Top critical review
on March 24, 2002
This book sets out to be an exposition of "agreed, or common, or central, or 'mere' Christianity" for non-Christians or doubting Christians. It is important to note that the word "Christianity" can be understood either as the body of Christ or else as the body of Christians. Most people, when talking about Christianity, mean the first. Lewis quite explicitly means the second. In this book he only describes what Christians believe. In the preface he states that some objected that "a person who cannot believe the doctrines expounded in the book can be far more truly Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some who do". He accepts this objection as very right, but claims that it is not "useful" and that it would be a "disaster" to use language like that. This cannot be true: if it is not belief in the doctrines what makes a person more truly Christian, then the exposition of these doctrines have no place in a book that sets out to be about the central aspect of Christianity. In fact this book very nicely shows that what Christians believe is a mixture of the sublime and the despicable. Let us not forget that a short while ago many Christians believed that slavery was divinely sanctioned, and that it said so in the Bible, not to mention beliefs about the Jews being the enemies of Christ, or about witches being the tools of the devil. For Lewis the defining characteristic of Christianity is doctrine, and therefore this book is really about Christian doctrine, not about Christianity. The problem is not so much that the book's title is wrong, but that non-Christians or doubting Christians who read it searching for truth will get the wrong message.
Much of what is central to the spirit of Christianity, such as compassion, is discussed in only a few pages. On the other hand, much of what is peripheral, such as, supposedly, that a wife should obey her husband, is expounded at length and defended with ...arguments (page 113). Fatally, much that is clearly contrary to Christianity is expounded if only because all major denominations have allowed it: so it is explained that a Christian judge may hang a murderer (page 118), and that a Christian soldier may kill his enemies, even while loving them, forgiving them, and literally wishing them well (page 120). Clearly Lewis is hard at work trying to find arguments to paper over the absurdities and contradictions in Christian doctrine. But this is hypocrisy, and hypocrisy, no matter how cleverly done, is the very antithesis of Christianity. Also, many of his arguments are childishly weak: For example, he recognizes that one of the major stumbling blocks for non-believers is the fact that Christians are as bad if not worse than non-Christians. He even asserts that "Christ told us to judge by results - a tree is known by its fruit" (page 208), but then sets out to prove that it is unreasonable to hold that "the whole world can be neatly divided into two camps - Christian and non-Christian - and that all the people in the first camp at any given moment should be obviously nicer than all the people in the second". This is evidently true, but quite beside the point.
Lewis is fiercely intelligent, writes beautiful English, and this small book is more compact full with ideas than other books three times its size. His capacity for luminous analogy is incredible, beyond the ability of any other writer I know. Most of what is true in Christian doctrine is rendered beautifully and memorably. He is courageous in many points, for example he flatly states that when Jesus said that the rich will not enter the Kingdom he meant the economically rich (page 213). Mercifully, he accepts the theory of evolution. Christians should not use the laws to impose their morality on others - after all "we would be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine" (page 112). The book is uncompromising in its morals, it gives refreshing views into the meaning of Trinity and the Atonement, and most useful of all, it gives good practical advice, such as, splendidly, on how to love our neighbor: "Do not waste time bothering whether you 'love' your neighbor; act as if you did. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him" (page 131). This is one of the most inspiring books I have read, and at the same time one of the most frustrating.
I think that Lewis is led by the supposedly Christian virtue of obedience to the church. If obedience is a Christian virtue then Christ displayed very little of it, towards the authorities civil or religious, or even towards his own family. I think that Jesus was telling us that the only and undiluted authority is God. Tragically, because Lewis is really a great writer, to him the authority is the church. So he chickens out and refuses to oppose supposedly 'central' church dogma. This includes his long discussion of sexuality, where he jarringly admonishes against even married couples "indulging" in ...[intercourse] (page 97). The argument is that sex, like eating, is a natural function that should be exercised only as far as needed: we should only eat while hungry and we should only have ...[intercourse] when wanting to have babies. The book is only a few decades old and already amusingly outdated: masturbation is a sin (page 202), homosexuality is a perversion (page 89), our wishes are suggested by devils (page 225). Also, unfortunately, its tone is often spoiled by sexist expressions.
All in all, I can only recommend this book to steadfast Christians. I cannot imagine anybody else not being confused by it.