C.S. Lewis was a rare individual. One of the few non-clerics to be recognised as a theologian by the Anglican church, he put forth the case for Christianity in general in ways that many Christians beyond the Anglican world can accept, and a clear description for non-Christians of what Christian faith and practice should be. Indeed, Lewis says in his introduction that this text (or indeed, hardly any other he produced) will help in deciding between Christian denominations. While he describes himself as a 'very ordinary layman' in the Church of England, he looks to the broader picture of Christianity, particularly for those who have little or no background. The discussion of division points rarely wins a convert, Lewis observed, and so he leaves the issues of ecclesiology and high theology differences to 'experts'. Lewis is of course selling himself short in this regard, but it helps to reinforce his point.
This collection contains several of C.S. Lewis' classic works (although it is not in fact a complete collection of all his writings, not even of all his non-fiction writings). It contains the following works: 'Mere Christianity', 'The Screwtape Letters', 'The Great Divorce', 'The Problem of Pain', 'Miracles', 'A Grief Observed', plus 'The Abolition of Man'. It does provide an excellent survey of Lewis' theology, ethics, and general outlook on life. I will highlight two of the selections that show the different ways Lewis approaches things.
For the first example, the book 'Mere Christianity' looks at beliefs, both from a 'natural' standpoint as well as a scripture/tradition/reason standpoint. Lewis looks both at belief and unbelief - for example, he states that Christians do not have to see other religions of the world as thoroughly wrong; on the other hand, to be an atheist requires (in Lewis' estimation) that one view religions, all religions, as founded on a mistake. Lewis probably surprised his listeners by starting a statement, 'When I was an atheist...' Lewis is a late-comer to Christianity (most Anglicans in England were cradle-Anglicans). Thus Lewis can speak with the authority of one having deliberately chosen and found Christianity, rather than one who by accident of birth never knew any other (although the case can be made that Lewis was certainly raised in a culture dominated by Christendom).
Lewis also looks at practice - here we are not talking about liturgical niceties or even general church-y practices, but rather the broad strokes of Christian practice - issues of morality, forgiveness, charity, hope and faith. Faith actually has two chapters - one in the more common use of system of belief, but the other in a more subtle, spiritual way. Lewis states in the second chapter that should readers get lost, they should just skip the chapter - while many parts of Christianity will be accessible and intelligible to non-Christians, some things cannot be understood from the outside. This is the `leave it to God' sense of faith, that is in many ways more of a gift or grace from God than a skill to be developed.
Finally, Lewis looks at personality, not just in the sense of our individual personality, but our status as persons and of God's own personality. Lewis' conclusion that there is no true personality apart from God's is somewhat disquieting; Lewis contrasts Christianity with itself in saying that it is both easy and hard at the same time. Lewis looks for the `new man' to be a creature in complete submission and abandonment to God. This is a turn both easy and difficult.
'Mere Christianity' was originally a series of radio talks, published as three separate books - 'The Case for Christianity', 'Christian Behaviour', and 'Beyond Personality'. This book brings together all three texts. Lewis' style is witty and engaging, the kind of writing that indeed lives to be read aloud. Lewis debates whether or not it was a good idea to leave the oral-language aspects in the written text (given that the tools for emphasis in written language are different); I think the correct choice was made.
On the other hand, Lewis can write in ways that are intensely personal and reflective. This is true of the book 'A Grief Observed'. This was drawn out of his personal experience with his wife, Joy. C.S. Lewis was a confirmed bachelor (not that he was a 'confirmed bachelor', mind you, just that he had become set enough in his ways over time that he no longer held out the prospect of marriage or relationships). Then, into his comfortable existence, a special woman, Joy Davidson, arrived. They fell in love quickly, and had a brief marriage of only a few years, when Joy died of cancer.
This left Lewis inconsolable.
For his mother had also died of cancer, when he was very young.
Cancer, cancer, cancer!
Lewis goes through a dramatic period of grief, from which he never truly recovers (according to the essayist Chad Walsh, who writes a postscript to Lewis' book). He died a few years later, the same day as the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
However, Lewis takes the wonderful and dramatic step of writing down his grief to share with others. The fits and starts, the anger, the reconciliation, the pain--all is laid bare for the reader to experience. So high a cost for insight is what true spirituality requires. An awful, awe-ful cost and experience.
'Did you know, dear, how much you took away with you when you left? You have stripped me even of my past...'
All that was good paled in comparison to the loss. How can anything be good again? This is such an honest human feeling, that even the past is no longer what is was in relation to the new reality of being alone again.
In the end, Lewis reaches a bit of a reconciliation with his feelings, and with God.
'How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back. She said not to me, but to the chaplain, "I am at peace with God." '
Lewis had a comfortable, routine life that was jolted by love, and then devasted by loss. Through all of this, he took pains to recount what he was going through, that it might not be lost, that it might benefit others, that there might be some small part of his love for Joy that would last forever.
I hope it shall.
This is a wonderful collection.