The power of the imagination as a pathway for God was something C. S. Lewis would testify to from first- hand experience. Before he was a Christian he purchased a paperback copy of George MacDonald’s Phantastes and, in his words, experienced holiness. What he meant was not sanctity in the sense of moral goodness, but holiness as spoken of by Otto in The Idea of the Holy. Otto spoke of holiness as that sense that we have of something absolutely OTHER. The awareness that there is something, or Someone, behind the world as we ordinarily experience it. From that moment when Lewis had this experience he began to travel a road that led him finally to Christ.
Soon after his conversion Lewis forayed into imaginative writing with the allegory The Pilgrim’s Regress. Personally I love this book, partly because it is a veiled autobiography of Lewis’ spiritual-intellectual journey up to that point, and partly because it contains so many barbed critiques of the English intellectual landscape of the 1930’s, barbs that still have not lost their edge.
Regress was imaginative, but the best was yet to come. From 1938 on through the mid-fifties Lewis blew the doors off beginning with Out of the Silent Planet and moving on in rapid succession to both Perelandra and The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape put Lewis on the cover of Time Magazine and brought him international readership and fame. And yet The Chronicles of Narnia still lay ahead.
What needs to be considered is that all of this was part of his intentional work as an apologist. He believed that there are certain archetypes in the universe and that these form the foundation of our thinking. These archetypes find their expressions in myths. (It should be noted that Lewis claimed to be an expert in myth, and he did not believe that the Gospels were myth.) Thus, myth could carry truth about God to a person who might even be hostile to the truth on another intellectual level. And one of the results might be that the reader will have an experience of The Holy as he himself had had when he read Phantastes. It is worthwhile to mention here that his fellow member of The Inklings, J. R. R. Tolkien, agreed with this approach.
It is hard to measure the impact of these imaginative works on the minds and hearts of millions of readers. Certainly they have reached a mass audience through film that either Lewis or Tolkien would have found hard to believe. But, do they point people to Christ?
To answer that question we have to go back to the train platform where Lewis first picked up Phantastes. He never claimed that it pointed him to Christ. What he claimed was that it unexpectedly opened up his mind to a new dimension of reality, and that once his mind was thus opened he could not resist the gradual intrusion of a presence who brought to him the greatest surprise of his life – joy.
Since the time of Lewis and Tolkien there has been a profusion of fantasy/imaginative writing in pop culture. Some of it has been quite good. Some of it carries a Christian worldview. And, some, like the Philip Pullman trilogy, promotes atheism. In Canada, and in the world, we await the rise of more writers who will effectively carry on the groundbreaking work of Lewis and Tolkien, writers who will tell stories that open the door of the mind and heart to The Holy.