Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Mere Christianity, An Excellent Review

When I started my Christmas vacation "book club," what I really wanted was to discuss books I love with intelligent, interesting people whose opinions I respect. In addition to the "official" books I listed in the original post, I also went around handing out copies of my favorite books like they were candy on Halloween, in the hopes that a fruitful dialogue with my friends would result. I haven't been disappointed. The first of my friends to get back to me with his book review read "Mere Christianity" instead of any of the books on the list, so I'm making it the first featured book of my reviews, even though it's strictly speaking not a "book club" book. I say, so what? His review is brilliant. If you can't throw in random book reviews and brag shamelessly about your friends, what's the point of having a blog anyway? 

To give a little background, Joey is a PLS major with me. We've been friends since our early days in PLS and we studied abroad in London together; you'll find him plastered all over the Spring 2010 archives of this blog. Joey's the best fiction writer I know and is currently completing his first novel. He's also the most practical person I know, which comes out pretty strongly in this review. Without further ado, I present to you...

A Review of Mere Christianity by Joey K.

First of all, in judging the book one has to take into account what the book was meant to be. Lewis plainly states that the intention of Mere Christianity is to explain what all Christians believe, regardless of denomination, and to defend those beliefs. The book is taken from a series of talks given on the radio, and as such, the intended audience of the book is the general public. Thus, the book is meant to be immediately accessible to any reasonably educated adult, and as a result, it is not supposed to contain any high philosophy or anything that would require specialized knowledge. That being said, the book penetrates much deeper into Christianity than you see in the common practice of most churches and congregations.

I thought the weakest part of the book was the beginning, in which Lewis attempts to establish the truth (or at least the probability) of theism as against atheism. His arguments here seemed to fall a little flat, or he seemed to be simply ignoring the counterarguments. His basic argument seemed to be that, because we have an ineradicable sense of morality, morality itself must be Real, not just a projection of our minds. This doesn't quite answer the possibility that we have simply evolved a strong sense of morality out of necessity for the survival of our species. I was somewhat disappointed here; I thought that a Lewis would have very strong arguments against atheism because he converted to Christianity from atheism. Of course, it makes sense that the beginning of his argument would be the weakest part, because the first things in science, philosophy, or theology are necessarily the most obscure and difficult things. These first principles require difficult metaphysical reasoning. This goes back to what I said in the paragraph above. It is very possible that Lewis could have produced a better metaphysical argument, but that he refrained from doing so in order to keep the book simple and accessible to the average person. The next weakest part was the next step, in which Lewis attempts to establish the Judeo-Christian conception of God as against different notions, such as an immanent but impersonal Life-Force. I am not quite sure Lewis does justice to the different conceptions of the highest reality in other religions. But as the book progresses and gets more and more specific, dealing with practical morality and particular parts of the Christian doctrine, the arguments become more and more compelling and persuasive. So, the result is that if one can only accept the first principles, the results that follow are relatively easy to accept by reason.

I think Mere Christianity would be most useful for anyone who has never really thought deeply about Christianity. To introduce Christianity, the book also introduces the reader to basic philosophy (for the two are inseparable). It seems that the book has the greatest impact on those who have never really thought philosophically about Christianity before, or who have tried to but were simply met by a wall of doubts. (This was probably the case for the Domino's CEO who was so impressed and moved by Mere Christianity that he founded Ave Maria University.) Beyond a certain age, as Lewis points out, one must leave behind superstitious, "babyish" ideas of Christianity. Once a person has the ability to reason, those babyish ideas must either be replaced by more sophisticated ideas or must cause that person to lose faith in Christianity, at least to some degree. It is very hard for a thirty-year-old to believe in Christianity if he still thinks of it primarily as a religion in which some invisible power is watching him all the time in order to punish him for his bad actions and reward him for his good ones. In this light, Christianity looks like an old wives' tale and nothing more. But Lewis does a great job explaining how Christianity does not consist mainly in reward and punishment, but in a spiritual learning curve, in which all people are called to become "sons of God," making them fit for eternal life with God. I might give this book to my little sister who is in eighth grade and will be making her Confirmation soon. I am not sure if it might not be still a bit over her head, but I'd rather give her a challenge than underestimate her intelligence.

My education in Notre Dame's Program of Liberal Studies has given me the opportunity to meditate deeply on spiritual matters and the truth of Christianity, and by reading the Great Books I have already been exposed to arguments for and against Christianity from most of the greatest thinkers of history. Because of this, I often felt like Lewis was telling me what I already knew. Nevertheless, even the most educated persons need to constantly be reminded of these things, so they might not grow complacent and lazy in their ideas. And Lewis has a knack for putting new twists on old ideas, giving one clever new images with which to hold onto those ideas. Lewis's genius is his ability to communicate profound ideas in simple terms, usually using metaphors and anecdotes from everyday life. Because of this, the book still holds value for those who are highly versed in Christianity, not just for beginners. I found the book enjoyable mainly because there were a number of times when I paused and thought, "Huh. I've never thought of it like that before." Even though I already knew most, if not all, of the actual Christian doctrine contained in the book, the book still had power as a rhetorically persuasive argument. Reading it made me want to be a better Christian, and gave me many practical tips as to how I should go about doing so. For the same reason, I would consider giving or recommending this book to any of my family or my friends. Even though it would probably not convert anyone who holds different religious beliefs or is an atheist, the book would probably give those people a better understanding of Christianity, and might even move them to strive harder for virtue in their own lives.

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