C. S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity”: A biography
George M. Marsden
Princeton University Press £18.95
Church Times Bookshop £17.05
Reading C. S. Lewis: A commentary
Wesley A. Kort
Church Times Bookshop £16.20
THESE two excellent books revealed to me a very simple fact I had not appreciated before: namely, that the reception of C. S. Lewis’s work in the United States has always been very different from the one that it has been given in Britain.
One of the principal issues that Marsden and Kort grapple with is the way in which large parts of C. S. Lewis’s apologetic work have been so championed over the years by American conservative Evangelicals that Lewis is often assumed in the US to have been of like mind with them. This is almost at complete variance with the image that we have of Lewis in the UK. Here, he is seen as an orthodox but distinctly moderate representative of the sort of unshowy, sacramental, pipe-smoking Anglicanism that characterised much of post-war British ecclesial life.
One of the explanations for this development is the setting up of an archive dedicated to the study of Lewis’s works at Wheaton College, Illinois, a stronghold of conservative Presbyterianism. This led a generation of influential post-war American Evangelicals who studied there to be formed in a place that specialised in Lewis studies. Both Marsden and Kort spend time dealing with issues that stem from an unsophisticated, but clearly quite widespread, reading of Lewis by US Evangelicals who see him simply as a like-minded social conservative.
Marsden’s work is a terrific exemplification of the contribution to knowledge which can be made by study of the reception history of texts. He concentrates solely on Lewis’s apologetic work Mere Christianity. The text’s popularity over the years as a simple introduction to orthodox Christian belief has been remarkable. Marsden not only takes us through the history of the genesis of the book, but also explores the history of how it came to have its iconic status as a seminal example of popular theology. Fascinating insights emerge, such as the many copies smuggled into the German Democratic Republic during the Cold War, and the terror that it prompted in the East German authorities through its capacity to convince the reader.
Very few other texts can be said to enjoy the same popularity among such a wide range of theological outlooks and ecclesial communities — though Marsden shows how each group has tended to read Lewis through the spectacles of their own tradition. Even Latter-Day Saints readings of Mere Christianity have attempted to present Lewis as a Crypto-Mormon.
Whereas Marsden concentrates fruitfully on one work of Lewis’s, Kort ranges with great insight and mastery over his entire oeuvre. His commentary contains an introduction to each of Lewis’s texts. It works as a book you might read all the way through, but could also operate as a reference work to be dipped into for information about individual books. Marsden frequently highlights tensions in Lewis’s works often overlooked by readers in the US. He argues that these stem from the paradox that, while claiming to be thoroughly orthodox, Lewis is also capable of using novel and, sometimes quite radical, ways of recasting Christian ideas and dogma. Kort often seems to be addressing a conservative American readership at ease with the doctrinally orthodox Lewis, but less attentive to the claims made by Lewis for the importance of the imaginative faculties in re-thinking and re-presenting classic Christian dogma in sometimes startling and surprising ways.
These two works usefully shed light on ways in which Lewis has been interpreted which an English reader may not know about. They exemplify how important examination of the reception history of texts can be in understanding an author’s influence and reputation.
The Revd Peter Anthony is Priest-in-Charge of St Benet and All Saints, Kentish Town, London.