ethics to theology and more.
But are ideas that appeared almost seven decades ago still relevant today? Is Mere Christianity a strange relic or does it retain contemporary relevance? In some respects Lewis would question this line of inquiry, as it implies that something that is old is, by default, no longer relevant. “Chronological snobbery” is the term Lewis used to refer to the flawed concept that newer ideas are supposedly always better than old ones.
Still, when Lewis first gave the radio talks that would become Mere Christianity, he intended them for a specific audience at a specific time in history, immersed in a particular cultural set of circumstances. In short, Lewis intended his talks for laypeople of 1940s England during a time of war. Does Mere Christianity, then, still apply to modern readers?
As the talks progressed, Lewis moved beyond apologetics – the defense of the Christian faith – and into other areas of timeless relevance. These areas include ethics, philosophy of religion, and Christian theology.
As an expert in medieval and Renaissance literature, Lewis admitted he did not have the necessary credentials to tackle such topics as a professional clergyman or in a professorial capacity. But he did have the background as an atheist turned Christian to expound on the topics as a layperson (albeit a witty, well-read, intelligent layperson).
As a result, Mere Christianity does not read like a dense academic tome, thank goodness, but as a series of friendly conversations about issues of timeless interest and significance. This alone makes the book anything but irrelevant.
If the history of ideas has taught us anything it is the fact that human beings have faced and continue to face the same sorts of questions and issues no matter what century they happen to live in. So when Lewis begins Book I of Mere Christianity, “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe,” with an example of people arguing, using it to make a point about moral behavior and ethical standards, it resonates with contemporary readers because we can all relate to his illustration.
When Lewis later takes on “The Rival Conceptions of God,” we relate to the options because they are still around today. Pantheism, atheism, and theism, in fact, have all been around for thousands of years. One need only turn to recent best selling books to find all three major worldviews present on the shelves of modern bookstores.
As Lewis presents an outline of the rudiments of Christianity, he discusses guilt, atonement, and redemption – issues of supreme importance that are still discussed and debated today. Despite technological progress and other advancements in society, the human condition has not changed. If we are fallen beings in need of redemption that can only come by Christ, then Mere Christianity remains not only relevant but of ultimate and eternal significance.
Ethics, morality, right and wrong, vice and virtue. When Lewis explores these topics in Mere Christianity he is again appealing to matters that are universal to human beings. Why is it that we behave the way we do? Does morality have its source in the human or the divine? How, then, should we live our lives? If evil exists, how do we know it is evil? If God exists, how would we know it and what could we do about it?
Far from being irrelevant or a relic of museum-like curiosity, Mere Christianity is a work of enduring relevance because it addresses universal human issues. Whether we agree with all the conclusions in the book or not, it remains a succinct and clever presentation of “mere” Christianity as Lewis saw it.
When Lewis was fist contacted by the BBC about giving the talks, it was suggested to him that he discuss modern literature. Fortunately for us, Lewis rejected this topic, instead opting for another suggestion made by the BBC – “a series of talks on something like ‘The Christian Faith as I See It – by a Layman.'”
Mere Christianity endures, in part, because human beings and all our musings about God, morality, and religion, have not changed. But the book also endures because of the wit, wisdom, and graciousness of C.S. Lewis, a “mere” Christian willing to make a lasting difference in his world, not for his sake, but for Christ’s sake.
Robert Velarde is an author, editor, and philosopher. His books include Conversations with C.S. Lewis (InterVarsity Press, 2008), The Heart of Narnia (NavPress, 2008), and Inside The Screwtape Letters (Baker Books, forthcoming). Robert is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Society of Christian Philosophers, and the International Society of Christian Apologetics. A classically trained pianist and composer, Robert has written music for flute and piano inspired by scenes from the Chronicles of Narnia. He studied philosophy of religion at Denver Seminary and is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Southern Evangelical Seminary. His blog, “A Reasonable Imagination,” is at robertvelarde.blogspot.com.