Review: C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity – A Biography

George Marsden, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography. Oxford, UK: Princeton University Press, 2016. Vii+264pp. £18.95/$24.95

The line between commemoration and commercialisation is not always clear and distinct. Writers and publishers often view the opportunity to capitalise on the life and work of certain individuals in order to meet personal, professional and financial goals. The result tends to be a proliferation of essays, monographs and lectures that seek to parse every aspect of this individuals life and work to the extent that it can appear to be a metaphoric death by a thousand intellectual paper cuts.

Perhaps there is no better example of this type of hagiography, scrutiny and exegesis than in the life and writings of C. S. Lewis (1898-1963). In what he refers to as ‘Jacksploitation’, Robert MacSwain observes that Lewis ‘is the subject of intense concern and lively controversy that spills far outside the confines of normal academic discussions.’ [1] Thus, the 50th anniversary of Lewis’s death in 2013 provided fertile ground for writers and publishers to use this event as an opportunity to bring forth a fresh offering of biographies and critical work.

In his latest book, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography, historian George M. Marsden provides an insightful and well-researched biography of one of Lewis’s greatest and most-influential works. As part of Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Books series, this biography breathes fresh wind into Lewis scholarship from both a trusted historian and a unique voice not typically encountered in Lewis studies. Hence, it affords a convergence of classical archival research with areas of reception history.

As one might expect from an eminent historian, Marsden begins his book by situating the broadcast talks both within the historical context of World War II and within the life of Lewis himself (Introduction & Chapter 1). Although these areas are well-trodden ground—see for example, Justin Phillips’s C.S. Lewis at the BBC and Paul McCusker’s C.S. Lewis & Mere Christianity—Marsden’s lucid writing and astute research provide insight for readers both familiar and not familiar with the background to this text. As a result, Marsden chronicles lesser-known topics, such as the declining interest in Christianity amongst the British public (25), the BBC’s policies on religious speakers (27) and Lewis’s role in Military Intelligence (30).

Perhaps it should be no surprise that one of the greatest strengths of the book is the detailed research and discussion regarding its reception amongst American evangelicals. As author of Fundamentalism and American Culture (2006) and an impressive biography of Jonathan Edwards (2004), Marsden is well situated to address the culture and appreciation that Lewis has found amongst this particular group of Christians. However, despite the embrace he receives from contemporary evangelicals, Marsden reveals that conservative evangelicals were very cautious in their initial praise as his fame began to rise in America. As he points out regarding this ironic situation, ‘But in this case the initial reserve is especially intriguing because eventually conservative evangelicals would most wholeheartedly embrace Lewis and practically canonize him.’ (74) [2]

Yet, this biography reaches its pinnacle beginning in chapter 4 and continuing throughout the rest of the book as the author traces the compilation of these radio broadcasts into book form, as well as the influence it has had since they were originally given.   Thus, Marsden proves to be a valuable guide who reminds the reader that a book’s impact goes well beyond the publishing figures of copies sold: ‘Even though the story of the reception of Mere Christianity has to be told largely through what has been published, it is more truly a myriad of stories, mostly unrecorded, of how the book was used and shared locally.’ (115)

Most notably are the ways in which the book led to the conversion of former Nixon aide, Charles Colson, and influenced prominent Christian leaders, J. I. Packer, John Stott, and N.T. Wright, amongst others. Yet, Marsden does not present a hagiographic depiction of Lewis and his work, but rather provides an interesting chapter dealing with various critiques that Mere Christianity confronted both from Christians and non-Christians alike, particularly in regards to his infamous Liar, Lunatic or Lord trilemma and his views on women and gender (Chapter 7).

A further strength of the book is the way in which Marsden concludes his work. In the final chapter, he provides seven insights into why Mere Christianity has continued to defy predictions of its eminent demise and has come to be considered one of the great religious books of all time.

Whilst some readers may not agree with all of the reasons offered, they prove beneficial as points of reflection when integrating both the historical context in which the radio broadcasts were given and the points of contact they continue to reach amidst the fluidity of changing cultures.

Certainly the impact of the book has been most prominent within American and British society. However, Marsden would have enhanced this study if he had provided further examples of the ways in which Lewis’s arguments have been received in non-Western and/or non-English speaking cultures. As he points out throughout the book, the ways in which these talks continue to influence Western society well beyond their immediate context is truly remarkable. Nonetheless, it would be nice to see a further study into the factors leading to its popularity in other cultures and languages. Perhaps his seven insights provide the basic model for answering this question.

Despite this criticism, Marsden’s biography of Mere Christianity is a welcome addition to the corpus of Lewis scholarship. It provides both insight into new areas of Lewis’s life and work and offers a new lens through which to view areas previously covered by other works. In an age when individuals seek intentional historical significance through social media, only to be relegated to the dustbin of history by the next day’s self-aggrandised usurper, it is nice to read about a work with lasting impact that arose amidst the ashes of war and from within its author’s humble aspirations.

Despite any antecedent trepidation, we can rest assured that Marsden has certainly commemorated this decorated author and avoided the pitfalls of marketing exploitation.

 

Brett H Speakman
University of St Andrews


[1] Robert MacSwain, ‘Introduction,’ in The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 3.

[2] See also, Philip Graham Ryken, ‘Lewis as the Patron Saint of American Evangelicalism,’ in C.S. Lewis and the Church: Essays in Honour of Walter Hooper, eds. Judith Wolfe and Brendan N. Wolfe (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 17

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