Mere Christianity (A Biography about a Book)

Of the most intriguing 40 Christian non-fiction titles published in the first half of 2016, historian George Marsden’s new book — C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography — stands out immediately. Published in Princeton’s pioneering series, “Lives of Great Religious Books,” Marsden has written a biography about a book, and if that sounds boring, it’s not. Lewis’s classic has a backstory worth telling and Marsden has told it in one of the best books of the year.

marsdenWhen it comes to Amazon’s bestselling books in Christian apologetics, Mere Christianity has claimed first place ever since I can remember. The book was originally the product of a series of short eight-to-fifteen-minute talks delivered on BBC radio by Lewis during World War II, and delivered to an increasingly post-Christian British audience who now lived under perpetual fear of night bombing raids.

He gathered a listening audience of between 1–1.6m, which was big but not huge (the evening news update programs would draw ten-times that number). He pulled the short addresses off with great skill and imagination, but it was all met with mixed reviews in the British press, and generated an almost unbearable amount of fan mail for Lewis.

Marsden retells the amazing story of how God used one wartime intellectual, but also a novice apologist and lay theologian (CSL), to invest himself in the immediate medium at his disposal (BBC), in a dire time in world history (WWII), to produce talks that would become three separate books, then one book, that would be published and would spread globally in the 1950s, and then largely drop off and get forgotten during the sexual revolution in the 1960s (except at Wheaton College under the key influence of Clyde Kilby), and then would surge in the late 1960s and take wings in the 1970s — largely by the long-tail of word-of-mouth spread — leading to a swell of posthumous sales and popularity and eventually to Amazon’s top spot.

In the end, what makes Mere Christianity so powerful? All Christian non-fiction apologists will pay close attention as Marsden summarizes the key features of Lewis’s work (pages 153–188):

  1. Lewis looks for timeless truth as opposed to the culturally bound.
  2. He uses common human nature as the point of contact with his audience.
  3. Lewis sees reason in the context of experience, affections, and imagination.
  4. He is a poet at heart, using metaphor and the art of meaning in a universe that is alive.
  5. Lewis’s book is about “mere Christianity.”
  6. Mere Christianity does not offer cheap grace.
  7. The lasting appeal of Mere Christianity is based on the luminosity of the gospel message itself.

A respected historian has retold a worthy story any Christian reader or writer will benefit from hearing. Like his biography of Jonathan Edwards, though shorter by 460 pages, Marsden has once again pulled off a masterpiece of history, in retelling the fascinating life of one of the most influential Christian books in the past century.

Some of the Best Books of 2016 (So Far)


Today I begin compiling my list of the best books of 2016 (Christian non-fiction). Here are the 40 titles on my radar so far. Having spent most of the year writing a book, I’m just now catching up. What have I missed? [* = newly added]

What Do You Want?


The final 37 minutes of Stalker (1979), a Russian film:

Part 1 and part 2 of the movie are online as well.

James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (2016), 27–29:

What do you want?

That, we’ve seen, is the question. It is the first and fundamental question of discipleship because you are what you love. But buried in this insight is an uncomfortable realization: you might not love what you think.

This discomforting epiphany is at the heart of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, Stalker. The genre hovers between noir thriller and dystopian science fiction. Set in environs that at times evoke Cormac McCarthy’s The Road but at other
moments feel like The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the “plot” (such as it is) follows three men on a journey: Professor, Writer, and Stalker, who serves as their guide.

As we begin, the destination is shrouded in mystery and intrigue, but eventually we learn that Stalker is leading these men to the Zone, and more specifically to the Room within the Zone. The Zone has the eerie feel of a postapocalyptic oasis, a scene where some prior devastation has left ruins that are now returning to nature, cultivating a terrible beauty, a kind of “bright sadness.”

The Room is what has drawn them here, what has led them to follow Stalker’s promises. For in the Room, he tells them, they will achieve their heart’s desire. In the Room their dreams will come true. In the Room you get exactly what you want.

Which is why, when they are at the threshold of the room, Professor and Writer begin to get cold feet. Geoff Dyer captures the scene in his remarkable book about the film, Zona.

They are in a big, abandoned, derelict, dark damp room with what look like the remains of an enormous chemistry set floating in the puddle in the middle, as if the Zone resulted from an ill-conceived experiment that went horribly wrong. Off to the right, through a large hole in the wall, is a source of light that they all look towards. For a long while no one speaks. The air is full of the chirpy chirpy cheep cheep of birdsong. It’s the opposite of those places where the sedge has withered from the lake and no birds sing. The birds are whistling and chirruping and singing like mad. Stalker tells Writer and Professor — tells us — that we are now at the very threshold of the Room. This is the most important moment in your life, he says. Your innermost wish will be made true here.

Here we are. This is the place where you can have what you want.

Who wants to go first?

Professor and Writer hesitate because it dawns on them: What if I don’t know what I want? “Well,” observes Dyer, “that’s for the Room to decide. The Room reveals all: what you get is not what you think you wish for but what you most deeply wish for.” A disturbing epiphany is creeping up on Professor and Writer: What if they don’t want what they think? What if the desires they are conscious of — the one’s they’ve “chosen,” as it were — are not their innermost longings, their deepest wish? What if, in some sense, their deepest longings are humming under their consciousness unawares? What if, in effect, they are not who they think they are? Dyer captures the angst here: “Not many people can confront the truth about themselves. If they did they’d run a mile, would take an immediate and profound dislike to the person in whose skin they’d learned to sit quite tolerably all these years.”

Many of us can identify. If I ask you, a Christian, to tell me what you really want, what you most deeply long for, what you ultimately love — well, of course you know the right answer. You know what you ought to say. And what you state could be entirely genuine and authentic, a true expression of your intellectual conviction.

But would you want to step into the Room?

HT: David Mathis for the great find.