“Storytelling and Healing in a World Gone Mad”
When you return to an old book, sometimes you begin to see the world with new eyes. In returning to C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, I began to see what poet Kathleen Norris describes as:
“… a bold act of storytelling and healing in a world gone mad. In 1942, just twenty-four years after the end of a brutal war…, Great Britain was at war again.
Now it was ordinary citizens who suffered, as their small island nation was bombarded by four hundred planes a night, in the infamous “blitz” that changed the face of war, turning civilians and their cities into the front lines.”
Having been through the trenches of World War I, a time of honest atheism and a conversion to the Christian faith, Lewis was called upon by the BBC to speak to listeners in a war-time broadcast. Addressing the realities of pain, suffering and the problem of evil, he helped countless people find hope in the Christian story.
Imagination is a Doorway to Belief
Lewis’s war-time broadcasts would ultimately become the bedrock of the book, Mere Christianity. As Norris recounts:
“In Mere Christianity, no less than in his more fantastical works, the Narnia stories and science fiction novels, Lewis portrays a deep faith in the power of the human imagination to reveal the truth about our condition and bring us hope.”
By imagination, we mean the capacity to see the world as it is, but also to realize (make into reality) what the world can be. The Christian story is itself one of imagining a transition from an old way of life to a new one.
If you have ever read the Chronicles of Narnia series, you have seen the power of Lewis’ imagination at work as four children enter through a wardrobe into a magical land occupied by the evil White Witch. Working together with a benevolent lion, named Aslan, the children help rescue humans and animals alike who had been frozen by the Witch’s evil spell. Even as Aslan breathes life into those, whose lives were left for dead, one may also recall times when life was breathed into our own longing to be made whole again.
Imagination and Recovery
In the Christian story, the use of imagination began long ago among the prophets of Israel. Though this was not the first time, nor the last, imagnination was often a doorway for positive and necessary change. For example, the prophet Ezekiel had a vision of a valley with dry bones. It is debatable whether God put this vision into the prophet’s head or if this was merely a projection of the human mind, but the point is clear. The valley of dry bones represents a nation, a future or a heart that is broken. As such, there is no movement among the bones. There is no life. The only question that is framed in all but words: “Human, can these bones live?”
The next thing we know, the prophet hears a whisper: “Talk to the bones. Tell them, ‘…I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life (Ezek. 37:1–8).’ ”
At last, the prophet hears a sound, “… a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to bone (Ezek. 37:7).” As a mother with a child, a nation restored, or a broken heart finding a reason to live, Ezekiel’s vision is one of transformative imagination, reminding us that where there is faith, change is never far away.
Imagination and an Example from Running
If this sounds like wishful thinking, consider an example from running. There was a time when few people thought it was possible to run faster than a four minute mile. It had never been done before on record. However, a man named Roger Bannister believed it was possible and in 1954, he ran the mile in 3:59.4. Since that time, over a thousand runners have broken “four minute barrier.” It begins with imagination, but finds fulfillment in our willingness to believe what is possible. Sometimes we never know unless we try.
Putting on a More Humane Existence
For Lewis, imagination and faith go hand in hand. As Lewis describes in chapter seven of Mere Christianity, faith is like putting on a new garment as a child puts on a costume and pretends to be a grown up. As Lewis writes:
“That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grown ups… But all the time… the pretense of being grown-up helps them to grow up in earnest. …A mother teaches her baby to talk by talking to it as if it understood long before it really does. We treat our dogs as if they were ‘almost human:’ that is why they really become ‘almost human’ in the end (MC, 188,194).”
Each time we dare to put on the characteristics of Christ, there is a very good possibility that we will bear that same image and spirit.
A World Re-Imagined: Kindness Begets Kindness
I had a friend who had grown up in a children’s home. He had few academic or vocational credentials to speak of. He had little money and not much in the way of a home; but he had heart, character and the kind of faith that could be seen in his life. For Mark, faith was not something to blather on about, but something to be lived. Like Lewis’ example of children putting on the characteristics of people they aspired to be, Mark put on the life of Christ.
He was a counselor at a camp for many years. Ultimately, he was entrusted to be a director. I had the privilege of working with him one summer in my first year as a camp counselor and by the end of the season, there was no question about the kind of impact one person of faith (like Mark) can have on an entire community. In fact, I would describe my experience of that kind of community as one of the most joyful and productive seasons of my life and I occasionally stumble on such moments even now.
Disclaimer: Reading Old Books with New Eyes
Like most of us, Lewis was a product of his time. He used the language people used, (i.e., “man” instead of “humankind”). He used metaphors his readers could relate to during a time of war and he was British to the core (though Irish-born).
On the other hand, Lewis is timeless in the sense that the Christian story transformed the imaginative genius of this honest atheist into a voice of healing for generations to come.
Mere Christianity is a great conversation partner for any who struggle with wars much closer to home, but with the hope that faith brings to bear on any circumstance.
For Further Reflection:
- Lewis maintains that all human creatures (whether religious or not) have a sense of right and wrong. Additionally, he maintains we may not always do the right thing and sometimes do the wrong thing, but we still have a sense of right and wrong. If this is true, where does this sense come from?
- Do acts of kindness perpetuate further acts of kindness (at least among some)? If this is true, what might we do different today, tomorrow?
- Is there something you feel led to do or to be that you believe would have a positive impact on the world in the way of help, hope and healing? What do you need in order for that to happen? What other people or resources might be available to join you in this effort?
- How can we be better Stewards of the earth, neighbors to one another and whole within ourselves? What is our primary source of insight as we aspire to be so? How do we engage such insight on a daily basis?