Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A brace of brilliant books

I became a Christian nearly 30 years ago. One of the books that influenced my decision was 'Mere Christianity' by C.S. Lewis. Despite being written nearly 40 years before I read it (it was adapted from a 1943 series of BBC radio lectures, originally printed as three separate pamphlets, The Case for Christianity, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality), I found it spoke to me more clearly than many more contemporary 'apologetic' works.

Perhaps there were resonances with Lewis' struggles with accepting the existence of a personal, loving creator God. I still remember smiling as I read the words of his own conversion experience:

“In the Spring term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

Recently I was corresponding with a woman who is working on a thesis exploring the beliefs of individuals involved in a conversation between Christianity and contemporary culture. One of the questions she asked me was how I thought Christianity interprets the world.

This is a massive question, and I began to think of books I had read that might help to answer the question. 'Mere Christianity' was the first book that came to mind, not because it deals directly with that question, but because it goes straight to the root of what Christianity is.

I then began to think about whether there were newer (better?) books available. One that sprang to mind was Tom Wright's 'Simply Christian', which has often been branded as the 'New Mere Christianity'. Certainly Tom Wright possesses a similarly powerful intellect, and his writing is never less than readable. So this Saturday, I made myself a double-strength latte, settled myself down into my comfy sofa, and worked my way through it.

It is an excellent book. One I would recommend to anyone thinking about spirituality of any kind. And having read it, I thought I would read through Mere Christianity again, to compare and contrast. It made for a fascinating study.

'Mere Christianity' remains a fresh and contemporary work. Lewis couldn't write a bad sentence if he tried, and his determination to focus on the essentials of the Christian faith means that not much of it has dated. His arguments for the uniqueness of Jesus, and the necessity of God when arguing for morality are still compelling and succinct, although I'm sure that they would make Richard Dawkins' teeth itch.

However, Wright's book is (not surprisingly) a far more contemporary presentation of the Christian faith, especially in giving a holistic overview of what the Christian belief system entails. It deals with subjects that Lewis didn't have to, such as postmodernism, pantheism and Islam.

Wright spends far more time with the Bible than Lewis does, and presents a masterful precis of it, and why it is central to the Christian faith (albeit reflecting his particular interpretative biases). He also deals with the Church as a worshipping, human community in a way that Lewis doesn't attempt.

In conclusion, they're both worth reading. But if I had to choose one book for someone who was keen to gain an understanding of what the Christian faith was about, I'd buy them a copy of 'Simply Christian'.