Mere Christianity is a strange book to become a modern Christian classic, partly because it wasn’t intended to be a book in the first place.
The work began as a series of radio addresses Lewis delivered during WWII. Next, these “broadcast talks” were printed as small pamphlets. A decade later, they were compiled into the book we know it as today. (What’s more, it wasn’t Mere Christianity that put Lewis on the map; The Screwtape Letters propelled Lewis forward in both the UK and the United States, eventually landing him on the cover of Time magazine.)
Still, few books in the 20th century have cast such a long shadow as Mere Christianity. I have multiple books on my shelf that give a nod to Lewis when making a case for Christianity in the 21st century: from N. T. Wright’s Simply Christian to Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. Today, Lewis’s book has its own biography—written by George Marsden—as one volume in a series on influential Christian books!
But despite the book’s influence today (more than 70 years after the talks were delivered and 65 years since it first showed up in print), early reviewers felt little fondness for Lewis’s work or his vision of Christianity. Some of the initial feedback was negative.
You may have come across articles online that quote various criticisms of books that would later be considered “classics.” Of The Great Gatsby, one critic said:
“Mr. Scott Fitzgerald deserves a good shaking. Here is an unmistakable talent unashamed of making itself a motley to the view.”
Of Moby Dick, what many consider to be the greatest American novel, one critic said:
“Mr. Melville is evidently trying to ascertain how far the public will consent to be imposed upon. He is gauging, at once, our gullibility and our patience.”
The early reviews of Mere Christianity weren’t as savage as those. Traditional Christians (over against those who identified as modernists) were enthusiastic about the book because of the winsome way it made a case for Christianity. But “Progressive Protestants,” Marsden writes, “were alarmed at ‘backward-looking Christianity.’” They took aim at Lewis for making a winsome case that undid “centuries of theological progress.”
Here are a few examples that Marsden points out in his book.
Theology for Comfort
In 1944, E. George Lee wrote a review called “C. S. Lewis and Some Modern Theologians.” He claimed that, due to the war, Anglican churchmen had slipped back into the comfort of traditional views instead of setting forth an honest articulation of modern scholarship—research that rendered obsolete any exclusive Christian claims on the basis of divine revelation. Lewis was committing “treachery of the intellect in order to try to find repose in the emotions.”
Not Focused on Serious Seekers
Other waves of criticism followed. In 1945, E. L. Allen in Modern Churchman accused Lewis of preaching to those who were already converted (“playing to the gallery”) instead of focusing on serious seekers “dissatisfied with traditional presentations of Christianity.” Allen was upset by Lewis’s traditionalism (“the Middle Ages in its most superstitious phases”) and what he saw as an authoritarian gospel (“the temptation to oppose dogmatism with dogmatism rather than with freedom”). He also complained that Lewis hadn’t done his homework, because he failed to quote from recent work on the subject of the divinity of Christ.
Failing to Engage Modern Thought
A year later, literary scholar R. C. Churchill dismissed the idea that The Screwtape Letters would become “a great religious classic.” Churchill was offended by Lewis’s lack of engagement with major trends in modern thought, his “preposterous” affirmation of the reality of Satan, and his old-fashioned case for the divinity of Christ. Churchill claimed the work had done “a grave disservice to European civilization.”
Conventional Views on Sexuality
Alistair Cooke, writing for the New Republic, denounced Lewis for his conventional views of sexual morality, especially Lewis’s contention that extramarital sex is sinful. Cooke did not stoop to engage Lewis’s arguments, but instead suggested that because Lewis was a bachelor, he was simply afraid to talk about sexuality!
Lewis vs. the Chronological Snobs
Looking back at these reviews, there is a delicious irony in the fact that Lewis and Mere Christianity are still read today, while most of his critics who charged him of being “out of date” are forgotten. Those who believed they were at the vanguard of newest biblical scholarship and modernist trends in theology have now been surpassed by other movements and are largely ignored by most churches throughout the world.
Meanwhile, Lewis’s legacy lives on. Why? Because Lewis had learned to see through the “chronological snobbery” that overtakes so many scholars. Marsden writes:
“Lewis defined chronological snobbery as ‘the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.’ That insight helped Lewis overcome his naïve acceptance of the latest naturalistic scientific pronouncements that led intellectual snobs such as he had been to dismiss beliefs in spiritual realities as merely ‘romantic’ or ‘medieval.’ He saw, rather, that ‘our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions.”
Lewis’ friendship with Owen Barfield, J. R. R. Tolkien, and his fondness for the writings of G. K. Chesterton inoculated him to the disease of chronological snobbery. Here is some of Chesterton’s medicine for treating the chronological snob:
“It is incomprehensible to me that any thinker can calmly call himself a modernist; he might as well call himself a Thursdayite. But apart altogether from that particular disturbance, I am conscious of a general irritation expressed against the people who boast of their advancement and modernity in the discussion of religion. But I never succeeded in saying the quite clear and obvious thing that is really the matter with modernism. The real objection to modernism is simply that it is a form of snobbishness. It is an attempt to crush a rational opponent not by reason, but by some mystery of superiority, by hinting that one is specially up to date or particularly ‘in the know.’ To flaunt the fact that we have had all the last books from Germany is simply vulgar; like flaunting the fact that we have had all the last bonnets from Paris. To introduce into philosophical discussions a sneer at a creed’s antiquity is like introducing a sneer at a lady’s age. It is caddish because it is irrelevant. The pure modernist is merely a snob; he cannot bear to be a month behind the fashion.”
True to form, the chronological snobs sneered at Mere Christianity, just like their descendants sneer at traditional Christian beliefs today—everything from our belief in miracles to our reaffirmation of Christianity’s distinctive sexual ethic. But, as Dean Inge has said, those who marry the spirit of one age are always widowed in the next.
That’s why we, like Lewis, don’t have to “dig in.” We can simply stand, smiling, trusting in the power of truths that have stood the test of time, knowing the gospel will go forward in faith while the heresies will go out of fashion.