Get a Room! On Our Detrimental Reading of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity

A recent Gallup poll indicating that church attendance in the United States has fallen below 50% for the first time shocked many American Christians. Conversely, a random internet search of “most popular Christian books of all time” yielded exactly what I expected to find: C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity was on nearly every list, often among the top five books (a 2000 survey by Christianity Today had it as the top Christian work of the 20th century). We ought to find this odd, for the book’s preface makes it clear that Lewis did not write Mere Christianity for Christians. Nonetheless, its straightforward presentation of basic Christian belief has proven a beloved aid to believers and unbelievers alike for understanding the faith.

Yet despite the book’s immense popularity many Christians, and Protestants in particular, have misinterpreted Lewis’s overall purpose, and that misunderstanding has had a detrimental effect on the Church. The immediate cause of this harmful misreading is a false anthropology that a large portion of Protestants, evangelical and otherwise, have unwittingly adopted and imported into their ecclesiology. So long as this false anthropology is accepted uncritically, it will continue its corrosive effect on our churches.

Baxter’s “Mere Christianity”

In the preface to Mere Christianity, Lewis tells us exactly why he wrote the book and who his intended audience was. He refers to “my unbelieving neighbours” and “an outsider” who might be brought “into the Christian fold” through arguments for essential points of doctrine.[1]

Of course, Lewis had Christians in mind as a secondary audience. Everyone loves to watch a champion win a fight. Xenophon and Plato relished watching Socrates play coy with, and then better, his self-confident interlocutors in the Athenian marketplace. Even Jesus’s disciples must have enjoyed the sight of their carpenter-teacher dumbfounding the religious literati of Jerusalem. And so it is with Christians reading Lewis’s beautiful and simple arguments in Mere Christianity.

These purposes are noble indeed, and Lewis was immensely successful. I think it fair to say, though, that wethe Lewis-reading, generally Protestant publichave, to the Church’s detriment, appropriated his language for our own purposes, at times in direct defiance of Lewis’s intentions.

Lewis described his intention in writing Mere Christianity with a now famous analogy.[2] His distillation of Christian beliefs, he insists, was never intended as “an alternative to the creeds of the existing” denominations; rather, he imagined it as “more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted.”[3] For Lewis, the distinction between the “hall” of Christian beliefs and the “rooms” of “existing communions” is highly important. We, however, have come to view ourselves as Lewis’s primary audience, obfuscated this distinction, and turned the hallway of “mere Christianity” into something very much like “an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions.”[4]

Lewis attributes the term “mere Christianity” to Richard Baxter (1615-1691), the influential and eloquent Puritan pastor and theologian. In the introduction to his thoroughly named Church-history of the government of bishops and their councils abbreviated including the chief part of the government of Christian princes and popes, and a true account of the most troubling controversies and heresies till the Reformation (1681), Baxter defended himself from a critic who wanted to associate him with certain Scottish Presbyterians. Baxter retorted by denying he belonged to any specific sect. He wrote:

I am a CHRISTIAN, a MEER CHRISTIAN, of no other Religion; and the Church that I am of is the Christian Church, and hath been visible where ever the Christian Religion and Church hath been visible: But must you know what Sect or Party I am of? I am against all Sects and dividing Parties: But if any will call Meer Christians by the name of a Party, because they take up with Meer Christianity, Creed, and Scripture, and will not be of any dividing or contentious Sect, I am of that Party which is so against Parties: If the Name CHRISTIAN be not enough, call me a CATHOLICK CHRISTIAN; not as that word signifieth an hereticating majority of Bishops, but as it signifieth one that hath no Religion, but that which by Christ and the Apostles was left to the Catholick Church, or the Body of Jesus Christ on Earth.[5]

It is beyond the scope of this essay to mark the reasons for Baxter’s view with detail.[6] It suffices here to note that, after leaving the Church of England, he maintained a stance of denominational independence throughout his life, seeking to defend that position most often by resorting to the idea of being a “meer Christian.”

Attraction to the idea of a stripped-down, non-sectarian Christianity is perfectly understandable given the abuses in the medieval Roman Church and the bitter confusion and fallout among Reformation-era Protestants; and the yearning for unity among all Christians is a good, right, and holy desire, one that accords with Our Lord’s prayer in John 17.

Nonetheless, in our sincere attempts to hold non-partisan positions, especially with regard to church practice, we can badly misunderstand human nature, which never exists without the embodiment and finitude of time and place. These attempts can also betray a naivety that we have reached such spiritual heights that we no longer need distinct, robust, thoughtful ecclesial identities and practices that accord with this embodiment and finitude. Furthermore, we cannot deny that there is still work for the Holy Spirit to do to heal our divisions that remain, no matter how much we wish to ignore them and think we can live above them.

The fact that the Puritans as a distinct group of Christians have now completely died out, wholly absorbed into other sects, suggests that Baxter’s party of non-partisans was not sustainable. Indeed, the word mere derives from the Latin merus, meaning “pure” or “undiluted,” which describes the whole Puritan ethos. Even for Lewis, Baxter’s Puritan nonconformist stance went too far. Lewis himself remained firmly attached to one of those “Sects” and “Parties” Baxter disavowed: “there is no mystery about my own position,” Lewis writes, “I am a very ordinary layman of the Church of England.”[7]

Baxter’s position as a Puritan dissenter from the very Anglican Church of which Lewis was a member is not unimportant here. This difference between the two men suggests that Lewis thought he could borrow Baxter’s term “meer Christian” without having to agree with Baxter’s ecclesiology. Put simply, Lewis sees in Baxter’s portrayal of Christianity an analogy by which to describe essential Christian beliefs, not a Christian way of life. As Lewis says of the “hall” of Baxter’s simplified description of Christianity, “[it] is a place to wait in…not a place to live in,” for “it is in the rooms, not the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.” In case there remain any confusion, Lewis clarifies that even “the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable [to the hallway].”[8]

It is true, though, that Scripture and even some of what Lewis writes suggest that Christianity should remain something simple and unrefined, as the dissenting Puritans understood it. James 1:27 tells us that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (ESV). Again, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for preferring their ancient customs over the law of God: “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8). Understandably, some Protestants interpret such scriptures strictly as discouragement from any form of organized religion save something approaching a house church, while a few even consider meeting with other Christians entirely unnecessary.

Lewis himself seems to come close to endorsing this interpretation. He writes in the preface that the overflow of praise he had received for Mere Christianity “may possibly be of some help in silencing the view that, if we omit the disputed points [of denominational Christianity], we shall have left only a vague and bloodless H.C.F” (highest common factor, equivalent to the idea of the lowest common denominator). Lewis here recognizes the criticism of the idea that the few beliefs he defends in his book are altogether too insignificant to bring someone to Christian faith. He continues: “the H.C.F. turns out to be something not only positive but pungent; divided from all non-Christian beliefs by a chasm to which the worst divisions inside Christendom are not really comparable at all.”[9]

Nevertheless, clearly what was the whole of “mere Christianity” for Baxteras one who sought refuge within a sense of a pure, tradition-less expression of Christianitywas merely the first step for Lewis. The hallway was only a place from which to evaluate the various rooms before committing to one: “you must regard it as waiting,” Lewis said of the activity of the hallway, “not as camping.”[10] Consequently Lewis decisively did not understand himself as a “meer Christian” in the Baxterian sense, and he did not think other Christians should either.

We, though, have largely adopted Baxter’s description of Christian religion: we have attempted to make the part into the whole. As a result, we have lost confidence in the goodness of the particular character and practices of the traditions that compose the individual rooms, seemingly embarrassed by the denominational distinctions that make the “rooms” places of nourishment, vim, and vitality as Lewis describes them. Perhaps for this reason, more Americans than ever before identify as non-religious, even though most of those still claim to believe in some sort of spiritual force or reality. This is the “spiritual-not-religious” crowd who are leaving the church in droves.[11] Of course, there are other causes for this phenomenon, but I posit that this twisting and absorbing of Lewis’s metaphor is a great cause.

A False Anthropology

The reason that this misinterpretation has a pernicious effect is because it assumes a false anthropology that fails to connect people deeply and holistically with other members of their church and with particular Christian disciplines. It also leaves them vulnerable to du jure cultural influences that easily render church-going a fashionable, ephemeral practice.

When a collection of beliefs is lifted out of actual human ways of being, they cannot be lived or practiced but only assented to. Such a cerebral anthropology has little of incarnational, communal Christianity in it.

Lewis criticizes this very anthropology in his Screwtape Letters. The demonic Screwtape explains to his young demon protégé this overly “spiritualized” understanding of human nature as an effective strategy for discouraging Christians from praying:

The best thing…is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether… this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularised… One of their poets, Coleridge, has recorded that he did not pray “with moving lips and bended knees,” but merely “composed his spirit to love” and indulged “a sense of supplication.” That is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practised by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy’s service, clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time.[12]

Note that the old tempter suggests this mode of prayer not because it renders prayers ineffective but because it dissuades Christians from having even the “intention of praying.” To drive this point home, Screwtape concludes: “At the very least, [Christians] can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.”[13]

It is not difficult to see that whatever would dissuade Christians from having the intention to pray would also dissuade them from the intention of participating in the body of Christ, the Church. We have yet to see the full effect that Zoomified pandemic church services will have on the habits of former church-goers, but if Lewis is right, then what is to prevent Christians from being persuaded that they can participate in church merely digitally without involving their bodies at all?

Protestants are especially prone to adopt this false anthropology. A common criticism we hurl at Roman Catholics is that they are simply “going through the motions” with the body during their liturgy while their spirit is disengaged. But we must here admit that we have too often fallen into the ditch on the other side of the road.

A stronger anthropology would accomplish two things: it would facilitate a greater sense of connection between church members, and it would encourage an intention within them to participate in the disciplines they all aspire to practice. To describe the nature of a more accurate anthropologyone more in keeping with embodied human nature and more effective at accomplishing these two goalsI offer an example: I am part of a group of men who regularly exercise together. This voluntary group is quite effective at facilitating connection between its members and encouraging the intention to participate in its rigorous discipline.

My group is one of thousands in a nationwide organization, united by a select few principles, from which arises a distinct culture that helps embody those principles in concrete ways of being in community. The principles include: free of charge, open to men only, held outdoors rain or shine, peer led, and always ends with a circle of trust and a prayer or meaningful thought.

The practices that embody these principles are rather quirky. For example, each person is given a nickname, often one that has only the thinnest association with some characteristic of the person and is usually ridiculous. Although most exercises are recognizable, they are given unusual names (push-ups are merkins, for example).

In addition to using this strange dialect, members set themselves apart by wearing official merchandise, participating in the after-workout “coffeeteria” fellowship, organizing community service projects, and recognizing a kind of calendar of “holy days” that mark certain anniversaries (a yearly 9/11 workout involving climbing many flights of stairs is held in honor of the firemen who died in the World Trade Center towers, for example).

Each workout ends with a form of “passing the peace.” Each member greets the group as a whole by reciting his age and nickname, and—as if with an “And with your spirit”—the rest of the group responds by repeating his name in return, assuring him of his membership in the group. All these physical ways of being compose a liturgy that creates a strong sense of belonging among members. By showing up often enough to learn a distinct terminology or calendar, a newcomer makes himself a member of the association. Crucially, this is a knowledge that can only be gained by actual participation.

Beyond reinforcing a connection between members, this liturgy also habituates them to enjoy a discipline they would otherwise struggle to maintain on their own. For example, many groups meet promptly at 5:30am, an early hour that most would never see if it were not for the mysterious allure of the group and its peculiarities. Altogether, insofar as the group facilitates self-improvement through mutual help, it approaches that highest form of friendship that Aristotle describes in his Nicomachean Ethics: a shared vision of the good life. Thus, despite the sweat, rain, and occasional vomit, there is something beautiful about the whole ordeal that its members find compelling.

Though most of these groups continued to meet throughout the 2020 pandemic, some experimented with Zoom, and the established density and quirkiness of the practices made it easy for members to step back into their former habits. There was something for their bodies to do, not simply a list of thoughts to think about. My guess is therefore that the proportion of this exercise group that have returned to physical gatherings after a temporary separation is higher than the proportion of congregants in “mere Christianity” churches who have returned to post-lockdown services. Truth be told, for many who attended large churches with “mere Christian” services before the pandemic, it was always a kind of remote experience: Zoom simply made it more convenient.

So what would our ecclesiology look like if it incorporated such an anthropology? For myself, I can only draw on my own experience in the Anglican Communion, but I have found in that tradition a deep well of ways of being that I can step into, reminiscent of my exercise group. Examples include the rich prayers and songs in the daily Morning and Evening Office, ideally prayed and sung together with other believers; following closely the liturgical calendar on a weekly, monthly, and seasonal basis; learning to pray the prayer book, including the Psalms, occasional prayers, and suffrages; feasting on Sundays and high holy days; learning and singing the classical hymns of the Anglican tradition. All of these practices are formative, and when done together have an effect similar to that which I find in my exercise group: a friendship that bonds individuals in a joyful embracing of the disciplines that are otherwise difficult to maintain consistently alone.

Of course, these practices need to be filled with the life-giving content of Christian orthodoxy to be of spiritual benefit. Yet orthodoxy is something we have retained just fine from Lewis and Mere Christianity. It is the anthropology which safeguards the effective transmission of that orthodoxy that is now crucial to capture.

A Defining Moment

In contrast, when we reduce the Christian religion to a short list of beliefs to assent to, stripped of all traditionally Christian ways of being, we are left with very little in which to involve our bodies. As Protestants, we have arrived at a moment that warrants reflection: the rise of non-denominational churches must be the final iteration of a distinctly Protestant trend to eschew traditional, proven liturgies. No doubt very good work is being done in many of those churches, especially in evangelism and church-planting. I know that good and necessary work is also being done in the house churches in China, for I myself was blessed to be a part of one for a time. I also know from that experience, though, that a model that works well temporarily under persecution is not a good model for stable growth under orthodox, authoritative teaching.

Robust, multigenerational Christian communities flourish best under intentional, established ways of being like those found amid the “fires, and chairs, and meals” inside the rooms Lewis describes; eventual deprivation awaits in the languor of the hallway.[14] Furthermore, it is not possible to avoid developing a liturgy: if a group of people meet together regularly, they will always develop authoritative ways of doing things.

The difference between liturgies of “merely Christian” churches and those of established communions is noteworthy. While the latter arise from deliberations of church councils, and from the wisdom of heroes of the faith, and are time-tested and altered only carefully as necessary (see Lewis’s first letter in Letters to Malcolm), the former develop either accidentally (“that’s just the way we’ve always done it”) or intentionally but under the inordinate influence of (usually) one or two assertive personalities, the orthodoxy of which is sometimes suspect and the unchecked power arising from such influence is often all-too-easily corrupted.

This article is not, however, directed primarily at non-denominationalism. This misreading of Lewis is evident in liturgical, denominational churches as well. My own experience visiting various parishes in the Anglican Church in North America over the last ten years proves that, ironically, American Anglicans very often confuse Baxter’s “hall” Puritanism with Lewis’s “room” Anglicanism, the rich Anglican traditions and explicit rubrics and liturgies in The Book of Common Prayer notwithstanding.

Last year, M. H. Turner noted that the official website for the ACNA describes Anglicanism as not “a distinct version of Christianity, but a distinct way of being a ‘Mere Christian.’” “The hint,” Turner explains, “to use the metaphor from Lewis’s Mere Christianity, is that if the distinct versions of Christianity are the rooms, then Anglicanism is not a room but the hallway.” As is clear from the preface to that book, though, this is a misinterpretation of Lewis’s metaphor. Stranger still, many people (including myself) who have come to Anglicanism in the last two decades from other Protestant denominations and non-denominations were attracted to Anglicanism in the first place for the very reason that it wasor at least feltmore ecclesially distinctive than the churches they left. Turner’s article is entitled “Why is Anglicanism a Gateway to Catholicism?” in which he argued that hallway-type Anglican churches all-too-often leave parishioners with a hunger that they ultimately seek to satisfy in the Roman Church. The cause of this phenomenon, too, may be explained anthropologically.[15]

Many denominational churches are even a little embarrassed by having a distinctly denominational character that, by definition, encourages conformity. They seek instead some kind of individual “authentic” personality. These churches seem to prefer denominational ambiguity for the sake of theological simplicity, often with potential newcomers in mind. This impulse perhaps explains the trend away from traditional church names such as “St. Matthews” and “All Saints” toward faux-inspirational names like “Elevate,” New Horizons,” “Lifebridge,” “No Limits Fellowship” (I’ve even seen a church named “Potential”).

Lewis closes Mere Christianity with a reflection on this urge to create a unique personality. He wrote about it primarily in the context of the idea that it is only by dying to ourselves and living for Christ that we can become our true, authentic selves. Lewis notes, though, that “the same principle holds…for more everyday matters.” In fact, he claims that “the principle runs through all life from top to bottom,” viz., that there is nothing original in the attempt to be original. “Even in literature and art,” he notes, “no man who bothers about originality will ever be original.” Lewis draws the reasonable conclusion about this phenomenon: “Your real, new self…will not come as long as you are looking for it.”[16] Likewise with churches that shun classically Protestant denominational distinctives and liturgies in favor of spontaneous “authenticity,” one gets the feeling that they are all original in exactly the same way.

Rather than trying to reduce the practice of Christian living to its merest version and then filling in the inevitable gaps with theologically and anthropologically dubious innovation, we ought instead to rediscover the shared practices and ways of being that are found in the “rooms” and in so doing help “retrieve the riches of classical Protestantism in order to renew and build up the contemporary church.”[17]

[Originally published in Ad Fontes, a publication of The Davenant Institute.]

NOTES

  1. C. S. Lewis, Preface to Mere Christianity (HarperCollins, 2001, viii.
  2. For this essay, I will be drawing primarily from the Preface of Mere Christianity, which Lewis added in 1952, when his broadcast talks were first put into print form.
  3. Preface, xv.
  4. As evidence that Christians easily imagine themselves as Lewis’s primary audience, one can even find a “Bible study” on Mere Christianity.
  5. Published by Thomas Simmons at the Princes Arms at Ludgate Street, 1681.
  6. For a thorough account of the general differences between Baxter and Lewis on the concept of mere Christianity, see Timothy E. Miller, “Mere Christianity: An Examination Of The Concept In Richard Baxter And C. S. Lewis,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, Vol. 20, 65‒88.
  7. Preface viii.
  8. Preface, xv.
  9. Preface, xi. As E. J. Hutchinson has noted, another component of our misunderstanding of Lewis involves our understanding of the word “mere” to mean merely something like “bare” or “only,” though Lewis likely meant it also in another sense as “truly” or “absolutely” (E. J. Hutchinson, “What Does ‘Mere’ Mean in C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity?https://calvinistinternational.com/2018/07/16/what-does-mere-mean-in-mere-christianity/, accessed June 6, 2021). Hutchinson’s point is an interesting one for the very reason that few who read Lewis’s book today interpret it that way.
  10. Preface, xvi.
  11. See Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (New York: Public Affairs, 2020), 17, for recent data on this phenomenon.
  12. It is coincidental for this article but still telling that Lewis describes Coleridge’s style of prayer with the adverb “merely.”
  13. C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters: Annotated Edition (HarperCollins, 2013), 22‒23.
  14. Preface, xv.
  15. For a thorough and incisive discussion on this general phenomenon, see the five-part series, “Why Protestants Convert” by Christ Castaldo and Brad Littlejohn, published by The Davenant Institute.
  16. Lewis, 226.
  17. The mission of the Davenant Institute.

 


Clifford Humphrey is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America. In 2020 he received a Ph.D. in politics from Hillsdale College. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina where he is helping to launch Thales College.


'Get a Room! On Our Detrimental Reading of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity' have 2 comments

  1. December 21, 2021 @ 7:52 am Daniel Logan+

    Well said, Dr. Humphrey! I agree that there is a bit too much loitering in the hallway. Coming into the faith as something of a crypto-pagan, our beloved brother Lewis (of exceedingly blessed memory) seems to have had an almost primordial experience of Christianity (he did call himself a dinosaur, after all), which was particularly suitable to an appeal and an apologetic that transcended denomination, though of course he himself settled down in the Church of England.

    And, as you mention, I also suspect those camping (or campaigning) in the hallway do so for the sake of ecumenism, but the 20th century demonstrated (among so many other things) the utter failure of this sort of H.C.F. reunion. Rather, true reunion, as Pope Benedict XVI has argued, will be born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. In the meantime, we should not waste time diluting our respective traditions, but plumbing their depths, that we might exhaust every avenue to be disciples of our Master, the Lord Jesus Christ. Union with Him will accomplish all!

    Thank you for this excellent piece – DL+

    Reply

  2. December 24, 2021 @ 6:07 am Anthony Oughton

    Mea culpa: I sometimes use the term ‘mere Christian’ in something like the sense here criticised. Funnily enough, Lewis’ preface also has a discussion on how words like ‘Christian’ and ‘gentleman’ have changed their meanings over time causing confusion. I am grateful for the clarification. On the other hand, there might be a desire to recognise those from other ‘rooms’ as brothers and sisters in the faith, not so much ecumenically as in recognition that a staunch Catholic like John Senior has much to say that resonates with me as an evangelical, much that is relevant to this article too with its emphasis on things and practices.

    Reply


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