October 17, 2017

Simply or Merely? Comparing Mere Christianity and Simply Christian

Mere ChristianityUpon finishing N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian, I found myself comparing it to the classic C.S. Lewis book, Mere Christianity. Wright, the publishers and many readers have invited the comparisons as well.

I’ve read Mere Christianity many times with my Advanced Bible students. I’m impressed with the durability of Mere Christianity. The chapters were originally delivered as wartime radio talks on the essence of the Christian faith, explained in layman’s language. Lewis made some editorial changes in creating the book, but Mere Christianity retains its vigor, brevity and focus as a book.

Millions have read Mere Christianity, and its reputation as an apologetic is hailed among Christians of every denomination. Lewis’s low churchmanship–a key to his popularity with contemporary evangelicals–kept his focus on topics other than contentious denominational issues. Many of us who have admired his “merely Christian” posture have found it much more difficult to avoid the intrusion of “churchly” issues into any discussion of the faith. Mere Christianity would have been a great blog, especially with the comments open.

For example, the current debates on women and sexuality involve highly differing ways of understanding and using scripture. Lewis never bothered with defining how one arrives at the truth on these subjects. He never discussed Biblical inspiration or a “merely Christian” approach to issues of interpretation or authority. His most memorable passages are descriptions of the uniqueness of Jesus, and the compelling evidence for the existence of God in the moral argument.

Lewis devoted most of his book to short, topical excursions into various aspects of Christian morality and ethics. Following his argument for the existence of God, his description of the Trinity–which is more of a discussion of the relation of Jesus to God than anything else–these chapters on love, sexuality, and various virtues/vices touch on the major moral and practical areas of being a Christian. Topics like prayer, worship and mission appear briefly. The church, at least in any formal sense, is given little exposition, which is understandable since Lewis did not want to become part of debates within the church of England or outside of it.

In his later life, Lewis found that some of his moral argument for the existence of God was less than overwhelming to some opponents. He was evidently taken to the cleaners by one Oxford speaker on his key points in the early chapters of Mere Christianity. Still, if Lewis had the opportunity to write Mere Christianity today, I think it would be much the same book. Its strength was and always will be the voice and mind of Lewis. More than his logical arguments, Lewis himself was a winsome and positive living illustration of the faith he sought to communicate.

Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes SenseN.T. Wright’s Simply Christian may not contain any paragraphs that will be quoted millions of times decades later, but it is, overall, a far more effective presentation of the overall Christian faith. A reader may wonder if Lewis scores the better debate points at times, while Wright successfully presents the total picture of Christianity in a helpful apologia form.

Wright’s book is a well-thought-out volume. It leads with four major “voices” that correspond to various kinds of spiritual reality that speak to all of us. He brings a book to its conclusion showing the fully Christian response to each of those voices–voices that are, as one, the voice of the God revealed in Jesus.

Wright also holds the book together by grouping the various approaches to questions into the categories of pantheism, deism and the Christian story. Rather than debate specific traditions or denominations, Wright uses these three options over and over to characterize God and world as one, God and world as separate, and God and world overlapping. It’s an effective way to bring the reader into various issues with some commonality.

It should be said at this point that those worried about the orthodoxy of N.T. Wright should read this book. Wright’s controversial views are all there, with the space they deserve. That means one paragraph on the meaning of justification and imputation. Wright’s orthodoxy and conservatism on issues of Biblical interpretation and Christian theology are there in abundance. Wright’s left-leaning political idealism is there, too, but well-removed from any of the vitals of the faith.

Wright retells the stories of Israel and Jesus in a way that summarizes volumes of his larger theological efforts. Here is an apologetic that deals explicitly with details in the Old Testament and the Gospels. This is also an apologetic that is crucially Biblical, and never far from the Bible. Wright believes it is all about Jesus, and while some of his critical views on Jesus will puzzle conservatives who are on the sidelines of the current Jesus debates, many educated readers will hear exactly what they need to hear: there is a lot that’s been learned about Jesus, and none of it contradicts what the church has taught and confessed about Jesus for two thousand years.

Wright surpasses Lewis in two areas especially. First, Wright deals with the Bible in several chapters, focusing on issues of canon, inspiration, interpretation and authority. One will not find a similar discussion in Lewis, and this is a critical omission for a contemporary apologetic. Wright’s answers are satisfying, and he deftly moves past the many controversies and dead ends that have characterized most apologetics among evangelicals who approach all issues of the Bible with modernistic rationalism as their main weapon. Irony on irony.

Wright also deals with the church in a way that Lewis never attempts. Wright follows a chapter on the work of the Holy Spirit through the church with chapters on worship, prayer, mission and the church’s continuing playing out of the story of Jesus in the world. It’s tempting in any apologetic to avoid the church as much as possible. Wright knows that the church is one of the main reasons many are adverse to Christianity, but he is an advocate of the church as an essential part of the whole story. It is a welcome and necessary part of the book.

Mere Christianity and Simply Christian are far more different than they are similar, and comparisons of one to the other are probably not necessary. Both have a role to play. Here’s my assessment of which is the better book when I look at both in various ways.

Best Conversation Starter With A Non-Christian: Lewis. Hands down. His logic, voice, illustrations, humor and unforgettable conclusions are as provocative as ever.

Best Apologetic: The answer here depends on how we define apologetics. Both Ravi Zacharias and James White are apologists. In the sense of making an appealing and convincing case, I give the nod to Wright. If I were voting on the strength of individual arguments that might “score points,” then Lewis.

Readability: Lewis’s prose is accessible, but less and less as time goes by. Still, if I had to give one of the two books to the average literate adult in my home of Clay County, I’d go with Lewis. Much of Mere Christianity is still accessible to even a high school audience. Wright goes deeper, and even when he is writing a non-scholarly book, he sounds more like an Oxford professor than a blue-collar pastor. (That’s not a bad thing. I just think Lewis was able to talk with ordinary people in an unusual way for such a scholarly giant.)

Best Presentation of Jesus
: Wright has a lot more to say about Jesus. His sections on Jesus are outstanding summaries of the current state of Jesus scholarship. Lewis keeps his discussion of Jesus almost entirely on the incarnation and the atonement. Wright does the better job here.

Best Overview of the Faith
: Wright. No contest. This would be an excellent book for a “Christian Theology 101” weekend or short class. Lewis never intends to overview the whole Christian story.

Most Successful at What Was Attempted: I think Lewis wrote a great book somewhat by accident. Wright, on the other hand, set out to produce a simple, accessible overview of the faith, and I think he succeeded completely. Wright gets the nod.

Most Theologically Conservative: Lewis simply doesn’t show his hand at many issues. Wright is orthodox, but certainly doesn’t buy into fundamentalism, or even some of the common assumptions of conservative evangelicalism. Lewis wins here, but on presumption. Wright is no liberal on the essentials, that’s for sure, and much of his contribution is to get beyond these labels to something more useful.

Best Organization: Lewis’s chapters build on one another at key points. Wright’s book is elegantly harmonious and exceptionally crafted. Wright wins.

Can Only Buy One
: Go to Amazon and buy both used. No way you need to make that choice.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful comparison. I am such a big fan of Simply Christian – and I thought your review and comments were even handed.

  2. tlahwright says:

    Hi,

    Mere Christianity helped me see Jesus for who He said he was.

    Simply Christian is articulate and winsome and I could imagine my brother reading it and asking questions. But to me NT Wright leaves out the Cross of Jesus and following Jesus. His position on the imputed righteousness of Christ is false and misleading. He can keep his badge of entrance to the community. I’ll take the blood of Jesus.

    He also talks about Islam in a positive tone. Ask anyone who was a MBB-Muslim Background Believer especially if they were brought up in the Middle East and they have nothing good to say about Isalm.

    Great Blog.

    Tim

  3. sacred vapor says:

    I kind of see these books as a one-two punch (lol).

    kidding aside.. I found that I couldn’t make a comparison here as Mere Christianity laid the foundation for my Christian Journey (many moons ago), and Simply Christian is a great stop along the way. Two giants playing a different role in my walk.

    Nevertheless, good observations.

    vapor

  4. I owe quite a bit to Lewis and Mere Christianity. I haven’t looked at Wright much since seeing his very good “Challenge of Jesus” video series years ago. Simply Christian seems like it might be a good “Christian Theology 101” text as you suggest. Thanks for the review and for your interesting blog.

    BTW, I thought that Lewis’ Socratic Club debates with Anscombe had more to do with the material in Miracles than in Mere Christianity. Or were you referring to some other opponent in the 6th paragraph?

  5. My pastor gave my wife and I “Simply Christian” as a present recently to mark some occasion that now escapes me (though promise you won’t tell what Thomas describes as “the Magisterium on the Missouri” that a Lutheran pastor has been handing out heterodox books by a notorious troubler of Israel…). I must get round to reading it soon.

  6. Togenberg says:

    One of the reasons I became a Christian (or, more accurately, returned to the church) was CS Lewis, especially his Mere Christianity. I think overall I might be more influenced by Wright in content.

    Good discussion. Thanks for your blog, seriously.

    Why the category “Most Theologically Conservative”? An arbitrary way to start thinkiong about the men, or something else? I am not a long-time reader of your blog, but you don’t seem to identify ‘conservative’ with ‘good’ or ‘right’ necessarily (in fact you seem to avoid labels and camps), yet this category seems to imply that.

    Troy

  7. actionsub says:

    WHAT??!?? No Francis Schaeffer???!?!?!?

  8. I daresay, though C. S. Lewis has been a great help to me, I think N. T. Wright the far better theologian. I agree with Wright where he disagrees with Lewis. I agree that Lewis’ book, by ignoring Israel and the Resurrection, is horribly insufficient as a summary of the faith.

    That said, I really don’t think Simply Christian holds a candle to Mere Christianity in style or content. The book has page after page of brilliant insights – and the section on morality is absolutely classic. Simply Christian, on the other hand, is little more than an attempt to rehash the work Wright has done in simpler language. It is good in that it makes his great work available to more people, but I really don’t think it is going to communicate well to those who aren’t already simply Christian.

    C. S. Lewis knew how to think and reason like an unbeliever. He spoke that language, and did it well. Many atheists and agnostics read Mere Christianity and are challenged and shaken. I’m not convinced that someday N. T. Wright won’t be able to do the same. I just don’t think he’s there yet.