Friday, January 16, 2015

C. S. Lewis’s Acts of Imagination

While speaking recently about C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian, I’ve been asked the question of why he’s so popular. Why are more people reading him today then when he died over 50 years ago? One answer keeps coming to mind: that Lewis’s writing doesn’t ultimately give us answers—he invites our response. And he often does that through an act of imagination. His genius imagination invites us as readers to engage our questions, grasp his resolutions, and ponder our own answers. 
I love this picture of Lewis
      Let me put this another way: I’ve often heard that Lewis was the “rationalist” apologist who produced the multi-million selling Mere Christianity, which (it’s argued) seeks to deduce the reality of God and the uniqueness of Jesus from logical arguments. Admittedly, Lewis was trained at Oxford in philosophy (more particularly ancient philosophy) and employed its insights and methods, but imagination was a deeper and older root of his inspiration than logical arguments.
      Lewis learned the power of imagination in the service of theological insight as a seventeen year old. In February 1916—fifteen years before he became a Christian—Lewis first read George MacDonald’s, Phantastes, which “baptized his imagination” and impressed him with a deep sense of the “holy.” Ten years later, in 1926 Lewis read G. K. Chesterton, who led the still-atheistic Lewis to grasp “the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense.” Indeed, that is what Lewis wanted to do with his readers years later in his The Space Trilogy from the 1930s and The Chronicles of Narnia from the 1950s—to give his readers’ imagination the view of another world, even past the prejudices, the “stained glass and Sunday school associations” that bar readers from engaging Christ’s reality. Through the acts of imagination, Lewis posed the question, “Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?” To which he replied, “I thought one could.”
      And Lewis’s imagination was so amazingly fertile and nimble. I’ve been reading The Magician’s Nephew from Narnia, and what strikes the reader—at least this reader—is how easily the ideas and narratives flowed for Lewis. Famously, this ease of writing frustrated his good friend J. R. R. Tolkien, who fretted over every sentence and who left the narrative of Lord of the Rings for over a year dangling with Gandalf having plunged down the Mines of Moria, and not knowing what would come next.
      The argument in my book  is that Lewis’s life was really deeply challenging (for example, his mother’s death, two world wars, caring for an alcoholic brother, the death of his wife). But for him imagination was easy. He even spoke of the main character “Aslan bounding into” some fragmentary story ideas. And he let his imagination run with the Great Lion and see where it led. “I don’t know where the Lion came from or why He came. But once He was there He pulled the whole story together, and soon He pulled the six other Narnian stories after Him.”

      And it’s not simply Aslan. Who of Lewis’s readers could forget Puddleglum or Lucy or Jadis or Ransom or the talking Beavers? We, I believe, are the better for that Lion and all those characters running through Lewis’s imagination and thus through ours.

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