The passion of C.S. Lewis was thoughtfully translating the Christian faith into language that anyone could understand. He was driven to have people know what Christianity was about. It was a series of radio addresses, given over the BBC during the Second World War but later published in three separate parts, where the evidence of his intellectual labors – along with his conversational style, wit, intellect, and rough charm – first revealed Christianity to millions. The initial invitation was for four 15-minute talks. The response was so overwhelming that they gave him a fifth 15-minute segment to answer listener’s questions.
Then a second round of talks were requested and given. The clarity of thought, along with his ability to gather together a wide range of information and make it plain, led one listener to remark that they “were magnificent, unforgettable. Nobody, before or since, has made such an ‘impact’ in straight talks of this kind.” The BBC asked for a third round of talks, this time stretching out for eight consecutive weeks. Lewis consented, but made it clear it would be his last. His goal throughout was simple: “I was ... writing to expound ... ‘mere’ Christianity, which is what it is and was what it was long before I was born.”
Eventually gathered together in a single work titled Mere Christianity, the work continues to make Christianity known to millions. You may have heard of this book. Its appeal rests on two levels: as a first-rate work of apologetics, meaning a case for the Christian faith. But on a second level, it is because of the dynamic inherent within the title. The twentieth century’s most accomplished apologist for the Christian faith had little desire to stake out narrow theological ground. He wanted to map out a vast territory on which individuals could gather. Rather than being less intellectual, in many ways, it was more. It was scholarship, not academics, and scholarship is always more winsome and compelling.
If you are like me, you probably desire “mere Christianity.” It was a phrase first coined by the seventeenth-century Anglican writer Richard Baxter. Baxter lived through the English Civil War and, as a Puritan, threw his support behind Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentary forces. It was Cromwell who summoned Baxter from his church in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, to help establish the “fundamentals of religion” for the new government. Baxter complied, but Cromwell complained that Baxter’s summary of Christianity could be affirmed by a Papist.
“So much the better,” replied Baxter.
As Alan Jacobs writes in his exceptional biography of Lewis, Baxter’s challenge was his refusal to allow Christianity to succumb to the spirit of fashion and sect. He was convinced that there was a core of orthodox Christianity that Puritans, Anglicans, and Catholics all affirmed and that should have been a source of peace among them. “Must you know what Sect or Party I am of?” he wrote in 1680. “I am against all Sects and dividing Parties: but if any will call Mere Christian by the name of a Party, ... I am of that Party which is so against Parties ... I am a CHRISTIAN, a MERE CHRISTIAN, of no other religion.” As Jacobs writes, “If the danger in Baxter’s time had been warfare among various kinds of Christians, the danger in Lewis’s time was the evaporation of Christianity altogether. Yet Lewis felt that the remedy for the first crisis was also the remedy for the second: if Christianity is embattled and declining, it is all the more important for Christians to put their differences aside and join to sing the One Hymn of the One Church.”
Mere Christianity is not a reduction of orthodoxy – truth on the lowest level, as it were – but the distillation of Christianity so that it is fermented to its fullest potency. It is the essence of Christianity, stripped of all matters unrelated to its pulsating energy.
In a day marked by the rising of the “nones,” those who claim no religious affiliation and, in fact, detest any and all labels, it is perhaps time to renew ourselves to what Baxter and Lewis championed.
Because a “mere” Christian may be the only kind that can get through to a “none” world.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom (InterVarsity Press).
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.