Why C. S. Lewis’ ‘Mere Christianity’ Originally Received Bad Reviews

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.”

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SOURCE: The Gospel Coalition – Trevin Wax