Review by Shane Kastler
If you have an interest in people, then biography is a compelling genre for you. To learn the background, childhood, education, career, and later years of an historical figure brings great interest. But, have you ever considered reading a book that is a “biography” of a book rather than a person? That is what you’ll find in the Lives of Great Religious Books series by Princeton University Press. And recently I had the joy of reading C. S. Lewis’s "Mere Christianity": A Biography, by George Marsden.
Marsden is an imminent scholar and author, having written the Bancroft Prize winning biography, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, in 2004. In Marsden's latest work, however, his subject is a book itself rather than an individual.
Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, has gone down in time as one of the most read and re-read introductions to the Christian faith. What some may not realize about the book is that it originally was birthed as a series of radio addresses Lewis gave on the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) during World War II. As Britain, and all of Europe, were in the throes of war, Lewis laid out, in 15 to 20 minute segments, what the basic tenets of Christianity were. As a masterful storyteller (most notably seen in his Chronicles of Narnia series) Lewis was able to provide vivid analogous examples to describe the basic foundations of the faith. This, coupled with his past history as an atheist, gave him a good background in skepticism, so as to speak to the skeptics that were so prominent in Britain at the time.
Of course, when writing the biography of a “book” it is impossible to not also write a semi-biography of the man who wrote the book. Lewis was an instructor in English Literature at Oxford University when he gave the talks that would become Mere Christianity. And the response to his radio talks was mesmerizing, in both good and bad ways. Many people desired to hear them again and reconsider the Christian faith. Others, rationalistic in nature, abhorred Lewis's archaic religious beliefs and ridiculed him for both the radio addresses and the ensuing book. This was one of the most enlightening aspects of the book for me, the realization that Lewis was intellectually persecuted for his Christian faith by British liberals in general, and by his Oxford colleagues in particular. In fact, Lewis's adherence to the faith, perhaps cost him promotions from within the university.
Lewis's life was forever changed with the publication of Mere Christianity. He incorporated the help of his faithful brother Warren (Warnie) to answer the correspondence he received as a result of the radio broadcasts and the book itself, which emerged from a desire by so many to re-read what Lewis had said. From Mere Christianity, Lewis went on to pen several, short philosophical works devoted to various aspects of the Christian faith. While many modern day evangelicals would disagree with Lewis on several issues, it could also safely be said that his book has been used of God to bring many an atheistic skeptic to reconsider their stance on Christianity. Some of these well known Christian figures (Charles Colson for example) are mentioned in the book. It should also be noted that Lewis went to great pains to ensure the book presented as “basic” a view of Christianity as possible. He was not interested in drawing sharp doctrinal and denominational lines. And this can be seen throughout the work. If you are expecting a sharp-tongue polemic for your branch of Christianity, you will be disappointed. But if you desire, a more vague introduction to the faith, then Mere Christianity will satisfy. Lewis claimed that he was simply trying to bring unbelievers into the vestibule of the faith, and that whatever specific “room” they chose was up to them. As an Anglican himself, he was not trying to win unbelievers to Anglicanism. But rather to coax unbelievers to consider Christianity as a whole.
After having been passed over one too many times at Oxford, Lewis eventually accepted a promotion at the rival Cambridge University. His latter years were spent in study and in the late-in-life marriage to American Joy Davidman, who succumbed to cancer in 1960. Lewis himself died on November 22, 1963, largely overshadowed by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, on the same day.
Marsden's book is an interesting read that presents an aspect of Lewis's life and of Mere Christianity that might not be known to the reader. Never boring, Marsden weaves an interesting narrative about Lewis and how the book came to prominence. If you have not yet read the book itself, it would behoove any Christian (or even skeptic) to read Lewis's Mere Christianity. Then read Marsden's biography of the book itself. The historical context, extenuating circumstances, and the author, Lewis himself, make for a fascinating read. Marsden succeeds in writing a readable and interesting “biography” of Mere Christianity. I would highly recommend both Lewis's original work, and Marsden's biography of it.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at 'The Narrow Road' and has been reposted with permission.