An Introduction to Mere Christianity – A The C.S. Lewis Podcast from Alister McGrath

The 20th century British writer, C.S. Lewis is one of the most influential voices in modern Christianity. Today on the C.S. Lewis podcast, Professor Alister McGrath will unpack Lewis’ seminal work Mere Christianity. Alister will share how Mere Christianity came to be written and what relevance it has in today’s culture.
Discovering the Christian faith
Christian apologist Professor Alister McGrath has written a number of books on C.S. Lewis including a biography C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. Professor Alister McGrath shares many similarities with the late C.S Lewis. They both were both raised in Northern Ireland, studied at Oxford University and eventually became professors there. Interestingly both C.S. Lewis and Alister came to the Christian faith after being atheists slightly later in life.
For Alister, he considers Lewis’ Mere Christianity to be one of the most articulate accounts of the Christian faith.
“Here is someone who has discovered Christianity- remember he began as an atheist- and he is trying to set out why it’s so exciting.”
Alister suggests that the book continues to sell very well long after C.S. Lewis’ death, partly because it’s so accessible to readers and its themes continue to resonate with a modern audience.
An invitation from the BBC
Alister shares the genesis of Mere Christianity, which didn’t start out until Lewis was asked in the 1940s to give some broadcast talks for the British Broadcasting Corporation during World War II as a way of encouraging listeners. One of the editors had read Lewis’ 1940 book The Problem of Pain and thought he was articulate and well suited to speak.
At the time C.S. Lewis had an enormous advantage because he was not particularly linked to any denomination and was considered a layman. Alister observes,
“They took a risk because they asked Lewis without ever hearing him speak. If you cannot speak and you are doing a radio broadcast, then there is a problem!”
In 1941, Lewis gave the first set of talks and the risk paid off. The BBC soon found out that Lewis, who could speak in front of a packed Oxford lecture theater, was suited to the role and would be able to engage the BBC’s audience of a million listeners. Alister observes that there are lot of aspect of Christianity that get left out,
“Lewis did not set out to write a book. In fact, he set out simply to give four lectures… Then this expanded.”
Mere Christianity was written 10 years after Lewis gave the series of four freestanding sets of talks about the Christian faith between 1941 and 1944.
The appeal of C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis came across as an ordinary Christian layperson and that is exactly what the BBC wanted. Alister this was largely his appeal, he observes,
“The BBC did not want someone to speak on behalf of an institution. They wanted someone to speak on behalf of a faith.”
Lewis proved to be the ideal candidate. Alister notes of Lewis gift of communicating the gospel,
“He was an intelligent and articulate exponent of the Christian faith who in effect could anticipate some of the questions his audience were asking.”
Many of these questions were ones that Lewis confronted as he wrestled with his own objections to the Christian faith when he was an atheist.
Reaching the unreached and the churched
Alister argues that C.S. Lewis has a way of communicating the gospel to non-Christians that invites them to look inside the Christian faith. Lewis was a literary scholar and was used to using analogies and illustrations. Mere Christianity reflects this where he uses allegory to frame some of his arguments for Christianity. Alister notes,
“In many ways Lewis was able to bring some very well honed illustrations and analogies to life.”
Mere Christianity continues to have an ongoing appeal, says Alister as it’s not aggressively evangelistic rather Lewis adopts a conversational tone. It’s a way into Christianity if you are an intelligent person thinking about the meaning of life.
Alister noted that Lewis was also inviting professing Christians to look deeper into their faith. Lewis was also a big fan of Puritan writers and had borrowed the term “Mere Christianity” from theologian Richard Baxter who had written in the 1600s during a time of enormous social and religious discontent in England. Against this context, Baxter coined the term “Mere Christianity” as a way of talking about a consensual form of Christianity that stands on primary issues not secondary issues. Alister notes of Mere Christianity,
“It’s weak on denominal specifics but it’s very strong indeed on the basic core themes of the Christian faith.”
‘Mere Christianity’ is basically Lewis’ code word for a consensual form of Christianity that would carry wide acceptance across Christian denominations and wouldn’t contradict their core doctrines.
The ongoing relevance of Mere Christianity
The BBC talks were very successful. There was a wartime sense of unease, of searching, of wanting reassurance in an incoherent and meaningless world. Alister notes that in the throes of war, people were more aware of their own mortality.
“The war time conditions made people receptive to thinking about the bigger questions.”
Lewis’ BBC talks have found a way of transcending the particular location of talks. Alister reflects that many people today wrestle with similar anxieties. He observes
“Lewis talks about themes that go much, much deeper than a wartime situation.”
Alister says that Mere Christianity is still relevant in today’s post-Christian culture as its themes “engage directly with the human quest for meaning and hope.”
To hear more from Alister McGrath on C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity, listen here.
About Alister McGrath
Alister McGrath is a scholar and writer who is presently Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University. After initial work in the natural sciences, McGrath moved into the field of Christian theology. He is best known for his definitive and widely used textbooks on Christian theology and his authoritative biography of C. S. Lewis. As a former atheist, McGrath is fascinated by the interaction of faith, science, and atheism, and writes regularly on these themes.