Imagination and meaning.
The scientifically studied odds of you changing an unhealthy or life-threatening habit are nine to one against you.1 This revelation unnerved many people in the audience in November of 2004 at IBM’s “Global Innovation Outlook” conference. The company’s top executives had invited the most farsighted thinkers they knew from around the world to come together in New York and propose solutions to some really big problems, starting with health care. I bet they overlooked one especially farsighted author.
Most of us fail to realize that facts rarely motivate someone to change. The truth is facts are inert objects. They don’t
necessarily mean anything (e.g., the federal deficit exceeds 8 trillion dollars… but does that change the way we live?). Instead,
people make sense of the world through their imagination; how they picture “the good life.” “We may not always know it,” writes George Lakoff, “but we think in metaphor”2 – which is why Albert Einstein judged imagination to be more important than knowledge.
A fact, Einstein reminded us, depends first on how you imagine life.
Now these IBM executives could have saved a great deal of time and money had they simply familiarized themselves with a series of children’s stories. Between 1950 and 1956, Clive Staples Lewis published (one per year) his Chronicles of Narnia series that have been enjoyed by millions worldwide. These fantasy books owe much of their success – remember, Lewis never had children – to his uncanny understanding of how imagination shapes the way we see our world.
C. S. Lewis (1899-1963) was known as “The Apostle to the Skeptics.”3 He penned fantasy literature believing reason and imagination have distinct roles: reason has to do with facts and truths; imagination has to do with the very conditions of truth. Reason had to do with proclaiming truth; imagination had to do with preparing the mind to see truth as meaningful. That’s why imagination changes people, not facts.
It must not be supposed that I am in any sense putting forward the imagination as the organ of truth. We are not talking of truth, but of meaning. For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.4
But Lewis had a second reason for writing fantasy literature. He understood that people are often on guard against religious folks. Fantasy literature like Narnia could “steal past those watchful dragons” always bracing against the intrusion of religion. By presenting gospel truths “in an imaginative world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations,” people apart from faith can see these truths “for the first time appear in their potency,” wrote Lewis.5 The value of a good imaginative story – or “myth” as Lewis dubbed it – “is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which seems hidden by the veil of familiarity.”6
Familiarity breeds contempt; and in many ways Christianity is too familiar today. A lot of Americans, for example, imagine the Christian faith as “socially irrelevant, even if privately engaging.”7 To rectify this, the gospel “has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed and has to be clothed in symbols which are meaningful to them.”8 Lesslie Newbigin is not suggesting we try to be naively relevant, or “advocating an uncritical pursuit of relevance devoid of faithfulness, or redefining ourselves in ways that are compelling to the world but alien to Christ.”9 Rather, he is saying that if you want to people to change minds, change imagination first.
This is the task before Christians in the 21st century: learning to speak to the dominant issues of our pluralistic world by reshaping how our friends imagine religion. If people of faith don’t do this, the rich Judeo-Christian tradition that shaped Western culture runs the risk of being pushed further toward the sidelines of society.
“All our truth, or all but a few fragments,” noted Lewis, “is won by
metaphor.”10 I wonder how many executives at IBM imagined religion playing a role in solving some of their problems. They might after catching Lewis’ Narnia: The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe on December 9th. That’s when the film version opens in theaters nationwide. I imagine millions of people, after watching Narnia, will find the gospel more meaningful.
1 Alan Deutschman, “Change or Die,” Fast Company: Issue 94, May 2005.
2 George Lakoff is a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust.
3 Chad Walsh, C.S. Lewis, Apostle to the Skeptics. 1974.
4 C. S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, p. 265.
5 C. S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What
Needs to Be Said,” in On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature (Orlando: Harvest, 1982), p. 12.
6 C. S. Lewis, “The Language of Religion,” in Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), p .133.
7 This comment was made by Theodore Roszak, a Professor of History at California State University, Hayward. C.f., Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), p. 122.
8 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p.277.
9 James Emery White, Serious Times: Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004), pp. 136.
10 C. S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalansferes,” The Importance of
Language. ed. Max Black (Eaglewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.,
1962), p. 50.