“Not Because I am Anyone in Particular”: C.S. Lewis’ Original Preface on Mere Christianity

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:

  1.  C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1942-44; 1952)
  2.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (1937)
  3.  Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (1932-67)
  4.  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)
  5.  John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (1968)
  6.  G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908)
  7.  Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948)
  8.  Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (1978)
  9.  Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest (1927)
  10.  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?

I thought, then, I would share the entire preface (as I do from time to time). It begins in that curious self-deprecating manner and ends with a humorous wink. Overall, it is worth reading.

C.S. Lewis Original Preface to Broadcast Talks

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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29 Responses to “Not Because I am Anyone in Particular”: C.S. Lewis’ Original Preface on Mere Christianity

  1. Gary Tandy says:

    Hi, Brenton. Thanks for this. The “no one in particular” statement is very interesting. I’ve often wondered how much of this was Lewis’s characteristic humility and how much rhetorical strategy (“I am no orator, as Brutus is”). HIs insistence throughout MC that he is not a theologian seems to me a clear rhetorical strategy to set himself over against the professionals who Lewis believed had lost touch with the people through their use of religious language and lack of concern for the common reader. I also think Lewis’s rhetorical strengths (use of colloquial language, humor, ability to translate difficult theological concepts into practical analogies) turned out to be well suited for the broadcast talk format–similar to the way the children’s fair story genre turned out to be the best form for what he wanted to say in the Chronicles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Perhaps it’s worth quoting Stephen Neill, here, from his annotated bibliography in Anglicanism (1958), about Lewis’s History of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (excluding Drama) (1954): “Mr Lewis could not have written better on the theologians if he had been himself a professional theologian.” That seems nicely balanced – Lewis is not, and admits he is not, a theologian, yet shows he can both read theologians perceptively (even ones writing in 400-year-old English, and Latin), and convey what he has grasped, concisely.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s a great quotation, David. I have just found myself wrapped up in a really weird discussion on one of the Facebook sites for CS Lewis about whether or not he was a theologian. I had actually asked a question about a technical field of literature and Theology, and someone popped on to say that Lewis was not a theologian and anybody with a seminary degree would know that. It went downhill from there. I’ve been thinking about the way that people Define the word Theologian, and I think everybody really means a systematic theologian. but apologetics is a field of theology, whether one doesn’t well or poorly. Philosophical theology is a field of theology. Thinking christianly about literature is actually a theological Enterprise. And preaching, and the way that Lewis does it, is a theological discipline. However, I still agree that he is not a theologian if we mean systematic theology. He lacks a certain tenacity of thought that is needed for those disciplines. Well, maybe not tenacity of thought exactly, but the willingness to use that tenacity for precision.

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        • Hannah says:

          Your ‘downhill’ discussion made me google on why the theologian returned to the Grey City in Lewis’s “The Great Divorce” and this ‘Pilgrim in Narnia’ post came up, with the reasons of the ghost for going back: https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2011/08/25/the-marriage-of-now-and-then-a-review-of-c-s-lewis%E2%80%99-the-great-divorce/ .
          Was Lewis always striving to “see what reality is really like”, not to be caught in a system?

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          • I don’t know…. Maybe, yes. It certainly is true that he sought clarity. And he keeps coming up with the what reality is really like characters. The dwarves are the anti-example in the Last Battle. Here’s another one. I think theme resonated.

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            • Hannah says:

              Yes, the dwarves are a great anti-example, refusing Aslan’s wine in a golden goblet because it would only be dirty water from a feeding trough. In “The Horse and his Boy” are some examples of reality catching up with characters and actually changing them: Bree asserted that Aslan was not an actual lion, but only an analogy of his fierceness and power – his fears and notions are shattered when Aslan actually shows up (Wikipedia sentence). And at the end of the book Aslan turns prince Rabadash into a donkey.
              I vaguely remember another example of someone bragging that Aslan doesn’t exist and that he then shows up behind him, but can’t recall that one right now, thought it was Rabadash, but there he appears among the whole group.

              Like

    • Hi Gary, my response yesterday got lost it appears.
      I think both is true: Lewis is using a rhetorical strategy and he is being humble. His self-forgetfulness here–intentional or otherwise–is kind of hilarious. But his consistent claim not to be a theologian had a powerful rhetorical effect, setting him up as both a public intellectual and an outsider. Samuel Joeckel’s excellent book “The CS Lewis Phenomenon” is largely about this.

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  2. How interesting, here is a canon that I have either read or dipped into often. I am encouraged to see quality rise to the surface in Christian reading.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Uh oh – how few of them I’ve read (yet)…

      Liked by 2 people

      • I think actually, it has more to do with place than it does with reading ability or intention. This top 10 list is actually the list of the North American space. Not only I have I read all or some of each of those books, but I have assigned them in my classes and I have had them assigned in classes I took. I think it has to do with our intellectual neighborhood! I would bet dollars to Donuts that of the last 10 books David read, I’ve only heard of half of them and only have red one or two!

        Like

  3. Bookstooge says:

    I just finished this up last month in response to some epic fantasy that was completely existential. It has put me in mind to get a hold of as much Lewis as I can and start reading through all his stuff. Even when I disagree with his statements, it’s not vehement disagreement but more agreeable, like something between friends. I appreciate that in a book…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Awesome! Are you thinking of reading fiction or nonfiction first?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bookstooge says:

        Probably his non-fiction. I’ve read his space trilogy recently and narnia within the last decade, so I don’t feel the need to re-read them any time soon.
        But considering how me and non-fiction get along, it’ll probably be months before I get my act together and get a plan for working his stuff into my rotation…

        Like

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Barging in, do try Till We Have Faces, if you haven’t already (and, I’d say, sooner rather than later – it’s so good!). And, you might try Letter to Malcolm among the first non-fiction, too, as it is a special, relaxed, flexible kind of non-fiction – like the letters he wrote in their – thousands? – throughout his life, and yet more a shaped whole being fictional letters to a fictional couple.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Bookstooge says:

            I’ve got about a 2 year tbr. A real one, where I will be reading every single book (unless I end up dnf’ing a series), so I’ll have to gather a bunch of Lewis’s stuff and work it into my bi-monthly rotation. I’m guessing things won’t begin to roll until near the end of the year.

            I’ll keep those 2 titles in mind, thanks!

            Liked by 1 person

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    And, The Problem of Pain is dedicated to – The Inklings! (Was that the first, mysterious, announcing them as a ‘them’ to the wider world?) Here, he starts his Preface, “When Mr. Ashley Sampson suggested to me the writing of this book, I asked leave to be allowed to write it anonymously” (which probably would have made the dedication still more mysterious, assuming it was included!). But, rereading them, how interesting an addition its last two paragraphs are, as background to what you write, and quote, here (he said, tantalizingly).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it was the coming out of the inklings. It certainly was the time where there was collaboration between twp of them–all of them if editing and comments count. what’s really cool is that a researcher has found dr. Havard first draft of the appendix to the book, and there are many many changes.

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  5. L.A. Smith says:

    Interesting! It’s so great to see how his thoughts evolved in that decade. The book was definitely the right one at the right time. We owe Dr. Welch and the BBC a great deal of gratitude for that suggestion!

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Indeed we do!

      Maybe I’m just not a good searcher, but I’m not having much luck finding much about him, online. There’s Brenton’s 25 February 2014 review of Justin Phillips, C.S. Lewis at the BBC…(!) And the BBC Archive has a letter of 22 October 1942 from him to Enid Blyton, as part of a correspondence including two from her. They add a note: “Three years after he wrote this letter, the Rev JW Welch led the BBC’s VE Day thanksgiving service. The service was held at Cardington RAF station on VE day itself, with a congregation of 1,000 men and women from all three services and millions more listening to the broadcast over the airwaves.”

      He turns up in the “Index of people mentioned in this archive” of Hewlett Johnson Papers at the University of Kent.

      Colin Day’s blog has an interesting little note about him in the context of BBC Religious Affairs broadcasting.

      David George Coulter’s 1997 Edinburgh doctoral thesis, The Church of Scotland Army Chaplains in the Second World War, attends to him in ‘Case Study 2 The Rev Ronald Selby Wright The Radio Padre’ (pp. 281-93).

      And apparently Stuart Christie, “E.M. Forster, Religious Broadcasting and the Knight Row, 1955-1956: , in Media History, volume 18, issue 2, 2012 (159-76) has something about him.

      And that miscellaneous assortment is all I could find. I’ll put the web addresses in a separate comment will presumably disappear into moderation from such a plethora of them.

      Like

    • We do. It is interesting that no book since has been as resident to readers both inside and outside the church. There are an awful lot of flaws, aren’t there? And yet it still is compelling to so many.

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        We have a wonderful (Dutch) book, sort of like Lewis’s George MacDonald Anthology, which has a chunk of St. Augustine for every day of the year – with lots of them being from sermons – or maybe whole little sermons – and I think that’s one of the places I’ve run into Augustine saying, in effect, ‘let’s just look at this and try to think about this together’ to the members of the congregation, and I think Lewis does something very like that, here (and elsewhere – and maybe quite conscious of following Augustine’s example).

        Liked by 1 person

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