(Thank you to SJ for letting me use her internet!)
This isn’t a proper book review. (Not that I tend to write “proper” book reviews here anyway!) It’s more a sharing of gems from Mere Christianity, which I’ve just finished re-reading. I’ve read it through at least three times now—the time before last was only a year ago and the reason I picked it up again so soon was because it was on the list for the reading challenge I’ve mentioned before. Not all books can bear repeated re-reading, but Mere Christianity can.
And no, I don’t agree with every word of it. Yes, it should be read with discretion. But so should every book written by, well, a mere man. (Excuse the pun. We like them in our family.) And it could well be that the obvious flaws in someone else’s theology are not as dangerous as the hidden ones in our own.
That being said, there are probably more markings and underlinings in my copy of Mere Christianity than in any other book I have. Of course, that’s partly because they have accumulated over repeated readings but also because, frankly, there are so many parts that are worthy of being underlined. A humble, practical, God-centred Christian who knows how to think and who knows how to write (the two don’t always go together) will write things that merit your getting your pencil out. (I’m a strong proponent of marking books—so long as it is done in pencil!)
Lewis excels at getting up close and hitting you between the eyes by pointing out a specific sin, and at the same time opening the curtains of your soul and showing you the breathtaking “big picture”. And doing so in language that is clear and striking and beautiful.
Here, then, are some highlights.
Lewis is clear that there’s no point believing Christianity because you think it’s nice. You believe it or disbelieve it based upon whether or not it is true. “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth—only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair” (32). Furthermore, because truth is truth, it is what it is. Religion is not “something God invented” but “His statement to us of certain quite unalterable facts about His own nature” (41). It could not be any other way. And if we don’t like it, well, as Lewis says in a different context later on: “… there is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source” (48). I remember a conference speaker once expressing the same idea. It should be obvious, but it’s strange how often I forget it—which I do any time I think my Plan B is better than God’s Plan A.
Lewis shows how great God is and puts us tiny people in our proper places. But he doesn’t just picture God as immense but also as the source and ultimate expression of all that is good and lovely and desirable. And he shows so clearly that we can’t experience good things apart from God. “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing” (50). It’s like stubbornly remaining in the wilderness rather than dwelling in the Father’s home, but still expecting Him to send food parcels. It doesn’t work like that. The food is where the Father is. “Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry. Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die?”(176)
You’d think then that I’d want to be close enough to get splashed by the spray. But that means taking “Me” from centre stage and putting God there instead. It’s the opposite of what I naturally want. What we too often want is “to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be ‘good’. We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their way—centred on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly” (197-198). It doesn’t work. Not only will we fail to be truly honest and chaste and humble, but in the end we won’t even be happy either.
It’s true that turning towards God and turning away from ourselves is not easy. It requires a sort of death. But Lewis tells self-centred sinners like me that it is a death that is immeasurably worth it.
“Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in” (226-227).