Mere Christianity | Study Guide

C.S. Lewis

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Mere Christianity | Book 4, Chapter 7 : Beyond Personality: Or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity (Let's Pretend) | Summary



Lewis now turns his attention to the practices of the Christian believer, beginning with prayer. He analyzes what the believer is actually doing when he prays the Lord's Prayer, a prayer that cuts across denominational divides. The prayer begins with the words "Our Father." Lewis explains that the speaker is dressing up as Christ, a type of pretending ordained by God as proper practice. There are two kinds of pretending: one that deceives and one "where the pretense leads up to the real thing"—like children's games that imitate adult life. By pretending to be Christ through the Lord's Prayer, we invite Christ-like thoughts and actions.

This pretending to be Christ is more useful than relying on conscience to tell us the difference between what is right and wrong in our lives. There are things that are not "wrong" per se but are certainly not Christ-like. In this way we allow Christ to help us. He does this through many channels, such as nature and other people. We must recognize that Christ is working to help us through the world. But we must put our faith in Him rather than in His channels, which are fallible and impermanent.

Lewis says that the New Testament language about Christ is not metaphor. Christ is living and working within us to replace our Bios with Zoe through a process like death and resurrection. The process makes us into "a new little Christ," sharing in "His power, joy, knowledge and eternity."

Prayer makes us aware of "our sinfulness," not just our "particular sinful acts." We tend to excuse our bad behavior, saying we were "caught off ... guard." In reality, these "off guard" moments are the best indicators of our character. While we can at least partly control our actions, we cannot directly control our temperament. But God cares about what we are more than He cares about what we do. The change in temperament we require cannot be achieved by our "own direct, voluntary efforts." God must do this, as God does everything. It is even God who is sinner dressing up as Christ through prayer. This "divine make-believe" seems odd, but the process is how "the higher thing always raises the lower"—just as children learn language when their mother speaks to them as if they already understand.


The idea of a virtuous sort of pretending—or pretending to create virtue—appears earlier in Lewis's discussion on charity. There he advocates addressing a lack of charitable feeling by acting as we would if we did feel charitable. Our charitable actions then begin to generate the feelings associated with charity. Our mimicry gives way to authenticity.

The Lord's Prayer, which appears twice in the gospels, is part of Jesus's famous Sermon on the Mount in the Book of Matthew. A shorter version appears in Luke as Jesus trains those disciples who wish to teach his ways. Jesus was a Palestinian Jew, and scholars have noted how the Lord's Prayer is congruent with the Jewish prayer tradition in its language and content. Despite its Jewish origins, the prayer has become emphatically Christian. Its universal quality spans denominational differences. It is even the prayer used in the nonsectarian 12-step self-help program Alcoholics Anonymous.

Lewis analyzes the prayer not from its historical context, but with the close reading of literary criticism. This analysis is useful because prayer is often thought of as a type of petitioning in which we present God a list of our desires or needs. The Lord's Prayer might seem similar on the surface, but Lewis's closer reading uncovers the "mimetic desire" at its core. Mimesis means imitation, whether deliberate (as in the Lord's Prayer) or not. The concept of mimetic desire was put forth by French philosopher René Girard (1923–2015). He explained that our desires tend to imitate the desires of others. Girard used the concept to describe the mechanisms behind rivalry. In Lewis's analysis, however, the concept describes a Christian's conscious renunciation of self-will. In the words of contemporary theologian James Alison, through the Lord's Prayer we are "asking ... to become a symptom of his pattern of desire, rather than that of the social other." The social other are those people around us whose desires we tend to reflect rather than God's.

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