[i]Lindsley, Art. Knowing & Doing, The Importance of Imagination for C.S. Lewis and for Us. C.S. Lewis Institute Report: Summer 2001.
THE ACTUAL PAPER:
Within the pages of Scripture lie innumerable turning points for its characters. From the Thessalonians who turned away from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9) to Nicodemus turning his back on all those years of learning and the influential people in his life to become a follower of Jesus (John 3:1-12), to one of the most notable turning points of all – the conversion of Saul of Tarsus as a persecutor of early Christians to Paul, the Apostle, who tirelessly sought and taught about Jesus in his post-conversion life (Acts 9:1-19), the Bible is rich with landmark examples in Christianity. Yet a recent poll of Christianity Today readers revealed that there is one book in addition to the Bible which has most influenced their lives: C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.
Much like the Bible continues to hail as the best-selling and most widely distributed book, the writings of C.S. Lewis continue to have a profound impact on Christianity today. During the 1998 C.S. Lewis centenary celebrations, Christianity Today described Lewis as “the Aquinas, the Augustine and the Aesop of contemporary evangelism,” while according to Professor Adrian Hasting’s classic History of Christianity in England, C.S. Lewis composed almost single-handedly “the popular religious apologetic of modern Britain.” His influence shows no sign of abating; if anything, it is increasing as indicated by the number of C.S. Lewis books sold annually. While there are myriad reasons for this, not the least of which being his intelligence and giftedness as a writer, this paper will attempt to show it was Lewis’s pure and simple approach to thinking about God that resulted in merely, unequivocal belief in Him.
After C.S. Lewis – “Jack” to his inner circle, died one week shy of his sixty-fifth birthday in 1963 on the same day of President JFK’s assassination, Time magazine’s “Religion” section proclaimed, “C.S. Lewis goes marching on.” Later, in another Time article on renewed interest in philosophical proofs for God’s existence, he was cited as the twentieth-century’s “most-read apologist for God.” Certainly other Christian authors sell books in large numbers, so why C.S. Lewis? What makes his writings have such an extraordinary reach, and of even more [eternal] importance, cause such an extraordinary change in people?
For Lewis, Christianity was something which seized the mind, fueled the imagination, and filled the heart. Becoming a Christian after years of devout atheism changed the way he viewed the world and the people in it. In fact, the change was so powerful it rendered him unable to remain silent about the transformation, setting his skills as a communicator in motion. How he thought about God was so deeply ingrained in his own story, there was no chance it could escape being interwoven into any future stories he would craft, write, and tell. Translation was the only choice for such an ingenious storyteller; his own experience remaining dormant and eluding the words of a page was not an option.
The power and sphere of C.S. Lewis’s influence seems to reach those who are skeptical or wavering on Christianity, in large part due to his relatability as a former atheist turned Christian. Moreover, his unadulterated thought process about God and Christianity provides perhaps, an even more identifiable path for those whom his influence continues to extend. Lewis showed that reason is the anchor of faith. He presented a defense of the Christian faith that appealed to reason, and in so doing, removed obstacles to faith which most people commonly face.
By restoring reason to its rightful place, Lewis delineated how Christianity could appeal to those ardently seeking answers to the great questions of life. According to Robert Banks, an Australian biblical scholar, practical theologian, author and professor with a particular interest in the life and works of C.S. Lewis, “He wanted to speak about what most Christians, most of the time have mostly believed in and revolved their lives around – mere Christianity. That is, a belief and knowledge of the reality of God, of his presence actively in our world, and of the absolute centralities of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Christ. These are the things which preoccupied Lewis.”
Throughout his writings, C.S. Lewis depicted a style of apologetics that began first with using “the most persuasive way of convincing unbelievers of God’s reality: an appeal in the first instance, to their deepest longings providing them with a compelling vision of who God might be, and what they might become.” By tying faith and reason together, he masterfully bridged the gap between the pretension of modern elite intellectuals and the modern day commoner. To him, just as Christianity was both faithful and rational, so too were all people both imaginative and intellectual: “Reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”
The concept of story or narrative was crucial for Lewis; he characterized the concept that Christian imagination could expand our sense of what’s possible. Christian imagination, for him, brought re-enchantment back into a world that had been disenchanted by the limited possibilities of modernism and scientism. This thought process allowed the masses to approach Christianity with far less fear while simultaneously being provided a means for deep thinking about it. As he himself noted, “Christ never meant that we were to remain children in intelligence…He wants a child’s heart, but a grown up’s head.”
Even his well-known novels of pure fantasy focus on the theme of youth and conversion. In a passage from Mere Christianity, Lewis speaks of an “emblematic” boy whom he calls Dick, and writes several words that could be taken as summing up the Narnia saga: “It costs God nothing, so far as we know, to create nice things: but to convert rebellious wills cost him crucifixion. As long as Dick does not turn to God, he thinks his niceness is his own, and just as long as he thinks that, it is not his own. It is only when Dick realizes that his niceness is not his own but a gift from God, and when he offers it back to God — it is just then that it begins to be really his own. For now Dick is beginning to take a share in his own creation. The only things we can keep are the things we freely give to God. What we try to keep for ourselves is just what we are sure to lose.”
Dick is not only Edmund, the small boy for whom the lion Aslan gives his life, letting himself be killed in the second episode of Narnia; Dick is obviously the author. How many of us, of C.S. Lewis’ entire reader populous, can relate? There comes an identification point in all of our lives, regardless of when such a point occurs, when the light shines through our own inner darkness of cavernous, hellish doubt to reveal with such dumbfounding confirmation that nothing is our own. We are God’s. There is a God. Merely, Christianity exists.
During one of his many lectures, Robert Banks stated that “It’s the rational, cognitive dimension of C.S. Lewis’s Christianity which, among many Christians, is the thing which most marks him out as being helpful and effective.” That exact psychical process was paramount in the development of believers and the change among them which he so notably affected. Within the advancement of Christian thought, as C.S. Lewis himself encountered, one must first identify as a “Christian” (for the purposes of this paper being defined as “Christ-follower”). Lewis and Augustine – both multifaceted theologians, philosophers, and writers – came to faith in Jesus Christ as adults, and the differences and similarities between them are teeming and telling.
Each was well-acquainted with the pagan philosophical options of their respective day; both were adept in the art of ancient rhetoric, though neither knew Hebrew; both originally considered the style of biblical texts to be inelegant and somewhat boorish. There were also many differences, although one in particular will suffice: whereas Augustine felt compelled to disavow as false the Manichaean gnostic myths in which he used to believe, Lewis’s conversion led him to the nexus and fusing of imagination and intellect. It was then that he began to recognize the biblical story of Jesus as ‘myth become fact.’
The phrase has perplexed critics and admirers alike as to its ramifications for his view of Scripture. It also puts Evangelicals (the group most responsible for Lewis’s popularity) in somewhat of a trick bag when it comes to Scripture, for Evangelicals are comfortable with ‘fact’ but go on high-alert over ‘myth.’ C.S. Lewis acknowledged the Bible as more than literature, but not less. As is true of all worthy literature, the purpose of the Bible is not to spotlight its own originality but to express a truth, goodness, and artistry from elsewhere. Because of this, Lewis was expeditious in his distancing himself from fundamentalists and modern biblical critics alike, purporting that “neither came to scripture with open minds or ears to hear what God was saying through (biblical) literature and myth.”
So too, was Augustine quick in distancing himself from Manichaeism, post-conversion. According to his Confessions, after nine or ten years of adhering to the Manichaean faith as a member of the group of “hearers” (note the irony in comparison to Lewis’s complaint about fundamentalists and modern biblical critics above), Augustine became a vigorous adversary of Manichaeism. He saw their beliefs that knowledge was the key to salvation as too passive and unable to effect any change in one’s life. “I still thought that it is not we who sin but some other nature that sins within us. It flattered my pride to think that I incurred no guilt and, when I did wrong, not to confess it. I preferred to excuse myself and blame this unknown thing which was in me but was not part of me. The truth, of course, was that it was all my own self, and my own impiety had divided me against myself. My sin was all the more incurable because I did not think myself a sinner” (Confessions, Book V, Section 10). Much like C.S. Lewis, Augustine came to realize that a person’s life must be changed in order to be a saved and true believer.
By and by, the combination of imagination and intellect was paramount to C.S. Lewis when it came to thinking about Christianity. Both must (and in his mind were) be present; they were not mutually exclusive. Once as a young man, Lewis, having been particularly drawn to Norse mythology, said he saw an illustration from “Siegfried and Twilight of the Gods” and, coupled with one line: “the sky turned around,” was enough for the “pure Northern-ness” to engulf him.
While perhaps only a myth, that experience embodied his definition of one: “a particular kind of story which has a value in itself – a value independent of its embodiment in any literary work.” Myths, he claimed, are therefore ‘extra-literary’ – storied accounts of what may have been the historical fact, and they are addressed primarily to the imagination rather than the intellect. C.S. Lewis’s view that any story can take on mythic proportions, but only those that make us feel “as if something of great moment had been communicated to us” supports his lifelong love affair with myth, for as he said, “I have the deepest respect even for Pagan myths, still more for myths in Holy Scripture.” Without question, his great “Siegfried and Twilight of the Gods” moment was one of many within his own story, and helped prepare him for the masses as it coincided with his coming to believe that the story of Christ was true myth: myth made fact.
The experience of the power of myth was not an isolated experience for him, but a recurring theme in Lewis’s life and writing. When he arrived at Oxford, he joined an Icelandic study group led by J.R.R. Tolkien (one of his future best friends and mentors) and was so taken by the newfound pagan mythology that he later described himself as “a converted Pagan living among apostate Puritans.” In fact, one of Lewis’s early objections to the Christian faith was its comparison with Paganism: no one ever attempted to show in what sense Christianity fulfilled Paganism or Paganism prefigured Christianity. The accepted position seemed to be that religions were normally a mere farrago of nonsense, though our own, by a fortunate exception was true…But on what grounds could I believe this exception? Why was it so differently treated? Need I at any rate, continue to treat it differently? I was very anxious not to.
By that time, Lewis was too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myth. Once, he raised this talk track with Tolkien which led to a crucial all night conversation. They debated with one another that these pagan religions did contain truths and arose out of the structure of reality created by God. These pagan myths were thus echoes of reality and cosmic pointers to the true myth, the ‘myth become fact’ in Christ.
The Gospel account of Christ is the story that fulfills the previous stories, with the caveat that the Gospel narrative is historical – a true fact. Later in Lewis’s essay “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” he further developed these arguments in opposition to (atheists) others like Rudolf Bultmann, who wanted to argue that many of the Gospel accounts are mythological, that is, historically untrue. Lewis had the great advantage of having himself been an opponent of Christianity and remembering vividly not only his intellectual positions, but also his feelings. As he wrote in his account of his conversion in Surprised By Joy: I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I also was very angry with God for not existing. I was also equally angry with him for creating a world.
Vacillating between his imagination and intellect, C.S. Lewis managed to cultivate a denominational and political neutrality and, not surprisingly, chose his words with the utmost care. He was particular about what he said in public, but even more so, what he did not say, believing that his usefulness was dependent upon staying clear of theological fights between differing Christian positions. Lewis’s popularizing of theology was even more remarkable in that he did not read newspapers or magazines, watch television, or listen to the radio. He also did not, or could not, make much of “modern theology” (i.e. [Paul] Tillich, [Emil] Brunner, [Reinhold] Niebuhr) and generally thought he was a man out of his own time. To him, there was no point in keeping in touch with the contemporary scene. How better to “do” pure and simple belief than this?
C.S. Lewis was a surpassingly deep and disciplined thinker, although to say that his conversion stemmed from a pure and simple approach to thinking about God is not an understatement. Lewis’s imagination played an inarguable key role in his development from an apathetic Christian child to an ardent Atheist to an unwavering Christian. The emerging and ongoing contradiction between his reason and his imagination was of paramount importance for Lewis, much as it is for each of us today both inside and outside of the church. Is there a God? Is there no God? Is any of it a myth? Is there an in-between gray area that is reasonable to traverse for a while? How can these questions cease to be raised?
They shouldn’t, nor have they, or will ever. C.S. Lewis not only knew that, he was living, breathing, relatable proof. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the life of C.S. Lewis. A meritorious and world-renown author, his own story is a compelling and relevant example of the required growth and maturation of a Christian, in the continuance of mere Christianity. Lewis never stopped questioning, never stopped sharing, and never stopped using his incredible gift of communication to help others come to the same conclusion. He learned the language of his audience, and translated every bit of his experiential theology into the vernacular. He was/is able to communicate at different levels and connect with different audiences largely in part because he viewed himself as a regular guy – one whose personal experiences with suffering and doubt prepared him to both empathize and interact with those whose faith was wavering or never present at all.
Insofar as the relevance of C.S. Lewis proves momentous today, conceivably it is he himself who best summarizes why. From the preface of his best known and most influential theological work, Mere Christianity, Clive Staples Lewis – a “Jack” of all trades who served his Master well, wrote these words:
“Ever since I became a Christian, I have thought that perhaps the best, perhaps the only service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief.”
No cultural change, not even the emergence of post-modernism, will ever reduce the appositeness of C.S. Lewis – one of the greatest Christian apologists and thinkers of the twentieth century. His changed life, translated through mythical and factual words and a pure and simple approach to God, evangelistically baptizes our imaginations and changes us.
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