A scholar of religious history rehearses the story of C.S. Lewis’ influential disquisition on the commonalities among all Christian believers.
In the latest entry in the Lives of Great Religious Books series, Marsden (Emeritus, History/Univ. of Notre Dame; Jonathan Edwards, 2003, etc.) follows a fairly conventional map. After identifying his perspective and approach and sketching Lewis’ life (including his striking conversion to Christianity), the author takes us directly to the horrors of the Blitz in London during World War II and describes how Lewis, teaching at Oxford University, accepted a request from the BBC to do a series of radio programs about the fundamentals of Christianity. Commencing on Aug. 6, 1941, the talks (15 minutes long) were later published as three separate paperbacks; other radio series would ensue for him. Marsden notes that Lewis’ audiences, though substantial, were much smaller than for entertainment programs. We also learn that no one really knows who suggested he combine his broadcasts into a single volume, but when he did, Mere Christianity (1952) sailed into publishing history. Controversial from the outset—Roman Catholic reviewers tended to be harsher than others—the book was adopted by evangelicals, including Billy Graham, and remains in print today. Marsden analyzes the enduring effects of the book, identifying people whom it altered. Among them was Watergate figure Chuck Colson (the authenticity of whose conversion Marsden does not question). The author also quotes liberally from the various reviews of Mere Christianity, both positive and negative; these passages, essential for scholars, occasionally slow the flow of Marsden’s otherwise fluid narrative. He ends with a chapter about what he sees as the “lasting vitality” of the work. Lewis’ friend J.R.R. Tolkien has some cameos.
A clear and deeply informed account of a religious work that seems to have no expiration date.