by Kendra Thompson
A number of weeks ago, in dialogue with Agape Review, I selected C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity from a list of Christian books to summarize and “review” for this journal. I picked Lewis’ classic, initially, with a sense of nostalgia. I first read Mere Christianity as a late teen who was exploring and also fired up about my own personal walk with Christ. It seemed like this was the ‘go-to’ book at that time, in the evangelical circles I navigated. However, the second reading of this book has hit me differently. In some ways, this was because it was an assignment. I am not now traveling from spiritual ecstasy to theological understanding. Instead, I am embarking on the highly practical task of selecting a book you believe you’ll read and reviewing it. But I must say, the more I sat with this classic work, the more it seems to have selected me.
While reading, I remembered learning that Lewis was a man who loved a good cigar, pint, and chat at the pub with his friends back in the day. Knowing this, that is exactly how his words landed with me – conversationally, casual, friendly. And yet, though casual, he writes with an authority that is captivating. It is a “mere” or “simple” understanding of the Christian faith, but it also contains a solid argument and he charges his readers to consider and accept it.
Mere Christianity, or, at least, the adherence to it, changes everything.
Lewis has several helpful analogies to consider with regard to transformational faith, I’ll focus on three that come toward the end of the book. Throughout this volume, Lewis uses imaginative comparisons as a way to grasp how absurd it is to ignore God’s presence in our lives. The three that caught my attention were: the muddied lens, the child in need of a dentist, and the man who cannot stay a vegetable or a fish.
First, we think of ourselves as the instrument through which we experience God. Like a telescope pointed at the distant skies, our bodies, our very selves, point to our Maker. But like a telescope, we see God more clearly as we allow Him to adjust and clean up our lenses. This is the work of our sanctification. Lewis compares our avoidance of God’s work in us to using the wrong “instrument” in a field of study. “Like a man who has no instrument but an old pair of field glasses setting out to put all the real astronomers right. He may be a clever chap – he may be cleverer than some of the real astronomers, but he is not giving himself a chance.” Likewise, we “put on Christ” and find our way to understanding God. As we adhere to this devotion, we become the instrument He would have us be.
Next, when considering our sinful condition, the author tells the story of his own childhood experiences with tooth pain. Like many of us, as a young man, Lewis would avoid telling his mother about any pain in his mouth because although he anticipated his mom offering the relief of Aspirin, he also knew what was next: the dreaded trip to the dentist. God is like the dentist, Lewis says. We think we’ll go in and get a little relief from our present pain, but then He starts poking around at things we can’t even detect to be problematic yet. Our faith lives, submitted to God for inspection, are like this. We may have one sin in mind that we’d kind of like God to shine some light on, but Christ is set to overhaul, heal, and correct the whole thing over time.
Lastly, Lewis discusses our human development in terms of comparing us to resembling vegetables and then fish before eventually being born as human babies. These are funny, and highly visual, comparisons meant to help us understand our development; as humans and as Christians. It would be foolish to insist on remaining like a fish in our mother’s wombs when it is time to be born and experience the fullness of humanity. Similarly, we must not stay in the early stages of our coming to Christ, but allow him to transform us through his powerful, saving grace.
I enjoyed the “assignment” of re-reading this classic work. Lewis’ presence on these pages is imaginative, authoritative, practical and also urgent; he wants his readers to seriously consider the life-altering encounter with Christ that he found.
Having said that, it is important to recognize that Mere Christianity is a product of its time. The reader will need to keep in mind the year (1952) and the context in which it was written. “Men” is regularly used as a way of talking about people, not just male ones. There are a fair number of British colloquialisms that pop up and could be derailing to a contemporary reader. Racial terms more common to the nineteen fifties, like “Negro” and “Mohammedan” are strewn throughout this little book as well. While any of these could be a distraction from the theological primer that this book is, I found myself overlooking them in my pursuit of really hearing the argument Lewis presents.
Even though it does reveal the limitations of the era, I would encourage readers to pick up this short, approachable classic. Lewis’ theological book, though a product of his time, is also, I would argue, timeless. I sensed in myself a renewal of simple faith as I read it; like affirming one’s baptismal vows in the act of reciting the creeds.
In this recent reading of Lewis’ work, what stuck out to me the most is the author’s thoughts on Jesus’ phrase: “Be Ye Perfect.” I think this is because I’ve spent a decade and a half in parish ministry and I wonder if sometimes this skews grace; brings the Christian life under too much of a professionally evaluative lens. But “Be Ye Perfect” is not an evaluation; it is a testament to the transformative work of God. I think that is why this “assignment” went beyond my head and snagged my heart as well. One of the quotes – and there are many – that will stick with me from this book is this: “The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because he loves us.” Mere Christianity is an invitation into a relationship with God where we can’t help but be made new. And who wouldn’t want to step into such a partnership?
Kendra Thompson is a wife, mother, writer, and minister living in Northwest Iowa. Her work has appeared in Spectrum, Body Love for All, Poet’s Choice and These Interesting Times. You can find more of her writing on her blog www.crylaughsnort.wordpress.com