The Wright Stuff?: Scholars Discuss "Mere Christianity" at SBL Annual Meeting 2006
They came not to bury C. S. Lewis, but not entirely to praise him, either. The speakers at a well-attended evening session at this year's national conference reflected on the enduring significance of C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. Led by N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, a group of scholars discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the book and the way that it fits into world religious culture in the present day.
The session was inspired by Wright's recent effort to write a new Mere Christianity for the twenty-first century, which resulted in Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006). The ambition of this project is significant, since Mere Christianity is a phenomenon not only in the Christian church, but also in publishing world. First published in England between 1943 and 1945, it has been an international classic in Christian apologetics ever since. Although it is very much a product of its mid-century context, it has sold more copies every year since 2001 — now more than a million copies a year.
Wright began his comments on an appreciative note by calling Lewis' text "a splendid read . . . feisty and lyrical, funny and moving, full of brilliant images, similes and extended metaphors. . . . They take our minds darting to and fro, leaping over hedges and ditches, constantly glimpsing the countryside from new angles and with the fresh air of intelligent argument in our lungs." Wright first read Mere Christianity in his teens, and his lively enjoyment of Lewis was apparent throughout his comments.
Wright was not cowed, however, by the outsized stature of the original book. Indeed, he brings a critical eye to Mere Christianity. Given its flaws, he said, the book seems to him a bit like the bumblebee, which flies despite scientific research showing that it should not be able to do so. Wright found the third section of the book ("Christian Behavior") the "most professional." He attributed its success to Lewis' training as a philosopher, which well equipped him to discuss virtues and vices. Wright surveys the first and fourth sections with a few critical comments (e.g., Lewis was "frustratingly fuzzy on heaven and immortality"), while still acknowledging his own book's debt to Lewis' where applicable. Wright frankly admitted that he was unsure how parts of Lewis' book would speak to the intended audience (i.e., skeptics) today.
Wright saved his sternest criticisms for the book's "heart" — its discussion of God and Jesus. He remarks on the absence of the resurrection from Lewis' account of Jesus, and he also charges him with ignoring the historical context of the New Testament, especially the Jewish context. "Every step towards a de-Judaized Jesus is a step away from Scripture, away from Christian wisdom," he said. "If you don't put Jesus in his proper context, you will inevitably put him in a different one, where he, his message, and his achievement will be considerably distorted." This concern of Wright's reflects his own deep participation in the Historical Jesus debate (e.g., Jesus and the Victory of God [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996], Who Was Jesus? [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993]). Wright warned: "Someone who converted to Christian faith through reading Mere Christianity, and who never moved on or grew up theologically or historically, would be in a dangerous position when faced even with proper, non-skeptical historical investigation, let alone the regular improper, skeptical sort."
Wright concluded, however, by crediting Lewis with the effectiveness of his book and with the hope that his own "imperfect" book would be as effective.
Wright was joined on the panel by Lauren Winner of Duke University, author of Girl Meets God, and John G. Stackhouse, Jr. of Regent College, author of Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today.
Winner, who first read Lewis in college before she converted to Christianity, enjoyed Lewis' more autobiographical writings, but said she had to force herself through Mere Christianity "twenty-five pages at a time. . . . It left me cold." She said that if the intended audience for Lewis' work is actually prospective converts, then it labors under erroneous presuppositions. The book proceeds, she said, "as if everyone in modernity is laboring under rational questions about Christianity, and if someone would answer them, they would take up their crosses and become Christian." The book makes alternative viewpoints such as atheism and deism seem too simple, in her view. Nor should Lewis have assumed that his readers sense "that there is a problem — that they are sinful, broken people living in a sinful, broken world." Instead, Winner said, awareness of sinfulness and brokenness are the product of Christian discipleship rather than the invitation to it. Therefore she concluded that she had been misreading Mere Christianity: "I always assumed it was intended to be a work of evangelism, to take pre-Christians and convince them of the truth of the Christian story. . . . It may work best when seen as a book about Christian discipleship among those are participating already in the Christian story."
Stackhouse managed to be the most entertaining figure on the stage — no mean feat, considering the company. He poked fun at Wright about the marketability of British accents to American audiences, a welcome acknowledgment of the session's blatant "synergy" with the release of Wright book. Like Wright, Stackhouse began with the premise that Mere Christianity "shouldn't have worked," but then he enumerated reasons why it did work. Among these was the way that Lewis was able to appear as "a good'ol boy with a Ph.D." Stackhouse cautioned, "What seems effortless is actually extraordinarily difficult to emulate. The market is flooded with books by Ph.D.'s who can't write a readable paragraph, and pop apologists who just aren't very smart." He opined that there are still very few such intelligent-but-popular books aimed at a middlebrow audience, hinting that perhaps Wright's book will fit into that niche.
Stackhouse summed up the achievement of Lewis' book and one of the challenges for Wright's: "Whatever side of the Atlantic you're on, Mere Christianity gives you license to be both intelligent and Christian."
Christopher B. Hays, Emory University
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Citation: Christopher B. Hays, " The Wright Stuff?: Scholars Discuss "Mere Christianity" at SBL Annual Meeting 2006 ," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited March 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=643