There are books that make one think deeply and there are books that minister to the mind. The Reverend Alister Edward McGrath proves himself a shepherd worthy of his hire. McGrath is a prolific author and a member of the faculty at Oxford University. He was also made a Fellow for the Royal Society of the Arts in 2005. He tends to the Christian mind with gentle nudgings, just as the herdsmen of Israel kept their silent flocks in the wee hours of the morning, awaiting the crack of dawn’s first light upon the horizon. McGrath truly treats his readers as members of his flock. One feels safe reading him, for his is a voice that knows the way into the highlands and hill country of the faith. There is no traceable pretense in his words, but only the caring tones of one who, dropping everything, has swiftly put to page an illuminating piece of, call it philosophical, theological, or apologetical cartography for the orientation of the new believer within their regenerated reality.
McGrath introduces his work on cerebral spirituality in three separate parts. The first is an introduction to discipleship of the mind based around the concept of “reflective inhabitation” The second section is biographical in nature and, as Shakespeare said it, turns the accomplishments of many years into an hour-glass, focusing on key Christian figures whom McGrath notes as “recent exemplars of a discipleship of the mind”. This middle section comes to us as a series of analytical lectures attempting to decipher the thought patterns of four Oxbridge intellectuals: C. S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, John R. W. Stott, and J. I. Packer. The third and final section is a short homiletic anthology, all heard first within the confines of Oxford’s sundry Churches and college chapels, the themes of which range from the utter incomprehensibility of God to the anticipatory forward gaze of believers toward the “eternal world”.
What is McGrath’s Thesis?
If one were to sum up the brunt of McGrath’s work, it would be the concept of Dominus illuminatio, which comes to us from the Latin into the English, rendered “The Lord is My Light”. On this point McGrath is adamant; the worldview that has God as its light is the most fully illumined vision of reality that human beings are capable of entertaining. He is scriptural in his approach, citing the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans:
“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2 (RSV)
To have one’s mind renewed is to be transfigured, that is, to participate in some real metamorphosis of the whole person. When the light of God has dawned on your thought life, there is no restraining the regeneration that is to follow. In the light of the triune God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit, the believer is given an entirely new perspective on the landscape of the created and the eternal.
Doffing his cap to those who preceded him, McGrath engages with Oxford Don, C. S. Lewis, time and time again. The common refrain found throughout the book is that oft-quoted line: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”
As it is phrased in the title of Lewis’ argumentative paper, theology to McGrath is poetry of a kind. He never reduces the scriptures to a systematic with any hierarchical tangibility except for that which can be summed up in the phrase “I once was blind, but, for the grace of God, I am learning to see evermore clearly day by day”.
Why this book?
I find three major reasons for considering this book. Firstly, let it be read on the grounds of intellectual stimulation alone. Think of reading the 145 pages of this book between larger works to keep the blood flowing through the cranium and to wet the palate for an upcoming 400 pager. Give retention a break and nibble on this anthology of riveting apologetical rhetoric and argumentation.
Secondly, consider this an exercise in spiritual renewal, coming back to basics as it were. Use this book as an anniversary getaway for you and your faith. It has done a lot of good for a great many people over the years to take stock of the first principles of their spirituality. You may find yourself falling back in love with the God who has been good this whole time, only to discover that it was you who had forgotten to see Him in His full brilliance and grandeur. Read and see that the Lord is quite marvelous.
Lastly, I will urge that this book is a must read for those who wish to learn about a few of the great Christian thinkers of the last century. Individuals like Lewis, Sayers, Stott, and Packer are the great grandparents of contemporary western Christianity. If you desire quick exposure to their positions on the walk of faith, you cannot let this book pass you by. Order it, post-haste.
In closing, there are two further reservations to note. Primarily, this is a book of substance but of limited specific depth. If you are studying specific apologetic issues, you will need to seek out works that intend to give more in-depth analysis to topics only surveyed in Mere Discipleship. McGrath has authored fuller academic tomes such as Science and Religion: A New Introduction (2020) and Christian Theology: An Introduction (2016). And, in closing, if you find yourself incapable of engaging with other minds and voices from across the various denominations of Christendom with utmost intellectual humility, you might want to begin with a Google search. “What is Anglicanism?” perhaps!
I now circle back to the concept of “reflective inhabitation”. This might be haphazardly defined as cognitive living or a certain mindfulness about one’s spirituality. The short of it is that believers can appreciate and enjoy their regenerated lives most fully when they hold their current moment in the context of God’s big picture reality. McGrath shows readers through masterful rhetoric, reasoning, and forth-telling that the only way to fully live this life is on God’s terms, on the topography that He designed, on the quest for which He has sent you, and in the light of His personal reality. This good news is worth repeating, generation after generation, and it doesn’t make a bad book either.