Monday, June 27, 2011

C. S. Lewis explains life, the universe, and everything

Book: Mere Christianity

Author: Clive Staples Lewis

Published: 1952 (HarperCollins)

Pages: 227

Three months ago, I found a copy of this book in a PUT YOUR UNWANTED THINGS HERE box on Winthrop University’s campus. I fished the book out and brought it home with me because a few hours earlier, a very dear friend of mine had recommended it to explain his faith.

It seemed like either his God or my Coincidences thought I should read it, too, so finally, after staring it down in my dorm and making sure it moved out with me and inching it higher on my to-read pile, I read it this past week.

To avoid exposing the weirder emotions I had while reading this, I’m reverting to that Internet hermit’s favorite: the list analysis.

What I Liked
  1. The way the words flowed. Lewis wrote most of this book first as radio essays, which keeps the sentences short and easy to follow. His big ideas stay fairly clear
  2. How he explained the “three-personal god” through a dimensional model. He talks about how 2-D squares are made up of 1-D lines, how 3-D cubes are made of 2-D squares, and how each level builds on the next to create something more than the sums of the first levels. “As you advance to more real and more complicated levels, you do not leave behind you the things you found on the simpler levels: you still have them, but combined in new ways—in ways you could not imagine if you knew only the simpler levels.” It’s the clearest explanation of the Trinity that I’ve ever heard.
  3. His definition of faith: “…the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” Yeah. Moods DO change a lot. They ARE pretty unreliable as barometers of what we’ve anchored our lives to.
  4. His hate the sinner not the sin approach to forgiveness. It’s not a unique view, but it’s my favorite (as applied to humanism, my preferred moral code).
  5. His distinction between begetting and creating. I’d never thought of a difference before, but begetting means producing something of you from a part of yourself so it’s like you, and creating means making something that imitates you but isn’t like you. …Yeah. “A man begets a child, but he only makes a statue.” That.
  6. I’m sorry if this is blasphemous, but Lewis's Time and Beyond Time chapter made me think of Dr. Who. "Time isn't a straight line. It's more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly...timey-wimey...stuff." ("It--got away from me, yeah...") That’s not a bad thing. That’s an excellent way of explaining how God could possibly do a quarter of the things he’s supposed to attend to: time is not linear for him (or David Tennant). He’s all time at the same time.
What I Didn’t Like (mostly from the first half of the book, which I found infinitely more frustrating than the back end)
  1.  How each question of logic was answered with such black and white choices. These are the only two possible explanations in the universe, and of course that one’s ridiculous, so option B is the only sane choice. …But why? Lewis rarely gives a clear reason why anything’s ridiculous except that it is. Throw in some laws of physics, theories of psychology, something please.
  2. He does chase his own tail sometimes when he says he’s going deeper into a subject. Not all the time, by any means, but enough to notice.
  3. The little flairs of condescending phrasing (“Now, don’t worry if you can’t wrap your head round this…”). I don’t know if these are left in from when people were listening to him and couldn’t go back and reread his words, but they still bother me.
  4. His stance on women. If I ever get married, it will be an equal partnership. End of story. I’ll defer judgment to my partner only when I know he knows something about whatever he’s supposed to decide, thanks. If we disagree, we’ll get an informed expert third-party opinion (Wikipedia).
It was interesting. 


  1. Early in college, a special person in my life fell head-long into Christianity. She suggested that I read C.S. Lewis because he provided a *logical* basis for these beliefs. I hadn't yet studied any logic at that time, but I was sure curious. I started reading the book she'd recommended, and the structure of it's argument was revealed in the early pages. It was essentially this: "Start from a position of Christian-style faith, and then Christianity follows logically." I swear, the circularity of the case he made was nearly that bald. It was just spread over two or three pages rather than encapsulated in one sentence.

    My sense (way back then) was that Lewis was a good writer, and he offers a rational patina for beliefs that are non-rational (i.e., faith-based) at their core. People will always be looking for logical proof and empirical evidence for the validity of their religious convictions. That would be fine were it not for the popularity of low standards and high misunderstanding of the concepts of logical proof, empirical evidence and validity.


    Seeing as how you are a reviewer of books, the ability to read advance copies of books for free seems right up your alley.

  3. B: yes, that was exactly my reaction to his argument that God is real. It's really circular. He's great at talking/writing about Christianity; the logic I've heard was there just isn't.

    liberryjam: Can I still use that if I don't do this for money? (That's probably covered in the FAQs on their sit,e actually. Thanks very much for the tip.)