In Bright Shadow: C.S. Lewis on the Imagination for Theology and Discipleship
This message appears as a chapter in The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis.
There are worse insults than being called a “sleeper.” Yes, sloth is one of the seven deadly sins, but when I saw sloth portrayed on stage in a performance of Christopher Marlowe’s play Dr. Faustus, it was hard to see what was so deadly about it. The other sins — pride, greed, lust — looked ugly, but sloth, a young girl, came onto the stage, stretched, yawned, and lay down. The audience relaxed with her. What harm is there in a catnap? None at all. Why, then, has the church classified sloth as a deadly sin? We don’t hold someone blameworthy for being anemic or for not taking his five-hour energy drink every five hours.
To be sure, drowsiness is culpable in certain situations: none of us wants our pilots falling asleep at the controls. Yet sloth is not mere sleepiness or laziness but rather what Dorothy Sayers rightly identifies as the spiritual condition of despair: “It is the sin that believes in nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die” (Dorothy L. Sayers, Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World: A Selection of Essays, 152).
If the besetting sin of modernity is pride (an inordinate confidence in know-it-all reason), then that of postmodernity is sloth, a despairing indifference to truth. Someone who believes in nothing and lives for nothing might as well be asleep. Sloth is the ultimate sin of omission: sloth sits still, unmoved by anything real. Sleeping through a movie may not be deadly, but sitting on your hands while the cinema is burning around you certainly is. We must guard against sloth, the temptation to be lulled to sleep when there is something urgent to be done. Is there a cure for this spiritual narcolepsy? There is. Says G.K. Chesterton of Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian, that when he was troubled by doubt, he chose to believe in more reality, not less. Aquinas has a kindred spirit in C.S. Lewis.
Lewis experienced a powerful awakening and afterwards did everything he could to stay awake, by which I mean spiritually alert to the opportunities, and dangers, that attend the Christian life. For Lewis, waking is a way of describing one’s conversion, a coming to new life. The Christian life is all about wakefulness. Theology describes what we see when we are awake, in faith to the reality of God, and discipleship is the project of becoming fully awake to this reality and staying awake.
The sad truth is that many of us are, at best, only half awake. We think we’re engaged with the real world — you know, the world of stock markets, stockcar racing, and stockpiles of chemical weapon — but in fact we’re living in what Lewis calls the “shadowlands.” We think we’re awake, but we’re really only daydreaming. We’re sleepwalking our way through life — asleep at the wheel of existence — only semi-conscious of the eternal, those things that are truly solid that bear the weight of glory.
“The Christian life is all about wakefulness." Tweet
We want to believe the Bible — we do believe it, we confess the truth of its teaching, and we’re prepared to defend it — but we nevertheless find ourselves unable to see our world in biblical terms, and that produces a feeling of disparity, an existential disconnect. If faith’s influence is waning, as two-thirds of Americans apparently now think, then it is largely because of a failure of the evangelical imagination. We’re suffering from imaginative malnutrition.
We typically associate sleep with dreaming, the imagination with daydreaming. But what if what we normally consider wakefulness is actually a kind of sleep? Read from this letter, written by Lewis in 1963, to one of his correspondents, a hospital patient at the time, weighed down with worries of her mortality. Lewis writes,
Think of yourself just as a seed patiently waiting in the earth: waiting to come up a flower in the Gardener’s good time, up into the real world, the real waking. I suppose that our whole present life, looked back on from there, will seem only a drowsy half-waking. We are here in the land of dreams. But the cock-crow is coming. (The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950–1963, , 1,434, emphasis original)
If conversion is the moment of awakening to the reality of God, discipleship is the effort we make to stay awake (“The real labour is to remember, to attend [to the presence of God]. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.” Letters to Malcolm [London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964], 75). Waking and sleeping often figure in Lewis’s stories at important moments.
Consider the scene in The Silver Chair when the Queen of Underland is holding Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum captive in her subterranean lair. The Queen tries to convince them that there is no world outside her cavern. She creates an atmosphere thick with a drowsy smell, soft music — and then, like the Serpent in the garden, she lies through her teeth, “There is no land called Narnia.” Puddleglum protests that he has come from “up there,” and the witch makes the idea seem ridiculous: “Is there a country up among the stones and mortars of the roof?” Jill begins to succumb to the spell, saying, “No, I suppose that other world must be all a dream.” “Yes,” says the witch, “There never was any world but mine” (The Silver Chair).
With the last of her waking strength, Jill suddenly remembers Aslan, but the witch responds that a lion is only a big cat: “And look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world.” Just before they all nod off for good, Puddleglum does something that makes Marsh-wiggles everywhere proud: he stamps his foot in the fire. This clears his head sufficiently for him to give the following speech: “Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun . . . and Aslan. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. . . . I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia” (Ibid., emphasis original).
Those who follow Jesus Christ have been similarly jolted awake, not by stamping feet in the fire but by having descend on them tongues of fire. Remember the words of John the Baptist: “I baptize you with water. . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11). The Spirit of Christ burns in our hearts, awakening us to the presence and activity of Jesus Christ. Sleeper, awake!
The full quotation comes from the apostle Paul, in Ephesians 5:14: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Lewis wants us to wake up, to live not in the shadowlands but in broad daylight — and he thinks the imagination can help. This, then, is our challenge: to understand how Lewis enlists the imagination in the cause of wakefulness rather than daydreaming.
Christianity has nothing to do with make-believe or wish fulfillment. There’s nothing romantic about crucifixion, nothing more nitty-gritty than nails piercing flesh, and nothing airy-fairy about bodily resurrection. I’m a theologian, and I’m the least superstitious person you’ll ever meet. I’m a realist who believes the world to be independent of what I say or think about it — but I’m also convinced that preachers and theologians minister reality. The question is: what’s the nature of reality? How can we come to know the truth about what is?
While living "in the land of dreams," Lewis enlisted the imagination in the cause of wakefulness. Tweet
Lewis had a high regard for Plato, perhaps because he too understood men and women to be dwellers in the shadowlands. Plato’s famous Myth of the Cave suggests that we are all cave men and cave women, prisoners in a dark place, chained so that we face a wall on which are cast the shadows of the things that pass by the cave’s mouth. It’s worse than the witch’s underworld, because cave dwellers who have never been outside have no way of knowing the reality behind the shadow appearances.
In Plato’s view, the world that appears to our senses is only a shadow world: we need Reason to see, with our mind’s eye, the eternal Forms of which things on earth are pale images. For Plato, reason, not imagination, is the royal road out of the shadowlands into the bright land of reality.
Karl Marx didn’t say, “Sleepers, awake,” but “Workers, unite!” But he too believed that he could lead people out of their industrial caves into the light of communism. Marx wants us to wake up not to Plato’s ethereal realm of “Ideas” but to the material and economic forces that, he thinks, shape our lives and determine history “from below.” Marx was suspicious of religion and imagination alike: combined, they comprise the “opiate of the people” because they distract us, with pious fiction, from what is truly real, namely, the class warfare that makes the world go round.
I hope you agree that it is vitally important to awaken to the truth of what is happening in our world. But what is the reality behind the veil of appearances? Is truth “above,” as Plato thinks, or “below,” as Marx claims? And is the imagination a hindrance or help in waking up to the truth?
In responding to this question, we do well to begin by considering Lewis’s own awakening: his conversion to Christianity. Then we’ll want to hear what Lewis has to say about the imagination, discipleship, and theology. After that, we’ll run a second lap, circling round the same three themes once more, this time from the perspective of how I employ them in my own work as a theologian. We’ll conclude with some thoughts about how the imagination helps us answer two questions: who is Jesus Christ for us today, and who are we for him?
Lewis’s Own Awakening: Phantastes
“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14). This is the apostle Paul’s rousing conclusion to his exhortation to the church at Ephesus to walk not in darkness but “as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8). Note the relation between waking and walking. Conversion is like waking, and walking is like discipleship, and we need the light of Christ for both. We are awake and alive in Christ, the light of the world.
Here in Ephesians 5:8–14, Paul describes the process by which those who were once in darkness come to walk in the light (Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians. Pillar New Testament Commentary [Eerdmans, 1999], 372). He’s thinking about conversion, and some commentators think this passage was associated with early Christian baptism.
Lewis’s own awakening, or at least the first stage of his awakening, began with what he describes as the “baptism of his imagination” (George MacDonald: An Anthology [New York: Macmillan, 1947], xxxii–xxxiii). As a child, he had had moments of joy, intense intimations of something wonderful just beyond his reach, a wood beyond the world’s end, but he had become, under the tutelage of his rationalist teachers, an adolescent atheist, a teenage Richard Dawkins. In a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis declared, “I believe in no religion.” Religions are mythologies invented to meet our emotional needs (The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. 1: Family Letters 1905–1931, ed. Walter Hooper [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004], 230–31).
In Surprised by Joy, however, he explains what happened to him after purchasing George MacDonald’s Phantastes at a railway station. When he stepped onto the train, he was a split personality: “Nearly all I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless” (Surprised by Joy, 170). But as he read MacDonald’s book later that evening, he began to experience a radical makeover.
The light of Christ shone on Lewis as he read Phantastes. He did not yet confess the light as Christ, but whose other embassy could it be? Lewis says he experienced what as a boy he called “Northerness”: a bright shadow, a glimpse of the beauty of another world that awakened a yearning both for that world and for the experience of desiring that world.
Here is how he describes reading Phantastes: “But now I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. Or, more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow” (Ibid., 181). This bright shadow was not quite “Northerness,” but otherness — yet instead of remaining other, this other world leapt out of the story, landing on the Normandy Beach of Lewis’s imagination and invading his sixteen-year-old secular consciousness.
Phantastes did not convert his intellect; other books did that. But it did insert a new quality into his waking life: holiness. That’s the quality Lewis later said he found in Phantastes — a holy Northerness that was also a wholly otherness — a quality that refused to remain in the world of the text and instead began to cast a bright shadow over the world in which Lewis lived: “I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow” (Ibid). I want us to understand this dynamic.
For the moment, let’s just say that young Mr. Lewis experienced a spiritual awakening. MacDonald helped him to see a bright silver lining to earthly clouds, a deeper dimension to ordinary earthly things, a world beyond cold logic and physical matter. The bright shadow in Phantastes that so intrigued Lewis turns out “to be [a supernatural] quality of the real universe . . . in which we all live” (Lewis, MacDonald, xxxiv).
Thirty years after picking up Phantastes, Lewis wrote, “I have never concealed the fact that I regard [MacDonald] as my master; indeed, I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him” (Ibid., xxxii). MacDonald even appears as a character in The Great Divorce. You remember the story: it’s about not the hound of heaven but a Greyhound to heaven, a bus trip from the “Valley of the Shadow of Life” to the outskirts of heaven.
That’s where Lewis meets MacDonald, whom he casts in the role of his guide to heaven, the Virgil to his Dante, and tries to tell him how formative reading Phantastes had been. It was, says Lewis, “what the first sight of Beatrice had been to Dante: Here begins the New Life” (The Great Divorce [New York: HarperCollins, 2001], 66, emphasis original).
Lewis does well to associate waking and walking in considering new life in Christ. The Christian life is all about waking up and walking out of the shadowlands toward the sun. Lewis’s mention of MacDonald as his Virgil recalls Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Virgil — a poet, not a philosopher — leads Dante further up and further in. We Protestants have our own version: John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The Christian life is indeed a life of itinerant discipleship, and Lewis’s journey began with the baptism of his imagination.
Lewis on the Imagination: From Baptism to Discipleship
We turn now to the imagination’s role not in bringing us to but rather in helping us to abide in Christ. Lewis has taught me that the triune God not only baptizes but also disciples our imaginations. He has also persuaded me that the imagination is a vital ingredient in doing theology. Not everyone is convinced. When in doubt, define your terms.
We start with discipleship. Walter Hooper says that Lewis was the most thoroughly converted person he ever met. Lewis desired above all to submit not only his thought but also his whole life to Christ. Some of us may not have sufficiently appreciated the extent to which Lewis was a Christ-intoxicated man. It’s therefore significant that the opening line of the first volume of Paul Brazier’s new trilogy on Lewis is: “This is a book about Jesus Christ” (C.S. Lewis: Revelation, Conversion, and Apologetics [Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012], 1).
Christian discipleship is for Lewis the process of becoming Christ-like. God is not interested in making merely nice people (this is the lie of moral therapeutic deism); he wants to make people perfect, like Christ. Paul says in Romans 8:29 that God predestines those whom he foreknew “to be conformed to the image of his Son.” What interests Lewis is how God translates Christ into ordinary mortals.
“Christianity has nothing to do with make-believe or wish fulfillment. There's nothing romantic about crucifixion.” Tweet
We may not want to become little Christs, but the Lord will not settle for anything less. Lewis imagines Christ telling would-be disciples to count the cost of following him: “‘Make no mistake,’ He says, ‘if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for” (Mere Christianity [Glasgow: Collins, 1955], 158). Indeed, the church “exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time” (Ibid., 171) — and we can certainly add theology to that list.
And speaking of theology, what exactly did Lewis think it was good for? When Sheldon Vanauken wrote asking whether he should switch from studying English to theology, Lewis replied with some ambivalence: “I’ve always been glad myself that Theology is not the thing I earn my living by. . . . The performance of a duty will probably teach you quite as much about God as academic Theology would do” (Collected Letters, vol. 3, 83, emphasis original). Ouch.
In fact, Lewis was an amateur theologian in the best sense of the term: one who does something not to earn one’s living but simply for the love of it — for the love of God. Lewis wrote introductions to theological tomes such as Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, depicted doctrines such as the fall and the atonement in his fiction, and explained nothing less than the doctrine of the Trinity in the radio broadcasts eventually published asMere Christianity. Think about that — talking about the doctrine of the Trinity on the radio. That’s the equivalent of an amateur trapeze artist doing triple somersaults without a net.
Here’s how Lewis begins: “Everyone has warned me not to tell you what I am going to tell you. . . . They all say ‘the ordinary reader does not want Theology; give him plain practical religion.’ I have rejected their advice. I do not think the ordinary reader is such a fool” (Mere Christianity, 131). Lewis goes on to compare doctrines to maps.
Maps help orient us, help us find our way in the real world. The doctrine of the Trinity maps out as it were the life of God, and the Trinitarian missions — the Father sending the Son; Father and Son sending the Spirit — enable us to share in the Son’s fellowship with the Father. To share in the Son’s life is to have a share in something that was begotten, not made, something that has always existed and always will exist (Ibid., 150). Lewis concludes: “I warned you that theology is practical. The whole purpose for which we exist is to be . . . taken into the life of God” (Ibid., 138).
What difference does theology make? Just this: it wakes us up to the reality of our sonship, our adoption into God’s family, our being in Christ. Theology uses both prayer and poetry to minister this reality. Prayer is a way of directing the mind to what is ultimately real: our createdness and God’s creativity. “Now the moment of prayer,” says Lewis, “is for me . . . the awareness, the reawakened awareness that this ‘real world’ and ‘real self’ are very far from being rock-bottom realities” (Letters to Malcolm, 81). Prayer is the preeminent theological act, and disciples do theology when they experience the reality of their relationship to God on their knees.
A disciple is one who prays — and stays awake. This is easier said than done. While Jesus prayed at the garden of Gethsemane, reminding himself of what was real and steeling himself to face death, his disciples fell asleep. Jesus found them, reprimanded Peter, and encouraged him to “keep awake and pray” (Mark 14:38 NRSV). They fell asleep again, and when Jesus returned, Mark tells us, “they did not know what to say to him” (Mark 14:40 NRSV). Jesus went away once more and, you guessed it, the disciples fell asleep again. By failing to stay awake, they effectively denied him three times. They literally fell asleep; my concern is that disciples today are metaphorically drifting off, sleepwalking their way through life and thus missing the bright shadows of eternity in the everyday. The imagination can help.
The Socratic Club of Oxford University once asked Lewis to address the question, “Is Theology Poetry?” which he took to be asking, Does theology owe its attraction to the power of arousing and satisfying our imagination and, if so, are we mistaking aesthetic enjoyment for intellectual assent? (Screwtape Proposes a Toast [London: Fontana, 1965], 42.) If theology is poetry, Lewis observes, it is not very good poetry. There is nothing particularly aesthetic about the drunkenness of Noah or the thorn in Paul’s flesh.
On the other hand, theology uses figurative language, and Lewis says we cannot restate our belief in a form free from metaphor: “We can say, if you like, ‘God entered history’ instead of saying ‘God came down to earth.’ But, of course, ‘entered’ is just as metaphorical as ‘came down.’ . . . All language about things other than physical objects is necessarily metaphorical” (“Is Theology Poetry?”, 53–54).
What is metaphor if not a statement that, taken literally, proves false? What are we to make of Lewis’s suggestion, in a chapter called “Let’s Pretend” (Mere Christianity), that when we pray “Our Father,” we are “dressing up as Christ”? (Mere Christianity, 158). The answer lies in Lewis’s understanding of the imagination, which involves a “good pretending” — a way of waking up and remaining wakeful and attentive to reality.
Wait a moment: how can imagining that we are something we’re not (which is what pretending is) ever help us to come to grips with reality? Should it not worry us that the King James Version consistently refers to vain imaginings (e.g., Psalm 2:1; Romans 1:21), or that Genesis 6:5 says, “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”?
Ironically enough, a picture of the imagination — as a faculty for producing mental images, often of things that are not there — holds many Christians captive. Representing things that are absent or nonexistent sounds suspiciously like lying: saying of what is not that it is. On the standard picture, the imagination produces false images more conducive to idolatry than theology. Is this what Lewis has in mind: the imagination as a picture-making power? Before I answer that, let’s consider what Lewis’s master, George MacDonald, thought about imagination.
MacDonald did one thing Lewis never did: he came to the States and went on a lecture tour. It was a huge success; there had been nothing like it since Charles Dickens’s visit. In gratitude for his warm welcome, MacDonald wrote and published “Letter to American Boys” in 1878. It’s a long letter and includes a story that begins like this: “There was once a wise man to whom was granted the power to send forth his thoughts in shapes that other people could see” (Cited in George MacDonald, The Gifts of the Child Christ: Fairytales and Stories for the Childlike, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973], 11). The “power” to which MacDonald refers is the imagination.
Elsewhere MacDonald gives a formal definition: the imagination is “that faculty which gives form to thought” (“The Imagination: Its Function and Its Culture,” in A Dish of Orts: Chiefly Papers on the Imagination, and on Shakspere , 2). When forms are new embodiments of old truths, we say they are products of the Imagination, but if they are mere inventions, however lovely, they are works of Fancy. According to MacDonald, creation itself is the work of the divine imagination. The world is made up of God’s thoughts put into shapes that people can see (See Kerry Dearborn, Baptized Imagination: The Theology of George MacDonald [Ashgate, 2006]).
What about Lewis? Did he ever define the imagination? Like fortification, the process of making forts, or clarification, the process of making clear, imagination suggests the process or faculty of making images. Lewis acknowledges this common use of the term to designate the mental faculty by which we make images or pictures of things, but he uses the term in other ways as well. Owen Barfield suggests that the reason Lewis never developed an overarching theory of imagination was that he wanted to protect it, not subject it to analysis. Analysis is the work of reason, but Lewis is convinced that the imagination has a cognitive vocation of its own.
Reason is the faculty of analysis that seeks objectivity, inspects things, and then breaks them down into their component parts. In his essay “Meditation in a Toolshed,” Lewis contrasts looking at a beam of light with looking along it. Reason remains aloof, maintaining a critical distance from the shaft of light, observing only the swirling particles of dust. Imagination, by way of contrast, steps into the beam of light and looks along it, tasting and participating in its illumination. Is it possible that Lewis intends his “Meditation in a Toolshed” to correct Plato’s “Myth of the Cave,” with its high view of speculative Reason? It’s possible.
For Plato, the world is full of shadows (appearances) and only Reason apprehends the Eternal Forms (truth). For Lewis, the world is full of bright shadows, but it is the imagination that perceives the brightness — the holy otherness — in the shadow. Things on earth are the created form of divine thoughts. Or as Lewis puts it in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves: “Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’” (They Stand Together: The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (1914–1963), [Macmillan, 1979], 428).
Fallen human beings both express and ensnare themselves by making false mental images; our mind’s eye suffers the distortion of the astigmatism of sin (Collected Letters, vol. 3, 683–84). But we should no more hold the imagination itself responsible for making false images than we hold Reason responsible for logical fallacies. Fancies and fallacies alike proceed from bent hearts, not from the divinely created faculties of Imagination and Reason.
Entire books have been written on the relation of reason and imagination in Lewis. We have time to ponder only one comment: “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition” (Selected Literary Essays, [Cambridge University Press, 1969], 251–65).
This is a hard saying. What is an organ of meaning? I believe it has something to do with the capacity not only to liken one thing to another but also to discover patterns, to synthesize things that initially appear unrelated. Where Reason excels in taking things apart and analyzing individual puzzle pieces, the imagination perceives the whole of which the pieces are a part. Imagination is the organ of discerning meaningful patterns. It is the power of insight, that Eureka moment when all the parts fall into place, transforming what would otherwise be an incoherent jumble into a meaningful whole.
Metaphor reminds us that imagination works with verbal as well as visual raw material. Metaphors describe the unfamiliar in terms of the more familiar. “Chess is war” makes us think about the game of chess in terms drawn from military experience. This association of ideas generates meaning — and power. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson talk about metaphors we live by (Metaphors We Live By [University of Chicago Press, 1980]). “Time is money.” Such metaphors color our daily experience. If we walk around thinking “life is war,” that will structure what we do and how we do it differently than if our leading thought was Forrest Gump’s “Life is a box of chocolates” or, for that matter, John Calvin’s “Life is a theater in which to act for God’s glory.”
One factor that kept the young Lewis from embracing Christianity was his inability to understand what it meant to “be saved.” In particular, he could not understand the atonement, at least not when it was formulated as an abstract doctrinal truth. He didn’t know what the doctrine meant. He wrote to Arthur Greeves: “You can’t believe a thing when you are ignorant what the thing is” (They Stand Together, 427, emphasis original). Here is where the imagination, the organ of meaning, comes into its own. The New Testament uses several metaphors to communicate the saving significance of Jesus’s death: sacrifice, penalty, ransom, victory, and so forth. Lewis came to understand the doctrine of atonement only when he contemplated it through those metaphors.
Metaphors minister understanding by forming meaningful associations. Metaphors are the building blocks for the house in which we live, the interpretive framework we inhabit. But the house itself is not metaphor; this honor goes to story and myth. A story “is only imagining out loud” (Collected Letters, vol. 3, 575). Stories, too, are organs of meaning insofar as they connect the scattered parts of a person’s life and transform them into a unity with a beginning, middle, and end. Myths are stories, too, though what counts is the pattern of events rather than the telling.
Myths do not simply communicate ideas but allow us to see and taste the reality of what they are about. The very best stories communicate the “feel” of reality, awaking something deep within us. In Lewis’s words: “What flows into you from the myth is not truth but reality (truth is always about something, but reality is that about which truth is)” (God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970], 66, emphases original). We taste the truth when we indwell the story or when the story indwells us.
Lewis wrote stories not so readers could escape but so that they could experience reality, and not its surface either but rather its supernatural depths. Lewis did not put reason on the side of truth and imagination on the side of falsehood. No, both reason and imagination can communicate truth, but reason does it in bits and pieces while the imagination grasps the big picture, how things fit together, and allows us to feel as true what reason treats only as abstractions (C.S. Lewis and Friends: Faith and the Power of the Imagination [Cascade, 2011], 4–5). Stories wake us up to the meaningful patterns of life. The imagination helps us to taste and see the goodness of God: the brightness in the shadowlands.
In his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis speaks movingly about the desire we all have for something that eludes us. Our experiences of beauty are only the echo of a tune we have not heard, “news from a country we have never yet visited.” Lewis then addresses the congregation: “Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness” (Screwtape Proposes a Toast, 98).
“The imagination helps us to taste and see the goodness of God: The brightness in the shadowlands.” Tweet
Lewis’s imagination is not the opiate of the people but a dose of caffeine that snaps us awake. So are the stories of the Bible. For Lewis they refer “not to the nonhistorical but rather to the nondescribable” (Corbin Scott Carnell, Bright Shadow of Reality: Spiritual Longing in C.S. Lewis [Eerdmans, 1974], 106). And, as with metaphor, so with story: we can’t say exactly what it is about apart from the story itself.
In Lewis’s words: “The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection” (They Stand Together, 428, emphases original). Scripture is the story that disciples live by. Scripture tells us the true story of the wood beyond the world where mankind fell, the true story of the Word made flesh, who became one of us so that we could become one of him. Disciples need imagination to indwell the story of the Christ — to see, taste, and feel the risen one in our midst.
In Bright Shadow: Faith Seeking Understanding and What Is “in Christ”
Let me now restate in my own terms what I have learned from Lewis.
Theology, Discipleship, and the Parabolic Imagination
Theology ministers understanding, enabling disciples to act out their knowledge of God. Theology is eminently practical. It is all about waking up to the real, to what is — specifically, to what is “in Christ.” It takes imagination to see what is in Christ, for Christ is the meaning of the whole, the ultimate pattern in whom all things are held together (Colossians 1:17).
Disciples demonstrate understanding by conforming to what is in Christ. To be a disciple is to know Jesus Christ and to put that knowledge into practice. There are no armchair disciples; there is no alibi for discipleship. One can’t be a disciple in theory. No, doctrines are what disciples live by, because doctrines inform us what is in Christ. Creation, incarnation, Trinity, and atonement are not abstractions to be thought but meaningful patterns to be lived (Hein and Henderson, C.S. Lewis and Friends, 8). The imagination helps disciples act out what is in Christ. Theology exchanges the false pictures that hold us captive with biblical truth, disciplining our imaginations with sound doctrine. Discipleship is a matter of this “indoctrinated” imagination.
Disciples must beware of having their imaginations taken captive or being put to sleep. Many of Screwtape’s strategies have to do with capturing the disciple’s imagination. If you can control the metaphors and stories people live by, you’ve got them. I want to say, from my perch on George MacDonald’s shoulders, that imagination is the faculty by which God gives created forms to his thoughts and literary forms to his words. Jesus used what we can call the parabolic imagination in giving story form to his thoughts about the kingdom of God. Similarly, disciples need the parabolic imagination in order to inhabit the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
Parables are extended metaphors. Jesus does not describe what the kingdom looks like; instead, he tells us what kinds of things happen there. The metaphors disciples live by are those that awaken them to the kingdom things God is doing in Christ. I’m haunted by what the sociologist Robert Bellah says: “The quality of a culture may be changed when two percent of its people have a new vision.” Surely we can muster 2 percent!
Unfortunately, if other sociologists are to be believed, an even greater percentage of Christians live by a quite different metaphor, namely, the moral metaphor of God as Father Christmas. Moral therapeutic deism indoctrinates its adherents to think of God not as worrying about their sanctification but rather whether they’ve been naughty or nice. It’s no good professing to be a Christ follower if your imagination is captive to the image of God as a moral therapist or a celestial handyman whom we call upon only when we have a problem that needs fixing. In stark contrast, Lewis likens God to a savage beast, an un-housebroken member of the great cat family, to be precise: “He is not a tame lion.”
The Nature of the Biblical Imagination
Standing on Lewis’s shoulders, I see the biblical imagination as the organ of theological meaning. The Bible gives us the metaphors and stories disciples live by. However, too many evangelical congregations are suffering from malnourished imaginations that have been taken captive to culturally conditioned pictures of the good life. It is difficult to connect the materialistic, market-driven pictures of the good life with the sound doctrine by which disciples are to live.
We want to believe the Bible — we do believe it; we are prepared to defend doctrinal truth — but for the life of us, we find ourselves unable to relate the doctrine we profess to the lifestyle we practice. We feel a discrepancy, a fateful disconnect, between the world in which we live and the system of theology we believe. The imagination can help. I have said that theology is about the new reality in Christ and discipleship is about participating in that new reality. I now want to say that imagination is the faculty that wakes us up to that new reality and helps us to stay awake.
Let me make two points about the nature of imagination as an organ of theological meaning:
First, the imagination is not merely a factory for producing mental images — especially of things that are not there — but a cognitive faculty for creating meaning through making and then verbalizing conceptual associations (i.e., likening). The imagination is a synthetic, synoptic power, a kind of part/whole thinking that enables us to fit things together in meaningful forms, including biblical stories. Call it the “biblical imagination.”
Second, the imagination engages the will and emotions as well as the mind. Paul perhaps has the imagination in mind when, in Ephesians 1:18, he speaks of “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened.” The Spirit alone can open the eyes of our heart, but we then have to make the effort to keep them open by maintaining a vital relationship with the object of our heart’s desire: the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Function of the Biblical Imagination
Turning from the nature of the imagination to its function, let me make two further points. I can do it in four words, with two pairs of ideas: this-that and present-perfect.
The basic gesture of the imagination is the metaphorical invitation to see this as that (e.g., “This is my body”). We need imagination to understand how marriage (this) symbolizes the relationship of Christ and his church (that).
Here we do well to recall the possibility of false imaginings, evil spells. Disciples must not confuse the evangelical what is and what will be in Christ with the satanic what if or what might be apart from Christ. The Serpent in the garden played on Eve’s imagination, saying that if only she would eat of the tree in the middle of the garden, she would be “like God” (Genesis 3:5). Satan played the same what if game with Jesus, showing him all the kingdoms of the earth and saying, “If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours” (Luke 4:7). In each case, the what if held out the possibility of a good coming from disobeying or violating the created order — in fact, no good at all.
Contrast the satanic what if with the Pauline what is. Theology’s task is to say what is in Christ, and it needs the imagination to do so. Paul is not playing make-believe when he says he has been crucified with Christ. He does not say, “It is as if Christ lives in me.” That would be a case of bad pretending and gets us no further than pious fiction. No, Paul says what is in Christ. It requires faith, and imagination, to see it, however, because being in Christ is not evident to the senses. Lewis had the unique gift of writing about what if in order to give us a taste of what was, is, and will be “in Christ.”
And this brings me to the second function of the imagination: seeing not simply this as that but the present-partial as future-perfect. It takes imagination to understand Paul when he says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Yes, Paul is a man “in Christ,” but not as a shoe is in a shoebox. Paul is in Christ, but as President Clinton put it: it all depends on what the meaning of the word is is. The is of “what is in Christ” is eschatological: it has everything to do with now tasting the kingdom of God whose completion remains future.
Thanks to the indwelling Holy Spirit, disciples already enjoy union with Christ, even though they have not yet attained to the full measure of Christ- likeness. Doctrine that sets forth what is in Christ requires a robust eschatological imagining, a faith-based seeing that perceives what is presently incomplete — our salvation — as already finished. As Lewis reminds us, we’ve never talked to a “mere mortal”: we are to take each other seriously because even the most uninteresting person “may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship” (“The Weight of Glory,” 109).
What Lewis calls “good pretending” is not the fictive what if but the eschatological what is. Though the naked eye can’t see it, the eyes of the heart see God’s transferring saints from the old age to the new, from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light (Colossians 1:13). The eyes of the regenerate heart see those who put their trust in Jesus Christ as truly (i.e., eschatologically) united to him. To be in Christ is to live and move and have our being in a new sphere, “transplanted into a new soil and a new climate, and both soil and climate are Christ” (James S. Stewart, A Man in Christ: The Vital Elements of St. Paul’s Religion , 157).
Putting It All Together: With Jesus on the Mountain
I can now state my thesis: To imagine what is in Christ is not to daydream but to awake to the day of the Lord. Calvin was right. The Scriptures are our spectacles of faith. We must look not simply at but along the Bible, especially if we want to see more than specks of doctrinal dust. The imagination is a way of looking along the Bible’s metaphors, a way of indwelling its stories. When we look along and dwell in the text, we are imagining biblically: we are letting biblical patterns organize and interpret our experience. It is only by viewing the world through the stories of the Bible that we see God, the world, and ourselves as we truly are.
The biblically disciplined imagination sees reality as it truly is: not a mechanical universe in perpetual motion but rather a divine creation in the midst of labor pains, where the new in Christ struggles to come forth from the old in Adam. Doctrine does not tell us to pretend to be something that we are not; it rather tells us who we really are: creatures in God’s image with a mandate to image God. Doctrine prepares disciples for their vocation, which is not play acting, but being real, that is, being participants in the kingdom of God that is really here in the midst of what is passing away, even if it is seen only through the eyes of a faithful heart. The task of discipleship is to act out the truth of Christian doctrine: in acting out what (eschatologically) is in Christ, we become Christlike.
Let me now pull together everything I’ve said by focusing on one crucial moment in the gospel story: Jesus’s transfiguration. Once again three disciples accompany Jesus to pray, and once again they fall asleep. They were “heavy with sleep” (Luke 9:32). Meanwhile, Jesus is transfigured: his clothes become dazzling white (a quality laundry-detergent makers promise but never deliver), and his face “shone like the sun” (Matthew 17:2). What’s going on and what does it mean?
Here is what Luke says: “When they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him” (Luke 9:32). There are other accounts of people seeing bright lights and not knowing what to make of it (think of Paul’s companions on the road to Damascus). Yet when the disciples awoke they saw something more than normal light; they saw Jesus’s glory. What exactly did they see? What does glory look like? I believe they saw the eschatological is: Jesus had just predicted that some with him would not taste death before they saw the kingdom of God.
This is precisely what Jesus’s transfiguration showed them — a preview of his glorious lordship in the age to come. But the disciples needed a biblically informed imagination to see this as that. The evangelists go out of their way to make imaginative connections between Jesus’s transfiguration and God’s appearance to Israel on Mount Sinai in Exodus 24. Both incidents involve clouds, God’s voice, and shining faces: Jesus’s and Moses’s. We catch the theological imagination at work in this connecting of the canonical dots.
Others had seen Jesus and watched him perform miracles yet did not know who he was; it takes a biblically disciplined imagination to see Jesus as the summation of the law and the prophets and to grasp how God is summing up all things in him (Ephesians 1:10). The disciples who witnessed Jesus’s transfiguration began to grasp the true significance of his person and work.
We are those disciples on the mountain with Jesus. Present-day Christians need to awaken to the glory of the transfigured, risen Christ in our midst, and we need to stay awake so that we, like the disciples, see “no one but Jesus only” (Matthew 17:8). “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see”: disciples see the “fullness of God” (Colossians 1:19) in Jesus not with physical eyes but with the eyes of the heart. Jesus is the bright shadow — not “Northerness” but Holy Otherness — in human form, coming out of the Good Book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things.
Here is the marvel: the one whose story the Bible tells is not confined to that story. He is Lord, and he is here. To see the common things of daily life drawn into the bright shadow of the Christ — this is the mark of a well-nourished theological imagination. It is precisely the biblically formed and transformed imagination that helps disciples wake up and stay awake to what is, and will be, in Christ Jesus.
An Edifying Conclusion
I cannot recall a time when I was not living in or acting out stories. Thanks to Alexander Dumas and Roger Lancelyn Green, what would have otherwise been a fairly plain tract of single-family homes was, for me, a kingdom wherein I could exercise chivalry, rescue fair ten-year-old maidens, and defend my honor against the dragon next door (an elderly mean lady, truth be told). It was the imagination that allowed me to inhabit the worlds of novels such as The Three Musketeers or King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
“Here is the marvel: the one whose story the Bible tells is not confined to that story. He is the Lord, and he is here.” Tweet
They were very much part of my early education. They gave me not so much abstract principles of behavior but concrete examples: here is how heroes behave when villains oppress the helpless. I knew, of course, that I could not really harm the neighborhood bully, much less run him through with a sword. Still, I look back fondly on the time spent between the covers — of books and bed sheets — as an important part of my character development. Years later I discovered C.S. Lewis, and I realized that behind the kingdom I had discovered in Dumas, there was another kingdom, deeper, more compelling, more exciting, and more real: the kingdom of God. I became a knight of the Lord’s Table.
A final illustration. Two stonemasons were hard at work. When asked what they were doing, the first said: “I am cutting this stone in a perfectly square shape.” The other answered: “I am building a cathedral” (I am indebted for this illustration to Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, 176). Both answers are correct, but it takes imagination to see that you are building a cathedral, not simply making blocks of granite.
Two pastors were hard at work. When asked what they were doing, the first said: “I am planning programs, preparing sermons, and managing conflict.” The other answered: “I am building a temple.” It takes the biblical imagination to see one’s congregation as a living temple, with each member a living stone (1 Peter 2:5) being worked — chiseled, fitted, and polished — in order to be joined together with Christ, the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). It takes the eschatological imagination to look at a sinner and see a saint.
“Therefore stay awake — for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning” (Mark 13:35).
“It takes the eschatological imagination to look at a sinner and see a saint.” Tweet
Disciples need imagination to stay awake to the reality of what is in Christ. To be in bright shadow is to live in the shadowlands as people with eyes of the heart enlightened, alert to the mystery of grace in the mundane, awake to God in the ordinary. Disciples may live in the shadowlands, but we “walk as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8), “as he is in the light” (1 John 1:7). To live as a disciple is to live in the bright shadow of Jesus Christ.
“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14).
More Messages from Desiring God 2013 National Conference
Undragoned: C.S. Lewis on the Gift of Salvation (Douglas Wilson)
© 2015 Desiring God Foundation. Distribution Guidelines
Share the Joy! You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in physical form, in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For posting online, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. For videos, please embed from the original source. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2015 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org