In 2000, Christianity Today polled its contributors on the top ten books of the twentieth century, and Mere Christianity came in first place by a significant margin. C.S. Lewis’s popularity has shown no sign of waning since then and, if anything, it is increasing.
What is the key to Lewis’s continuing impact, and what might we learn from him?
Lewis had a precision with words, the empathy to understand people’s deepest struggles, a rhetorical skill to order his ideas clearly and persuasively, a breadth of learning, an amazing memory, and an ability to tell stories.
If I had to pick one ability to account for Lewis’s ongoing popularity, however, it would be his ability to combine reason and imagination.
At the end of his chapter, “Bluspels and Flalansferes,” in Selected Literary Essays, he enunciates the principle:
Reason is the natural organ of truth, imagination is the organ of meaning.
In the context of the essay, Lewis argued that we do not really grasp the meaning of any word or concept until we have a clear picture or image we can connect with it. The practical effect of this belief in Lewis’s writing was that even in the midst of an apologetic argument, he provided just the right picture, image, or metaphor to help the reader grasp the meaning of an argument. Note the use of image or analogy in this quote from The Weight of Glory:
Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
The “mud pies” and the “holiday at the sea” help us glimpse what it means to be “far too easily pleased.” Most of Lewis’s major ideas are also developed in his fiction, not the least of which are the Narnia chronicles.
Imagination and Faith
Imagination played a key role in Lewis’s conversion, and he thought it might also help others in their journey. Through the reading of George MacDonald’s Christian fantasy Phantastes, Lewis reported that a new quality, “a bright shadow,” leapt off the page and “baptized” his imagination. Later he described the new quality as “holiness.” This was only the beginning of his journey, but it led to everything looking differently for Lewis. He said it took a while for the rest of him to catch up. He still needed to confront certain rational objections to the faith and finally to submit his will, but the process had begun. You could portray the process visually this way:
An important issue in Lewis’s conversion was the emerging contradiction between his reason and his imagination. Referring to his youthful retreat into fantasy and myth, he says in Surprised by Joy:
Such, then, was the state of my imaginative life; over against it stood the life of my intellect. The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast.
Later, of course, through a combination of many factors, the tension was resolved. Reason and imagination were united. First Lewis’s imagination was “baptized,” then his reason satisfied, then his will submitted. He thought that his own writing might be helpful in that same process in others’ lives. Certainly, Lewis’s Narnia chronicles have opened the imaginations of many readers to God.
Other worldviews are out to capture imagination as well. George Lucas told Joseph Campbell that he wanted Star Wars to prepare a generation for the New Age or Eastern perspective. Jean Paul Sartre’s popularity was due to the fact that he could write philosophy such as Being and Nothingness and also plays such as No Exit. Certainly, the imagination is crucial.
Lewis thought his own writings could also get past the “watchful dragons” of our own religiosity and help us see a fresh aspect of our faith that we may have neglected.
Learning to Use Reason and Imagination
What can we learn from Lewis?
- Images, metaphors, analogies, and stories help us grasp meaning better than reason alone. This concept is helpful not only in evangelism, but in all communication.
- In evangelism, we can neglect, to our detriment, the “baptism of imagination.” It is possible to appeal directly to the reason or the will, but we may need to address a preliminary step, a kind of pre-evangelism—the imagination. Lewis’s books might be this vehicle. So could a movie, a novel, or a biography.
- People are on a spectrum from being very open to discussing issues of faith to being very closed. The more open a person is to discussing these issues, the more direct forms of communication might be used (reason, apologetics, appeals to believe); the more closed a person is, the more indirect forms of communication need to be used (questions, parables, stories).
Jesus was a master of this second approach. He often responded to a question with a question when he spoke with closed people. He also told parables so that closed people might see themselves, as in a mirror (i.e., the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan). This indirect form of communication is most often in the realm of the imagination.
Before engaging with someone, reflect on Lewis’s quote, “Reason is the natural organ of truth, imagination is the organ of meaning,” and ask a few questions. How could this insight help me in sharing Christ with my family, friends, and coworkers? How much more do I need to grasp the meaning of my own faith and what resources might be helpful to do this? Hint: A good place to start (but not stop) is with Lewis’ writings.
Editor’s Note: Read more about C.S. Lewis, reason, and imagination in Art Lindsley’s book, C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christ.
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