How Lewis Lit the Way to Better Apologetics
Why the path to reasonable faith begins with story and imagination
by Michael Ward
In the south transept of London’s Westminster Abbey—where for a thousand years the kings and queens of England have been enthroned—sits a crowded collection of statues, plaques, and engraved flagstones. Geoffrey Chaucer, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Charles Dickens are buried there; dozens more are commemorated there. On November 22, 2013, 50 years to the day after his death, C. S. Lewis will join them.
Poets’ Corner may seem like an odd place for a writer whose poetry is largely overlooked (though his first two publications were volumes of verse, and Lewis’s poetry is far better than many remember or realize). But you needn’t be a poet to join Poets’ Corner. Musicians like George Frideric Handel and actors like Laurence Olivier mingle with Tennyson and Chaucer. The Corner is devoted to poets in the older, deeper sense of the word. They are “makers” who assemble words (or musical notes or dramatic performances) for artistic ends.
In this older, deeper sense, there is no place Lewis more rightly belongs. Indeed, perhaps we should think of the celebrated Oxford novelist, literary critic, and apologist above all as a poet. For Lewis believed that knowledge itself was fundamentally poetic—that is to say, shaped by the imagination. And his poetic approach to commending and defending the Christian faith still lights the way for us today.
Of course, everyone recognizes Lewis’s great imaginative gifts. Often people will say that his great strength was his ability to present Christianity both rationally and imaginatively.
His rational approach is seen in The Abolition of Man, Miracles, and, at a more popular level, Mere Christianity. These works show Lewis’s ability to argue: to set forth a propositional case, proceeding by logical steps from defined premises to carefully drawn conclusions, everything clear, orderly, and connected.
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And his imaginative side, so the argument goes, is seen in The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and, at a more accessible level,The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. These works show his ability to dramatize: to set forth an attractive vision of the Christian life, proceeding by means of character and plot to narrate an engaging story, everything colorful, vibrant, and active.
By these accounts, Lewis’s rational works and imaginative works are different and distinct. They are two discrete modes in which he presented the faith. And it makes sense that we would think this way: The dichotomy between reason and imagination is how we have been taught to think ever since the so-called Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. Reasonable people don’t need imagination. Imaginative people don’t need reasons.
Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626), the father of the scientific method, declared, “All that concerns ornaments of speech, similitudes, treasury of eloquence, and such like emptiness, let it be utterly dismissed.” Clergyman Thomas Sprat, in The History of the Royal Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge, urged his readers “to separate the knowledge of Nature from the colors of Rhetoric, the devices of Fancy or the delightful deceit of Fables.”
Like all of the most misleading ideas, there is some truth wrapped up in these statements. Fanciful rhetoric may indeed be used to disguise or confuse. It can certainly become a cover for “emptiness” and “deceit.”
But are “similitudes”—that is, metaphors and analogies—always and necessarily bad? You couldn’t find a view further from Lewis’s own, for Lewis was far from an Enlightenment thinker…