Gene Edward Veith explains the key role played by the imagination in opening minds to the truth of the Christian message.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

The part of the mind known as the imagination—the ability to form mental images—is important in the life of the Christian. Though a realm in need of discipline and sanctification, the imagination is a God-given super-power, making possible some of the greatest achievements of human beings. It makes possible empathy and compassion, shapes our worldviews, and is the way into our hearts.

The imagination can also be the way into the hearts of unbelievers. Many people in today’s culture, trapped in their narrow materialistic worldviews, “cannot imagine” any kind of spiritual reality. They perceive only dimly
the difference between good and evil, and while they can respond to extreme cases of the two (they are human, after all), they have difficulty imagining themselves as sinners. And God, Christ, Hell, Heaven, Redemption are outside of their imaginative frames of reference.

But it isn’t just that they have trouble imagining spiritual reality, they have trouble imagining physical reality. Their world consists of material objects, which they are glad to use for their pleasure; but the objective universe has no meaning for them. They think science has not only explained the natural order but has explained it away. There is no mystery or wonder in the external world, only dead matter. It can be manipulated in various ways, but any kind of meaning must come from within the self. While there might be objective facts, there is no objective truth. They cannot imagine a creation, much less a Creator.

One symptom of this tragic blindness is that people today are strangely impervious to reason. Rational arguments were important in the modernist era, which claimed the Enlightenment mantle of being the “Age of Reason.” But postmodernists often seem little affected by logic, chains of reasoning, or objective evidence.

Convincing people of the  thus poses new challenges today. Evangelists must try to reach people who have little conception of what the evangelists are talking about. Apologists can make superb arguments for the truth of Christianity that nevertheless fail to penetrate the mindset of their audiences. To be sure, many people are still coming to faith, proving that the Holy Spirit and not our merely human efforts is the One who brings people to Christ. And yet Christians must continue to speak about the objective truth of what we believe, objectivity being an important part of our worldview, both to emphasize to non-believers that the message of Christ is not just another construction of the self and to teach new believers how to think in objective terms. But one way to connect with postmodernists, to open their minds to a much larger worldview, is to reach their imaginations.

What C. S. Lewis did

C. S. Lewis is surely the best known and most successful Christian apologist of the 20th century. He showed that there is a rational case for Christianity. As such, he was addressing the modernist mind. And yet that was not all he was doing. Consider the climax of his argument about Christ in Mere Christianity:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.1

Here is a logical argument, establishing three possibilities and asserting which one is more plausible. But it is also addressing the imagination. When we read this argument, we are also picturing a lunatic, a devil, and even a poached egg. We also picture in our minds the responses to Him: shut Him up, spit at Him, kill Him, fall at His feet, call Him Lord and God.

Lewis wrote many books that make the rational case for Christianity: Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Problem of Pain, The Abolition of Man, God in the Dock, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer. His apologetic works are not abstract tomes, full of intellectual content but tedious to read. They are absorbing and hard to put down. His reasoning, full of vivid illustrations and analogies, is compelling, even exciting. This is because Lewis is stimulating not only his readers’ intellects but also their imaginations. Lewis was also the author of fantasy novels: The Chronicles of Narnia, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, Till We Have Faces. At a time when literary modernism favored works of grim realism, Lewis was writing in the genre of untrammeled imagination. But these works of the creative imagination, written to send their readers’ imagination soaring, also were works of Christian apologetics, playing a role, just like his rational arguments, in bringing countless readers to faith.

An important clue to Lewis’s life work can be found in the subtitle of the first book that he wrote after he became a Christian: The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism. His is an apologetic not only for Christianity but also for reason and romanticism. But aren’t reason and romanticism opposed to each other? How can he defend both logic and emotion, realism and fantasy? And in what sense are both opposites under attack?

This may be one of Lewis’s greatest insights. The modernists, in the name of reason, rejected romanticism. Today’s postmodernists, in their subjectivity, reject reason. But even as early as 1933 when Lewis published Pilgrim’s Regress, both worldviews were taking shape and starting to contend with each other. The narrow road that the Pilgrim must follow runs between two extremes. On one side are barren, icy cliffs, symbolizing the cold, hard facts of rationalism. On the other side are hot, muddy swamps, symbolizing the sensuality and inwardness of romanticism. But when the Pilgrim finds Christianity, a true reason and a true romanticism are restored to him.

Today, both objectivity and subjectivity are impoverished. Both are lifeless. Having no room for each other, they leave human beings trapped in a partial, incomplete state, with the different facets of their minds and personalities in conflict with each other. In the words of Lewis’s rival and fellow convert T. S. Eliot, who put forward a similar diagnosis, human beings today are plagued with a “dissociation of sensibility,” in which thinking and feeling go in different directions.2 Eliot found the unified sensibility he craved in 17th century Christian poets such as John Donne and George Herbert, and then he himself embraced the Christian faith and experienced the wholeness that it brings.

Lewis’s own coming to Christ had its start in his imagination. What he presents in an allegorical fantasy in Pilgrim’s Regress and more straightforwardly in his autobiographical memoir Surprised by Joy is his account of various experiences of ineffable longing. These were moments of transcendence, glimpses of something beyond this life, which he felt as a mingling of joy and an almost painful yearning. As he recounts in Surprised by Joy, different things would bring on these feelings, but they were almost always works of the imagination: Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin; a recording of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries; the mere title of William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End. A milestone in his spiritual pilgrimage was his discovery of Phantases by the Scottish clergyman George McDonald, one of the great masters of Christian fantasy. When he read it, Lewis said, “My imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized.”3 Later, in a conversation about myth with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, he realized that what he loved in myth—its aching beauties, its slain gods, its deaths and resurrections–pointed to Christ, in whom myth became fact.4

Imagination led C. S. Lewis to Christ, and he led others to Christ by awakening their imaginations.5

Freeing Prisoners

Lewis’s good friend and the man who brought him to Christ was J. R. R. Tolkien, an even greater writer of fantasies. In replying to the charge that fantasy is mere “escapism,” Tolkien asked, “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?”6

This is exactly the plight of the lost. They are prisoners of the sin that enslaves them, to be sure (John 8:34). They are also imprisoned in their narrow, confining, claustrophobic worldviews. That prison may be the materialism that insists that the physical world is all there is. Or it may be the even smaller and darker enclosure that is the self.

Tolkien wants to help the captive “get out” of his prison so that he can “go home.” Imagining something bigger and better than the constricting confines of the prison blows out its walls. Imagination can also awaken a yearning for one’s true home.7

To be sure, imagination can send an escaped prisoner in all kinds of directions, including to new imagination-created prisons. Christians must continue to insist on reason, evidence, and objective truth. What must be done is to re-associate truth and the imagination.

“Part of our problem in presenting the Faith,” observes Alison Milbank, “is that our world deadens desire, and many people do not know that they are missing anything.”8 “For me,” she says, “the whole enterprise of presenting the faith convincingly is aimed at opening this desire in others.”9 Helping people realize that they are missing something and awakening the desire for eternal life, for God, are critical for both apologetics and evangelism.

This is a task for the imagination, but not at the expense of reason. But reason itself needs to be imaginatively rehabilitated. Again, Dr. Milbank suggests how: Reason does need rescuing and we can do so by recasting the limit to understanding from a negation to an opening out to mystery. As Fr. Giussani argues, reason discovers mystery: ‘the summit of reason’s conquest may reveal itself as a foothill’ but this perception is itself a positive discovery that there is more: ‘the existence of something incommensurable in relation to [Reason] itself. And it is imagination that helps reason to recognize the mystery as mystery. So let us use every imaginative tool at our disposal to awaken the religious sense, and then use reason to explain the difference this viewpoint makes to our experience of the whole of reality, which is restored to us, in all its fullness.10

A good example of how this apologetics of the imagination has worked in practice can be seen in this account from British journalist Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, who describes how, as an atheist, she was converted to Christianity through the poetry of George Herbert. (I have never understood why Herbert is so little known by evangelicals today. The Word of God is part of the texture of his verse, his major theme is the Gospel, and few have written so profoundly of their “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Also, even secular scholars agree on his stature as one of the greatest lyric poets of the English language in his formal and aesthetic mastery.)11

Ms. Threlfall-Holmes recalls first coming upon Herbert as a teen-ager in school. “By the end of the weekend, I realised that this poetry was the most dangerous challenge to my atheism that I had yet come across.”12 She says that she had assumed religion was for the weak-minded. “But here was some of the most fiercely intelligent poetry I had ever read, grappling with Christian doctrines and with a relationship with God. If this brilliant mind believed all this, and devoted a life to it, then clearly I needed to look at it again.”13 Notice that she is responding not simply to Herbert’s imagination but also to his intelligence. And yet, her own intelligence needed something more.

She responds to the honest struggles that Herbert records. She says of his poems that “many of them clearly describe his intensely personal struggles with faith and calling. Even those that are more formal explorations of particular religious doctrines or concepts have a similar air of spiritual authenticity. There are no mere statements of dogma. The poems record the poet’s own doubts and faith in a way that still rings true with many readers, even those with no explicit faith of their own.”14 She begins to see that there is more to Christianity than she realized.

For Herbert, religion is never simply a set of dogmatic assertions, or a collection of cultural practices, as historical religion is sometimes caricatured. . . .It was easy to dismiss the truth of the 20 impossible things that religion seemed to expect me to believe before breakfast. It was much harder to dismiss my own emotional reaction to these poems: the beauty, the yearning, the enticing danger. They left me with the sense that I was standing on a cliff, staring out to sea, hearing marvellous tales of lands beyond the horizon and wondering if they were, after all, just fairy tales or whether the intensity with which the tales were told was evidence that the teller had indeed seen a barely imagined kingdom.15

Our churches are full of young people like teenage Miranda—smart, sophisticated in their own way, and eager to leave their parents’ households–and we agonize how to reach and keep them. They need teaching, but simply throwing abstract doctrinal ideas at them may not be enough. The teaching needs to appeal to their intelligence. But Christianity is not merely about ideas.
It is about mighty realities, as concrete as rough-hewn wood stained by blood. And Christianity is not about bourgeois complacency, but it addresses failures, suffering, and personal struggles. Teaching the faith to young people—or, for that matter, to the unchurched or to anyone today—should involve awakening them to “the beauty, the yearning, the enticing danger.”

The point is not just that we need more poets and other artists like George Herbert, though we do. We do need more apologists like C. S. Lewis who can reach both the intellect and the imaginations of people today, who are, in many ways, different than those Lewis addressed in his day. And we do need more writers like J. R. R. Tolkien who, even though they do not directly address religious issues, can expand the imaginations of their readers and fill them with desire for realities beyond the world.

But we also need preachers who can move their hearers to a deeper response. We need people who can witness to their friends so that the message of the Gospel is not easily dismissed but sinks in deeply. To be sure, the Word of God creates faith through the work of the Holy Spirit, but God’s Word itself is much more than abstract ideas. It certainly teaches inerrant propositional truths, and it does so by means of historical narratives, parables, poetry, and figurative language—all of which address the imagination in the course of reaching the heart. Meanwhile, all Christians—especially as they face the dehumanizing, reductionistic, and materialistic mentality of our current times—need to love God with all of their minds, which would include their imaginations.