“Mere Christianity” at 80: Why does C.S. Lewis’s unlikely classic continue to hold such appeal?

It’s eighty years ago this month since C.S. Lewis — an Oxford don almost entirely unknown to the public — stepped up to the microphone at the London headquarters of the BBC, to give the first of the wartime broadcasts that would later become the much-loved book, “Mere Christianity”.

Writers like to believe that books change people’s lives. And they surely do, if less frequently than the endorsements that burble from dust jackets would imply.

But when many people, across many decades, from many walks of life, and in many countries, say that a certain book was the turning point in their lives – the hinge between before and everything afterwards – it seems worth asking what about that book has been so singularly galvanising.

When the book in question was not only an inadvertent classic, but also only inadvertently a book, the plot thickens.

It’s 80 years ago this week that C. S. Lewis, at the time an Oxford don almost unknown to the public, stepped up to the microphone at Broadcasting House, the London headquarters of the BBC, to give the first of the wartime broadcasts that would later become the much-loved Mere Christianity.

The circumstances of that first talk, on Wednesday 6 August 1941, were not overly auspicious. The American historian George Marsden, in his biography of Mere Christianity, explains that the time slot – 7:45 to 8:00pm precisely – might sound like primetime, but actually Lewis found himself sandwiched between a news broadcast to Nazi-occupied Norway (in Norwegian) and a program of songs from a Welsh cultural festival.

The talk was vetted in advance and had to be exactly 15 minutes long; any dead air on a show could be cut into by Lord Haw-Haw, the German propagandist, who was broadcasting on the same wavelength (a friend of mine explained it this way: “Think of it as the Chaser, if the Chaser were Nazis”).

It was the director of the BBC’s Religious Broadcasting Department at the time, Reverend J. W. Welch, who had the bright idea to invite Lewis to give some radio talks which might outline the basics of Christianity for a modern audience. Welch estimated that two-thirds of BBC listeners lived without any reference to God; a survey of British army recruits showed that only 23 percent knew the meaning of Easter. Lewis’ own journey from staunch atheism to theism and then Christianity had been an arduous one, and he knew well he had his work cut out for him. Indeed, he did not so much as mention Christianity until the end of his fourth talk, building instead from the common ground of our intuitive sense of right and wrong.

Lewis’ friend and biographer George Sayer describes an instance that suggests the broadcasts well and truly passed the “pub test”:

I remember being at a pub filled with soldiers on one Wednesday evening. At a quarter to eight, the bartender turned the radio up for Lewis. “You listen to this bloke,” he shouted: “He’s really worth listening to.” And those soldiers did listen attentively for the entire fifteen minutes.

The success of these first talks prompted the BBC to invite him back for further series, and demand for the transcripts encouraged Lewis towards publication – initially in the form of three separate books, Broadcast Talks, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality, and finally collected together in 1952 as Mere Christianity.

In that form, the book has sold millions upon millions of copies, been translated into at least 36 languages, and enjoyed an eventful afterlife that shows no signs of flagging.

In the years immediately after Lewis’ death in 1963, many predicted that his influence would soon dim.

“No one will be reading C. S. Lewis twenty years from now”, a publisher told Peter Kreeft when he proposed a book on Lewis in the late 1960s. A few decades later, around the turn of the 21st century, the shift towards postmodernity was heralded (and dreaded) as a sure death knell to Lewis’ particular brand of affable, common-sense rationality.

Yet by 2007 Christopher Hitchens was noting Lewis’ re-emergence as “the most popular Christian apologist” and “the main chosen propaganda vehicle for Christianity in our time” (italics added). Reports of the demise of his influence have continued to prove greatly exaggerated.

That influence has been remarkably diffuse. Though he was primarily a literary scholar, many have noted Lewis’ appeal to scientists. The Test of Faith resources from The Faraday Institute, which explore science and faith, include interviews with leading scientists like Francis Collins and Simon Conway Morris, a remarkable proportion of whom detail their encounters with this one book as a turning point. The mathematician John Lennox – himself an Oxford don and Christian apologist, in Lewis’ footsteps – reflects on why:

Lewis, for me, was a genius at helping me to see through the weakness of materialism and naturalism. Someone once described him, quite correctly, as a thoroughgoing supernaturalist. What was wonderful was that although he was not a scientist, he understood the issues that thinking people had raised. And therefore he knew the philosophy of science much better than a lot of scientists that I had read, so was very, very helpful, not only to humanities people, but also to people from the scientific side, like myself.

As across class lines and disciplinary boundaries, so across denominational lines. Though Lewis was himself “an ordinary layman of the Church of England” and made no secret of the fact, his insistence on sticking to “mere” Christianity – the basics of the faith, acknowledged by Christians of all creeds in all times and places – made Mere Christianity the common property of all.

Marsden catalogues the book’s popularity in evangelical, Eastern Orthodox, and even Mormon circles. Catholic readers have also enthusiastically embraced it. The American writer Walker Percy, in the introduction to his 1987 collection The New Catholics: Contemporary Converts Tell Their Stories, observes that books and writers feature largely in the conversion narratives therein, including the usual (Catholic) suspects such as Aquinas and Merton: “But guess who turns up most often? C. S. Lewis!” More recently, conservative Catholic New York Times columnist Ross Douthat outlined his own pathway to faith, one he characterises as a beaten track: “You start reading C. S. Lewis, then you’re reading G. K. Chesterton, then you’re a Catholic. I knew a lot of people who did that in their 20s – I just did it earlier.”

Mere Christianity was known as the “blue book” when being distributed from a Christian worker’s basement in Czech during the communist era, and is for many Chinese Christians today the book they are most likely to have read after the Bible. Neither time nor place nor nationality have checked its spread.

The highest-profile Mere Christianity convert was surely Chuck Colson, Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man”, who read the book after a glittering legal and political rise and before serving a seven-month prison sentence for his part in the Watergate scandal. At a time of existential malaise, he encountered an old friend and client who had become a Christian since they last met. Colson was struck with the evident change in him.

This friend shared with him a passage from Lewis’ chapter titled “The Great Sin”, about pride: “The proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.” Colson was shaken to his core. For the first time in his life, he prayed; he then got himself a copy of Mere Christianity and retreated to the coast of Maine, away from the Washington vortex:

I got out a yellow pad, cause I’m a lawyer, and I would have two columns – there is a God, there isn’t a God; Jesus Christ is God, he isn’t God – I went down that, and I went through the whole rational process and I thought to myself, wow … I’ve never gone into a courtroom and argued against a mind like this.

The following year, Colson pleaded guilty to an offence he wasn’t being charged with in connection with Watergate, and after serving his sentence dedicated the rest of his life to prison ministry and prison reform. In 1995, on a visit to Australia, following a talk at the National Press Club in Canberra, a journalist asked him a question: you’ve lived two lives. Can you sum up what your life stands for?

And I looked at the clock and there were 20 seconds left before we went off live air. I said: the only thing I can tell you is what Jesus told his disciples, and that is, he who seeks to save his life will lose it; he who loses his life for my sake will find it. And that’s the story of my life.

It’s been nigh on half a century since Colson sat down to go toe-to-toe with Lewis, intellectually and spiritually, in the pages of Mere Christianity. Prominent Christian figures have made a conscious effort, in the interval, to take Lewis’ classic and update it – Tim Keller with The Reason for God, Tom Wright’s Simply Christian – but the original continues to sell, and continues to produce the same hinge effect in readers’ lives.

I spoke with three young Aussies who attested to the book’s undiminished capacity to speak in the 21st century.

Iris describes sitting in a courtyard in Granada, Spain, in the midst of what she calls “a really long, convoluted journey of coming to faith”, devouring a borrowed copy of Mere Christianity and frantically jotting down her thoughts on post-it notes she still has:

I definitely didn’t agree with everything in it, but I think that what it helped me to see was that Christian faith can be rationally defended. It’s not wishful thinking … and that then encouraged me to ask big scary difficult questions with less fear, because if God is real, then those big questions aren’t going to expose that’s he’s a fraud or something – they’re going to lead you to him. … And so it was a realisation that mature, intelligent people hold this to be true, not just because they want it to be, but because they are actually convinced that it is.

Ellanda first picked it up as a pre-teen and says it was her favourite book for more than a decade afterwards:

There were just some wonderful things that really shaped my expectations of what the Christian life is. … It felt like it was giving me just lots of light-bulb moments of clarity and understanding of aspects of my faith that were difficult to put into words – but Lewis was really good at doing that, using really concrete and practical and beautiful analogies that added a lot of meaning to my understanding.

And Matt read it less than a year ago, with a group of friends as part of an informal, online book club. Three of the four, he says, were atheists before they read Mere Christianity; afterwards, none were. Matt says faith had been creeping up on him for a while – though he was very into the New Atheists in the early 2000s, more recently he’d started going along to church, though still without subscribing to Christian belief – but the book club and Mere Christianity were the turning point. He quotes from Lewis’ spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, a comment that he says applies to all three of the friends:

“A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” So yeah, I wasn’t very careful, and let this happen. Thank God!

When I ask Iris, Ellanda, Matt, and others about favourite passages of the book, ideas or images that have stuck with them, they have many answers, and none overlap. Analogies about morality as a fleet of ships, or the Christian life as a house under renovation; the effect your moods may have upon your faith (for the Christian or the atheist); how gradually belief may dawn; the nature of temptation, or humility, or falling in love, or reality itself. The nuggets of wisdom lie thick on the ground, and people of all ages and backgrounds continue to pick them up and give them a permanent place on the mental mantelpiece.

Mere Christianity, against all the odds, continues to do what Lewis aimed at 80 years ago: to communicate the basics of the faith, in ways that satisfy the intellect and capture the imagination. Perhaps its appeal endures simply because the faith of which Lewis has proven such a winsome explicator has itself, in spite of everything, lost none of its appeal. As Lewis writes himself, with the simplicity, humility, and occasional grandeur which characterises the book as a whole:

I think all Christians would agree with me if I said that though Christianity seems at the first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke. Every one there is filled full with what we should call goodness as a mirror is filled with light. But they do not call it goodness. They do not call it anything. They are not thinking of it. They are too busy looking at the source from which it comes. But this is near the stage where the road passes over the rim of our world. No one’s eyes can see very far beyond that: lots of people’s eyes can see further than mine.

Natasha Moore is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. The interviews quoted in this article appear in “Mere Christianity”, a recent episode of the Life & Faith podcast.