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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Serving Where the Line Is Thinnest—Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis













The Thin Line on Little Round Top at Gettysburg:
What If Those Guys Weren't There?








C.S. Lewis explains what kind of book he is writing in his preface to Mere Christianity.  It was born from a series of BBC radio addresses he was asked to give to a nation at war, to people facing death daily and wanting clear thinking on matters that matter.

"Ever since I became a Christian," he writes, "I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbors was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times....I got the impression that far more, and more talented, authors were...engaged in...controversial matters than in the defense of what [Richard] Baxter calls 'mere' Christianity.  That part of the line where I thought I could serve best was also the part that seemed to be thinnest.  And to it I naturally went."  I and countless others are glad he did.  In the Civil War raging in secular souls, Lewis's courageous stand helps turn the tide, as did Joshua Chamberlain's bayonet charge at Gettysburg.

My use of ellipsis dots (...) reflects a wise practice my father acquired as a college student at Kansas University and later used as an advertising executive at the Los Angeles Times.  He paid himself a nickel for every word of text he deleted to make his writing as truthful, direct, and simple as he could.







Lewis states, "I am not writing to expound something I could call 'my religion,' but to expound 'mere' Christianity, which is what it is and what it was long before I was born and whether I like it or not. Some people draw unwarranted conclusions from the fact that I never say more about the Blessed Virgin Mary than is involved in asserting the Virgin Birth of Christ. But surely my reason for not doing so is obvious? To say more would take me at once into highly controversial regions. And there is no controversy between Christians that needs to be so delicately touched as this. The Roman Catholic beliefs on that subject are held not only with the ordinary fervor that attaches to all sincere religious belief, but (very naturally) with the peculiar and, as it were, chivalrous sensibility that a man feels when the honor of his mother or his beloved is at stake. It is very difficult so to dissent from them that you will not appear to them a cad as well as a heretic. And contrariwise, the opposed Protestant beliefs on this subject call forth feelings that go down to the very root of all Monotheism. To radical Protestants it seems that the distinction between Creator and creature (however holy) is imperiled: that Polytheism is risen again. Hence it is hard so to dissent from them that you will not appear something worse than a heretic—a Pagan or idolater. If any topic could be relied upon to wreck a book about 'mere' Christianity—if any topic makes utterly unprofitable reading for those who do not yet believe that the Virgin's son is God—surely this is it.

"Ever since I served as an infantryman in the First World War I have had a great dislike of people who, themselves in ease and safety, issue exhortations to men in the front line.  As a result I have a reluctance to say much about temptations to which I myself am not exposed.... I did not think it my place to take a firm line about pains, dangers and expenses from which I am protected; having no pastoral office that obliged me to do so."  Imagine how much grief and unnecessary offense such humility avoids! Humility is a virtue I find rare among the most intelligent people I know in person or through their writings.  Indeed, "knowledge puffs up" (1 Corinthians 8:1) or has that tendency, but it can be derailed. C.S. Lewis, his dear friend J.R.R. Tolkien, and other gifted authors help show us how.

Highlights from the Preface to Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Click here for a clear view of how this Preface relates to the whole book.


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