Their unique appeal to the imagination allows the stories of C.S. Lewis to reach us in ways that ordinary discourse about God often can’t, attendees at an evening dedicated to the writer of the much-beloved Narnia chronicles, held January 25 in Toronto, heard.
By incorporating elements of myth, fairy tale and fantasy, the fictional works of the English Anglican writer “offer intimations of beauty and darkness, of a reality that cannot be plumbed by reason alone,” Edith Humphrey, a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, told an audience gathered at the north Toronto convent of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine.
“Luminous story,” the kind Lewis wrote, is at once art and theology; “it enters by that back door of artistry into the fray of philosophical and theological exploration, tantalizing the reader with an unseen world,” Humphrey said.
Lewis himself, said Humphrey, believed that myth and other imaginative forms of tale-telling are helpful to “hold back the demon of compulsive exposition,” a tendency to overexplain that which to some extent defies explanation anyway; “they help the author who is dealing with mystery to ‘say best what needs to be said,’ ” as Lewis himself put it, she said.
Humphrey, author of Further Up and Further In: Orthodox Conversations with C. S. Lewis on Scripture and Theology, published last year, was speaking at the first meeting in decades of the Toronto chapter of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, an international organization for bringing Anglicans and Orthodox Christians together.
Canon Philip Hobson, ecumenical officer for the diocese of Toronto, and the Very Rev. Fr. Geoffrey Ready, co-director of the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College, University of Toronto, hope to reactivate the chapter.
Humphrey was herself a member of the Anglican Church of Canada—she served for a time on the Primate’s Theological Commission, which explored various theological questions in the early 2000s—before converting to Eastern Orthodoxy. She has also contributed book reviews to the Anglican Journal.
Her talk focused, not on the Narnia chronicles, but on Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, a novel Lewis wrote for adults, but which, like the Narnia stories, takes place in an imaginary land.
In an interview with the Journal, Humphrey said some Orthodox Christians have in recent years begun to take an increased interest in Lewis’s writings, perhaps because he has a “sacramental worldview”—one that sees the world as rife with symbolism for us—that has much in common with Orthodox Christianity.
“He has the same approach to…how God uses the creation in order to draw us to him as the Orthodox church understands God’s actions in the liturgy, in the Eucharist, in the baptism,” she said. “They’re very, very similar in their approach to how God uses physical things in order to sanctify us, in order to make us what we need to be.”
Also speaking at the event was John Bowen, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College and author of The Spirituality of Narnia: The Deeper Magic of C.S. Lewis. Lewis’s way of writing fantasy, Bowen said, can work evangelistically by drawing readers into a “liminal world” that challenges their assumptions about themselves and reality, leaving them open to a faith they may have been previously dismissed.
Lewis himself, Bowen said, recognized a distinction between enjoyment and contemplation—getting caught up in the experience of something as opposed to regarding it from an objective standpoint. Lewis compared it, Bowen said, to looking along a beam of light instead of looking at it.
This, Bowen said, is the way fiction works—by inviting us to “look along” rather than “at,” by seeing through other people’s eyes and experiencing things as they experience them.
The Narnia fantasies, he said, are what the English academic Farah Mendlesohn would call “portal quests,” because they take us through a door into another world. However, Bowen said, they can also be called “intrusive fantasy”—the type of fantasy that involves the intrusion of something from another world into our own—because the child characters in them are meant to take their experiences of Narnia back with them to this world. Thus, the Christ-like lion Aslan expects the children who meet him in Narnia will, on their return to everyday life, come to Jesus with a new understanding.
“This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there,” Aslan tells them.
And the reader, immersed in the children’s experience of Aslan, returns to his or her own world similarly transformed, Bowen said.
Bowen also said, in response to a question from the audience about why Lewis chose fiction as a way to write about God, that Lewis himself said his aim in writing the Narnia books was to “get around the dragons,” to side-step the guardedness many people feel when confronted with Christianity by speaking to a less defensive aspect of themselves.
“I think he sees [appealing to] the imagination as a way of subverting people’s emotional, and perhaps intellectual, antagonism to the gospel,” Bowen said.
C.S. Lewis (1898–1963), who taught at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, wrote works of fiction and non-fiction, many of them dealing with Christianity. He went through a period of atheism in his youth before returning, in his early 30s, to the Anglican Christianity in which he had been raised.
Note: A correction has been made to this story. John Bowen is an emeritus professor at Wycliffe College, not Trinity College.
This story first appeared on February 6, 2018.