#43—The life of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, with George Marsden [MIPodcast]
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
You’ve heard of C.S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity. Maybe you’ve even read it. Perhaps you bought one of the 3.5 million copies that have sold since 2001. It’s one of the most popular Christian books of the last century. But what you might not know is that Mere Christianity was almost an afterthought in C.S. Lewis’s work. In fact, it wasn’t originally intended to be a book at all.
In this episode you’ll learn more about the origins and life of Mere Christianity than you ever knew from George M. Marsden. He’s an award-winning historian of American religious history. In this episode, we discuss his new biography of Mere Christianity. It’s the latest volume in Princeton University Press’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series.
Questions or comments about this or other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to email@example.com.
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HODGES: George M. Marsden is a historian of Christianity in American culture. His recent book is a biography of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. It’s part of Princeton University’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series. Thanks for joining us today George.
GEORGE MARSDEN: Oh, my pleasure.
WRITING AS A CHRISTIAN SCHOLAR
HODGES: Now, you’re a distinguished scholar of Christianity, but you’re also a Christian yourself and at the beginning of your book you talk about how writing a book like this isn’t a detached academic exercise. So, I’d like to hear a few thoughts about the relationship between your faith and scholarship and how that works in the academy today. How that impacted this recent book.
MARSDEN: First, I think there is not any really detached scholarship. All books are written from a particular point of view and so I make a point throughout my career of saying that I’m writing from a Christian perspective and other people can write from other perspectives. But rather than acting as though there’s some sort of neutral, more scientific, objective position, I think that truth in advertising means you should say where you’re coming from and then people can accept that. They can agree with it, or they disagree. They can discount my point of view, but they can take it into account.
So, that’s in general worked very well for me as a way of being able to speak from a perspective of faith and it means that if I think something is important from a faith perspective, I can go ahead and just say that and don’t have to be apologetic for it.
HODGES: You brought that sensibility to C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and Mere Christianity isn’t an autobiographical book. In fact, C.S. Lewis wrote his own autobiography about his conversion in a book called Surprised by Joy. But in this book about Mere Christianity, you explore ways that Lewis’s personal life impacted what become Mere Christianity. So, let’s talk about Lewis’s life, kind of his background leading up to his work as a Christian Apologist.
MARSDEN: Well, Lewis is born in 1898 and he grew up as a Protestant in Northern Ireland and his family were Anglican church people, but as a teenager, Lewis lost whatever religious faith he had. And then he had to serve in World War I for the British and, like many people in that generation, he became very disillusioned as a result of the horrors of the war. And then he went to study at Oxford and was in the midst of many people who were skeptical. And then the story of the next decade or so of his life is one of gradually becoming more and more open to thinking, “Well, maybe there is more to the universe than just a meaninglessness” that he would have to accept if you accepted the purely materialistic view of reality.
And so, he began step-by-step coming toward Christian faith and finally he’s actually helped very much by a long time relation he had with his friend and colleague, J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a Catholic. And Lewis became convinced that Christianity was true, and he converted to—he became an Anglican Protestant Christian. And so Mere Christianity is, in a way, taking people along the journey that he himself had been on. And people described it as “It’s like someone who is a guide to a difficult trip, but he knows the way. He’s been there and can show you and he has a very kindly manner in helping you along the same path.”
EARLY LEWIS PROJECTS
HODGES: Before Lewis got to Mere Christianity, he’d also worked on some other projects, including a series of novels about space—science-fiction-type novels. What was the story behind that project?
MARSDEN: Well, after he became a Christian, he became interested as sort of a avocation to try to help other people appreciate the virtues of Christianity verses the vices of the modern world. And the space trilogy—It’s three books about travel to planets that have histories different from earth.
For instance, in one of them, there’s no fall of Adam and Eve and sin introduced into the human race. People are still innocent. And in these novels, he uses them to critique modern thought. The villains in the piece are scientists who want to use these planets that are discovered for their own purposes, for materialistic ends, to exploit them or enslave their people.
And so Lewis is saying that Scientistism is really an evil outlook in the modern world and he’s presenting the Christian viewpoint in a sort of veiled way by telling the superiority of some of these other places to what we find on earth.
HODGES: And Lewis himself wasn’t the only author that was coming to faith at this time. He was kind of part of a broader trend of conversion where a number of prominent British literary figures were coming to religion. People like T.S. Eliot and so forth. What was behind that movement?
MARSDEN: Well, they’re all people who are seeing some of the weaknesses in modern thought. G.K. Chesterton was one of the early ones, Dorothy Sayers was one. And they are looking at the modern world and seeing emptiness there, and rather than simply being disillusioned as a result of World War I, they’re looking for something more substantial in the past. And I think in Great Britain, there was a greater sense of the past. Christianity was a long tradition that you could go on and so intellectuals were more likely to turn to Christianity in that setting than perhaps in the United States which tended to be somewhat more anti-intellectual.
THE ORIGINS OF THE BOOK
HODGES: And this was all playing out in the context of world wars. In fact, the most immediate context for Mere Christianity was war. Talk a little about the place of Christianity in Britain at the time and how the war was setting the stage for Lewis to become a well-known Apologist.
MARSDEN: Well, it’s an interesting story. Mere Christianity starts out as broadcasts on the BBC during World War II. And Great Britain was actually less religious than the United States was at that time, but it had more formal public religion. It was still in public ways supposed to be a Christian nation, though it wasn’t really very Christian. And so the BBC, which had pretty much a monopoly on radio broadcasting, had a very strong religious department which basically representing mainstream Christianity on the air. There was a religious director and there were regular religious broadcasts not only on Sundays, but during the week as regulars part of their broadcasting.
HODGES: So there’s this informative talk genre kind of thing. These broadcast talks that are happening, and different people are delivering them and there’s a figure at the radio there, J.W. Welch. He’s looking for someone to talk about Christianity for a lay audience. How did he become aware of C.S. Lewis?
MARSDEN: Well, he had read an earlier apologetic book that Lewis wrote called The Problem of Pain, and it’s a defense of Christianity and Welch was impressed by it. And so he wrote to Lewis and asked him whether he might be willing to give a brief series of religious talks on the BBC. And this fit in with, as I was saying, the program needed quite a few religious speakers to fill their time slots.
HODGES: Lewis had been preparing for this, probably unbeknownst to him, by some of his service in the Royal Air Force, talking to other lay Christians. Talk about what prepared Lewis to reach for a broader audience.
MARSDEN: Yes, it just happened that during the war also he was asked to give some informal talks to Royal Air Force bases. So, on the weekends he would travel by train to these air force bases and present various things about Christianity, and that proved to be very helpful to him in getting to know how common people thought and spoke because he was getting responses from them.
And at first, his talks, he didn’t think went very well, but he learned very quickly and became very good at listening to the language of the common people. He was a student of the history of language and he had a very good ear and so what he realized was that in order to present Christianity to ordinary people, you need to translate it into their vernacular. And afterward he often said, “If you want to be an effective communicator of Christianity, you have to take your theological doctrines and translate them into the vernacular. And if you can’t do that you probably don’t understand your doctrines very well.”
HODGES: So he used that experience talking to different people and presenting Christian ideas to lay audience to help prepare for these talks. Your book shows how Mere Christianity wasn’t originally intended to be a book at all. It was born in these broadcast talks, the first of which was delivered on air on August 6th, 1941.
Talk about the preparation Lewis had to undertake to deliver those, because it took a lot of work, especially in the context of the war.
MARSDEN: When Lewis was asked to give these talks, this was in 1941 when the Blitz bombing was still going on in London and the talks were to be broadcast from London. So it looked like a risky proposition.
By the time he started in August the bombing had stopped, fortunately for him. But it was still in a wartime setting. Everything that was broadcast on the BBC had to pass through the sensors, so he had to write out exactly what he was going to say and then it had to be edited so it exactly fit the time slot because there couldn’t be any dead time on the air. Because if there were, there was a German broadcaster on the air known in England as “Lord Haw-Haw” who would broadcast German propaganda on that frequency. So these talks took very precise preparation.
INITIAL AUDIENCE REACTIONS TO MERE CHRISTIANITY
HODGES: And Lewis had to write them out so the sensor could review them. There wasn’t room for improv here. He had to read these over the air, they had to be a set time, they had to fit within the time parameters.
So you say he ended up doing these five talks originally, and they were so successful that the BBC invited him to deliver more sets of talks after that. Talk about the reception that the broadcasts received as they were first delivered.
MARSDEN: Well as the talks went, they were relatively successful and there are some stories—there’s actually two independent stories—of people in pubs where there were army air force service people and Lewis came on the air and someone said, “Everyone listen!” and people quieted down to actually hear him.
On the other hand, because Great Britain was only a nominally Christian country, there were lots of people who didn’t like Christianity at all and were not happy with that kind of Christianity being broadcast on the air. And particularly, there were some professional atheists who were very critical of Lewis. One of them was George Orwell, author of 1984. He was a very skeptical person, very dismissive of Lewis. And also Lewis’s Oxford colleagues often were very critical of—”Here is this professor who is cheapening himself by these popular religious pitches.”
HODGES: And that impacted his career going forward as well, not just the broadcasts but the fact that he was publishing all these books and becoming kind of a minor celebrity, which impacted his career.
MARSDEN: Yes, after the war he was the logical choice for a prestigious chair at Oxford, but the opposition to him was so strong that that was fought. And eventually, Cambridge university took the opportunity to offer him a chair there, so he had to, with some trouble he actually continued to live in Oxford but he had a position in Cambridge.
But yes, he said “You wouldn’t believe how much my colleagues despise me because of this,” being a representative for traditional Christianity.
HODGES: You’d mentioned some of the prominent atheists in Britain, they’re people like George Orwell, and one of the things he criticized Lewis for was what we already mentioned as being one of Lewis’s strengths, which was his ability to translate things for a popular audience. Your book cites a quote from George Orwell where he’s kind of dismissing C.S. Lewis for using slang like, “jolly well” and so forth.
Orwell just did not like this style, but he’s also more worried, I think, about Lewis being some sort of throwback to Medievalism or something, is that right?
MARSDEN: Yes, he said “Well, there’s always the chatty apologist for Christianity, but they’re going to fade away.” And this was at the time when he thought that scientific views would eventually prevail and religion would fade away, as a lot of people did at that time. And today, it’s the scientific views that are more beleaguered than the religious views and the people like Lewis continues to be very widely read.
HODGES: There’s an irony here, because in the United States, reception of Lewis was a little different. Whereas in Britain, you had prominent atheists and so forth criticizing Lewis, and in the United States you had more conservative Evangelical people who were very cautious with Lewis’s work at the outset.
MARSDEN: Yes, in the United States, there were say, in the 1940’s during the first war and World War II, and through the 1950’s there was a lot of public piety and so in general Lewis was pretty well accepted in the cultural mainstream and he was even on the cover of TIME magazine in 1947. Emmy Lewis, who was the owner of Time, liked to promote religion of any sort and so he promoted Lewis.
But even so, the more conservative Evangelical people were a little suspicious of Lewis. They liked the fact that he was a traditional Christian and he believed in a real devil, for instance. He had written, his most famous book by that time, was The Screwtape Letters, which is the story of an elder devil writing letters to a junior devil who is trying to keep a young man from being converted.
And so Evangelicals liked that a lot, but they were suspicious that Lewis wasn’t quite orthodox in doctrine in the way that they liked. He didn’t emphasize starting with an inerrant Bible, the way he talked and he smoked and drank. So paradoxically, Lewis was more popular among the mainline churches like Episcopalians and Presbyterians and so forth more than in the more conservative Evangelical circles at that time.
HODGES: One of the other issues that came up with some of the people that responded to Lewis involved his—One of the broadcasts talks discussed sexual morality. What kind of controversy came up as a result of that?
MARSDEN: Well, one of the tabloid papers in London got a hold of his talk on sexual morality and published it, so it was some sort of sensational talk. And it wasn’t really that sensational, but it was at that time. Talking at all about sexual morality could be controversial. So it was sort of picking something to be critical of.
And one of the interesting critiques in America was from Alistair Cooke who was British but was living in America. And he critiqued Lewis because he thought that Lewis’s conventional views on sexuality were retrograde and he was for more open views on those sorts of issues.
HODGES: Including for example, men’s and women’s roles and that sort of thing?
HODGES: Now, that particular broadcast drew about 1.5 million listeners. In fact, most of his broadcasts drew about that many listeners, which sounds like a lot. However, you point out that the BBC news that evening drew in sixteen million. So, it’s not that he was unknown, but he also wasn’t hugely—
MARSDEN: Yes, it wasn’t as though—Somebody once said that he was one of the best-known voices in all of England. I don’t think that’s the case. There actually were some other religious broadcasters who had bigger audiences than he did. So he was well known. He was very successful in what he did. But it wasn’t like he was sensationally popular at the time.
LISTENING TO LEWIS
HODGES: What was it like to listen to Lewis as he delivered these lectures?
MARSDEN: Oh, he was a very effective speaker. He was one of the most popular lecturers at Oxford and, as I said, he also knew how to speak to an ordinary audience. And BBC had a monopoly on broadcasting at the time. So he pretty much had to be addressing everyone. And if you go online, you can look up C.S. Lewis’s original broadcast and you get one of these broadcasts and you hear a very engaging style. It has a bit of an Oxford tone but it’s not off-putting in the ways that tone can sometimes be. But it’s just more engaging.
[Fades into C.S. Lewis’s recorded voice]
C.S. LEWIS: Let me explain that. History isn’t just a story of bad people doing bad things. It’s quite as much a story of people trying to do good things, but somehow something goes wrong. We’ve learned how unsympathetic, patronizing, and conceited charitable people often are. And yet, hundreds and thousands of them started out really anxious to do good. And when they’d done it, somehow it just wasn’t as good as it ought to have been. The old story: What you are comes out in what you do. A crab apple tree can’t produce eating apples. As long as the old self is there, its taint will be over all we do. We try to be religious and become Pharisees. We try to be kind and become patronizing. Social service ends in red tape officialdom. Unselfishness becomes a form of showing off.
I don’t mean, of course, that we’re to stop trying to be good. We’ve got to do the best we can. If the soldier’s foolish enough to go into battle with a dirty rifle, he mustn’t run away. But I do mean that the real cure lies far deeper—out of our self and into Christ we must go.
The change for most of us won’t happen suddenly. And I must admit that for most Christians, it will only be beginning to the very end of our present lives. But there are some in whom it goes further, even before death, far enough for you to see it. Their very faces and voices are different. When you meet them, you know you’re up against something which, so to speak, begins where you leave off. Something stronger, quieter, happier, more alive than ordinary humanity.
MARSDEN: People have said, “He speaks like an uncle telling his nephew the rules of cricket.”
PUBLISHING BOOKLETS AND WRITING LETTERS
HODGES: So he’s modestly popular at this point; he done these lecture series for the BBC. And you talked about how he takes these and he publishes them in three separate little paperback books. This is before Mere Christianity. What was his goal there?
MARSDEN: Well, he simply published these talks because he didn’t—People were writing to him. When you’re on the air like that, lots of people wrote directly to him and he was very conscientious about answering correspondence. And so he would get through these piles of correspondence and some people would come to him with their personal marital problems and all sorts of things that he didn’t feel competent to talk about. So he wanted these published so people could refer to the publications that understand exactly what he said.
HODGES: I’ve read through the entire collected letters of C.S. Lewis and it was interesting to see all the different kinds of questions that he got and, as you said, he really did make an effort to respond to most people who wrote to him. That seemed like a tremendous amount of work.
MARSDEN: Yeah, he was very conscientious and he didn’t have a lot of extra time but he would, first thing in the morning, he said he’d dread the mailman coming, descending to have this pile of correspondence he’d have to respond to the next day. But he felt that was one of his obligations.
HODGES: So, this is around the time, 1942, when The Screwtape Letters came out, as you mentioned, that really catapulted his image. A lot more people became familiar with his work and he had already published the broadcasts talks in three separate books. And by 1947, it seems like Lewis felt like he’d had his heyday. In fact, you write about how he’s even feeling like maybe he’d done everything he could with regard to popular apologetics and maybe he felt like stepping back at this point, maybe doing something else.
MARSDEN: Yes, there’s several indications that after World War II, he was done with broadcasting and he was done with writing these popular apologetic books and in fact, he does turn to writing the Narnia books which he began in 1947.
HODGES: And he also had expressed in multiple places a sense that there was a danger about doing apologetics.
MARSDEN: Yes, he remarks that after he’s given a set of arguments defending Christianity, often his own faith is actually weakened by that because he could always, as you can, think of counterarguments that might have been given. And it reminded him that your faith isn’t really built on arguments. Arguments are valuable supports for the faith, but they’re not sufficient for the faith because arguments can always be counterarguments. So I think he was beginning to find doing apologetics just not as edifying for himself as it might be, or I think he may have thought that he’d said pretty much everything he had to say.
HODGES: Now there’s also a debate that he engaged in in 1948 with Elizabeth Anscombe and you note that this has become somewhat legendary. People have speculated as to whether his apparent failure in this debate led to his reluctance to engage apologetics further. But you say it probably had less of an impact than people think.
MARSDEN: Yes, I think there’s—as some biographers have said, there’s evidence that he already was moving in the direction of working on the Narnia books. But it was sort of this very dramatic debate. Lewis was the head of what is called the Socratic Club at Oxford and they had debates on philosophical, theological subjects, and he was known to be a very formidable debater.
But this philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe was also a very formidable debater. She was actually Catholic, but she was critical of an argument that Lewis had given earlier in an apologetic book called Miracles. She approached it on technical philosophical grounds, she was an analytical philosopher, and he had not studied that kind of thing. So he felt bested in the debate and some people speculated that he kind of gave up on apologetics and turned to the Narnia books in despair. But I don’t think that really has much to it because in fact, he eventually responded quite well to Anscombe and revised the section of his Miracles book that she had criticized and fixed it up to suit the arguments that she had given.
MERE CHRISTIANITY TURNS INTO A BOOK
HODGES: And that sets us up really well to get to the moment when Mere Christianity is actually put together. We’re talking today with George Marsden. He’s an emeritus professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and his books include the Bancroft award-winning biography of Jonathan Edwards. Today we’re talking about his biography of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.
So, the mystery that no one has solved and that remains even in your book, is whose idea it was to actually take these three books, these broadcast talks that he’d previously published, and combine them into this one book and call it Mere Christianity. But talk about, at least, about when that happened and how that came about as far as we can tell.
MARSDEN: Well, Mere Christianity was published as a single volume combining these three oral books in 1952. And there simply doesn’t seem to be any correspondence that’s survived as to whose idea it was. Was it the publisher suggested it? Or Lewis had suggested it? But, it’s part of this story of this book that never was designed to be a single book and was a sort of afterthought. Lewis put it together as Mere Christianity and it really, eventually, took off after that.
REACHING MAINSTREAM CHRISTIANS
HODGES: So he releases this book, Mere Christianity. You note in chapter five of your book that Mere Christianity emerged as a single volume with no trumpets and fanfare. It came out in Britain in July and then in the United States in November of 1952. And it kind of, I mean, no trumpets or fanfare here, but some people noticed it. Evangelical Christians had kind of been setting the stage for the release of this book.
Talk about how people like Billy Graham enter into this story.
MARSDEN: Well, as I said, at first Evangelicals were a bit suspicious of Lewis and he wasn’t quite the style of Evangelical. But Billy Graham actually met Lewis in 1954 while Billy Graham was doing a crusade in England. And Evangelical pastor John Stott set up a meeting with Lewis and Lewis was quite well impressed with Graham, and Graham with Lewis. And so there’s a beginning of what became a very close relationship that, at first, it was more popular among main line denominations.
But, in later decades he became more and more the Evangelical apologist. And I think there’s a hierarchy of saints among American Evangelicals, with Billy Graham at the top, but C.S. Lewis is not far behind. He’s sort of the go-to apologist for a lot of people.
HODGES: Now, it wasn’t just people like Billy Graham that were taking notice of Lewis. People might be surprised to hear that there was a professor of apologetics at a place called General Theological Seminary in New York, by the name of Norman Pittenger I think is his name?
HODGES: And he came out just with some blistering attacks of Lewis. He called him “a dangerous apologist and an inept theologian.” This was a turning point for Lewis.
MARSDEN: It’s an amusing story. In 1957, Billy Graham was doing a very successful Evangelistic crusades in New York City and the Christian Century, which is a leading liberal Protestant magazine, didn’t like Billy Graham and so Pittenger didn’t like Billy Graham either. So, Lewis- as representing this old-time religion that was out of date- and so he writes this very condescending, scathing account of Lewis’s Apologetics. And that really sort of woke Lewis up again as an Apologist and he responded with a brilliant critique of Pittenger and explained that he’s not trying to do a professional theological thing, he’s trying to translate for the common people and he said, you know, “I have to do this because you professional theologians are missing the boat and people don’t understand all the very subtle things that you’re saying and you say something on one end and then you take it back the next sentence. Where, I’m just going to do it straight forward kind of thing.” And actually after that, Lewis does some more, he gets a little bit back into apologetics.
HODGES: But it seems to be a little bit reluctantly, at least I guess he’s trying to be more focused about what projects he does. Because in 1956 Billy Graham is launching Christianity Today as kind of a rival to Christian Century, a Christian publication, and he’s invited to contribute to that and Lewis declines. He kind of says, “Well, I think those days are over.”
MARSDEN: Yes, well in 1956 he didn’t want to be too closely identified with American Evangelicalism, he thought it was a little too populist and I don’t think it suited his taste, even though he liked Graham well enough. But the episode with Pittenger the next year, I think, helped draw him back. He was sympathetic to those circles.
THE BOOK’S INFLUENCE SPREADS
HODGES: Okay. And he stayed busy in other ways, too. I mean, he continued to write. So he was still writing Narnia fiction books at this time, and doing some literary criticism. He was also writing other books for Christian audiences.
There’s Reflections on the Psalms in 1958, The Four Loves in 1960, and then in 1964 Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. So he’s heading into the Sixties here and you say that there’s good reason to think that a book like Mere Christianity would just kind of fade out. We’re coming up on the Sixties, what explains that?
MARSDEN: Lewis died in 1963. He actually died the same day that John F. Kennedy did. And shortly before his death he said that he thought most of his books would soon be forgotten—that they would go out of style. And in the later Sixties, when you’re beginning to get to counterculture and everyone’s talking about new things and “the Age of Aquarius,” other commentators are saying, “Well, Lewis has had his day and he’s fading away,” and that seemed to be the expectation.
But what’s remarkable about this story of the book is rather than fading away, it really begins to take off, really beginning in the 1970’s. So that there’s accelerating sales of Mere Christianity, so that you get to the 21st century, since 2001, it’s sold more than three and a half million copies in English alone, and it’s also been translated into many languages. And that’s far more than it sold in its first 15 years. So, it’s a very unusual book that rather than making a big splash and the ripples fade away, it starts without a huge splash and actually the waves are growing out of its influence.
HODGES: In some strange and unexpected ways too. And after C.S. Lewis died, there are a lot of Christians who kind of started to make Lewis over in their own image. He kind of became a crypto-Catholic. Mormons began taking interest in C.S. Lewis and picking out Mormon elements of his thought.
And then there’s this really unexpected story that has to do with the Watergate scandal.
MARSDEN: Yes, that’s very important for the story of Mere Christianity. Charles Colson, who was known as a sort of henchmen for Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandals and was facing going to jail for the shenanigans that he had managed, was given a copy of Mere Christianity by a friend who showed him some passage, a chapter on pride, and this really touched Colson’s heart. And he took the book and read it very carefully and was converted to Christianity. And when he came out of prison, he wrote a book called Born Again which came out in 1976, almost the same time that Jimmy Carter, when the campaign failed, talked about being born again. And that became a best seller, and there in the middle of his best seller is this story of the impact of Mere Christianity.
So that really helped accelerate the sense that Mere Christianity is the book to give to people if they’re questioning their faith or they’re looking to Christian faith. And I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, “Oh, that’s the book that really helped me find,” you know, “I was brought up in the Church maybe, but once I read that, it just all came together and it all made sense.” And so that publicity helped other people see it as really the go-to book if you’re helping someone who is having questions about their faith.
HODGES: So you had some celebrity-type conversions. Not only Colson from the Watergate scandal, but in the book you also mention Francis Collins who served as head of the Human Genome Project, I think he was something of an atheist or at least an agnostic and, I think he was atheist—
MARSDEN: Yes, he was an atheist and he was given Mere Christianity by a—he was a young man—and he was given it by a pastor and he read it and was convinced by it, and then he himself wrote a very influential apologetic work giving his reasons for Christian belief. So, he’s one of quite a few people who were helped very much by Lewis and then became apologists themselves so that, in a way, Lewis’s work is magnified by the people who are like Lewis and then try to carry on the work in one way or another.
APPEALING TO MANY TRADITIONS
HODGES: What do you think about the way different traditions sort of appropriate Lewis?
MARSDEN: It’s interesting and as you mentioned, there’s even apparently quite a substantial Mormon interest in Lewis. And I think it reflects the fact that Lewis tries very hard to be non-controversial in what he says. He’s very much a traditional Christian, but he’s generous to all sorts of positions and someone remarked—one of Lewis’s editors that edits Lewis’s books today—said that every religious group that he goes to sort of thinks of Lewis as one of their own, somehow feels as though he belongs because he’s so generous in his tone.
So, he’s very widely regarded. There’s quite a Catholic following for Lewis even though a Catholic wrote a book called More Christianity that thinks that Lewis is good up to a point but then you need the Church. But, nonetheless, a lot of different kinds of believers like Lewis as far as he takes you.
HODGES: People might be surprised to learn from your book, this is a quote from you, “Contrary to Lewis’s expectations that his works would soon be forgotten, he’s far better known in the 21st century than he was at the time of his death in 1963.”
We’re speaking with George Marsden and we’ll take a brief break and be right back.
HODGES: We’re talking today with George Marsden. He is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, and we’re talking about his latest book, a biography of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.
We left off talking about Lewis’s popularity being greater today than it was back when he was still alive and what I think a lot of people would be interested to find out is, even people who fondly look to Lewis as a key figure in their own faith journeys and intellectual development don’t always shy away from pointing out areas where they disagree with him or seeing him as sort of a doorway into a discussion rather than an end-point. I’m thinking of people like N.T Wright and other figures like this.
What are some of the main critiques since Lewis has passed away that people have made of Mere Christianity?
MARSDEN: Well, I think there are critiques, and you mentioned N.T. Wright, he was very much influenced by Lewis but then as a biblical scholar himself, he thinks Lewis isn’t very sophisticated in his understanding of the New Testament. And so there’s things he wants to say that go beyond Lewis and he’s one of those apologists who had written his own apologetic work to bring Lewis up to date, to bring him to a different kind of audience.
There’s also less sympathetic critics of Lewis, of course. It’s people who are skeptics. Often people who once were Christian and lost their faith who are critical of Lewis and just think that his arguments are wrong. And there are books published refuting arguments of Lewis. And then there’s Lewis defenders who are responding to those reputations.
So there’s all sort of debate about particular arguments in Lewis, but I’d say in general, despite the critiques, most of the arguments stand up pretty well from what they are. That they’re not designed to be inclusive, professional arguments for philosophers, but they are persuasive arguments that carry a weight with them that is very helpful for a lot of people in thinking through the implications of their faith.
And Lewis is always presenting his arguments in very imaginative ways. In Narnia, he is creating images to represent a sort of Christian world in the way he writes. He uses tremendous number of images to make his ideas come alive and so, it’s more than just arguments. It’s something that helps. You know, people say, “Oh yeah, now I understand what he’s trying to get at!” And so, it’s not necessarily just compelling you. “There’s no other logical way out of this, what I’m claiming.” It’s convincing you this really fits with your own experience.
HODGES: One of the major points of criticism you bring up as well deals with women and gender. You quote one of Lewis’s friends, Dorothy Sayers, who’s a good friend of Lewis, and she wrote to one correspondent, “I do admit that he is apt to write shocking nonsense about women in marriage.”
MARSDEN: Well yeah, he was a mid-twentieth century male who had the typical assumptions of mid-twentieth century males. And he tended to be even somewhat traditional for that time, so he argued against the idea that women might be ordained in the Anglican communion and there’s a chapter in Mere Christianity where he writes about gender relations and he has a very stereotypical views of the roles men and women should play in marriage.
HODGES: —women are subordinate, and men make the decisions. That kind of thing?
MARSDEN: Yeah. He said men should be in charge of foreign policy and women in charge of domestic policy. Women are too protective of their families, you know, when they’re dealing with their neighbors and men are better at negotiation and things that really even at the time—it’s an example of trying to give an imaginative picture of the point he’s trying to make, but it doesn’t work.
And certainly, these days there’s lots of people who are more critical of those traditional views. But the remarkable thing is, most people who read the book think, “Well, okay that’s the way people thought back then and not a lot really rests on those views.”
HODGES: Right, in spite of the short shelf life of some of the things in Mere Christianity, you talk about how, I mean since 2001 it’s sold millions of copies, it’s been translated into thirty-six languages, and then you conclude your story of the book, the biography of the book, by talking about seven particular reason why you think Mere Christianity remained a vital source for so many people.
One of the reasons you talk about is Lewis’s skill at metaphor. He’s a poet at heart and he compares being Christian to all sorts of things. There’s a brief survey that one Lewis scholar points out that “becoming a Christian is like joining in a campaign of sabotage or falling at someone’s feet, putting yourself in someone’s hand, laying down your arms and surrendering, saying sorry, learning to walk, learning to write, buying God a present with His own money…” I mean, he just goes on and on. So that’s one reason that his vivid metaphors really allow Christians to tap into the imaginative side of Christianity. What are some other reasons that you point to as to why this book is still so popular and impacts so many people?
MARSDEN: Well one reason is that I think, unlike the views on gender which are more dated, most of the book he makes a really strong effort to represent timeless Christianity. As he says in the preface to that when he put the book together, Mere Christianity, this is going to be about the things that Christians throughout the ages have pretty much agreed on and I’ll stay away from the things they disagree about. And so, as a student of history, he studies literary history, he’s looking for the ideas that have lasted. And so, instead of tying most of what he says to mid-twentieth century ideas, he’s looking for timeless things and so lo and behold, 21st century, there’s still just this time where is says, they were in the middle of the twentieth century and so, rather than most of the books seeming dated, a lot of it still can seem quite relevant to people.
HODGES: One other thing that I liked that you mentioned is about how Lewis really did try to point beyond himself. I mean, he’s quite a personality- a strong personality. But you also notice that he talks to you as though he’s right alongside you. Kind of pointing down the road.
MARSDEN: Yes, I think that whole section I’m trying say, this is supposed to be a biography of a book or the life of a book and saying, “well, what gives a book vitality?” And among the other things that I think really gives it lasting vitality or lasting life is that he’s not simply talking about himself. He’s talking about what he sees as perennial truths and what people through in many times, in many places that also seem as perennial truths. So, I see him as like a guide on a mountain journey and he knows the territory, he brings you to a very beautiful spot and points that to you and you’re overwhelmed by the beauty of the lakes and the mountains and you’re very thankful to the guide, but it’s the beauty of the thing he points you to that really has captivated you. And I think Lewis is very good at being that sort of guide, that you’re aware of his personality, but it’s not about him, it’s about Christianity. It’s about Mere Christianity.
HODGES: So, I wanted to ask before we go- I’ve interviewed a number of authors of “Lives of Great Religious Books” volumes and the vast majority of these books are about books that are much older than Mere Christianity. So, just wanted to ask you about how you think your task differed from someone writing a biography of Genesis or the biography of Vedas or something. Instead you’re writing about a book from the 20th century. Yours and the Dietrich Bonhoeffer volumes I think are the only two that are so recent.
MARSDEN: Yes, and that of course raises the question, this is about classic religious books and will Mere Christianity remain a classic? And of course we don’t know that but it’s certainly become a classic and I think certainly more than Bonhoeffer’s Letters from Prison. It’s unusual in that it’s more popular today than it was in the mid-twentieth century. So, yeah there’s a different- and many of the books in this series are books that are officially part of a particular religious tradition and so you can understand their popularity in that realm. Not all of them, like Augustine’s Confessions, would be one that’s a classic. It’s not required reading, it’s not a required text anywhere or considered to be a sacred text. But so when I thought the question around which to organize what I’m doing, is why it is continually popularity. What makes this book distinguished from almost all the other books that were published in the mid-twentieth century in having that continuing vitality.
HODGES: That’s George M. Marsden, he’s a historian of Christianity in American culture, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. Today we were talking about his biography of Mere Christianity. George, thank you so much for being on the Maxwell Institute podcast.
MARSDEN: I have enjoyed it. Thanks so much.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)