Judging a Book By Its Cover – Mere Christianity by CS Lewis
Written by Gillian Ramos
I have returned! And let me tell you, this gainful employment thing has really cut into my reading time.
In all seriousness, having less time to read during the day isn’t the only reason I feel like this book took a lifetime to read. This is a book about a man’s deeply held faith, and I wanted to make sure I was reading carefully and with an open mind. As a non-religious person, it would have been easy to skim a chapter or two and decide that this was all a bunch of hooey I didn’t believe in anyway, so why bother?
But you can’t go through life like that, automatically rejecting the things you don’t agree with or understand. The truth is, even though I’m not a religious person myself, I think people have interesting things to say about their religion. I went through a phase a couple of years ago where I read a lot of writing from people who had very conflicted relationships with the faith they were raised in; some of these people were able to work through their misgivings and find a belief system that works for them, and others abandoned religion entirely.
Now, I’m more curious about how people arrived at their faith later in life, how it fits in with every other piece of information they’ve picked up along the way.
Clive Staples Lewis is best known for The Chronicles of Narnia, but also spoke and wrote frequently about his struggles with Christianity as a teenager, and his eventual return to the faith as a member of the Church of England.
Mere Christianity began as a series of radio addresses commissioned by the BBC between 1942 and 1944. The main goal of the addresses was to remind the audience that they have a great deal in common and ought to celebrate the goodness of that common ground in the face of all the hatred and violence of World War II. Lewis argues that regardless of denomination, Christians share a set of core beliefs that are meant to unite all believers; this set of core beliefs is what he labels as “mere Christianity,” with all the divisions among the denominations coming from minor philosophical differences rather than large fundamental ones.
Some years later, Lewis compiled and edited the addresses to make them more readable as essays. The final product has consistently been ranked as one of the most influential modern texts on Christianity.
When I originally came across the book, I was left with the impression that it was more about how Lewis reconciles being a Christian with being a public intellectual. Historically, there’s been this battle of either/or, with various religious organizations being at odds with science and art, so I was looking forward to reading about how these things can come together harmoniously.
I think I’m going to have to find that in some other book. In Mere Christianity, Lewis sets out to make a rational case for Christianity, applying sound Philosophy 101 logic to the tenets of the faith. This approach works early on, in explaining morality and the social contract – Lewis’ use of logic serves to show that these tenets exist across religious denominations and national borders, that good, moral people can exist anywhere you go. So far, so good. Given the historical context of the radio addresses, I think this is an important message to reinforce.
Admittedly, I don’t subscribe to the idea of some unseen being judging everything we do throughout our lives. I can get behind a social contract, though, because we see one another all the time and can hold one another accountable for our actions. See? Mr. Lewis and I have found common ground already, just with a few minor philosophical differences. This is supposed to be his point, that we can all agree on some core principles by which to govern ourselves. If you want to call those principles God-given, fine. If you don’t want to call them that, that’s fine, too.
Once Lewis gets into the specifics of what Christians believe, I start feeling like we’re on a one-way trip to WTFsville. The chapters I found flat-out odious pertained to sexual morality and marriage. In his introduction, Lewis claimed that he was going to avoid certain topics due to his lack of experience in those areas, including women taking birth control and marriage in general, having not been married himself. (Lewis was married later in life, but such was his stance at the time of publication). So, what do you suppose pops up about halfway through the book? Sex and marriage, of course!
The content of those chapters is exactly what you’d expect – that we shouldn’t be having sex and idolizing sexuality because we’re supposed to have control over our appetites (because, naturally, we don’t fetishize food and we would think it was really weird if other people did) and that the key to a successful marriage is getting over all notions of romantic love and accept that men should be the head of the household because women are too busy doing things like fretting over the children to make productive decisions.
I’m paraphrasing a little, but that’s only because we’ve all heard this shit before. What annoys me more than this shit is the fact that on one page, Lewis says he wouldn’t touch these topics with a ten foot pole…and touches them anyway. But he also has very little respect for people who spout nonsense on topics they know nothing about, even though he’s just done essentially the same thing.
From this point on, I found it hard to take the book seriously. It became less rational over time, and more like the same tired smelling-faintly-of-moral-superiority stuff we heard from Rick Santorum during the Republican primary, minus the sweater vests.
Maybe it’s a matter of this book being 60-something years old, and we’ve evolved in our thinking in that time. I would love to know if Lewis changed his antiquated views after getting married, but it’s safe to assume that he didn’t because he would have wanted a woman who held the same beliefs.
Overall, I was disappointed by this book. I felt as though the more specific Lewis got about the tenets of Christianity, the less interested he became in appealing to a non-Christian audience. There are only so many times you can say, “Feel free to skip over this part because it’ll confuse you if you’re a non-believer” and still insist that you’re being inclusive.