By Rev. Mark A. Pierson
Imagine a world in which it is always winter but never Christmas. Imagine a place where Deep Magic from the dawn of time requires the blood of the guilty to be shed. Imagine a story where the hero is an all-powerful lifegiving Being who enters this dark wintry realm and humbly accepts the punishment of death on behalf of his enemy . . . yet because of the Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time, this selfless sacrificial act ends up redeeming the whole world while the hero himself does not remain dead but astonishingly comes back to life. Sound familiar? Welcome to Narnia...or...to the real world and the Christian faith.
Though not all the details line up, at their core The Chronicles of Narnia are a sort of retelling of the Incarnation. It is C. S. Lewis’ wonderful attempt to teach us that the story of Christ is more vibrant, accessible, engaging, and meaningful than perhaps we ever realized. And this goes for unbelievers, too. Those who think they despise Jesus often love Aslan, who is just about the most obvious Christ-figure there is. And those who are outraged or bored by the Bible can sometimes be found reading (and re-reading) the narrative of Narnia well beyond childhood. Why is this? What did Lewis manage to do so well that is done poorly or not at all by many Christians—even many apologists—when presenting and defending the faith? In short, the writings of C. S. Lewis effectively engage the imagination.
Sneaking Past Watchful Dragons
There is much to be said for a robust, tough-minded, intellectually satisfying Christianity. We want reasons to believe God exists and evidence that the biblical events really happened. Lewis agreed with this, and made many clear and rational arguments in favor of the truths of Scripture. But this alone is not the reason for his immense popularity and success as an apologist. Indeed, even a faith founded on facts can leave a person unfulfilled. Lewis, therefore, repeatedly appealed to the human imagination as a way to help his audience grasp and absorb the meaning of the gospel message. Because it’s not enough that it’s true— it also needs to be for you.
“Imagination” here does not refer to wishful thinking or mere creativity. Rather, it identifies the meaning of something even before judging it as true or false. It is in this sense that Lewis sought to “steal past those watchful dragons” of the modern mind that are so quick to dismiss claims about Jesus as outdated or unscientific before considering what they mean. Lewis thus saw it as his calling to point out the unmatched imaginative qualities of the Christian story. It is a message so profound that it is able to change the way we see ourselves and our entire world. It resonates with our suspicions that there is something more to life than what our own experiences can teach us. And if true, the Christian story, the Gospel in particular, can ultimately satisfy the desires of our hearts like no other story.
This is why a story conveys meaning in a way that the sheer cold facts of math or grammar or physics never can. As a former atheist himself, Lewis was captivated by stories of dying and rising figures in myths and fairy tales. He found them “profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp.” But of course he didn’t believe them to be true. Nonetheless, Lewis later maintained that he was better prepared to consider the Gospels precisely because they spoke of a Person whose words and deeds were simply too significant to ignore. Through his imagination, Lewis had been invited (so to speak) to meet Christ. In turn, Lewis extended that same invitation to others.
Myth Became Fact
Lies can be beautiful, in a certain sense. They can strike squarely at the heart and speak to the human condition. This is what Lewis believed the great myths of the world do, for in them one can find meaning. History, on the other hand, is devoid of such beauty and meaning because the story it tells is one of suffering and sorrow, where oppression is the norm and nobody lives happily ever after. The problem, of course, is myths are false while history is true and the two shall never meet. Or so Lewis thought.
It was J. R. R. Tolkien (author of The Lord of the Rings) who helped change Lewis’ mind. A so-called mythological view of the world is possible, Tolkien argued, that allows one to reconcile the imagination and the intellect. The pagan myths, with their dying and rising saviors who bring hope and joy are, in fact, corrupted versions of the truth. Look at the Gospels. Do they read like myth or history? Lewis, who was an expert on literature, was forced to admit they are historical accounts through and through. And yet, they also contain that element of myth in which something so profoundly great happens that you want it to be true, and are even afraid to hope that it is in case you’re wrong. This is not merely to say that the Gospels contain miracles, but that the Person in them is compelling beyond measure because of his imaginative appeal. He speaks as no one else ever spoke; he enters this sin-darkened world in order to save it, and against all odds he bursts the gates of death and hell so that we can live forever.
Tolkien called this kind of climax the “eucatastrophe” (or “good turn”) of the story, because the joy it brings can be so powerful that it almost feels like pain. After the catastrophe takes place, it seems all hope is lost. But then, there is a sharp unexpected turn that results in a happy ending; good triumphs over evil and all wrongs are made right. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the one and only case where this actually happened in history. And by that infinitely meaningful fact, Lewis came to believe the story of Christ as the “true myth” in which history and fairy tales have been fused together. The Incarnation is the eucatastrophe of the story of mankind, and the resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation. The Gospels recount this Supreme Story. And the Christ therein satisfies both reason and imagination as the embodiment of meaning, hope, joy, and truth.
To Narnia . . . and Beyond
Superheroes. Wizards. Jedi Knights. Millions flock to the films and buy the books. Fantasy has a way of capturing our imagination that reality does not, at least most of the time. The exception is—or at least should be—the true tale in which God became man to begin the thawing of our wintry world, to face our chief enemies of Sin and Death on the cosmic battlefield, to fight and bleed and die in our place . . . only to rise again victoriously and thus redeem our fallen race. When Superman or Harry Potter or Obi-wan do similar things, this only serves to validate Lewis’ point. Sadly, the greatest story ever told is so often not told as a great story. It is reduced to morals to live by, or is presented as a mechanical laundry list of beliefs you need to check off before you take your last breath. So Lewis created Narnia, an attempt to defend the Christian story through the meaningful telling of another. But Narnia was just one of many works in which Lewis did this.
Imagine a dialogue between two demons on how best to prevent someone from becoming and staying a Christian. Imagine what would happen if the people in hell visited heaven and were allowed to stay, if they wanted. Imagine you were in paradise when the woman was tempted and had to offer a counter-temptation. It is with thought experiments, metaphors, and fantastical scenarios such as these that Lewis pulls us out of ourselves, our darkened vision, our small and tame god. This is why he did not limit himself to purely rational arguments when defending the faith, but firmly rooted his theology and apologetics in the true and meaningful story of Christ’s Incarnation. And if the ongoing devotion to his writings 50 years after his death serves as any measure of his success, we would be wise to follow his lead.
Rev. Mark A. Pierson is assistant pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Long Beach, California, and has a passion for evangelism and apologetics. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.