Thursday, January 8, 2009

"Mere Christianity" - A Synopsis

This is the first Christian book I read after really deciding to follow Jesus. I remember walking through Hastings and how shocked I was to see that C.S. Lewis had written a Christian book. I loved the Chronicles of Narnia as a child, so I had to see what it was about. I must admit the first time I read it, it took me several months to get through it. But it was enthralling. This book, far more than any other besides the Bible, has greatly influenced my outlook on life. If you have not read this great piece of literature I highly suggest that you do.

Most of this book is just talks that Lewis gave over the radio, especially to troops. In it he sets out to "explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times." He does so masterfully. While intellectual, this book explains the heart of Christianity in non-theological terms. Using metaphors throughout, C.S. Lewis uses real life experiences we already understand to help us understand Christianity. It is simple, or "mere," Christianity. It is divided into four parts:

This first section has helped me more than anything else in believing there is a God, and that He is Good. Scores of books are written to "prove" God with science (i.e. intelligent design). While creation does point to a Creator, this method only works effectively if you are a scientist. If you are not, you really have to go on what other people have told you about it.

But Lewis works on a different premise. Why do we all feel there is such a thing as 'right' and 'wrong,' even if we disagree on what it looks like? If one of our friends punched us in the face we would be angry. Why? Because friends don't punch each other. But why do we have that idea within us? Why do we have this idea that people ought to act a certain way and not in another? And why is it not just in our society, but everywhere? We didn't put it there, so Lewis reasons that something else, something greater than us, must have.

And if that Greater Something put this idea of right and wrong in us, it must be on the 'right' side of things. That is, it must be 'good' because it is the one that gave us the idea that some things are 'good' and some are not. Something good would reveal itself to us, not just leaving us here to figure it all out. And this Good Something has. It is God. Lewis then reasons that the most probable explanation must be Christianity, because it is the only answer that really makes sense.

Here Lewis goes through the process of examining atheism along with different conceptions of God. He goes on to say that atheism is too simple. Many atheists' main reason for their belief is that the world is too unjust for a god to have made it. But what gave man the idea of just and unjust? So atheists argue that God, who gave them the very idea of right and wrong, does not exist because the world is too wrong. This may be an accusation against God, but He is the one who gave them that idea in the first place.

Another idea about God is that everything lovely and beautiful is "God" in some sense, so as long as we are all living good lives we are living true religion. But this is a candy religion. It is all rewards and requires nothing. After dealing with even more views Lewis says that the final view is the "Christian view that this is a good world that has gone wrong, but still retains the memory of what it ought to have been."

And finally he goes on to explain the Gospel, the heart of who this Jesus is and why He came. He writes, "The perfect surrender and humiliation were undergone by Christ: perfect because He was God, surrender and humiliation because He was man. Now the Christian belief is that if we somehow share the humility and suffering of Christ we shall also share in His conquest of death and find a new life after we have died and in it become perfect, and perfectly happy, creatures."

This is a great section in which Lewis explains the implications of God. He deals with some basics of morality like: faith, forgiveness, love, hope, sexual morality etc. I think up to this point in my life (before I read this section) morality seemed like such a cut and dry, boring thing. In Bible classes I mostly heard these terms defined, sometimes applied, but almost never why we should choose one over another.

Lewis' classic view of morality is this. God made us to live a certain way, and only living this way will bring us happiness, contentment, and meaning. The human machine is meant to run on God. Anything else that is put into it will eventually make the machine sputter out and die, even if at first it seems to do better.

He also explains it like taking a dog for a walk. If the dog gets caught on the other side of a pole, it will likely keep trying to push forward. If you try to pull the dog back around the pole it will think you don't want it to go forward, when really pulling back for the moment gets it around the pole, and further than it could possibly go with the leash in the way. This is sort of how morality works. No denial of a sin is fun at the moment (lust, greed, lying etc.) but in the end God is just trying to pull us around the pole to get us where we wanted to go in the first place: everlasting joy.

This is definitely my favorite chapter, and contains my favorite chapter in all books: Nice People or New Men. Many have the idea that religion is all about becoming nicer and giving God His due. Or that Jesus had some good social teachings and if we all just took His advice we'd be a better society. But that's not what God's after. Those are all by-products only. We have been self-polluted by sin, and it's only by becoming something completely new that we can be made whole again.

Lewis gets into a lot of theology, but from a very practical and reverent perspective. "The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God." He has already done the work for us; we have only but to accept it. Here Lewis explains that we're all very much like tin soldiers. If you were to try to explain to a tin soldier (if it could speak) about what real people are like, and that it could become one, it might not much like the idea. It would be a long, painful process of veins coming in with bones and everything else. It might be quite unpleasant. But if he would just let it happen, he would experience something far greater than he could ever have imagined as being a mere tin soldier.

We are all in the same place, even though we tend to rank people. We tend to look at some people as more evil than others. But we're all tin soldiers without Christ. It's only through the Gospel that we become real people, sons of God. He then writes, "A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world - and might even be more difficult to save."

In conclusion Lewis explains that the seed of real life was started in Christ, and that we merely need to accept it to start transforming into a creature with a nature like God's. We are born spiritual babies through Him, but if we keep walking and trusting we will eventually become just like Him, though likely in the life after this one.


Of course I just skimmed the top of this wonderful book. If you want more detail I suggest reading it. I think I have read this book at least once a year since I gave my life to Christ. No book seems to stir me like this one does. Here Lewis talks about Christianity likes it's both real and poetic, like it's inspiring yet intensely practical. I love that.

He's a bit like Shakespeare. If you read Lewis enough you start to think like him, just like I've found myself thinking a little in Old English if I read Shakespeare very much. Once you're in his own version of the English language, his writing is like a refreshing glass of cold water. It is as if he knows real English, and that you've been taught a plastic version all your life. Writing like that about something as grand as Christianity, the reason for existence, really helps make Christianity seem a bit like that as well: the only life that really makes sense.

If any of you have read the book I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

What's your favorite Christian book, and why?


Like a Mustard Seed said...

I read this book like maybe 12 years ago, (wow, do I feel old...) and it was really good to go back through the things he touches on in the way that only Lewis could...

What's interesting to me is that lately I've been having some really interesting conversations with some atheists, on a blog that is all about "escaping Christianity", frequented mainly by people who once considered themselves Christians, or at least religious, but have now rejected the idea of God. Just as Lewis states, the main case many of them base their atheism on is all the suffering they see in the world. I've been pointing out that without any God, any creator, then there is then no basis for one to complain about suffering in the first place, there is nothing left to say that things like hunger or pain or whatever is anymore "wrong" than a tree falling down in a windstorm. So far, no one has been able to come up with an answer for why they can make an appeal to certain universal truths, while at the same time maintaining that things like truth and happiness are defined by each individual....

One of my favorite books has been Dietrich BonHoeffer's (I probably spelled that wrong) book The Cost of Discipleship, for reasons that would take much too long to go into here!


Joshua Tucker said...

Like A Mustard Seed - Thanks again for a thoughtful comment. I love Lewis' reasoning on God as well, it just makes a lot of sense to me. And I've noticed it resonates with postmoderns much more than science does.

I have only read maybe half of The Cost of Discipleship, but I loved what I read and I love the example of Bonhoeffer, standing up against Nazism even when it cost him his life. I love that. Too many Christians leaders are theologians only, but there was a man that died at the hands of evil men doing what he thought God wanted him to do.

Alisha Dawn said...

You always make me want to read books! This is on my next list (coming this summer)!
Good summary too.

Greg Musselman said...

I highly recommend a book called "Steps to Christ" by Ellen G. White. If you like Mere Christianity then you will love this book. They compliment each other nicely.

Amber said...

Hi, I just read Mere Christianity myself for a class, and I am presenting him as my apologist. I had been struggling with how to summarize this book into a 10 minute presentation, but your summary really helped me to get down and write my own short thanks! I definitely appreciated your summary!

Annie said...

Hi, C.S.Lewis is my favorite writer. I read MC first time about 7 years ago and am now preparing a book sharing with my study group. There are too many notes that I want to put together. Thanks for your summary, it helps me to clear up my mind.

Miranda said...

Please read The Shack. I know it looks a bit like fluff reading, but it has one of the most interesting and moving ways of dealing with the trinity and our relationship with God that I've read.

I've had Mere Christianity on my shelf for years. A friend recently came over, pulled it off the shelf, and asked me what it's about. I couldn't tell her. This is sort of a metaphor for my spiritual life currently. Today is Ash Wednesday, I'm headed down the street to church after work. Perhaps this Lent will be a good time to revisit Lewis' work.

Melissa said...

Great summary! I just found out about a group discussing Mere Christianity tonight, and since I read it many years ago, I really needed this summary. Most of the books on your list of favorites, I've enjoyed or plan to read. Have also enjoyed Steps to Christ (also titled "Humble Hero" in modern english). And yes, I did think The Shack had too much fluff, though a good message.