C.S Lewis on Imagination and Story Apologetics

June 01, 2012

C.S Lewis on Imagination and Story Apologetics

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statue_of_C.S._Lewis,_Belfast.jpg

Michael Ward

This is a revised and abridged version of Michael Ward’s essay which appears in Imaginative Apologetics ed. Andrew Davison (SCM Press, 2011). Used by permission of the author.


C.S. Lewis is probably the most influential practitioner of Christian apologetics over the last hundred years. Works such as Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Problem of Pain, The Four Loves, and Surprised by Joy have been read by millions of people round the world since they were first published in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

But of all his publications, it is his seven Chronicles of Narnia which have been read most widely and exerted the greatest influence. Chad Walsh, author of the first ever study of Lewis’s works, Apostle to the Skeptics, writes: ‘In these books where his imagination has full scope he presents the Christian faith in a more eloquent and probing way than ever his more straightforward books of apologetics could’.[1] Dom Bede Griffiths, one of Lewis’s close early friends, agrees: ‘To my mind the Narnia stories reveal Lewis’s personal religion more profoundly than any of his more theological works’.[2] And Orthodox bishop Kallisto Ware, who studied at Magdalen, Lewis’s Oxford college, shares the same view: ‘it is primarily in the imaginative writings that his theological vision can be found expressed with the greatest depth and originality’.[3]

As someone trained in literary history and literary criticism, Lewis inevitably thought long and hard about the role of imagination, but he also taught philosophy at Oxford for a period and was a (non-professional) theologian of wide reading, so he gave considerable attention also to the claims of reason. Only if we understand his thinking about imagination and reason and the way they inter-relate with each other will we begin to see the intellectual basis for the apologetic strategy underlying his fictional writings.

Imagination in theory

According to Lewis, imagination is simply ‘the organ of meaning’,[4] and the opposite of meaning is not error but nonsense. Things must rise up out of the swamp of nonsense into the realm of meaning if the imagination is to get any handle on them. Only then can we begin to judge whether their meanings are true or false. Before something can be judged either true or false by reason, it must be meaningful. Even a lie means something and a lie understood as a lie can be most instructive. Only nonsensical things mean nothing.

For Lewis, it is reason that allows us to judge between possible meanings. Reason, as he defined it, is ‘the natural organ of truth’; imagination (as just mentioned) is ‘the organ of meaning’, and meaning itself is ‘the antecedent condition of both truth and falsehood’.[5] Imagination is therefore ‘the prius of truth’[6]: before something can be either true or false, it must mean.

Imagination in practice 

Lewis’s theoretical understanding of the relationship between imagination and reason seems to be strongly related to his personal experience, insofar as we can reconstruct it from the history of his Christian conversion. According to his theory, meaning, as discerned by the imagination, was ‘the antecedent condition’ of truth. According to his autobiography, imagination received priority treatment in that long, gradual process which constituted his acceptance of the truth of Christianity.

Lewis’s imagination was, he said, ‘baptized’ in a certain sense when, in the second half of his teens, he read a book called Phantastes by the nineteenth century Scottish writer, George MacDonald. In his spiritual memoir, Surprised by Joy, Lewis explains how his early life had been haunted by powerful, fugitive sensations of longing and beauty, experiences which he labels ‘joy’, similar to what the German romantics would have called sehnsucht (yearning). The effect that Phantastes had upon him was somehow to make these moments less transitory. He writes:

Up till now each visitation of Joy had left the common world momentarily a desert … Even when real clouds or trees had been the material of the vision, they had been so only by reminding me of another world; and I did not like the return to ours. But now [as I read Phantastes] 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 …[7]

Phantastes awakened Lewis’s imaginative capacity for understanding ‘holiness’. For the first time, he was able to attach some meaning to the idea of sanctification, the sanctification of all common everyday things, not by throwing them out in order to make room for some transcendent but alien reality, still less by replacing them with an irrational, fantastic never-never land, but by changing their meaning from the inside, transforming them, illuminating them with a different light. ‘I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes,’ Lewis wrote.[8] The imaginative transformation wrought in him by MacDonald’s work of fiction lit the blue touch-paper on a course of events that would culminate, some fifteen years later, in his conversion to Christianity.

The immediate human cause of that conversion was a long night-time conversation with two good friends, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, on the subject of Christianity, metaphor, and myth. In a letter to a third friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis recounted the substance of the conversation and it is clear that questions of meaning—that is to say, of imagination—were at the root of it.

Lewis’s whole problem with Christianity, at that stage, was fundamentally imaginative. As he wrote to Greeves, ‘What has been holding me back … has not been so much a difficulty in believing as a difficulty in knowing what the doctrine meant’.[9] Tolkien and Dyson showed him that Christian doctrines are not the main thing about Christianity. Doctrines are translations into concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in ‘a language more adequate: namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection’[10] of Christ. The primary language of Christianity is a lived language, the real, historical, visible, tangible language of an actual person being born, dying, and living again in a new, ineffably transformed way.

When Lewis realised this, he began to gain an understanding of what Christianity really meant, because he was already fascinated—he had been fascinated from childhood—by stories of dying and rising gods. In many ancient mythologies there are stories of characters who die and go down into the underworld and whose death achieves or reveals something back here on earth: new life in the crops, for instance, or sunrise, or the coming of spring. Lewis had always found the heart of these pagan stories— he mentions those of Adonis, Bacchus, Balder, among others—to be ‘profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’’.[11]

The difference between his attitude to Christianity and his attitude to the pagan myths was that, with the latter, he did not try officiously to explain them: these stories he considered to be fruitful enough in their own terms. They were myths that had to be accepted as saying something in their own way, not treated as a kind of allegory and translated into something less, something secondary, mere ‘doctrines’. By accepting that Christianity too was primarily to be understood in its own terms as a story, before its translation into a codified doctrinal system, Lewis had moved, we might say, from an analytic to a religious perspective. Analysis means literally ‘loosening up’, while religion means something like ‘tying back up’ —re-ligamenting, if you like. Doctrines, though useful, are the product of analytical dissection; they recast the original, equivocal, historical material into abstract, less fully realised categories of meaning. In short, doctrines are not as richly meaningful as that which they are doctrines about.

By coming to this conclusion, Lewis anticipated by several decades the turn to ‘narrative theology’ that would characterise much later twentieth century theological thinking. Only if we understand the fundamental role Lewis accorded imagination, both theoretically and in his own path to faith, will we properly appreciate why he attached such importance to stories—and perhaps also why he achieved such success with stories—as a Christian apologist. ©


Dr Michael Ward is Chaplain of St Peter's College, Oxford, and a leading expert on the works of C.S. Lewis.



[1] Chad Walsh, ‘Impact on America’. Light on C.S. Lewis ed. Jocelyn Gibb (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1965), p116.

[2] Dom Bede Griffiths, ‘Forty Years’ Perspective’. We Remember C.S. Lewis: Essays and Memoirs ed. David Graham (Nashville TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), p35.

[3] Kallistos Ware, ‘God of the Fathers: C.S. Lewis and Eastern Christianity’. The Pilgrim’s Guide: S. Lewis and the Art of Witness ed. David Mills (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), p55.

[4] ‘Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare’, Selected Literary Essays ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p265.

[5] Ibid, p265.

[6] Letter to Owen Barfield, 27 May 1928, The Collected Letters of S. Lewis, Volume I ed. Walter Hooper (London: HarperCollins, 2000), p762.

[7] Surprised by Joy (Glasgow: Collins, 1982), p146.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Letter to Arthur Greeves, 18 October 1931, Collected Letters, Volume I, p976.

[10] Ibid, p977.

[11] Ibid, p977.

    Leave a comment

    Comments will be approved before showing up.