“The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism’. Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.” – C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy
Malcolm Guite notes in his lecture at the C.S. Lewis Symposium on the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death, that the creator of Narnia represents for us a reality that is “general to Western postwar culture and indeed more broadly, post-Enlightenment culture.” Our minds are bifurcated between reason and imagination. What will stand in the gap and reconcile the two? For Lewis, it was a realization that both faculties have truth detecting ability (though both equally fallen) and a combination of the two is both more potent and satisfying than just one used in isolation. Indeed, this is what would draw Lewis out of his atheism and into Christianity. He then became a master at weaving reason and imagination together through his fiction and even through his more philosophical works. His use of imaginative fiction and analogy would make dry propositional truths come alive at a deeper level for his readers.
The situation has not changed for us today and the argument carries on between reason and imagination. Therefore, imaginative apologetics is needed just as much, if not more in our compartmentalized lives. Thankfully, we have a tutor in Lewis and others, who have gone before us in the task of reconciliation.
One such avenue across the rift is through literary apologetics. I was already aware of the ability of a well-written story or poem to breathe new life into a propositional truth. Having been raised in a home that had a wealth of great literature lying about, I was exposed to the power of beautifully crafted prose early on in life. Great memories fill my childhood of climbing into bed with my mother’s giant Norton Anthologies of English literature, staying up way past bedtime, entering the new worlds and the beautiful language they contained. As a child, I wasn’t aware of any infighting between the two faculties. From my child’s perspective, they were one and the same!
Yet, no one lives in a vacuum and it is virtually impossible not to be affected by the prevailing set of world views of the age in which we live. My own thinking would eventually be challenged with the chasm, not unlike Lewis’s. It is an ongoing challenge, actually, and this leads to the two important things I have realized as of late: first, the need for Christian parents to understand the importance of encouraging imaginative thinking in their children and, second, my own need, as an adult, to feed my imagination through beautiful literature to keep ablaze my sense of awe and wonder.
Christian parents are raising children in a fragmented culture in which this struggle between a confining rationalism and imagination exists on every corner. We can, I believe, strike pre-emptively by encouraging the development of a healthy imagination and a sense of awe and wonder with God’s creation in our children. If we present Christianity as the great reconciler of reason and imagination (and reason and faith), we can bring meaning back to both and, perhaps, a much-needed pre-baptism, if their reason enthrones itself and subjugates their imagination as they grow older. This paradigm of a baptized imagination can be seen with C.S. Lewis and the works of Beatrix Potter and Dr. Holly Ordway with the poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins. I see this at work in my own life, as well.
For children, learning to appreciate great literature can be the first step in such a baptism. We have the advantage of having the wonderfully imaginative works of committed believers like Lewis, Tolkien, and a myriad of others that inspired them, upon which to draw. In fact, if you think about it, although we live in a time in which imagination has been devalued as a vehicle of truth, our access to great literature is unprecedented in human history. It’s kind of a funny (and fortunate) paradox. It’s a paradox we should take full advantage of as parents, too.
One of the sweetest delights in our parenting lives has been to read through the entire set Narnia books with our daughters. A few summers ago, we embarked on the journey together, reading to them every night. To watch them fall in love with the characters of Aslan, Lucy, Prince Caspian, and Mr. Tumnus and learn to see the parallels with the redemptive narrative of our own world was a pleasure we will carry with us forever. Children today have the additional bonus of getting to see the stories come alive through the wonderful film adaptations, as well. We hope that through Lewis’ Narnia, our daughters can make the connection that their world history is not one of “meaningless clashes, but the saga of God’s kingdom” of which they are an integral part.
Teaching our children to delight in beautiful literature in such a way that is “not self-indulgence” but as a “disinterested response” to our Creator’s world and His story of redemptive love is a gift that they will carry with them forever. It is also a powerful tool they will need if they are to swim upstream against the rationalistic currents of our times. Wonder and awe will carry them far.
Wonder and awe are not just for children, either. As Chesterton said in one of my favorite books, Orthodoxy, “ …nearly all people I have ever met in this western society in which I live would agree to the general proposition that we need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.” In this life, this hunger for newness or wonder that Chesterton writes of is translated into what seems like our insatiable need for conflict. I think, in the life to come, that self-focused need will be replaced by a true awe and wonder at the inexhaustible riches and creativity of the Creator.
I am gaining an appreciation for my own need as an adult to feed the sense of awe and wonder – a disinterested and unselfish awe and wonder, too. Reading and studying carefully crafted literature and poetry can be a kind of liturgical practice of its own for the believer. I see that this is something that I have neglected (perhaps, like most of Christendom). Donald Williams’ essay on the church’s on-again / off-again relationship with creative literature is very instructive here, for again, no one lives in a vacuum. In “Christian Poetics, Past, and Present”, Williams details the history of the tension between the church and the idolatrous products of the culture surrounding it. I see parallels with my own personal history.
Reason and imagination are at odds in our culture, so much of the art it produces is grotesque and an offense to beauty. Out of revulsion to modern artistic expression, though, the church has either abandoned this unruly faculty of imagination altogether or buried its head in sentimental kitsch. Therefore, the church has abandoned what poet Luci Shaw notes as “one of the few things that constantly calls us back to God, that reminds of a standard of goodness, vitality, and reality that embodies the beautiful.” I believe our liturgy and worship has suffered, as a result, too. Shallow, “bumper-sticker” expressions of great Christian truths are often all that is left for the Christian imagination to feed upon. And, I can say from experience, that it is not enough.
Great literature and poetry are a way out for us, though. Williams reminds us that “[if] the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1) and the invisible things are understood by the things that are made (Rom. 1:20), then the things made by the creative member of the creation ought in a special way to bring the truths embodied in creation into focus.” Indeed, it may be a mess of mud and marble, but within it are the very real “Pascalian interplays of greatness and wretchedness, of wretchedness and renewal, of renewal and persisting wretchedness.” And, that interplay is biblical and Christian in every sense of the word.
Our challenge then, as Christians, is to discern the literary dispute, redeem it with meaning, and allow it to add a richness to our own worship. In this, great literature can provide sustenance for our journey in this fallen world. Here, Augustine’s imagery of the ancient Israelites taking with them the beautiful treasures from their pagan captors to put to the better use of furthering God’s redemptive plan for mankind is very helpful. I plan on applying this as much as possible and encouraging my fellow Christians to do the same.
The furniture of our minds, as Lewis called it, is important, indeed. Children’s minds need to be carefully furnished and adults’ dusted off, maintained, and even updated from time to time. Great literature can provide this for all. Reason alone has displaced imagination in our minds, so the furniture may look a little shabby or simple. Christians can let imagination back in by carefully and consistently feeding on great literature and poetry. Langan wrote that “[a]ll deep experience of beauty is indeed poignantly prescient of eternity.”
I need beauty. Children need beauty. The world needs beauty.
 Guite, Malcolm. “Telling the Truth Through Imaginative Fiction” (video) Lecture, The Westminster Abbey Institute’s C.S. Lewis Symposium 2013, St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, November 21, 2013. Accessed October 6, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOxbeQLFX2k
Poetry: Dr. Malcolm Guite