Overlooked Hurdle?

Michael Metzger

We often face hurdles in coming to faith. In describing how he came to Christianity, C. S. Lewis felt he cleared one particular hurdle that most believers overlook.

Only God knows how many hurdles we clear in coming to faith. In C. S. Lewis’s case, he cleared the relational hurdle, having friends who were Christians, including Arthur Greeves. He also cleared the rational hurdle. In a letter to Greeves (dated October 18, 1931), Lewis wrote that he knew “what the doctrines meant.” What hurdle remained?

Imagination. Lewis wrote Greeves after a long nighttime conversation with J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. They were discussing Christianity and metaphor.[1] At that time, Lewis’s last obstacle was the imaginative hurdle. He told Greeves this is “what has been holding me back.” He knew what the doctrines said. They just weren’t meaning-full.

Tolkien and Dyson reframed the faith. They showed Lewis how doctrines are not the main thing. Instead, they depict what God has expressed in “a language more adequate: namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection” of Christ. The primary language of Christianity is real life. The primary approach to depicting real life is metaphor. Tolkien and Dyson helped Lewis clear the imaginative hurdle.

Lewis came to see imagination as the most important hurdle because it makes truth meaning-full. In a letter to the Milton Society of America in 1954, he wrote, “The imaginative man in me is older, and in that sense more basic.” Metaphor underlies all forms of understanding whatsoever. The soul never thinks without a picture.

Lewis also came to see imagination as an overlooked hurdle. He knew the ancients depicted the gods metaphorically: new life in crops, sunrises, or the coming of spring. He found the metaphors in pagan stories “profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp.” Analysis couldn’t fill deep truths with deep meaning. Only imagination can.

Lewis also knew metaphor began to go out the window in the 11th and 12th century. That was when Islamic scholars introduced the West to Greek rationalism. The West shifted from metaphorical to didactic teaching.[2] Reason became the most basic substance. Metaphor became a matter of style.

This hit full bloom in the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Schleiermacher wrote that both have this in common, that “everything mysterious and marvellous is proscribed” (didactic). Knowledge “is not to be filled with airy images” (metaphors). In their search for unambiguous certainty regarding the truth, both dismissed metaphor.[3]

I know something about this. I have two seminary degrees. I was taught that analysis, not metaphor, makes truth meaningful. Sermons must have three analytical points. Each point needs an “illustration” as an adornment to clarify the information or aid flagging attention. But I was told the illustration is not the indispensable part of a sermon. Information is. This is why most sermons are essentially “information-transfer.”[4]

This was why Lewis often found sermons boring and sometimes spoke out against what he called their “wearisomely explicit pietism.” Lewis felt that “All our truth, or all but a few fragments, is won by metaphor,” as he wrote in his essay “Bluspels and Flalansferes.” Lewis didn’t dismiss reason and analysis. “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth, but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” Metaphor, not analysis, is what makes truth meaning-full.

That’s because imagination precedes reason. Imagination is the frame for facts. Take the word gay. Forty years ago, we imagined witty. Today gay means something else for most folks. How we imagine a word determines whether we can have a reasoned debate about that word.

This was why Lewis, in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, called himself a “dinosaur.” He recognized we live in a post-Christian world. Post-Christian people are unlikely to respond to reasons for the faith, as they imagine the faith is been there, done that. I think we’ve forgotten Lewis. I think this explains the dramatic rise of religious “nones.” They are dechurched people who imagine the faith as been there, done that. We keep trying to reason them back into the faith.

Michael Ward seems to agree. Ward is author of “Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis.” He writes, “Our challenge in the post-Christian world is not so much to prove that Christianity is true as to show that it has meaning, that it is not gibberish.” Ward is echoing Lewis. Imagination is the highest hurdle if seek to impart a faith that’s meaning-full. But for too many of us, it’s an overlooked hurdle. It’s high time we fix this.


[1] Michael Ward, “How Lewis Lit the Way to Better Apologetics,” Christianity Today, November 2013.

[2] David Grumett, De Lubac: A Guide for the Perplexed, (T&T Clark, 2007)

[3] This is Lewis’s central point in his book, The Discarded Image.

[4] Joseph Koerner, The Reformation of the Image (University of Chicago Press, 2008)


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  1. I find your blogs always insightful and relevant, but this one I find particularly relevant and one that I think every professing Christian (pastors in particular) should read and heed. Thanks!

  2. Thank you Mike. This is one of those insights that caused my mind and heart to be suddenly lit up by the exact same light bulb. When next we meet, I’ll explain why. Looking forward to finally reading “The Discarded Image”.

  3. I could not agree more. The very notion of the reality of the “unseen” spiritual world requires an exercised imaginative mind to be truly understood. The early church used all kinds of “spiritual disciplines” to heighten their awareness of God’s presence in their lives. Solitude, silence, lectio-divina (sacred readings), examen are all focused on helping us to cognitively and emotionally become more aware of the presence of a spiritual world. Somehow, the “church” needs to help its parishioners to develop rhythms that exercise the imaginative side of beings to go beyond the three dimensions we typically are exposed to from day to day. Lewis’ and Tolkein’s metaphorical use of science fiction certainly is one way to do so.

  4. My problem with the use of imagination in Christianity is how difficult it is to use it. I appreciate John Eldrege’s use of stories to share truths, but I can’t even imagine what heaven will be like or what Jesus looks like.

    whoever can rekindle our imaginations of faith will probably be the net Billy Graham.

  5. Mike,
    This is a greatly needed quality to sharing the gospel that more need ti embrace. Pastors for sure would be more impactful but the plethora lay person reaches far more people than the single pastor could ever Hope to. It is the lay person who is also called to make disciples of all nations that would benefit most here by heeding your and C.S. Lewis’ counsel.
    The challenge or difficulty as Tom pointed out is how does one adequately use metaphor to illuminate the Kingdom without diminishing God in some way?

  6. I have been to many of your sermons at Grace Fellowship, back in the day. They were full of imagination, always relevant and intriguing ! Keep your mind going, wondering where all this could lead to. It is to save the nones, the unchurched and the churched without imaginations. Thank you Mike!
    Ron Morley

  7. Dear Whiskey Bob (Love your name!):

    I suggest you have a false dichotomy. Metaphor widens our imagination. It widens our faith, as faith is a widening of the imagination. How we perceive (imagine) God is not diminished. It is enriched.

  8. Thanks Mike,
    I was reminded of a continuing ed seminar which I attended years ago. The presenter was Warren Wiersbe. He was speaking from his book Preaching and Teaching with Imagination, something I really struggle with doing well. As I look back on my 30+ years of preaching and teaching, the things the people tell me that they remember the most are the ones where imagination is used the most. It is very difficult for me to get a good blend of analysis and metaphor, yet it seems to be very important. May the Holy Spirit increase and guide and empower us in blending the two.

  9. Hi John:

    Since we’re old friends (and believe in human agency, the Spirit of God might guide preachers into establishing a learning lab where sermons are previewed by a roundtable. Bring in outsiders. Do Pixar reviews (what went well, what did not).

    I say this because there is considerable research on how this sort of approach (called “rescripting”) carves out new neural pathways, enabling preachers to become accustomed to preaching in metaphor. Otherwise, it rarely happens.

  10. Hi Mike,

    Similar, yet some how different, is the verse where the writer to the Hebrews states “through faith we understand the worlds were framed by the Word of God so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear”.

    Faith precedes understanding, like unto how Lewis says, “imagination precedes reason”.

    It seems inconsistent to equate faith with imagination, so although similar, there is something different.

    Would appreciate any thoughts about how these are similar and different.

  11. Good insight, as always, Mike. The challenge I see is, as others have mentioned, how does one actually implement what you’ve said? For example, this post itself is information transfer. You’re using the medium you’re decrying to suggest a different medium. I face the same problem with different options. We in The Navigators teach the importance of one-to-one interactions and small groups, but when presenting to a group at a seminar, we’re using lecture like everyone else. Thoughts?

  12. Bob: As a matter of fact, I do have two thoughts. First, my columns are always wrapped around a central, organizing metaphor (in this case, an overlooked hurdle). So, in the spirit of C. S. Leis, this is more than information-transfer.

    Second, there are many alternatives to lecture. I use a great deal of picture drawing exercises for example.

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