Mere Christianity | Study Guide

C.S. Lewis

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Mere Christianity | Preface | Summary

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Summary

C.S. Lewis's preface explains what Mere Christianity is and what it attempts to do. Mere Christianity was originally published as three texts based on the radio talks he gave between 1942 and 1944. The only alterations he made to his original spoken words were minor stylistic changes to fit it to the medium of writing and minor alterations in the content, reflecting audience feedback or his own evolved understanding of the subject.

Lewis is a member of the Anglican Church, but he is not trying to convert anyone to his religion as "written in the Common-Prayer Book." Nor does he seek to put forth one denomination's beliefs over another's or to hide his beliefs from anyone. Instead he is trying to present "an agreed, or common, or central, or 'mere' Christianity." Lewis stresses that far from being a new denomination, this "mere Christianity" is like a hallway with many rooms. Behind each door is a denomination, and people must choose the denomination they find truest.

In the interest of promoting unity rather than sectarian division, Lewis has avoided certain controversial issues, but the reader cannot infer his position on them by their omission. Nor does Lewis give specific moral prescriptions since his authority is limited by his experience. Lewis writes the book's public reception indicates his success in presenting the core of Christianity, while also affirming the existence of "a something, or a Someone, who against all divergences of belief ... speaks with the same voice."

Some have criticized Lewis's use of "the word Christian to mean one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity." Lewis responds that the original meaning of the word must be retained for the sake of clear communication. He cites Acts 11:26, where "the name Christians was first given at Antioch ... to 'the disciples.'" If the meaning of the word is shifted to mean merely someone who is good, it becomes a useless word.

Analysis

Lewis begins Mere Christianity, a work of Christian apologetics, with a preface. It functions as an apologia not for Christianity but for his creation of the text and the ideas in it. An apologia is a specific defense of certain actions or beliefs to a specific audience. The apologia is intended to convince them of the credibility, or trustworthiness, of the apologist and therefore of his or her positions. Accordingly, Lewis addresses feedback he received throughout the text's evolution, beginning even before its first presentation as radio talks, while he was writing it. He explains his motivations and intentions and discloses his personal bias in order to create a sense of transparency. This transparency is meant to make his audience open to hearing his message on Christianity and, he hopes, accepting and applying its doctrines—the goal of any apologia.

Many of the criticisms Mere Christianity received have to do with denominational differences, and therefore speak to some sensitive issues at the heart of Christian identity. Lewis is adamant these differences are mainly of emphasis, not contentions over the truth of doctrine. He is an advocate of nondenominationalism, the belief that Christians should be united rather than divided into various denominations. Denominations have been a fact of Christianity since its earliest days. They arise out of the specific challenges, experiences, and advantages of individual Christian communities and reflect the particular practice linked to each community. Denominational differences arise within historical contexts as communities experience diaspora, linguistic changes, and economic and political changes. They also arise in response to the changing worldviews brought about by advances in science and technology. Criticisms of nondenominationalism include the loss of identity grounded in historical and traditional context, which can create inconsistencies and ill-defined belief.

One could argue that by presenting the "core" of Christianity, Lewis is creating a new denomination, despite his stated intention not to. Lewis's theoretical position is different. He believes the essence of Christianity can be isolated and presented, free from all denominational contexts. This isolated essence is not something new. Rather, it is the common core at the heart of all versions of Christianity. This implies a value judgment—that the differences in doctrine are irrelevant to what Christianity is and are less important than the similarities. He intended to provide merely a standard against which particular manifestations of Christianity could be judged. This does not mean other Christians necessarily agree that Christianity can be isolated from its context, nor that his "mere Christianity" is universally accepted as the standard for Christianity.

Lewis strongly intends not to insert any bias into the text, but the reader may note that this is impossible. Even the title he chose, Mere Christianity, were not his own words. Rather, they are those of 17th-century English theologian Richard Baxter from a work that was explicitly concerned with promoting Anglicanism—Lewis's own faith. Further, his desire to not show bias has lead him to omit aspects of the faith that many Christians would consider essential. For example, he does not discuss the Virgin Mary, who is a critical part of the Roman Catholic faith.
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