I always wondered when the Pevensie children knew that something else lie beyond the fur coats in that wardrobe. The narration talks about how the coats eventually gave way to branches until they found themselves in the snowy woods in Lantern Waste. But I always imagined that the cold winter air of Narnia whooshed into the wardrobe. The wind would make you shudder and wonder what on earth is going on before you even went deeper into the formerly innocuous piece of furniture.
I used to say that people quoted C.S. Lewis almost as much as they quote the Bible. In American evangelical Christianity, he is a towering figure. Lewis was a revered apologist in a century in which modern apologetics became a cornerstone—for good and ill—in certain circles of the faith. Mere Christianity is rightfully heralded as a great work for people that want to think rationally about faith.
I like Mere Christianity but I do not find myself returning to it nearly as frequently as I do Lewis’ works of fiction: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce. My favorite Lewis quote about God is not a thoughtful and scholarly reflection from one of his apologetic works. My favorite—"Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you"—is in the context of a talking beaver speaking about a lion king in the magical setting of a children’s novel.
The apologetics of C.S. Lewis are important, but, for me, his legacy will always be his imagination. I first read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in the sixth grade. And I could feel the branches as Lucy discovered that magical world. Long before the movie adaptation, I knew what Cair Paravel looked like. As a child, I could wrap my mind around how sad they would feel for it to be always winter and never Christmas.
Lewis’ incredible imagination made Narnia feel real and lived in. In my first go-around of reading it, I didn’t catch all of the Christian symbolism. I was so wrapped up in the magic, talking animals, knights, and battle of good and evil. Yet the second and third and seventh time I read it, I picked up on the nods like how Christmas was when the Witch’s spell began to break.
Even today, when I talk about sacrifice, resurrection, and the problems of death and evil, I come back to that children’s book. The same could be said about Lewis’ more adult works of fiction. I am taking a class presently on The Problem of Evil. As helpful as all the works of brilliant scholars we read are, none really hit the nail on the head like Screwtape. The imagining of the afterlife in The Great Divorce challenges me and provoked me to dwell more on heaven, hell, and how each touches earth.
There is something about imagination that lights the entire mind up. Sometimes it will just immerse in joyous awe at the wonders of that world. Many other times, it will light something beautiful and true that has been there all along but you needed different eyes to see it. That is the power of a great story.
As we celebrate the life of C.S. Lewis on today, the fiftieth anniversary of his passing, I hope we celebrate his imagination. More than that, I hope we learn from it. Throughout the centuries, people eyes have been opened to the beauty of the gospel through the arts: through icons, stained glass windows, oratorios, hymns, roaring lions, and more.
The modern church has put such a premium on proving the faith—at whatever costs and occasionally at the expense of logic—that we have forgotten how to celebrate the faith through creativity. This creativity was bestowed to us by a God in whose image we are made. We must recover the spiritual discipline of imaginative faith.
To remember C.S. Lewis, let’s apply our imaginations: build worlds, paint canvases, compose songs, write a poem. It does not even have to be artsy. We can dare to dream about how to solve poverty in neighborhoods or give the voiceless an opportunity to be heard. Imagination is not just important to the realm of fantasy; the real world needs it pretty desperately too.
Thank you God for C.S. Lewis and thanks to C.S. Lewis for sharing your imagination with us.