Years Later, C. S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” Still Gets a Global Amen


Since 2001, C.S. Lewis’s book has sold 3.5 million copies in English alone.

During March Madness several years ago, the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Emerging Scholars Network ran “The Best Christian Book of All Time Tournament.” Beginning with 64 entries, participants voted on a series of paired competitors through elimination rounds. C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity,” a first seed, easily made the Elite Eight, where it handily defeated St. Augustine’s “City of God.” In the Final Four it beat Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Cost of Discipleship,” but in the finals it was edged out by Augustine’s “Confessions.”

Not bad. Who else could have gone up against Augustine? And Lewis hadn’t even planned for “Mere Christianity” to be a book. During the dark days of World War II, the writer presented four sets of BBC radio talks on basic Christianity. He had these published in several paperbacks. Not until 1952 did he collect them together under the new title.

The book always sold well, but in an unusual trend, its popularity has grown with time. Since 2001, “Mere Christianity” has sold more than 3.5 million copies in English. It has been translated into at least 36 languages and is said to be the book that, next to the Bible, educated Chinese Christians are most likely to have read. Its greatest popularity is in the U.S., where it is still read by thoughtful evangelicals, along with thousands of Catholics, Orthodox and mainline Protestants.

What accounts for its lasting popularity? Lewis was determined to present only the timeless truths of Christianity rather than the latest theological or cultural fashions. In the book’s preface, he describes it as an attempt to explain and defend “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”

He elsewhere criticized “chronological snobbery” or the assumption that the popular beliefs of one’s own era were superior to the “antiquated” ideas of the past. The peculiar intellectual fashions of our time, he wisely understood, will soon look quaint to later generations. It is not surprising then that Lewis’s time-proven views are still flourishing while most other mid-20th-century works are nearly neglected.

Lewis’s determination to present only timeless views also helped him avoid political temptation. He believed it divisive to emphasize “Christianity and . . . ” as in “Christianity and the New Order.” In “The Screwtape Letters,” Lewis has the senior devil tell his protégé to encourage a man to intertwine his political and religious beliefs. This eventually leads the “patient” to believe politics is paramount and that Christianity’s value derives chiefly from its support for his party’s positions. Accordingly, Lewis carefully avoided tying his presentation of Christianity to partisan politics.

The writer’s knowledge of history also helped him connect with his audiences. As a prototypical Oxford don, Lewis might have been expected to have difficulty understanding the many varieties of ordinary people who listened to wartime BBC broadcasts. In fact, he used his expertise as a student of the history of literature for the opposite effect.

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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal
George M. Marsden

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