Review by Charles R. Henery
This year is the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis. Lewis once told his lawyer: “After I’ve been dead five years, no one will read anything I’ve written.” He was quite wrong. Lewis enjoys a greater readership now than before his death. His books reportedly sell more than 6 million copies a year. He is more influential than ever.
|C.S. Lewis and Friends
Faith and the Power of Imagination
Edited by David Hein
and Edward Henderson.
Cascade. Pp. x + 149. $18
Among the many tributes to Lewis’s enduring influence, a memorial stone is to be placed in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey on November 22, the day of his death. There this gifted Christian writer will join a select company of literary figures, including William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, William Blake, and Lewis Carroll. In announcing the commemoration, the canon theologian of the abbey said: “C.S. Lewis was an extraordinarily imaginative and rigorous thinker and writer, who was able to convey the Christian faith in a way that made it both credible and attractive to a wide range of people.”
During his literary life, Lewis moved within a creative circle of writers who, like him, used the power of imagination to explicate the truths of Christian living. This group included Austin Farrer, Dorothy L. Sayers, Charles Williams, Rose Macaulay, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Each of these authors is the focus of study in this new collection of essays. The essays, written by an ensemble of eminent scholars, consider and illuminate the essential role the faculty of imagination plays in theological reflection, as representative in the work of Lewis and his friends.
Peter J. Schakel of Hope College, Holland, Michigan, traces Lewis’s efforts to reconcile imagination and reason in his thought. In the years after World War I, Lewis waged what he called “The Great War” in a dispute on the place of imagination in seeking truth. Gradually, with the aid of friends like Tolkien, he was led to appreciate the necessary interplay of imagination and reason in achieving knowledge, and more especially in understanding and affirming the doctrines of Christianity. While Lewis’s early Christian writings continue to show a “privileging of reason,” his later works evidence more reliance “on experience and imagination.” In his last work of fiction, according to Schakel, Lewis reaches his highest level of imaginative power. In Till We Have Faces (1956), the celebrated author at last comes to “a full reconciliation and unification of the reason he admired with the imagination he loved.”
Farrer was a close friend of Lewis’s and his confessor. Lewis dedicated his Reflections on the Psalms (1958) to the devoted fellow and chaplain of Trinity College, Oxford. For Farrer imagination is at the heart of Christian faith. He believed the great biblical images that constitute the Christian story allow a person to be deeply sensible of God’s active attendance in life, as Edward Henderson of Louisiana State University emphasizes. Images are sacramental, outwardly and visibly conveying God’s inward and gracious activity. Living the scriptural images in a response of faith realizes what Farrer regarded as the supreme definition of reason: knowledge of “what is most worthy of love, and most binding on conduct, in the world of real existence.”
Dorothy L. Sayers is best remembered today as a writer of detective fiction in the years before World War II. In the late 1930s she began to write religious plays for the cathedral stage and the radio. The broadcast of a series of plays under the title The Man Born to Be King attained wide attention in Britain during the 1940s, and after its publication Lewis would reread it every Easter. Her theological essay The Mind of the Maker (1941), along with her revival of religious drama, prompted William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to offer her a doctor of divinity degree, which she politely declined. Sayers worked in a variety of genres, as Ann Loades of the University of Durham traces, but always her purpose was boldly to make visible fundamental Christian beliefs. “The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man,” Sayers once declared, “and the dogma is the drama.”
The novels of Charles Williams are not likely to be made into motion pictures as the fiction of Lewis and Tolkien have enjoyed, suggests Charles Hefling of Boston College. Williams’s novels are “colorful, dramatic, imaginative,” but his literary style and devices are not easily translated. In his fiction, Hefling observes, Williams “was building intellectual patterns, not painting verbal pictures. Even the most fantastically imaginative passages in his novels are informed by a passion for precision, definition and order.” Williams sought to express experiences that comprised what he called “the pattern of the glory.” “The glory of God is in facts,” the Oxford don said. “The almost incredible nature of things is that there is no fact which is not in His glory.” Imagination redeemed is what interested Williams, and images for him, states Hefling, “are embodied accuracies, worded and regulated and set in order by the ‘taking of the manhood into God’ that is the Incarnation of the Word.”
Rose Macaulay was one of the most prolific and popular English satirical novelists in the first half of the 20th century. She was also one of the few novelists of her generation to grapple with Christian themes in her writings. Reared in a family of proud Anglican lineage and as a young woman disciplined in her religious practice, she turned away from a life of faith to pursue a secretive romantic affair with a married man for more than 20 years. During this estranged period from the church, Macaulay described herself as “an Anglo-agnostic,” still feeling an affinity with Anglicanism based on “a matter of taste and affection … rather than of belief.” A renewed correspondence with a former priest-confessor some years after her lover’s death led to a reconciliation with the church and a new life of devotion. David Hein of Hood College, Maryland, examines the troubled religious pilgrimage of this overlooked personality who was “a voice from the edge” of Lewis’s circle, and whose semi-autobiographical, fictional masterpiece, The Towers of Trebizond (1956), finds her heroine professing the appreciation: “Anglicans have less certainty but more scope, and can use their imaginations more.”
Tolkien met Lewis in 1926 at Merton College, Oxford, and the two men soon discovered many mutual interests, among them a taste for old Norse myths and legends. Lewis strongly encouraged Tolkien to finish and polish up his mythic stories of Middle-earth, leading to the publication of The Hobbit (1937). In his works of fiction, Tolkien aimed to make his imaginative creations consistent with a Christian understanding of the cosmos. Ralph C. Wood of Baylor University explores what he calls Tolkien’s “sorrowful vision of joy” or “a pervasive gloom” found in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-55) and The Children of Húrin (2007). He concludes that the author’s “vision is constituted by a complex interweaving of the pagan and the Christian, the despairing and the hopeful, the fated and the free.” All of these are brought into a single vision where good may suffer temporary defeat, but in the end will triumph. In the struggle against evil, there is no shame in defeat, only in surrendering and not daring forth in hope to partake of an unseen and ultimate joy “in the grand cosmic Drama.” Lewis said of reading his old friend’s literary labors: “when we have finished, we return to our own life not relaxed but fortified.”
This is a sophisticated collection of essays to be delved into deeply and for the reader to be rewarded with rich, stimulating insights. It recalls a remarkable period in Britain in the 20th century graced by a unique circle of Christian witnesses to the inspirited power of imagination in the life of faith.
The Rev. Charles R. Henery is rector of the Church of St. John Chrysostom, Delafield, Wisconsin.