Historian George Marsden revisits C.S. Lewis’s remarkable case for 'Mere Christianity'

The latest offering in Princeton University Press’s splendid “Lives of Great Religious Books” series is “C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography” by front-rank historian George Marsden.

Without debate, Lewis’s classic has been the most popular explanation and defense of the Christian faith the past six decades, and Marsden is just about the perfect guy to analyze this remarkable book.

“Mere” had modest sales upon its 1952 release but eventually developed quite astonishing popularity(3.5 million copies sold in English since the 21st Century began, available in at least 36 other languages). That’s a good story that many media have treated. If yours hasn’t, then the Princeton event offers the perfect peg.

This theme was so familiar that The Religion Guy’s news expectations were slim when he idly scanned a review copy. Then Marsden magic and readability kicked in and The Guy couldn’t put it down. After all, Marsden’s award-winning “Jonathan Edwards: A Life,” somehow managed to make the great Colonial theologian’s prolix writings understandable, and as intriguing as his life story.

Lewis “does not simply present arguments; rather, he acts more like a friendly companion on a journey,” Marsden says. He “points his audiences toward seeing Christianity not as a set of abstract teachings but rather as something that can be seen, experienced, and enjoyed as the most beautiful and illuminating of all realities.” 

What underlies the stunningly wide impact of “Mere Christianity”?

Marsden describes: (1) timeless truths not limited by culture, (2) common human nature that reaches readers, (3) reason put in the context of experience and affections, (4) poetic imagination, (5) the “mere” aspect, focusing on what all Christian branches believe, (6) no “cheap grace” and (7) “the luminosity of the Gospel message itself.”

“Mere” originated not as a book but brief BBC Radio talks to Britons in the pit of World War Two that were then issued as three small books. With “Mere,” Lewis combined those three with a new introduction and a few rewrites. The backdrop was his surprising conversion from atheism to Christianity as a young Oxford University scholar, influenced by Catholic colleague J.R.R. Tolkien of“Lord of the Rings” fame. Lewis likewise pursued fantasy writing with three adult novels, then seven  masterful “Narnia” stories for children (1950–1956), also huge perennial sellers.  

Marsden briskly narrates Lewis’s biography, the context of wartime Britain where German bombs killed 20,000, the behind-scenes story of the radio project and the escalating triumph of “Mere,” especially in the United States. The impact is especially impressive as Marsden tells how this book changed lives. Watergate scoundrel Chuck Colson’s tale is oft-told, but we also learn about Manhattan super-pastor Tim Keller, biologist Francis Collins who led the cracking of humanity’s genetic code, and others.

Also -- good for Marsden -- there’s a rundown of religious and secular criticisms of “Mere.” 

Princeton launched its religious books series with a bang in 2011 with brief “biographies” of Augustine’s “Confessions” by Garry Wills, the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” by Donald Lopez and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison” by Martin E. Marty. “Letters and Papers” and “Mere” are the only two modern works analyzed.   

The 25 published or planned titles “examine the historical origins of texts from the great religious traditions and trace how their inception, interpretation, and influence have changed -- often radically -- over time.” Many sum up major scriptures and would be valuable for time-pressed religion journalists who seek to bring substance in their writing. 

The June release of “The Koran in English” by Bruce Lawrence may well merit coverage. Timothy Beal’s forthcoming interpretation of the biblical Book ofRevelation should be fun. Or how about an overview piece on Princeton’s ambitious project? (Media contacts: publicity@press.princeton.edu or 609-258-3897.

Meanwhile, the endless flow of books about Lewis is joined by “C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law” (Cambridge University, 2016, soon out in paperback) by Justin Dyer and Micah Watson. Gilbert Meilaender’s First Things review says Lewis’ “Mere” might have downplayed the “distorting effect of a sinful will,” but he developed that theme in “The Abolition of Man” (1943), the focus of the new Cambridge title.  

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