The Imagination of C.S. Lewis with Jerry Root & Mark Neal

By Ken Wytsma

Jerry Root is a graduate of Whittier College and Talbot Graduate School of Theology at Biola University and received his Ph.D. from the Open University in England. He has written many books on C.S. Lewis and has lectured on Lewis at 61 universities in 8 countries. He is the Associate Director of the Institute for Strategic Evangelism and is also a visiting professor at Talbot Graduate School of Theology.

Mark Neal is a graduate of Wheaton College, where he received a B.A in literature. He is also a graduate of National Louis University, receiving an M.A.T. in education. he has published poetry and written about the effects of digital technologies on individuals and relationships. He has lectured and published on marketing, advertising and social media strategy. He is currently VP of Digital Marketing for C. Grant & Company.

Jerry and Mark  are co-authors of the recently released book The Surprising Imagination of C. S. Lewis: An Introduction

KW: What initially attracted you to the life & writings of C.S. Lewis that led to your lifelong study?

JR:  I was first told about C. S. Lewis in 1970 when I was a junior in College. My sister was a school teacher and was reading The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to her fifth grade students. She told me the plot of that book one night while I was visiting her in San Francisco. The next day I was at a book store at the Cannery near Fisherman’s Warf and saw a boxed set of the Narnian Chronicles and bought them. I read them over a few weeks and enjoyed them very much. Consequently, I wanted to find out more about the author, C. S. Lewis. I discovered he wrote an autobiography, Surprised by Joy. I bought a copy and read it. This was the book that hooked me. Lewis wrote of a deep longing that he felt since childhood and his quest to find the object of that longing. I knew existentially the longing he described. I have felt it myself virtually all my life. As a result, I started buying everything by Lewis I could get my hands on and devouring it. When I graduated from college someone wisely told me, “You do not get an education in college you merely lay the foundation for an education. Commencement, the graduation exercises, emphasizes the point; you are now merely commencing your education by building on that foundation”. Then this acquaintance advised I pick an author who would take me places and make of that author a life’s study. I do not think it must be an author. It could be an artist, a composer, a period of history, or perhaps the history of a country or culture. Well, I picked Lewis only to discover that he opens more than wardrobe doors. As time passed I ended up writing my Master’s thesis on Lewis as well as my Doctoral dissertation. I have since put together five books on Lewis. My interest has not waned. Furthermore, I try to read as many of the authors Lewis refers to as I can and this too has proved to be most fascinating.

MN: When I first started reading Lewis, I recognized fresh air blowing from him, clearing away staleness and imaginative stagnation. I think he teaches us to think outside the box, outside the parameters of what is comfortable and easy. He encourages us to not simply accept the status quo, but to question and apply logic and reason to our understanding. But he also encourages an active use of the imagination and the idea that it can enable us to understand things not knowable by reason alone. Reading his work galvanizes my own imagination.

KW: How would you describe the overall role of imagination in his life and writing?

JR: It was the Oxford University philosopher and fellow Inkling, Austin Farrar who said Lewis’s great power as an author resided not as much in his logic and reason—though these were certainly formidable—but in his power of depiction. Furthermore, philosopher of religion Evelyn Underhill said that it was Lewis’s ability to give imaginative visualization to deep theological truths that made him so readable. Lewis wrote to one of his correspondents, “The imaginative man in me is older and more continuously operative than the rational man”. Consequently, the role of the imagination plays a very significant part in Lewis’s life and writing. He can take difficult topics and make them accessible even to children by means of his imagination. In fact, he wrote to a friend after the publication of his first science fiction novel Out of the Silent Planet, that he discovered any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under the guise of romance. The imagination always had an essential part to play as a tool in his rhetorical toolbox.

MN: Early in his life, Lewis struggled to reconcile two parts of his mind: imagination and reason. He wanted imagination, which he loved, to be able to report the same truths he understood with reason. Lewis was ultimately able to reconcile these two parts of his mind through the person of Christ. Once he understood the imagination to be an entity that gave us unique knowledge about reality in a way that reason couldn’t, I think it unlocked something for him that enabled him to write the Chronicles of Narnia, his poetry and other creative works. And I think Lewis engineered these works to allow us to see reality differently.

KW: What is the most surprising thing we can learn about imagination from Lewis?

JR: There is no way one can grow in any kind of intellectual endeavor without the use of the imagination. Even scientists begin the scientific method with a hypothesis. It is an imaginative activity. Once the scientist has tested the hypothesis and found solid results he depicts what has been discovered by using models. These models are not the thing itself, but allow others to imagine what the recent discoveries must be like. Even Jesus is clear that if the generation of his day was to understand anything of the Kingdom of God it would be important to communicate with them in parables, similes, and figures of speech. All growth of understanding will require some use of the imagination. We should have always known this, but Lewis surprises us by making this point clear.

MN: Lewis had a nuanced understanding of the imagination. He identified more than 30 ways of using or understanding the imagination. Just as a pilot must have a nuanced understanding of air currents and a ship’s captain must have a nuanced understanding of water currents, so Lewis understood the imagination to be multi-faceted.

KW: What is the most practical thing we can learn about imagination from Lewis?

MN: We must learn to take imagination seriously as a way of understanding truth about reality. We usually think of it as make believe and don’t give much credence to what it can tell us. Prior to his conversion, Lewis struggled to reconcile his reason and imagination. He didn’t know how the imagination could ever give the same truths about reality that the reason could. Yet he was able to reconcile the two and discover what imagination could show that reason could not. This is perfectly summed up by the American poet and author Wendell Berry in his book Imagination In Place:

Worst of all the fundamentalists of both science and religion do not adequately understand or respect imagination. Is imagination merely a talent, such as a good singing voice, the ability to “make things up” or “think things up” or “get ideas”? Or is it, like science, a way of knowing things that can be known in no other way? We have much reason to think that it is a way of knowing things not otherwise knowable. As the word itself suggests, it is the power to make us see, and to see, moreover, things that without it would be unseeable. In one of its aspects it is the power by which we sympathize. By its means we may see what it was to be Odysseus or Penelope, David or Ruth, or what it is to be one’s neighbor or one’s enemy. By it, we may “see ourselves as others see us.” It is also the power by which we see the place, the predicament, or the story we are in.

KW: What is perhaps your favorite use of imagination in his writing?

JR: I think I love Narnia the best. Lewis uses supposals to create a world like Narnia that we might understand things in our world better. Remember when Lucy was told she could not return to Narnia? Of course she wept. Then she said to Aslan, the Lion of Narnia, something like this, “It isn’t Narnia, Aslan, it’s you! How can I go on living knowing I won’t see you again”? And Aslan says, “Lucy, I live in your world too, but there I go by another name. You have been brought to this world that by knowing me here for a little while, you might know me better in your world”. Lewis’s imaginative world, Narnia, has been built with the purpose to help us understand Jesus better in our own world.

MN: Lewis’s poetry is undervalued and often criticized for not being very good. Yet I think his imagination roams further and is freer in his poetry than perhaps it is in his other writings. In reading his poetry I have experienced something not easily definable and not as present in his other work. Lewis speaks of our “longing for the hidden country” that is associated with heaven and with desires that cannot be fulfilled here on earth. Nowhere else in his writings do these longings manifest themselves in the same way as in his poetry. It’s almost as if those thoughts and feelings have been distilled down to their essence and Lewis makes us sense, feel and long for them.

KW: What is Lewis’s biggest idea?

JR: I think it is “Reality is iconoclastic”. An iconoclast breaks idols. Any image I have of God is incomplete. Lewis said, “I want God not my idea of God. I want my neighbor not my idea of my neighbor. I want myself not my idea of myself”. It is through understanding, with greater and greater clarity, the world in which we live that we can hope to gain a deeper, more robust vision of God.

KW: If someone wants to have a better understanding of Lewis and his ideas, what should they read?

MN: Lewis’s literary criticism is by far his least read body of work. But it is by far the most rich in ideas. Lewis was consistent in using ideas he developed across all of his writings. Many of these ideas originate in his literary criticism. They are a rich, treasure-trove of insights into not only literature, but life as well. Lewis will always lead you from his own work to an appreciation of the work of others. By exposing us to great works of literature, he opens doors in our minds and imaginations.

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Categories: Church & Theology,Innovation & Leadership

Ken Wytsma is a teacher, entrepreneur and author. He is the founder of The Justice Conference and president of Kilns College, as well as the author of Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things, The Grand Paradox: The Messiness of Life, the Mystery of God and the Necessity of Faith, and Create vs. Copy:Embrace Change. Ignite Creativity. Break Through with Imagination.

Theology and Culture