Four-Fresco Faith

Michael Metzger

Do Raphael’s frescoes indicate our modern approach to apologetics is madness? Three apologists of the 20th century might say yes.

Last week we touched on the limits of reason. Many disciplines recognize it, including behavioral economics. Richard Thaler, an economist and professor at the University of Chicago, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics last year for his work in this field. His research shows we often rationalize what are irrational financial decisions.

Western Christianity has suffered from this same malady (first in finances, later in faith) since the 1100s. The 10th century is when the church began making a sharp distinction between reason and imagination (i.e., faith). It was assumed that individuals could reason their way to God.[1] You can’t.

You can’t know God the way you know anything else. God is infinite. We are finite. The finite can’t reason its way to apprehending the Infinite. That’s the point of Raphael’s frescoes. The School of Athens highlights reason, or “the true.” But for truth to be completed, it must be real. It must be incarnated as goodness and beauty—in Jesus, his creation, the Eucharist, and in virtuous people. There are limits to reason.

Recent findings in neuroscience confirm this. Reason is a function more of the brain’s left hemisphere. It’s completed when coupled with the right, which is imaginative. When thinking begins in the right hemisphere (with the senses), our reasoning makes better sense. When thinking starts in the left hemisphere, reason typically devolves into rationalism, which invariably leads to rationalizing bad behavior. This happened in the Roman Church. As the imagination/reason division seeped in, popes and priests became corrupt. They rationalized their bad behavior. European Reformers sought to correct this by doubling down on rationalism. They disdained the arts, the domain of the right hemisphere, and became just as rationalist as the Roman Church.

Rationalization is evident today in our lack of generosity. God owns everything (Ps.24:1) and you cannot be Jesus’ disciple if you own anything (Luke 14:33). True, but a recent study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy reveals Americans give only three percent of their income to charity. This includes Christians. Few imagine Jesus’ level of generosity as good and beautiful. The real truth, as Yuval Levin writes, is that most of us subscribe to an ethic of protecting our assets rather than providing for our neighbors. We rationalize our lack of confidence in Jesus.

I say this because Jesus said the best way to discover our loves is to look at our finances (Mt.6:21). Money is a commodity that can give us a false sense of confidence (mammon is the Babylonian word for confidence). Our lack of generosity reveals we don’t trust God. We trust our bank account, protecting our nest egg and giving the little that’s leftover. Irrational behavior, but somehow American Christians have found ways to rationalize it.

There’s a remedy: a four-fresco faith. Three of the most influential apologists of the 20th century embraced it. They weren’t rationalists. They began with the arts.

The first is C.S. Lewis. In his scholarly The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Lewis notes how the Middle Ages was the last era that recognized the arts and image as key to apprehending truth. The Enlightenment discarded image, elevating reason. Lewis warned this was the abolition of man.

Lewis’ best apologetics is his fantasy literature. I recommend The Chronicles of Narnia, an imaginative take on the gospel. To imagine history from Genesis to today’s world, read Lewis’ space trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) or The Pilgrim’s Regress. Lewis said these books were an attack on the Enlightenment.

Lewis recognized the limits of reason in his essay “Bluspels and Flalansferes,” “All our truth, or all but a few fragments, is won by metaphor.” The arts vivify truth, since imagination precedes reason. In Selected Literary Essays, another worthwhile read, Lewis writes, “reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”

The second apologist is Francis Schaeffer.[2] A lot of folks mistakenly assume his work relied mainly on reason. Not true. Europe was post-Christian in 1948 so Schaeffer sought to revive the faith by taking people on tours of art museums. This led to How Should We Then Live?, a 1976 book and film series. Through art and architecture, it tells the story of Western history from Ancient Rome to our post-Christian day.

The third apologist is G.K. Chesterton, author of the fictional “Father Brown” series. Chesterton also recognized the limits on reason. “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”[3]

I know of ministries named after Lewis or L’Abri (Schaeffer’s work) or Chesterton. I’m not aware of any of them producing great fantasy literature or art (maybe I’m just unaware). It seems to me they take a rationalist approach. Which makes me wonder—would four-fresco apologists like Lewis and Chesterton consider this madness?


[1] Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Eerdmans, 1995), 17-18.

[2] Scott Burson and Jerry Walls, C.S. Lewis & Francis Schaeffer: Lessons for a New Century from the Most Influential Apologists of Our Time (InterVarsity, 1988)

[3] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Ignatius; Reprinted 1995), 24.


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  1. I really do not know whether Lewis, Chesterton or Schaeffer would consider this madness or not. I do know that in the evangelical camps in which I have existed, most go from one pendulum swing to the other. Either we do not appreciate the force with which imagination or metaphor impact our spirits, and we attack it as worldly, or we get so caught up in the art that we fail to accurately discern the truth. We seem to have a hard time appreciating the figure of speech of art, or the art becomes all important. It is indeed frustrating at times. Very thoughtful blog.

  2. John’s comments and your remarks are spot-on. You both said it best. Even in the interpretation of The Word, if you’re not working from both hemispheres you’re gonna miss what you need. Not everything, but perhaps the parts that really require wrestling.

  3. Mike,

    This is really really good! I love your insights and all your historical details. I have one big dumb question though. What do you mean by four frescos? I’ve read this piece three times and I’m not picking that up. What’s with the four fresco thing?

  4. You’re no dummy, Byron.

    A fresco is a large painting covering almost the entire wall. Huge. Four walls in the library, so there are four frescoes, one for each wall.

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