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Mere Christianity | Context


Britain in World War II

Mere Christianity started out as a series of radio talks C.S. Lewis gave to the British people during World War II. Britain's role in the war informs the tone of the book, which helped bolster British identity and provide a message of hope for the British people.

The Battle of Britain

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Britain and France responded by declaring war on Germany. Britain knew an air attack on its cities was likely and began preparations: building large public and private shelters, instituting a nighttime blackout, and ramping up its weaponry. Volunteers worked to evacuate over three million people, mostly children, from cities to safer locations in the countryside or abroad. "Operation Pied Piper" was to become the largest movement of people in British history. In early summer 1940 Hitler's armies moved through the European mainland, conquering countries and repelling the British army. After France fell to the Nazis, British prime minister Winston Churchill predicted the Battle of Britain would soon follow.

German dictator Adolf Hitler wanted to conquer Britain, but he knew he needed to defeat the British Royal Air Force (RAF) before attempting a land invasion. On July 10, 1940, the Luftwaffe (Nazi air force) began attacking British ports, coastal strongholds, and supply points hoping to take control of the English Channel. The RAF fighter pilots, known as "The Few," repelled these relentless attacks, so Hitler decided to switch tactics. After a British air raid on Berlin, Hitler decided to crush the morale of the British people through deliberate civilian attacks. He launched total war against Britain, the last barrier against Nazi control of Europe. The resulting campaign of air raids was the first mass air attack on a civilian population.

The Blitz

On September 7, 1940, what came to be known as "the Blitz" (German for lightning) began with a Luftwaffe attack on London. The 12-hour attack began in the afternoon, causing panic on the streets of London. This "Black Saturday" raid left over 400 dead and 1,600 critically wounded. For the next two months the Luftwaffe bombed London each night. Londoners who could not evacuate took to living in shelters and even in the underground subway system. By October a quarter-million Londoners were homeless. The government reluctantly tolerated the populace living in the Underground. Despite its fears that people would acquire "deep shelter mentality" and become afraid to venture out, a community spirit arose among those living in the public shelters and the Underground.

In November 1940 the Luftwaffe expanded its targets to include other cities throughout the UK. During a November 14 raid on Coventry, known as "Operation Moonlight Sonata," 500 Luftwaffe bombers dropped 500 tons of explosives, including 900 incendiary bombs, over the course of 10 hours. An incendiary bomb is designed to start fires. The bombing stopped for one day, Christmas; when it resumed the Luftwaffe relied on incendiary bombs rather than regular explosives. On December 29, 1940, when the River Thames was at its lowest point, the Luftwaffe conducted a brutal raid on London. The heat generated by over 100,000 incendiary bombs raised temperatures on the ground up to 800 degrees Celsius. With the scant water afforded by the low river level, London burned despite the efforts of firefighters.

In February 1941, despite the months of continuous total war, Hitler had failed in his goal of crushing Britain's morale and destroying its forces. He switched tactics again. By targeting supply centers and ports, he hoped to starve Britain. Nonetheless, when Prime Minister Churchill visited these port cities, he reported high morale among the people. On May 8, 1941, as the Luftwaffe continued bombing Britain, 359 RAF bombers conducted one of its heaviest raids yet on German targets, including Hamburg and Bremen. This was a move designed to raise morale in Britain. The damage and casualties on both sides were immense, enraging Hitler. He retaliated with an attack on London during the night of May 10–11. Over the course of seven hours, 571 Luftwaffe sorties dropped over 700 tons of explosives and over 86,000 incendiary bombs on London. When morning came almost 1,500 people were dead, another 1,800 seriously wounded, and 700 acres of London was in flames—almost double the area that burned during the 1666 Great Fire that destroyed over three-fourths of the city.

This was the end of the Blitz, as Hitler now turned his focus toward invading Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's Russia. Nonetheless, sporadic Luftwaffe raids continued against Britain until the end of the war.

Morale and Hope

The Blitz did not crush the morale of the British people or destroy its fighting capacity, but the damage forever altered the face and character of Britain. London alone lost over a million buildings, and over a million people in the city found themselves homeless. During the eight months of attacks 43,000 civilians from around the UK died.

The attacks changed the character of British institutions such as the Church of England. By 1942 over 1,000 Anglican churches were nearly or completely destroyed. The impact of the attacks on the institution of the Church is symbolized by the church bells that were kept virtually silent from June 1940 until the spring of 1943, being sounded only to announce attacks. The Church, which had previously taken on a large portion of the burden of ensuring public welfare, found itself in shambles. Parishes evaporated as parishioners and clergy left for the front lines or were killed.

The BBC and the Broadcast Talks

When war began in September 1939, C.S. Lewis was writing The Problem of Pain. This book was read by James Welch, director of religious broadcasting for the British Broadcasting Corporation. As Britain endured total war at the hands of the Luftwaffe, Welch felt it was the duty of religious broadcasting to broadcast the Church's message of truth and hope. The Problem of Pain convinced Welch that Lewis should deliver the message. He contacted Lewis, a successful but by no means famous Oxford professor and writer, in a letter in February 1941.

Lewis was not a fan of radio, and he was no theologian. Rather, he was extremely well read, a gifted critical thinker and communicator, and a sincere convert to Christianity at age 30 after years claiming to be an atheist. For Welch these were advantages. Lewis was a layman who understood the position of the skeptic and the atheist and knew how to reach them. In his own theory of apologetics—the genre that defends and defines Christianity to persuade people to convert—Lewis viewed the apologist's work as translating complex theology into the vernacular. He felt complex theological arguments with their ambiguities and specialized terminologies, as well as their assumption of shared prior knowledge between the speaker and listener, had no place in a popular apologia. These would only alienate his audience. Lewis knew he was addressing an audience who did not trust scriptural or historical authority. Moreover, for many of those who participated in the practice of religion the Church had become a social institution rather than a spiritual authority. Therefore, he worked to develop a rhetorical style that would acknowledge his audience's position and meet them there.

Lewis agreed to Welch's proposal to conduct a series of broadcasts presenting key Christian doctrine from a layman's perspective. He presented Welch with his plan to speak on "the law of nature," the idea that an objective standard of morality exists in all people. Lewis felt it was important to start with this law. He considered an understanding of this law, and the guilt that arises when people fail to keep it, was the necessary foundation for understanding Christianity. He planned to give a series of talks titled Right and Wrong: A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe that would focus on this law and "mention Christianity only at the end."

Welch and his assistant, Eric Fenn, began coaching Lewis in the art of writing for radio. At first Lewis, a novelist, poet, and academic writer, struggled to write within the format's constraints. Radio format demands precision, brevity, and clarity. The listener must be able to grasp the speaker's meaning immediately as there is no turning back a page. Lewis had to construct a compelling, transparent presentation of enormously complex religious and philosophical issues. It had to be free of digressions and specialized terminology. And it had to fill but not exceed the 15-minute time slot for the program.

Lewis gave his first live broadcast on the evening of August 6, 1941. Response was favorable. Soon Britain was under Lewis's spell. Up to a million people tuned in to hear his talks.

The BBC contracted with Lewis to deliver a second series of talks. Titled What Christians Believe, Lewis intended to now present the common core of Christianity. To ensure accuracy, he had clergymen from various denominations evaluate his script. Their criticisms were minor, demonstrating how well Lewis avoided presenting his personal faith as if it were essential Christianity. Thrilled with this series, the BBC asked Lewis to do a third series. By their estimates, half of Lewis's listeners were not Christians. Clearly Welch's hope and Lewis's intentions of delivering Christianity in a way that everyone could receive it were coming to pass.

The demands of his sudden fame were taxing for Lewis. In addition to his regular responsibilities, he now had piles of audience mail to attend to. He was also giving regular talks on Christianity to members of the Royal Air Force, something he considered part of his "wartime service" as much as the broadcasts. Lewis delivered a third series of 12 talks and a fourth, final series of 11 given in 1944. After the fourth, he was firm there would be no more, and he rejected repeated entreaties by BBC personnel to generate a fifth series.

In 1952 all four series were compiled and given a preface and a title, Mere Christianity. The book's popularity has skyrocketed since its unremarkable release. Estimated total sales exceed 11 million copies worldwide. After Lewis died in 1963, American evangelicals, conservative Protestants, and Catholics embraced the text. The book has resulted in legions of converts, some of them public figures who have credited Lewis in their own conversion narratives. Recent generations of apologists also take Lewis's text as their standard. As of 2011 it had maintained a spot on the BookScan Religion Bestseller list for over 500 weeks, the entire life of the list, and publisher HarperOne claimed annual sales of around 150,000 copies. Mere Christianity has never been without its critics. Nonetheless, it continues to be widely read, debated, discussed, and beloved by readers around the world.

C.S. Lewis's Atheism and Conversion

As a boy in Ireland, C.S. Lewis regularly attended a Protestant church with his parents. He found the experience dull and uninspiring. After his mother's death in 1908 when he was 10, Lewis was sent to boarding school, where he made a sincere but short-lived attempt to practice Christianity. He soon turned away from religion and immersed himself in the world of mythology, philosophy, and literature. Despite his sorrow over his mother's death, he began to experience glimpses of something he called "joy." Lewis sought to understand this joy and to search for it everywhere, describing it as "an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction."

These experiences conflicted with sense of life as a meaningless pit of despair, and it prompted him to question his atheism. In 1916, 18-year-old Lewis bought a copy of the Victorian Christian Scottish writer George MacDonald's Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women to occupy him during a train ride. Biographer George Sayer wrote Phantastes provided "a transforming influence on his attitude toward ... common things ... imbuing them with its own spiritual quality." Lewis would later say Phantastes "baptized his imagination" and gave him a taste of something he later recognized as "holiness." Lewis came to consider MacDonald his "master," and he later wrote, "I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from [MacDonald]."

Nonetheless, Lewis held fast to the idea there was no rational justification for God, let alone Christianity. As he describes in Mere Christianity, the presence of evil in the universe was his proof God did not exist.

Lewis was sent to the front lines of World War I, and in April 1918 he was hospitalized for shrapnel wounds. On the train ride there, Lewis became more convinced that some sort of "Spirit does exist." In 1925 Lewis accepted a professorship at Oxford's Magdalen College. Soon after, he read G.K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, which presented all human development and history in the context of a progression toward Christian salvation. The book convinced Lewis there was some logic in Christianity. Lewis began to feel God was pursuing him and his atheism stood on shaky ground. After his father died in 1929, Lewis became a theist, or one who believes in a god but not necessarily in the Christian god. He described himself as "perhaps ... the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England."

At Oxford Lewis formed a friendship with colleague J.R.R. Tolkien. They began to meet regularly, and their weekly meetings soon expanded to include 17 other writers, many of them Christian. They called themselves the Inklings. Lewis later described their influence on him as "incalculable."

On the evening of September 19, 1931, Lewis, Tolkien, and their friend Hugo Dyson went walking around campus, as usual. They talked all night about ancient mythology. Lewis thought they were just stories, while Tolkien argued they contained truths meant to prepare humanity to receive Christ. Dyson spoke of the undeniable benefits of Christianity to the believer. Three days later when Lewis climbed into the side car of his brother Warren's motorcycle to ride to the zoo, he became a Christian. "When we set out I did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo I did," Lewis wrote. He regarded his talk with Tolkien and Dyson as instrumental in his conversion.

Lewis now had a framework for understanding the experience of joy that had haunted his whole life. He expresses the idea in Mere Christianity that the joy we find in the world is but a hint of the experience of heaven. Our experience of it is meant to inform us that we are made for heaven, not this world. He began to write works of Christian apology, the first of which, The Pilgrim's Regress (1933), is an allegorical novel about the existential search that brought him to Christianity. Lewis chronicled his experience of conversion in his partial autobiography, Surprised by Joy (1955).

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