Monday, March 10, 2008

Making righteousness readable

Donald Downing, author of The Most Reluctant Convert as well as other books about C.S. Lewis, has posted an appreciation of Mere Christianity at the C.S. Lewis Blog:
C.S. Lewis’s earliest biographers, Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, wrote that if they were going to a desert island and could take only one Lewis book, it would probably be Mere Christianity. That’s a fascinating choice, considering that both men were thoroughly acquainted with Lewis’s whole body of work, including his children’s classics, the Narnia Chronicles, his international best-seller, The Screwtape Letters, and his ground-breaking literary studies such as The Allegory of Love and The Discarded Image.

Yet I’m sure many other readers would agree with Green and Hooper. Mere Christianity is often cited as the single best introduction to Christian faith, a book that has been a spiritual milestone for thousands of readers. Both Charles Colson, founder of the Prison Fellowship, and Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project, have discussed the pivotal role played by this book in their own journeys to faith.

Mere Christianity, first published in 1952, is based upon four series of radio talks that Lewis gave during World War II. The first broadcast, in August 1941, was heard by over a million listeners and created an unexpected sensation. Lewis’s careful reasoning, his folksy analogies, and his calm bass voice quickly caught on, and it is said his voice became the second most recognized in Britain, after that of Winston Churchill.


Many people, even believers, think of Christian faith as a kind of bargain with God: if you lead a good life, he will reward you with a good afterlife. There is nothing particularly selfless or spiritual in this arrangement; it is a matter of mere self-interest. It is rather like an employer who tells his workers that if they do a good job for many years, he will give them a good pension when they retire. As for “goodness,” people may see it in the same prosaic terms they think about faith. We may think “virtue” consists mainly in abstaining from many of life’s pleasures in order to avoid the disapproval of our grumpy grandpa in the sky.

Mere Christianity explodes these misconceptions about the life of faith, offering a much more radical and engaging vision of the place of each human being in the cosmic drama. As Lewis himself summed up his view of the Christian life: “If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror that reflects back to God . . . his own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less.” (read it all)

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