Review: C. S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity”: A Biography

by Mar 30, 2016Books, Mission4 comments

C. S. Lewis's C. S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity”: A Biography by George M. Marsden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Classic Marsden. He did his homework and dug up some interesting anecdotes, offering a strong narrative, a clear outline and analysis, and some insightful points along the way. He did some “reception history” by looking at ways that people have reacted to Lewis’ book, including his famous “trilemma” (Jesus is liar, lunatic, or Lord).

One insight from the book that struck me: Lewis didn’t use reason to prove Christianity so much as to clear away objections and then invite others to see and experience what he did in the faith.

Another point that helped me was that though Lewis has been instrumental in the Tiber-crossings of some prominent ex-Protestants, some of those very people (including a graduate of my [very Protestant] alma mater, Dwight Longenecker) have pointed out that Lewis’ famous hallway metaphor in the preface to Mere Christianity is actually itself a Protestant conception of ecclesiology:

Ian Kerr, who acknowledges that Mere Christianity was an “enormous influence” on him in his teens, argues…: “The Roman Catholic Church would have to insist that the envisaged house is the Roman Catholic Church, with the other communions as more or less attached to it as annexes our outbuildings.” So, Kerr concludes, “The whole concept of a common hall with different rooms opening off it is not an acceptable ecclesiastical model from the Catholic point of view.” (130)

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  1. Joshua Privett

    What did Marsden say about the reception of the “trilemma”? Does he evaluate it himself? I go back and forth on this one: on the one hand, the scenario seems very contrived, but then again, it is so eloquently articulated (as is everything Lewis writes). If I remember correctly, Lewis’s most recent biographer, McGrath, finds the formula intellectually flimsy.

    And since we’re on the subject: what are your thoughts on the “trilemma”?

    • Mark Ward

      He doesn’t explicitly take a position, but I feel fairly confident that he favors the argument—especially for what it was, an argument presented to laypeople. He gives a pretty thorough evaluation (mostly through quotes from others) that ends up bringing out some important points. One major one I didn’t know—exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to get from this book—was that in Lewis’ original talks he added a little sentence anticipating one of the two biggest objections to his trilemma. That objection is that Jesus never claimed to be God but that these claims were put into his lips by his followers. Lewis in his original talk said something like, “And if we say that the disciples are responsible for Jesus’ messianism, we substitute 12 crazy people for one.” The other major objection Marsden cites is that people with mental illness are capable of giving both great moral teaching and crazy claims to divine sonship.

      I love the trilemma. I’m all for it. Given that the Bible is really the only historical record we have from eyewitnesses to Jesus, it’s the only picture of him we have, and I think we are forced to take it or leave it. All of it. From a religious perspective, I believe it’s a zero-sum game because the Bible claims divine authority. And if we deny that some aspects of the Jesus tradition are true, we are adopting an authority of the Bible—some principle(s) by which we supposedly discern what’s true in the Bible. I can’t and won’t do that. Even from a secular perspective, I find it a bit touching that modern readers 2,000 years on can be so confident in their reconstructions of the historical Jesus. Lewis himself, in some amazing essays of his that I’m listening to, points out that he has many times observed critics guessing at reconstructions of his own (Lewis’) writings and that of his friends, and they’ve never gotten it right. How, Lewis says, could Bultmann and others possibly have figured out the true origin of the NT given the intervening historical and cultural distance? So even from a secularist, empiricist viewpoint, I prefer a Brevard Childs approach in which, historically speaking, these are the documents that gave shape to the Christian church: what, in fact, do they teach? They teach, implicitly, the trilemma.

      I read McGrath but don’t remember his discussion of the trilemma… I’ll have to go back and look.

      As always, I don’t think there’s a neutral ground from which one can evaluate Jesus’ claim to be Lord and God. I love the trilemma because I think it helpfully summarizes biblical teaching by contrasting it with false ideas, not because it has some independent status as a logical argument.

  2. Pedro Cheung

    I am just about to start this biography and stumbled across your review. Looking forward to reading Marsden’s work.

    • Mark Ward

      It’s solid, just solid. And real smooth.