This summer I’ll be reading through, for a second time, The Normal Christian Faith (NCF) by Watchman Nee. I’m super excited about jumping back into this classic and wanted to put down some of my thoughts for anyone who might want to read along.
A Family Tradition
The family of God has a family tradition—making our faith intelligible to the surrounding culture. Biblically, this stems from Peter’s letter to Christians living as expats in the world. He tells them to be “always ready for a defense to everyone who asks of you an account concerning the hope which is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).
This is more important than ever in America, where, according to Barna Group, only 4% of GenZ teens have a biblical world view. That means that the cultural leftovers of Christianity—its basic narrative and baseline values—have long disappeared from our society’s communal fridge, and many people don’t even remember what the meal tasted like. Our challenge is to describe mouthwatering ribeyes to a culture feeding on bacon bits.
Christians need to be ready to explain what they believe and why it matters. Hans Küng starts his attempt to do this by asking,
“Why should one be a Christian? Why not be human, truly human? … What does Christianity want? The answer given by Christians is frequently muddled, sentimental, general: Christianity wants love, justice, a meaning to life, being good and doing good, humanity … But don’t non-Christians want these things too?”
I think this is a great point and a good way to frame the discussion.
Every generation and every theological tradition seems to have its own overview and commendation of Christianity in book form. To name a few from the last century: Orthodoxy (1908), The Normal Christian Faith (1936), Mere Christianity (1944), On Being a Christian (1974), and Simply Christian (2006). They are all products of their time and situation and author, and they reflect these differences. Some are literary, some are liberal, and some are life-giving. Any one of them could be life-changing.
The Normal Christian Faith compared to Mere Christianity
Since Mere Christianity is so well-known and liked, I couldn’t help but think how it compares with NCF and which one would be my go-to recommendation for a new Christian.
The Normal Christian Faith is the Mere Christianity of the East. Technically, it’s more accurate to reverse that sentence, since NCF was spoken about 5 years before Mere Christianity. Regardless, there are a lot of similarities. Here are seven:
- Both are introductions to the Christian faith and have an easy-going apologetic tone.
- Both were given as spoken messages, and the printed texts retain much of the conversational feel of the originals.
- Both are peppered with memorable stories and examples.
- Both were delivered in times of war (right before the Second Sino-Japanese War and in the middle of WWII).
- Both feature the well-known “liar, lunatic, or Lord trilemma” (which Lewis did not invent).
- Both, surprisingly, employ metaphors or language from the early church’s teaching on deification.
- Finally, both are about the same length (~220 pages, ~50,000 words).
Despite these similarities, I would argue that while Mere Christianity has more of a literary, philosophical feel to it, NCF is more christocentric and experiential. For many thoughtful skeptics, Mere Christianity has been shown to work. But for High School and College Christians just starting to read beyond the Bible, I think NCF is a better all-around option. I read it sophomore year in HS and fell in love with it. And even though I’ve been reading serious theology for a while now, this one never gets old when I revisit it.
Here’s a few places where NCF really shines:
By my quick count, Lewis uses the word “Christ” roughly 73 times, while Nee uses it 345 times. Of course, statistical observations can’t substitute for exhaustive treatment, but this does indicate how front and center Christ is in Nee’s treatment of Christianity.
This is borne out in the four major section titles of the book 1) Christ and God, 2) Christ and Christianity, 3) Christ and the New Life, 4) Christ and the Christian. In fact, Nee devotes two chapters to the relationship between doctrine and teacher in world religions. Christianity, Nee argues, doesn’t have any doctrines that are detached from Christ. Every doctrine is not only centered on Christ but also realized in union with Christ. Nee says, “Christ Himself is the center of the Bible and the focus of the whole of Christianity” (60). And also, “Without Christ we have nothing to preach” (83).
This doesn’t mean that everything collapses into one word and there is really nothing more to talk about. A Christianity like this would forgo serious Bible study and lose its real-life utility. Nee didn’t mean this, and this is proved by his other writings—biblical expositions, devotional writings, and his intensely practical new believer series. What Nee intends is to relate everything to Christ, as all points on a circle are defined by their relation to the center.
The other department that NCF excels in is spiritual experience. The medium may contribute to the message here—Lewis was giving BBC radio talks, while Nee was preaching gospel messages. But I think the bigger factor is Nee’s particular understanding of Christianity.
For Nee, the center of the Bible is Christ. Not just an objective, historical Christ who accomplishes redemption and remains outside of us, but a Christ who becomes our life.
“Having Christ worked into us and having a vital life relationship between Him and us is the essence of the Christian life… Being mutually within one another is the reality and essence of union. Only in this union can God accomplish what He has purposed for us” (127).
This is a necessary corrective to the myopic, Reformation view of salvation as a mere judicial solution to sin. God’s original intention was to make human beings sharers in His divine life and, through this organic operation, to make them one with Him for His corporate expression. Of course, the fall happened and redemption was a “remedial necessity,” but Nee shows how there is a life-releasing aspect to the death of Christ that is in line with God’s purpose in creation (139-140). Because Christ is now our life, we can truly experience Him, not just imitate Him.
Lewis also talks about Christ being our life, mentioning, what he calls, “the good infection,” but I think Nee’s presentation of this is clearer and more helpful to actual experience. Above all, Nee wants us to experience Christ, not just understand Christianity, and he offers masterly advice on how to do that, not just assertions that it’s possible. An experiential emphasis colors his whole discussion. To Nee, “the critical point of the Christian faith” and “the peak of the salvation of God” is “how Christ can be our life in a subjective way” (139).
And yet, both books point to the extent of experience the Bible describes.
Like I said above, both writers surprisingly employ the classical Christian notion of deification in their books. And this has not escaped the notice of scholars in recent studies. In his 2010 book, Partaking in Divine Nature: Deification and Communion, Paul M. Collins refers to Nee’s “detailed conceptualization and expression of deification.” In a 2005 essay, Chris Jensen claimed that, for Lewis, “deification shines forth as one of his central convictions.”
Seriously? Yep. How does this come into play?
Nee uses a stock illustration that surfaced repeatedly in the early church and that goes back to Origen (d. 253 AD)—iron placed in fire. A rod of iron is placed in a fire until “every molecule of iron [is] mingled with the fire, and every trait of the fire [is] manifested in the iron.” The properties of each are manifested in the one, without either one ever ceasing to be what it is by nature. Nee calls this, “union in its ultimate and fullest sense” (127-128).
Lewis uses the famous aphorism of Athanasius (d. 373 AD), “He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God.” Lewis softens the shock of this quote by slightly rephrasing it as, “The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.” But Lewis knew exactly what he was referencing. How do we know? Because he wrote a glowing introduction to Athanasius’ famous work, On the Incarnation, where this quote originally appears (54.3). Lewis calls it “a very great book” and “a masterpiece,” and how can you write a letter of recommendation for someone you don’t know that well? Lewis knows it’s there, and he knows what he’s recommending. I wish all the Calvinist college students who adore Mere Christianity would recognize this. Maybe deification would no longer be the boogeyman it is to them.
I imagine nearly all readers miss the full import of these allusions. It’s crazy to me (in a good way) that both authors thought to feature deification in books on mere Christianity and the normal Christian faith. I think this should change our thoughts on what mere Sunday going Christians are capable of handling, granted that we communicate it in a winsome and palatable way.
I think it’s safe to say that Lewis and Nee had different intentions for their books, despite their similar sounding titles.
I think of Lewis as a waiter standing outside a European restaurant, showing people the menu and enticing them to come in, whereas Nee is the chef in the back serving up the meal itself. The two men work together, but if you are already in the restaurant the second one is more important to you.
Lewis, in a letter to a friend, said his radio talks were “praeparatio evangelica [preparation for the gospel], rather than evangelium.” Nee’s messages are evangelii praedicatio (preaching of the gospel), as they were shared at a gospel conference. They were originally titled, “What is Christianity?”, and that is something Christians, of all people, need to clearly understand. This gets to the heart of the matter, where Nee, while lacking Lewis’ literary flair, excels, and Lewis lags.
N.T. Wright, in an appreciative yet honest review of Mere Christianity, said that “the weakest part of the book, beyond doubt, is its heart… ‘What Christians Believe.'” Among other things, he points out an “astonishing absence,” that Lewis doesn’t mention Christ’s resurrection even once.
Another obvious absence in Mere Christianity is verse references. There’s not a single one in the whole book. Again, this probably has something to do with the fact that Lewis is giving radio talks and isn’t going to say, “in Romans 2:15 it says…” And it isn’t to say that Lewis doesn’t allude to some verses here and there; he does. But NCF is teeming with verses, and when thinking about which book to recommend to someone wanting to dig more into the faith, I think this is a factor.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Mere Christianity is full of wisdom and charm. But, in part, it’s what stems from this difference in intentions that, to me, makes NCF more helpful to someone who is already a believer. NCF offers more than imaginative insights or brilliant examples to engage the intellect; it offers the riches of experiential truth to nourish the spirit.
I think readers of Mere Christianity will come away seeing the reasonableness of Christianity and how to explain it (or how it explains the world). Readers of NCF will come away seeing the essence of Christianity and how to experience it.
One thing I love about Watchman Nee is how he always delivers fresh insights into basic truths and reveals unplumbed depths beneath familiar waters. The Normal Christian Faith is no exception. Is it the best introduction to Christianity? Who can say? Different things may work better for different people, but it’s the most helpful one I’ve read.
I’ll end with a C.S. Lewis example (if you’re familiar with The Chronicles of Narnia): imagine Christianity as the wardrobe in the back of your room—it’s always been there but you’ve never realized how far back it goes. A whole other world lies behind the basics of Christianity, a world that many Christians haven’t stepped into. Nee takes us deep into this “strange new world” and shows us how entrancing Christianity is, even in its most modest looking detail.