Based on a year-2000 survey of church leaders and contributors to Christianity Today about 20th-century “classics that have shaped religious thought,” C.S. Lewis was “by far … the most popular author and Mere Christianity the book nominated most often.” Narnia also made the list, but only the top ten authors and books are ranked. Here is the list:
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1942-44; 1952)
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (1937)
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (1932-67)
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)
- John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (1968)
- G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908)
- Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948)
- Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (1978)
- Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest (1927)
- Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932)
Using a different metric, Christianity Today’s 2006 list of “The Top Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals,” Mere Christianity is behind Rosalind Rinker’s Learning Conversational Prayer (1959) and Donald McGavran’s Understanding Church Growth (1970), and ahead of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There (1968) and J.I. Packer’s Knowing God (1973).
The book has been quite influential. Church historian George Marsden has recently written a “biography” of Mere Christianity (2016), and while reading Joseph Pearce’s C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church (2013), I was struck by how many people found faith and converted to Catholicism in reading Mere Christianity. Though 1-2 million would have heard Lewis on the radio in WWII, according to Marsden’s “Introduction,” it has sold 3.5+ million copies in this century–not to mention the copies sold in the last half of the 20th c.–and has been translated into thirty-six languages. Powerful book.
In the 1952 preface to Mere Christianity, Lewis prepares the reader for some peculiarities in the text, including some paths he chose not to take. These untrod paths include issues of theology and morality that would be divisive, ultimately disturbing the outside reader and working against his approach. Lewis wants to write as a mere Christian:
“Ever since I became a Christian,” Lewis explains, “I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times” (viii).
This intriguing trigger warning–“The reader should be warned…”–is a call to a broader, ecumenical Christianity that is rooted in historic faith. That Mere Christianity arrived just as ecumenical evangelicalism and the charismatic movement were energizing is hardly accidental. While the content of Mere Christianity has impacted millions in their individual walks of faith, Lewis’ preface has had a quieter but equally substantial impact on English-speaking Christians of all denominations and backgrounds.
Because I was working on what is now Book II, chapter 4 of Mere Christianity, I decided to look at the early printings of these first BBC lectures. Broadcast Talks is a 62-page book printed in the summer of 1942, six months after the first ten BBC talks were complete. As I turned to the preface, a quick scan showed that there were some similarities with the much longer preface to Mere Christianity. As I read it, however, there were a couple of striking moments. The first is how Lewis begins:
“I gave these talks, not because I am anyone in particular, but because I was asked to do so” (5).
With due respect to such an influential figure, it is a pretty unusual statement, simply displacing by one step the reason that the Director of Religious Broadcasting for the BBC, Dr. James W. Welch, invited Lewis to speak on the radio in the first place. Lewis suggests in this preface that it is because he was once a non-Christian and is now a layperson, while most BBC religious voices would be clergy and would have grown up in UK churches. Let us actually look at what Dr. Welch wrote to Lewis, as printed in Collected Letters I, pp. 469-70:
Dear Mr Lewis, I address you by name because, although we have never met, you cannot be a stranger after allowing me–and many others–to know some of your thoughts and convictions which have been expressed in your book The Problem of Pain. I should like to take this opportunity of saying how grateful I am to you personally for the help this book has given me.
I write to ask whether you would be willing to help us in our work of religious broadcasting. The microphone is a limiting, and rather irritating, instrument, but the quality of thinking and depth of conviction which I find in your book ought surely to be shared with a great many other people; and for any talk we can be sure of a fairly intelligent audience of more than a million. Two ideas strike me:
(1) You might be willing to speak about the Christian, or lack of Christian, assumptions underlying modern literature…
(2) A series of talks on something like ‘The Christian Faith As I See It–by A Layman’: I am sure there is need of a positive restatement of Christian doctrine in lay language. But there may be other subjects on which you would rather speak.
Lewis was right that his lay perspective was important. But, for full disclosure, Lewis was asked to speak to the BBC’s audience about faith because of the thoughts, conviction, and (probably) the approach in The Problem of Pain (1939). Dr. Welch’s letter is the germ of what grew into one of the most important Christian books of the 20th century. It is doubtful Lewis could have imagined this in the midst of WWII–would we trust an author who thought in those terms?–but the introduction to his preface is overly unassuming.
A second point that struck me was that we see Lewis beginning to work out his idea of “Mere Christianity” in the 1942 preface:
“I believe you can take what is said in the second series as plain Christianity which no Christian disagrees with” (5).
It strikes me how much more helpful the preface a decade later is. In 1952, Lewis is talking about most Christians in most times; in 1942 Lewis uses the negative form: that which no Christian disagrees with. Yet Christians do disagree with aspects of this book–many of them, and at numerous points. Even if Lewis was watertight, some Christian somewhere would disagree. With a decade of space and thought, Lewis shifts the ground of what mere Christianity can be like, to our benefit. I wonder if, had Lewis kept the disagreement angle as in the 1942 preface, would Mere Christianity have been lost in all the strange an unusual places in the book where Lewis gives his own opinion?