My fellow evangelicals are often a bit taken aback the first time they read C. S. Lewis’s apologetics classic Mere Christianity. What shocks them is how rarely Lewis quotes the Bible in his vigorous but irenic defense of the faith. Does Lewis not believe the Bible is the Word of God? Is he ashamed to quote it?
The answer to both questions is a resounding no. Lewis believed very much in the authority of Scripture, but he knew many of his readers did not. Indeed, he knew that swaths of the post-Christian England to which he addressed his book—which began as a series of broadcast talks he delivered for BBC Radio in the early years of World War II—not only did not recognize the divine status of the Bible; they were cut off from the worldview the Bible assumes.
Living in a Two-Tiered Cosmos
That worldview is two-tiered—it takes for granted that there is an unseen world, greater and ultimately more real than the visible world we perceive with our five senses. The natural world we see around us was created by a transcendent God who exists outside of time and space but whose presence fills and upholds all creation. As the psalmist proclaims: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (19:1 KJV). God is not silent but speaks directly through the prophets, the Scriptures, and his Son, and indirectly through creation, conscience, reason, imagination, and desire.
C. S. Lewis: Pre-Evangelism for a Post-Christian World: Why Narnia Might Be More Real Than We Think
Brian M. Williams
C. S. Lewis: Pre-Evangelism for a Post-Christian World: Why Narnia Might Be More Real Than We Think
Brian M. Williams
We find ourselves living today in very much a “post-Christian” world. How do we make a start in evangelism when the bedrock ideas are not only disbelieved but viewed with contempt by so many today? C. S. Lewis thought that he had found “a door” we could enter to “steal past the watchful dragons” of the modern person’s reason by way of imaginative fiction. He sought to reintroduce Christian ideas clothed in mythological garb so that in time, after people’s affections had been stirred, the explicit message about Christ might be given a fair hearing. He engaged both the heart and the head. In this way, he “pre-evangelized” his audience. This book examines the grounds—both philosophically and theologically—upon which he did that. It explores Lewis’s view of reality and the human imagination, surveying his Chronicles of Narnia and The Space Trilogy in particular, to demonstrate precisely how he carried out this strategy. We can learn from Lewis here, as we show both the beauty and the truthfulness of Christianity to people in a way that meets them where they are.
I still vividly remember the moment I realized just how much our age has lost that two-tiered worldview. The light bulb flashed when I learned that in the Middle Ages, a realist was not, as he is today, an empiricist who only believes in the material things that he can see or hear or taste or touch or smell. He was a supernaturalist who believes that there exist, behind the things we see and the words we use, universal, eternal realties. Plato’s Forms, which Augustine put in the mind of God, were not, to the medievals, relics of an arcane philosophy, but acknowledgments that our earthly notions of goodness, truth, and beauty reflect real, absolute, divine standards of goodness, truth, and beauty that transcend our human reason and logic but that we can glimpse and know in part.
If that worldview—the only one that can support a belief in the historical reality of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection—has been lost, then how can the Christian evangelist hope to convince someone to confess Christ as Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:9–10)? The materialistic worldview of today cannot conceive of God becoming man or atonement for sin or the resurrection of the body. It cannot even conceive of a divinely inspired book as a vehicle for God’s eternal Word to bridge the gap between the unseen and the seen, the supernatural and the natural.
Apologetics as Pre-Evangelism
It is for that reason that the work of the evangelist must often be preceded by the work of an apologist who, rather than present the gospel, prepares the hearts of post-Christian materialists so they will be receptive to the message of salvation. Among the practitioners of this vital pre-evangelism, the most successful, and the most enduring, has been Lewis. The reason for his success is that he took a two-tiered approach to helping restore the lost two-tiered worldview.
In such nonfiction works as Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and Miracles, he argued logically and rationally for the existence and involvement of the supernatural in the natural. Simultaneously, in such fictional works as The Chronicles of Narnia and The Space Trilogy, he allowed his readers to experience what it would be like to live in a world filled to overflowing with the presence of divine goodness, truth, and beauty. Or, to use the terminology of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, Lewis’s pre-evangelistic fiction transported readers from a modern, buffered world (one “safe” from divine intervention and accountability) to a medieval, porous one (where the supernatural is real and tangible, provoking emotions of wonder and awe, beauty and terror).
Lewis allowed his readers to experience what it would be like to live in a world filled to overflowing with the presence of divine goodness, truth, and beauty.
Though this aspect of Lewis has been known and touched on by various scholars, Brian M. Williams has done the world of apologetics a great service by exploring in detail the theory and method that allowed Lewis to open the eyes of post-Christian people living in a safely buffered, materialistic world to the possibility of a porous, supernaturalist world where a loving creator just might enter his creation and die on behalf of the rebellious creatures he made.
On the Trail of Desire
C. S. Lewis: Pre-Evangelism for a Post-Christian World: Why Narnia Might Be More Real Than We Think begins with a lengthy biography of Lewis. Williams carefully traces how the creator of Narnia was drawn to Christ by a slow process that began in his imagination and worked through his desire for something that pointed beyond the natural world. It was not his reason but his imagination that drove him to seek a supernatural source for his desire, a search that made him receptive to the transcendent yet immanent God that his logical mind had, for many long years, held at arm’s length.
Lewis’s imaginative life, Williams writes,
was full of desire, and the various visitations of Joy seemed to beckon to him from another world. Yet, his reason, shaped as it had been by naturalism, denied the existence of this other world. He had been influenced heavily by the Enlightenment assumption that intellectual history was the story of older superstitious thinking steadily giving way to new, and by unjustified extension, more true and concrete thinking. (79)
His rational mind could never have leapt over that deeply instilled Enlightenment assumption if his imagination had not impelled him to look for answers beyond the confines of the naturalistic worldview into which he had been born.
Students and longtime fans of Lewis, particularly if they have read his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, will be aware of most of what Williams discusses in his first chapter. They will likely be less aware of the analysis that follows in the ensuing chapters. By combing carefully through Lewis’s nonfiction books and essays, Williams, who has taught courses on the history of ideas and philosophy at the College at Southeastern in Wake Forest, North Carolina, identifies two recurring themes that are essential to the success of Lewis’s pre-evangelism. In all of his written work—directly in the nonfiction, indirectly in the fiction—Lewis advocated a “return to the belief in universals and the sacramental nature of reality that attends this belief” (133).
Shadows Pointing to Solids
For Lewis the Christian Platonist, our visible world, though real, is a shadow of the greater unseen world. Williams helps his readers understand the pre-evangelistic power of this observation by means of a simple but incisive meditation on the nature of shadows: “A shadow can only be cast when light hits an object solid enough to block it from shining on the surface behind or beneath it. The shadow gives to you and to me a clue that something more solid than it is present. Lewis’s sacramental view of reality bears a close affinity to this ‘shadows-pointing-to-solids’ phenomenon” (81).
Post-Christians whose naturalistic presuppositions will not allow them to acknowledge the existence of the supernatural may yet be willing to acknowledge there are things in this world that provoke desire (Joy) in them and seem to point beyond themselves. Pre-evangelism need not argue God is the source of that desire; it merely needs to open the possibility that there might be a solid behind the shadow, an archetype behind the copy.
From there, the next step is to suggest that the particular things of our world not only reflect universal realities (goodness, truth, beauty) but participate in those realities. Lewis, Williams explains, “employed the term ‘transposition’ to convey this participatory nature of reality” (91), but the pre-evangelist can use a word like enchantment or sacrament or even magic to convey the same message. The vital thing is to build a structure, and a desire, for a trafficking between the seen and the unseen.
Image and Imagination
Most Lewis scholars today highlight the distinction he made between reason as the organ of truth and imagination as the organ of meaning. Williams takes that key distinction one step further by closely analyzing a Lewis essay that Walter Hooper published for the first time in 2013, “Image and Imagination.”
In this somewhat arcane essay, which Williams does a fine job unpacking, Lewis explains that the imagination, far from merely conjuring images, provides the context that makes meaning possible. If a fantasy author writes about a princess in a high tower, those words will not have any meaning unless our imagination constructs a world like our own that could contain a princess and a tower.
Imagination, far from merely conjuring images, provides the context that makes meaning possible.
Williams offers a powerful example of how imagination, rather than reason, fills in the context by surveying the different ways the observers at Golgotha interpreted the image they saw of Christ on the cross. Whereas all of them saw the same physical details, they “differed, significantly . . . regarding the meaning they assigned to what they saw. Some saw a charlatan and blasphemer receiving the punishment he deserved. Others saw the Son of God, who, although guiltless, was suffering a criminal’s punishment. Some jeered. Others wept. The difference cannot be explained by a description of what was seen. It can only be explained by what the whole scene was taken to be” (148).
Because “the imagination serves both to arouse desire and to help one grasp meaning” (180), it must often precede the work of reason, which, as long as it is trapped in a naturalistic worldview, will understand neither the need for something beyond nature nor the context in which such a need might be answered. Only when “reason works together with the imagination in response to joy, [will a person] go beyond mere longing to looking” (180).
Constructing Other Worlds
Lewis the fantasist succeeded in conveying and inspiring that longing through his Space Trilogy and Chronicles of Narnia by building worlds in which the imagination can encounter and find meaning in a two-tiered reality. By sojourning in such worlds, which are both like and unlike ours, the imagination finds itself baptized into a new worldview, a new manner of perceiving that will allow it to find the same type of sacramental meaning in our world. Then—and, for many post-Christians, only then—reason can step in and turn the longing into a looking, the desire into a search for the divine.
Of course, to be effective, that other reality must be constructed well, must contain good metaphors that can reflect and participate properly in the greater realities, both of the fairy-tale world and of our own. It was precisely because Lewis succeeded in finding and bringing to life such vivid, sacramental metaphors that his Narnia stories and science fiction continue to possess the apologetical power to open the heart to a porous cosmos and so make way for the head to embrace the gospel message.
Williams sums up with precision the move from heart to head, imagination to reason, that makes Lewis’s myths perfect models for the would-be pre-evangelist of the 21st century: “When, in time, the Christian message is presented plainly, Lewis hoped that the person would recognize that these were the very truths he had been delighting in all along, disrobed of their fantastical costumes, and he would therefore in turn make the rational and finally the volitional move to follow Christ” (266).
It may be with the head that we surrender to God. But for most post-Christians, that surrender will not occur until the heart and its imaginative desires have been reignited.