Monday, March 9, 2009

Baptizing the imagination

Will Vaus, at his very interesting site, C. S. Lewis & Narnia etc., has republished an interview he gave to Kelli Conners, who is on the staff of Parnassus, Taylor University's journal of literature and the arts. Today the question was about "smuggling" Christian ideas into fiction. I think that mischaracterizes what Lewis and other good Christian authors actually do—at least insofar as it seems to suggest that they are intentional smugglers. It might be more accurate to say that their fictions inevitably arise out of they way they perceive reality. The point, though, is that such books are more likely to be read by many non-Christians than are apologetics. The question and the answer:

Kelli Conners: Since we're talking about fiction, Lewis talked about "smuggling" Christian ideas into fiction. Do you think that approach can be as effective a tool for your ministry as non-fiction?

Will Vaus: Perhaps more effective. Lewis foresaw the coming of postmodernism. He saw it in his students at Oxford in the forties. He foresaw that there was coming a time when people wouldn't have patience to follow a rational argument for Christianity. Compare today: even many people who aren't postmoderns don't have patience to sit down and read the first section of Mere Christianity. It's pretty amazing to think that, in 1941, this series went out over BBC radio. The story is told of a publican (a bartender) who, when Lewis's program came on the air, turned up the volume on the radio and told everyone at the bar to "be quiet and listen to this bloke; he has some good things to say!" We can't even conceive of something like that happening today on a popular level. But back then, it worked. Lewis foresaw that there was going to come a time when people would not have the interest level or the patience to work their way through a rational argument. He also knew that the way to reach the masses was through story; and that is what he felt came more naturally to him anyway—storytelling.

Thus Lewis wrote the Narnia stories and his greatest novel, Till We Have Faces. Those books, although they work at a subliminal level, maybe do more for the cause of evangelism than Lewis's straightforward apologetics.

I was talking with someone today about the documentary, The Dreamer of Narnia, that is on the extended edition of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe DVD. It's a wonderful documentary, and it is done in a very entertaining fashion. In it they filmed English children in Oxford sitting on the steps near the Bodleian Library reading bits of the Narnia stories. The documentary relates each of the Narnias to Lewis's life. It was fun for me watching each of those children read from the Narnia books. And it got me thinking: "Who are these children they have reading?" Some of them probably came from a very secular background; they might not even know what they are getting into their minds; but they love it. And, as Lewis says, it is "baptizing their imaginations". Who knows where God will take that? You have to be patient to invest your life in that sort of storytelling because you can't always see the immediate results.
When I was teaching, I often saw high school kids from my classes reading the Narnia books and sometimes a book from the Space Trilogy. Most of them were not Christians and, if I engaged them in conversation about the books, the enjoyment they expressed had no relationship to anything theological. But they did enjoy them. Who knows what the ultimate result may be. But the books wouldn't have been read in the first place if they had been Christian propaganda.

C. S. Lewis & Narnia etc.


  1. The idea of smuggling Christian ideas under the cover of fiction comes direct from Lewis. He wrote in a letter to his correspondent, Sister Penelope, on 9 July, 1939--"any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people's minds under cover of romance without their knowing it."

    Thanks for calling attention to my blog!

  2. Yeah, I know. But smuggling implies deception and I don't think that's what Lewis meant. I think he was talking about what can and does happen rather than recommending a strategy.

    You're welcome. I very much enjoy the site.


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