“Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”
– C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Below are a few pictures from the scores I took during our 2019 visit to the “The Kilns,” the adult home of scholar and author C. S. Lewis, located on the outskirts of Headington Quarry, Oxford, England. The place is named for a brick-making operation that had two large kilns on site. The house today is a study center, so reservations for tour times are required. Our guide was a doctoral student from the United States, and we had about 20 minutes before the tour began to talk about the research he was doing for his dissertation. The best tour guides are those who share the stories we don’t read about in books, and our guide had plenty of those woven into his presentation. In the end, it was great to finally see where so many of Lewis’ treasured thoughts were put to paper.
“Jack” as Lewis was better known, slept in the upstairs bedroom, the smallest and most inconvenient room to access. When his college roommate Paddy Moore was killed in World War I, Jack befriended Paddy’s mother, Mrs. Janie King Moore, and her adolescent daughter Maureen. In 1920, after completing his first degree, Lewis decided to share lodgings with them (in fulfillment of a vow he had made to Paddy during the war) so he could more carefully look after their needs.
Lewis gave Mrs. Moore the larger bedroom, which he had to pass through to get to his own. That would have been inappropriate, so Leiws had an external staircase built off his room so he could access it another way. If he needed to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, he would use this staircase, putting himself out for the sake of his friend’s mother, who could be quite demanding. Lewis patiently lived what he wrote in The Four Loves.
The simplicity of the Kilns was quite a contrast to the ornate houses, palaces, and castles we visited during our time in England. It just goes to show that we don’t need to be wealthy or live in luxury to have a great impact. We just need to have an openness to the beauty, truth, and goodness of God as revealed in Christ—a willingness to be enchanted by wonder.
It is clear from Scripture that God is worthy to be praised, but why does he want to be praised? Indeed, why does he demand to be praised (cf. Deut 6:13)? The first commandment allows no room for any other gods besides Yahweh (cf. Exod 20:3). Such a claim seems narrow and exclusive in an age of pluralism and tolerance. Here’s a God who says that alternatives and substitutes are off limits to his people.
That raises the question of whether or not God is ego-heavy after all. Is he not humble? Is he needy in some way? Is he insecure? Why must he always get top billing? People who act like that are considered narcissistic.
C. S. Lewis pondered the question, and he was troubled for some time by its possible implications. Is God, he wondered, like “a vain old woman seeking compliments?” After soaking his head in the book of Psalms, Lewis came to an insightful conclusion. In Reflections on the Psalms he writes:
“I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . . .
“The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”
“I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”
Still, the question remains: Is the first commandment somehow a violation of meekness? Is there something arrogant about God wanting to be regarded as utterly supreme in the universe? No. God is utterly supreme in the universe! Moreover, he wants his people to live in sync with reality; anything less would be insanity.
Ancient gods that were the products of people’s imaginations—idols that needed to be fed, dressed, bathed, and cared for by the priests in order to function—were not and are not ultimate; therefore, they are not worthy of worship. Serving such gods is a delusion, a waste of time, and ultimately disappointing. Only Yahweh is authentic, supreme, and able to “deliver the goods.”
Recognizing this theological truth is the beginning of wisdom and the first step toward living in accordance with reality. Deviate on this issue, and everything else will be askew—like missing the first buttonhole in a shirt; every other button is wrong, and the entire garment is misaligned. But to be properly aligned by recognizing the supremacy and exclusivity of Yahweh, and worshiping him alone, brings with it its own spiritual benefits, not the least of which is genuine life transformation. As Archbishop William Temple once said:
“Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of the conscience by his holiness; the nourishment of mind with his truth; the purifying of imagination by his beauty; the opening of the heart to his love; the surrender of will to his purpose—all this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable.”
Such selfless adoration is indeed a great pleasure. Gone, for the moment, are all the cares of this world during true acts of worship. As Lewis said, “The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express the same delight in God which made David dance.”
“The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express the same delight in God which made David dance.”
In the end, God allows people to reject him, disbelieve him, and not worship him as God (at least for now). And that’s the very definition of humility—to have infinite power to compel submission while putting oneself in a position to be rejected.
Like Father, like Son.
Image Credits: crosswalk.com; Lori Thomason (Pure Devotion).
It was the unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right forehoof on the ground and neighed, and then cried:
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we love the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in!”
He shook his mane and sprang forward into a great gallop—a unicorn’s gallop, which, in our world, would have carried him out of sight in a few moments. But now a most strange thing happened. Everyone else began to run, and they found, to their astonishment, that they could keep up with him: not only the dogs and the humans but even fat little Puzzle and short-legged Poggin the Dwarf. The air flew in their faces as if they were driving fast in a car without a windscreen. The country flew past as if they were seeing it from the windows of an express train. Faster and faster they raced, but no one got hot or tired or out of breath.
“The show was dazzling and majestic in every way imaginable. The score, the voices, the lights, the scenery, the costumes, the special effects, and the sheer creativity of it all were unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a live performance. Can the stage get any better than this? With the exception of a few secondary cast members, this was as close to theatrical perfection as one can get. Love wins in the end. The curse is lifted from the castle, and happily we’re ever aftering.”
Such was my impression after seeing Broadway’s version of Beauty and the Beast about a decade ago. Superlatives failed to capture the excellence of the production and the inspiration of the moment. But what struck me most—again—was the prominence of biblical themes contained in a secular work, and the resolution of the foundational human dilemma in ways that come close to what the Bible indicates happened in Christ. These kinds of correspondences in literature are never exact, but they often come strikingly close to the biblical narrative.
I see these kinds of correspondences quite often, and sometimes it gets me into trouble. When my kids were young, they laughed at me mercilessly while I sobbed my way through Finding Nemo. But I teared up because that silly cartoon is the compelling story of a loving father who will stop at nothing to find his lost son and return him safely home. Sounds a lot like Luke 15 to me, and if Disney is the one to show it to me better than the preacher, who am I to object? We believers don’t need to get nervous at such an admission, for surely the grace of God cannot be upstaged by a cartoon, even if a preacher’s sermon can be.
But here’s the question that intrigues me: How did the unbelieving author of Finding Nemo—who rejects Luke 15 as being authoritative—wind up writing his own version of it? From our theological perspective, the answer goes something like this: What fallen humanity yearns for most, as reflected in our stories, literature, poetry, and music, God has provided for us in Jesus Christ, his only Son, and it’s only spiritual blindness that prevents us from seeing it. Alas, too often we prefer our own stories to God’s, so we write him out of the script. Or so we think.
The fact is, we may go off and draft our own stories without God, but we still write as people made in the image of God, even if we refuse to acknowledge the fact. But denying God doesn’t erase the image of God inside the denier, which means, of course, that we can’t even be good skeptics without God’s help. The clenched fist we wave in his face is from the hand he gave us in the first place. Ditto the minds he gave us—with which we pen our stories.
Writing through Rebels
The basic plot of Beauty and the Beast is well known. A curse renders the young prince and his whole castle disfigured, jaded, unkind, and less than human. But there’s an intense longing by these distorted people to have the curse reversed and become “normal” again. Significantly, the rules of the game in this fictional world insist that only a true and sacrificial love can serve as the means by which the curse is lifted and restoration can take place. As is the case in all fairy tales, this true and sacrificial love is finally realized, along with the happy resolution to which the whole plot moves. There’s even a song called “Human Again,” which talks about being reborn. Reborn? Where does that language come from?
I see this so often in good literature that I have to recognize something bigger is going on here than meets the eye. Is it possible that God can witness to himself even on Broadway during a musical production based on a fairy tale—or at least prepare people’s hearts for eventually hearing his own version of the Story? Is it possible for a believer like me to actually worship God in the theater during such a play?
Well, I did, right there in Seat J-9 of the center section. And I worshipped because of what I’m convinced is true of the irreligious authors who wrote this show, and is true of me, too: When fallen people reject God’s story and run off to write their own, they wind up writing God’s story anyway, even if they do mangle the script a bit. Image bearers write after their own image. Broken image bearers miss the target, even if they’re firing the right arrows.
Now, that should cause us to ponder the greatness of God. Has the Almighty really made us in such a way that even our rebellion can serve to providentially boomerang us back to himself? Luke 15 would seem to suggest so. Every time that smelly pig rubbed its muddy snout against the prodigal son’s leg, it was actually pushing the boy closer to home, where a gracious father stood ready to throw a feast upon his return.
The Original Storyteller
Such a God would indeed be awesome and worthy of our worship. And such a God would vindicate Qoheleth (the Teacher) who wrote, “God has set eternity in the heart” (Eccl 3:11b). In other words, wherever we go, there we are, imago Dei and all. Surely, we can never find our way back to God’s Narrative without divine assistance, but we can yearn in the right direction for the inconceivably good climax he’s already penned. Indeed, it’s precisely because we’re made in his image that we can write something approximating his script. But because we’re also fallen, we can never get it exactly right. We need a critic or an editor who knows the original storyline to help us get it right. The prophets are God’s critics, and the priests are God’s editors. We need their voices because we tend to botch the story without them. But the underlying truth is that we ashuman beings tell stories because God is the original Storyteller.
Our stories, then, consist of faded glory yearning for Eden, and the implications for outreach are profound. Maybe God is greater than we had ever imagined, and maybe the gospel is far better news than we had ever thought. Should we not be more hopeful, knowing that God is always at work? (Cf. John 5:17.) Should we not love people more, even unbelievers who don’t agree with our theology? They dohave a theology; it’s just not complete yet. The boomerang hasn’t come all the way back yet to the hand that threw it. Patience is required. So is perseverance.
Lost and Found
That’s why we share the gospel in places we think it might not prevail. The Parable of the Sower teaches, among other things, the need for liberality (to the point of carelessness) in spreading the Word. Why? Because good soil—life-sustaining soil—can be found in some pretty surprising places. The cracks in my driveway bear witness to that. Surely the hearts of many in our day have been paved over by the cares of this world, but there are many cracks out there desperately waiting to be seeded.
For the most part, Jesus called people who were far from God “lost,” which invites genuine compassion, not self-righteous condemnation. To be lost implies the possibility of being found, and this dynamic is a universal tug of the heart. Miners trapped in a shaft. Hikers buried beneath an avalanche of snow. Children plunged to the bottom of an uncovered well. Astronauts locked inside a hobbled space craft. We want them back. We want them to be rescued. We want a happy ending to the story. And we want a savior who can make it happen. We want a champion who will set things right again. Such yearnings and resolutions are ubiquitous in literature.
The Little Mermaid
The Wizard of Oz
Phantom of the Opera
Lord of the Rings
The Chronicles of Narnia
Beauty and the Beast
Lifting the Curse
In Beauty and the Beast, all the members of the castle staff are under a spell that renders them less than human. They’ve all become “things”— household objects, dishes, kitchenware, furniture, and the like. They’ve been objectified and dehumanized, and they’re demoralized because of it. But word is out that someone has come to the castle who might be able to break the spell. They long for that moment. And as they see their day of redemption coming, they burst into jubilant song:
Human again! Think of what that means! We’ll be dancing again, we’ll be twirling again We’ll be whirling around with such ease When we’re human again, only human again
We’ll go waltzing those old one-two-threes We’ll be floating again, we’ll be gliding again Stepping, striding as fine as you please Like a real human does, I’ll be all that I was
On the glorious morn, when we’re finally re-born And we’re—all of us—human again
Re-born? That’s our word. A Christian word. A Jesus word (John 3:3). And to that I can only say, God is beautifully sneaky. He’ll give a whole theatre audience an echo of his gospel in a dazzling, captivating production. It’s not the gospel, but it’s a half-decent echo of the gospel. Are we listening? God is always speaking. History (“his story”) is the stage. We might mess up our lines from time to time, but the playwright gets his way in the end. So, the tales are true after all. The God of Scripture is the God who lifts curses, turning beasts into humans, even today.
Tale as old as time Song as old as rhyme Beauty and the Beast
The True Myth
The gospel according to Broadway. They almost get it right, but they’re far enough away from it to be dangerous. That’s why they need a prophet and a priest to connect the dots and finish the story. Christ is the beauty, and I am the beast. The spiritual spell I’m under needs to be broken, and by the sacrificial love of Christ crucified, it is. Moreover, by his resurrection from the dead, the curse is finally lifted, and I can be reborn.
C. S. Lewis was on to something when he considered the possibility that all our stories, myths, and aspirations down through history came to fullest expression in the actual Christ of history. (And for that insight, we have J. R. R. Tolkien to thank; see below.)
If that’s the case, then let the Church continue to sing—on behalf of others as well as herself—“Come, Desire of nations come, fix in us thy humble home.”
VIDEO: “Lewis and Tolkien Debate Myths and Lies” on Addison’s Walk, a footpath around a small island in the River Cherwell on the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford, England. I watched this video clip on my phone while walking the same path in the spring of 2019. Knowing the far-reaching impact this conversation has had, I prayed a simple prayer of thanksgiving—through tears, of course—for the lives of these two men.
“I am imagination. I can see what the eyes cannot see. I can hear what the ears cannot hear. I can feel what the heart cannot feel.” (Peter Nivio Zarlenga)
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” (Albert Einstein)
“If we have learned anything else it is that the ideas of the poets and artists penetrate where everything else has failed.” (Norman Cousins)
“The value of the cleansed imagination in the sphere of religion lies in its power to perceive in natural things shadows of things spiritual.” (A. W. Tozer)
“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” (Michelangelo)
One of the first things we learn about God in Scripture is that he is creative (Gen 1:1). He is both original and originating. Setting aside the important question of why there is something rather than nothing, the universe as an object to be observed bears the marks of order, design, artistry, and imaginativeness. Have you ever seen a giraffe up close? Or an otter? Or a platypus? Can all such oddities be chalked up to biological happenstance, or is God is the original “imagineer”? It is reasonable to conclude the latter.
Moreover, as human beings made in the image of God, we are people who can create. Don’t pass over that truth too quickly. God creates people who can create! Indeed, we often find some of our greatest fulfillment in life by creating things—songs, poems, paintings, novels, sculptures, clothing, cabinetry, etc. By cultivating our inner lives—by nurturing and living out the image of God in us—we can use our imaginations for the glory of God, leading to much personal satisfaction as a byproduct. The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis are a perfect case in point. Lewis was a gifted and effective “imagineer” for the gospel, and writing children’s stories was a great personal delight to him.
The Bible itself bears witness to the power of the imagination:
The delightful description of growing older in Ecclesiastes 12
The curious visions of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and John
The earthy parables of the kingdom by Jesus in the Gospels
The heartening portrayal of the New Jerusalem as a radiant bride in Revelation
The list is long. Consider the story of David and Absalom in 2 Samuel 17. David has been forced out of Jerusalem by Absalom, who now possesses his father’s throne, wives, and leadership of the army. But in the midst of his achievement, he has a problem. What should he do with his father-king who has escaped into the wilderness? Absalom solicits advice from two sources:
His advice is “left brain” (i.e., objective, precise, logical).
His emphasis is on information, analysis, the factual.
His approach is to be a conduit of information.
His message is “heard.”
His advice is right brain (i.e., subjective, affective, emotive).
His emphasis is on the hearer (“you” . . . “your”).
His approach is to be a painter of word pictures
“as fierce as a wild bear robbed of her cubs”
“whose heart is like the heart of a lion”
“will melt with fear”
“sand on the seashore”
“dew settles on the ground”
His message is “seen and felt.”
Absalom and his advisors like Ahithophel’s plan, but Absalom still wants to hear Hushai’s counsel. When Hushai is finished offering his (more imaginative) presentation, everyone regards his plan as superior to Ahithophel’s, and that is the plan they follow.
Had they followed Ahithophel’s advice, they would have routed David. Instead, David’s life is spared (17:14). This turn of events is a fulfillment of David’s prayer that God would turn Ahithophel’s counsel into foolishness (cf. 2 Sam 15:31).
Clearly, the impact of a presentation laced with imagination can be profound. Like any other capacity we have, imagination can be corrupted, but as A. W. Tozer noted (above), a cleansed imagination has much power.
Jesus himself made use of the imaginative to communicate his message. His parables, for example, were not “Bible stories” when they were first told; they were short, simple, earthy stories invented to communicate important spiritual truths. Regarding these parables, Haddon Robinson writes, “[Jesus] didn’t read them out of a book. He made them up on the spot. He created them out of life. He used his imagination.” In other words, Jesus was not merely propositional in his teaching ministry. He was not static, flat, dull, or uninteresting. He was dynamic and pulsated with divine life. Michael Card, in his book Scribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creativity, describes the famous scene in John 8 where the woman is caught in the act of adultery, and Jesus curiously stoops down to write on the ground:
“It was art and it was theater at the same time, but it was more. It was what he did not say that spoke most powerfully to the mob that morning. It was a cup of cold water for a thirsty adulteress and an ice-cold drenching in the face to a group of angry Pharisees. To this day we have not the slightest idea what it was Jesus twice scribbled in the sand. By and large the commentaries have asked the wrong question through the ages. They labor over the content, over what he might have written. They ask what without ever realizing that the real question is why. It was not the content that mattered but why he did it. Unexpected. Irritating. Creative.”
Card goes on to suggest that Jesus’ stooping to write on the ground was his way of drawing the angry stares of the Pharisees and the nosey gawks of the crowd away from the woman and onto himself. The leers and hostility were now falling on him instead of the accused. That’s the gospel. Jesus became her substitute. It was an enacted parable of grace, verified by those climactic and memorable words, “Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone. . . . Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
This re-presentation of the text is imagination at its finest, producing a true sense of wonder in the listeners. C. S. Lewis suggested that wonder is “the echo of a song the soul has not yet heard.” That is, it is a song coming to us from the Original Singer who sang all of creation into existence.
In his book Recapture the Wonder, Ravi Zacharias writes, “Wonder is that possession of the mind that enchants the emotions while never surrendering reason. . . . It interprets life through the eyes of eternity while enjoying the moment, but never lets the momentary vision exhaust the eternal.”
Let us, then, be “wonder-full” people. Let us keep creating good and beautiful things that speak well of our Creator, in whose image we are made. Let us imagineer our way through life.
From Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis (New York: HarperOne, 2005), xxi.
“Lewis’s mind was above all characterized by awillingness to be enchanted. . . . It was this openness to enchantment that held together the various strands of his life–his delight in laughter, his willingness to accept a world made by a good and loving God, and (in some ways above all) his willingness to submit to the charms of a wonderful story, whether written by an Italian poet of the sixteenth century, by Beatrix Potter, or by himself.
“What is ‘secretly present in what he said about anything’ is an openness to delight, to the sense that there’s more to the world than meets the jaundiced eye, to the possibility that anything could happen to someone who is ready to meet that anything. For someone with eyes to see and the courage to explore, even an old wardrobe full of musty coats could be the doorway into another world.”
Image Credits: National Portrait Gallery, London; Wiki Narnia.