Mere Christianity is one of the best books of Christian apologetics ever written. Arguably, no book other than the Bible itself has had as much influence for the cause of the gospel over the past 60 years. The story of how that message came to be created, during the rigors of World War II in England, is fascinating in and of itself. But it also addresses a very important question: How do we present the gospel effectively to a culture that has Christian foundations but has become largely secularized and ignorant of biblical truth?
C. S. Lewis & Mere Christianity develops the circumstances of Lewis’s life and the inner workings of the BBC. It also goes into greater detail about life in the middle of war against Nazi Germany, and Lewis’s series of broadcasts that extended into 1944.
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C. S. Lewis & Mere Christianity
The Crisis That Created a Classic
By Paul McCusker, Marianne Hering
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Focus on the Family
All rights reserved.
"PEACE FOR OUR TIME"
Within twenty years after the First World War—the "War to End All Wars" as it was called—the world moved toward yet another global conflict. A failed painter named Adolf Hitler rose through the political ranks in Germany by spouting an extreme nationalism that sought to reestablish Germany's preeminence among the European nations. In defiance of the peace treaties established at the end of World War I, Hitler rebuilt Germany's military might. Through the National Socialist (Nazi) Party, Hitler confounded his critics with shrewd political maneuvering, rising to the highest position of power. He became aggressive, establishing a totalitarian regime within his country and looking outward to reclaim territory Germany had lost after the last war. He demanded that the German "Aryan master race" be united, regardless of where the Aryans lived geographically. If Hitler had to invade other countries to make that happen, then he would.
The more aggressive Hitler became, the more passively the leaders in the surrounding countries seemed to respond to him. Britain's Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was an idealist and was convinced that reason would prevail over tyranny. Certainly no one wanted a repeat of the Great War. Chamberlain believed everyone, including Hitler, truly wanted peace.
Only one voice—the "lone, unheeded prophet in the British land"—consistently warned the British people of the dangers Hitler posed: the pudgy, round-faced, sixty-four-year-old Winston Churchill. But few wanted to hear his wisdom such as this given on October 16: "Alexander the Great remarked that the people of Asia were slaves because they had not learned to pronounce the word 'No.' Let that not be the epitaph of the English-speaking peoples, or of Parliamentary democracy, or of France, or of the many surviving liberal States of Europe."
In the fall of 1938, Adolf Hitler laid claim to sections of Czechoslovakia that were filled with Germans. He stated that war was inevitable if these Germans weren't given proper autonomy. Prime Minister Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier met with Hitler. Two weeks of tense negotiations followed.
The outcome was the Munich agreement, which allowed Nazi Germany to annex areas of the Czechoslovak state called the Sudetenland. The agreement was dated September 29, 1938, though it was signed in the early hours of September 30.
Prime Minister Chamberlain returned to England and, after stepping from his plane, waved the agreement victoriously to cheering crowds and announced that Britain and Germany desired never to go to war again. Later, from his official residence at 10 Downing Street, Chamberlain said the now-famous words: "I believe it is peace for our time."
To this, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons:
We have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat.... We are in the midst of a disaster of the first magnitude.... And do not suppose that this is the end. It is only the beginning.
No one from the democratic Czech Republic had been involved in drafting the Munich agreement—and the Czechs paid a heavy price for the so-called victory. Over the next six months, Hitler broke every term of the agreement and sliced and diced the Czechoslovak state as it suited him. By March 1939, the Nazis occupied the sections that hadn't already been taken by Hungary and Poland.
By the summer of 1939, hope for a lasting peace faded fast. The British government reluctantly mobilized its military and put stringent civil-defense measures in place throughout the country.
Government leaflets were shoved through every letter box, warning of the imminent threat of gas attacks and air raids. The catchall acronym for civil preparedness, the ARP (Air Raid Precautions), soon became as well known as the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). ARP handled the administration of defense plans, departments, volunteer organizations, medical services, fire, gas, lighting, air-raid protection, and "food defence." Every part of civilian life would be affected by the government. Nighttime would include "blacking-out" all windows so that no internal lighting would guide enemy aircraft to a village or city. And the absolute control of all "foodstuffs" by the government meant the rationing of the most basic supplies.
Bomb shelters were constructed by the government beneath existing buildings. Deep trenches, covered with steel or concrete, scarred the many parks. Mandatory sandbags and fire buckets appeared in homes, hotels, and offices.
Helium-filled barrage balloons—sixty-two feet long, twenty-five feet in diameter, and attached to the ground by cables—appeared in the skies over London. Floating at five thousand feet, they would force German bombardiers to fly their planes higher, thus bombing with less accuracy.
The situation in Europe intensified. On August 23, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact. On the surface it seemed like a proactive effort at peace, keeping two major powers of conflicting ideologies from fighting one another. But astute observers knew it was an act of collusion. The two countries were making peace only so they could amicably divide Poland when the time was right.
It's easy to imagine the anxiety and apprehension Jack Lewis and his entire generation felt about a return to war.
The Last Normal Day
September 1, 1939, began normally enough in Britain. It was a Friday. The weather forecast for the day and the coming weekend predicted sunshine and pleasant temperatures. Men and women went to work, hung out the laundry, saw to the children, and chatted with neighbors. Commuters walked, biked, bused, and trained into the capital city of London. It was a normal day. There was nothing to hint at how quickly everything would change for everyone.
At Broadcasting House, the BBC's formidable headquarters in central London, the Reverend James Welch was in studio 3E. Welch was the director of religious broadcasting and often spent time behind the microphone. On this occasion, at 10:15 a.m., he was leading the Daily Service—a fifteen-minute, live program of worship.
A message was passed to him: "Germany invaded Poland early this morning."
Welch immediately broke the news to his listeners and then thoughtfully led them in prayer for Poland, for the people of Britain, and for trust in God.
* * *
Everyone tuned in to their radios—the "wireless," as everyone called it—establishing the critical role broadcasting would play in the future of the nation. The news came in bits and pieces from newsreaders who spoke in educated accents, using the King's English. The announcer betrayed no emotion as he told how German tanks, infantry, and cavalry—a total of 1.5 million troops—had penetrated Polish territory on several fronts. German planes bombed the cities. Incendiary bombs were dropped on the cities of Kraków, Katowice, Tczew, and Tunel. By 9:00 a.m., the air raids had reached Warsaw.
As the day unfolded, it became clear that there had been no warning or declaration of war from Germany, though a German radio broadcast stated that the government had presented a list of demands to Polish authorities. The Polish government officials claimed they had never received them.
Prime Minister Chamberlain met with his cabinet in the morning. In the afternoon, as a matter of protocol and duty, Chamberlain met with King George. Though the role of a monarch was mostly as a figurehead by that point in Britain's history, the king still had the authority to approve the government's plans on the mobilization of the Naval Service, British army, and Royal Air Force.
Chamberlain addressed Parliament later in the evening. The BBC told the nation to expect a statement from Prime Minister Chamberlain.
C. S. Lewis, Shakespeare, and Poland
Jack Lewis had come a long way since being wounded in France. By 1939 he was a tutor (teaching assistant) and lecturer at Magdalen (pronounced "Maudlin") College in Oxford, a published essayist and critic, and the author of several books ranging from poetry and literary studies to science fiction and even an allegorical defense of his book The Pilgrim's Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism (1933). His reputation as an engaging lecturer led to invitations for him to give talks and present academic papers around the country.
On the day Germany invaded Poland, Jack was away from his home in Oxford to lecture in the town of William Shakespeare's birth, Stratford-upon-Avon. The town, a major tourist stop boasting Shakespeare's home and a museum and filled with theaters dedicated to performances of Shakespeare's plays, was in the final days of its annual summer-long festival dedicated to the Bard of Avon. Jack was asked to present two talks.
The first lecture, delivered the day before the invasion, was titled "The Renaissance and Shakespeare: Imaginary Influences." Lewis claimed it could have been titled "How the Renaissance Didn't Happen and Why Shakespeare Was Not Affected by It." The lecture went well enough to be reported in the London Times the next day. The second lecture, about The Taming of the Shrew, was canceled because of the news from Europe.
In all, Jack had a "pretty ghastly time," as he was stuck in a nearly empty hotel with a radio "blaring away all the time and hours and hours to get through without work." For him, it was the "worst possible background to a crisis."
The only positive experience was the chance to see two Shakespearean plays—Richard III and Much Ado About Nothing ("the latter was really very good").
Jack returned to Oxford by train, narrowly missing Warnie at the railway station. Though Warnie had retired from active military duty in 1932, he had remained a member of the Regular Army Reserve of Officers. With the news from Poland, Warnie was sent immediately to a base in Catterick, North Yorkshire. Within two weeks he would be sent to France, where his experience in the distribution of military supplies and dealing with troop transports would become vital.
All of this was worrisome to Warnie. By this time he was forty-four, physically unfit, a heavy drinker, and, at heart, fearful of his ability to serve with the same vigor he had in the First World War. He admitted in his diary that he felt confused and frightened. Yet he was determined to do his duty.
Jack knew his brother well. They had been as close as two brothers could ever be—their bonds of affection going back to childhood as playmates, surviving their mother's early death, and drawing strength from each other while living with a distant father. And while Warnie nearly idolized Jack, Jack agonized over his brother's excessive drinking. To know that Warnie might be thrown back in the thick of battle after all those years was an understandable source of anxiety. Jack wrote to Warnie immediately and regularly thereafter. "God save you, brother" he offered as a poignant closing to a letter written on September 2, 1939.
Yet if Jack was worried for his brother, he was also worried for himself. He was still within the age for military enlistment—he wouldn't turn forty-one until November 29. Like Warnie, he wanted to do his duty, but he questioned his usefulness or ability to serve in the way the government might require.
He proactively met with the president of Magdalen College, George Stuart Gordon. Jack had known Gordon for years, referring to him in various letters as "Gentleman George" or "Smoothboots." Gordon laughed "to scorn" Jack's worries and assured him it would all work out. There was little Jack could do but hope Gordon was right.
Emergency at the BBC
The BBC was in a frenzy of activity on September 1, 1939, as its long-standing emergency war plans were quickly implemented. Sealed orders were opened at every transmitter station in the country, requiring each transmitter to synchronize with all the others on a single wavelength (rather than the variety of wavelengths the BBC had been using). This allowed the other transmitters to carry on if one transmitter were to be damaged by German bombers. Listeners would hear no more than a slight decrease in volume. Listeners were instructed throughout the day regarding which wavelength they should adjust their radios to. By 8:15 that evening, listeners heard the new on-air identification for the first time: "This is the BBC Home Service."
The new television service, only two years old but already broadcasting to ten thousand viewers, was suddenly unplugged. The government feared that the transmitter at the famous Alexandra Palace in London would serve as a powerful direction-finder for enemy aircraft. The last thing viewers saw was the Walt Disney cartoon Mickey's Gala Premiere.
Many of the program departments moved away from London, as everyone was sure that the city would be the primary target of German attacks. Reverend Welch and the Religious Broadcasting department were sent to Bristol, approximately 120 miles west of London.
Amid all this internal activity, a much greater and more heart-wrenching plan was enacted for the people of London. That same evening, the BBC announced the government's instructions for evacuating the city's children.
Arthur Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940), born near Birmingham, England, was the son of a successful industrialist and progressive lord mayor of that city. As a young man he worked as a planter in the Bahamas (1890–1897); then he returned to England to pursue an industrial and political career. He was elected as a Conservative to Parliament in 1918 and, afterward, held various government positions (postmaster general, minister of health, minister of welfare). He served as the chancellor of the exchequer from 1931 until May 1937, when he succeeded Stanley Baldwin as prime minister.
Chamberlain was successful in social reform, economics, and finance, but he suffered greatly in foreign affairs because he pursued a policy of appeasement with Adolf Hitler. He endured criticism for having allowed open aggression by the dictators of Europe, yet his policies gave Britain the time it desperately needed to arm itself for war.
Thin and birdlike, Chamberlain was described by one of his adversaries as having "the mind and manner of a clothes-brush." Even those close to him were often put off by his cold manner, sneering and hateful attitude, and an inherent arrogance.
Chamberlain never recovered from the circumstances that led to his downfall as prime minister. Though he hoped history might vindicate his policies, he died a melancholy and physically broken man on November 9, 1940, six months after resigning. Winston Churchill paid tribute to him in the House of Commons on November 12, 1940: "It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man." Then he reminded his fellow politicians that Chamberlain had placed his hope in "the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart—the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour."
Chamberlain's legacy would remain deeply ingrained in the British psyche. In 1997, author J. K. Rowling made Chamberlain the model for the character Cornelius Fudge, minister for magic, in her megahit Harry Potter book series.
Excerpted from C. S. Lewis & Mere Christianity by Paul McCusker, Marianne Hering. Copyright © 2014 Focus on the Family. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc..
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Table of Contents
1 "Peace for Our Time" 1
2 The Kilns at War 15
3 Reporting for Duty 27
4 Déjà Vu 37
5 The Very Real Phony War 45
6 Crossing the Line 65
7 The Blitz 83
8 Convergence 99
9 "The Art of Being Shocked" 123
10 The Rim of the World 135
11 The High Cost of Success 157
12 Miracles, Narnia, and Mere Christianity 173