Feast of Sts Leontius, Hypatius & Theodulus the Martyrs of Syria
IN THE MARCH issue of Touchstone (2007), N. T. Wright penned a review of Mere Christianity titled “Simply Lewis.” Wright both acknowledges his deep debt to Lewis and is critical of the second section of Mere Christianity on “What Christians Believe.” Following Wright’s lead, today I offer an appreciation of Lewis; tomorrow I will offer a critique.
In his collection of essays, A Visit to Vanity Fair, Alan Jacobs draws attention to the fascination American Protestant evangelicals have with all things related to Lewis, particularly his wardrobe. It is strange, Jacobs remarks, that “nonsmoking, teetotaling, low-church Americans treasure the relics of a pipe-smoking, beer-loving, high church Englishman.”
Why is it that both Westmont College and Wheaton College both claim to possess “the real wardrobe” of Narnia (or at least one owned by the Lewis family that may have inspired the Chronicles of Narnia)? Why is it that Lewis’ book Mere Christianity has sold more than 3.5 million copies in English alone? Why is Eighth Day Institute organizing an annual Inkling Festival with Lewis as one of its key inspirations?
Wright’s review singles out one of the “powerful refrains” running throughout Lewis’ book: “faith matters more than feelings; faithfulness to the high and hard standards of Christian behavior matters more than doing what you feel like at the time.” This was penned at a time when, in the words of Wright, “Lewis was swimming against a strong tide of popular romantic existentialism.” It’s only been eight years since Wright’s review and the tide is significantly stronger. It is precisely in this environment that we so desperately need the “high and hard standards of Christian behavior,” what Lewis also calls mere Christianity.
Lewis borrowed the phrase “mere Christianity” from Richard Baxter, a seventeenth-century Puritan. In his recent First Things blog post, “A Thicker Kind of Mere” (May 18, 2015), Timothy George notes an unfortunate change in the meaning of the word mere:
Both Lewis and Baxter used the word mere in what is today—regrettably—an obsolete sense, meaning “nothing less than,” “absolute,” “sure,” “unqualified,” as opposed to today’s weakened sense of “only this,” “nothing more than,” or “such and no more.” Our contemporary meaning of the word mere corresponds to the Latin vix, “barely,” “hardly,” “scarcely,” while the classical, Baxterian usage corresponds to the Latin vere, “truly,” “really,” “indeed.”
George concludes that Baxter and Lewis were calling for a “thicker kind of mere—not mere as minimal but mere as central, essential; mere as vere, not vix.”’
What is the thick kind of mere Christianity Lewis called for? What is this central, essential, nothing less than, vere kind of Christianity? The seemingly obvious answer is to read Mere Christianity (If you haven’t already, shame on you! Buy a copy from Eighth Day Books, and get to it!). I want to instead briefly look at another piece by Lewis, originally written as an introduction to the English translation of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.
In “On the Reading of Old Books,” Lewis makes explicit reference to “mere Christianity.” After admonishing readers to read old books, Lewis says we must “have a standard of plain, central Christianity (‘mere Christianity’ as Baxter called it).” Where does Lewis say we can find and acquire this standard? Only in old books.
Lewis goes on to provide two reasons for turning to old books. First, every age has its own outlook that is prone to its own mistakes. Old books help us “correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.” Second, divided Christendom tempts one to think that “Christianity” is meaningless. By stepping out of our own century, however, this temptation is overcome. When measured against the ages, Lewis notes, “‘mere Christianity’ turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible.”
Positive. Self-consistent. Inexhaustible. This is precisely the kind of mere Christianity St Athanasius, the great fourth-century Alexandrian theologian, stood for. But he didn’t just stand for it; he fought for it. Hence, his epitaph: Athanasius contra mundum (Athanasius against the world). At a time when Christianity was, in Lewis’ words, “slipping . . . into one of those sensible synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today,” Athanasius fought for the Trinity, specifically for the eternal, consubstantial divinity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Lewis concludes, “It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.”
So why do “nonsmoking, teetotaling, low-church Americans treasure the relics of a pipe-smoking, beer-loving, high church Englishman”? Why organize an annual Inkling Festival? Because Lewis—along with his company of Inklings—stood for and fought for an inexhaustible kind of mere Christianity. Like St Athanasius, Lewis also merits the epitaph contra mundum. Moreover, it is the glory of Lewis and his comrades that they did not move with the times, and it is their reward that they remain with us.
Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.