C. S. Lewis on the arts, aesthetics, and Christianity…
C. S. Lewis was one of the most effective Christian evangelists of the 20th Century, even when we include preachers like Billy Graham. Without question, he was the most effective evangelist who used literature as the medium for his message.
Seeking answers for why this is so has given rise to something of a cottage industry among of Christians from different traditions—Holly Ordway at Houston Baptist University, Jerry Root at Wheaton College, Michael Ward at Oxford University, Avery Cardinal Dulles at Fordham University.
A common conclusion is that Lewis’s effectiveness resulted from a masterful use of both rationality and imagination in his presentation of the Christian faith. However, Lewis was an artist who never found it necessary to lay out an extended exposition of his methodology. “Lewis spent more time doing art than talking about it,” we’re told by Dr. David Naugle—Lewis “advocated art as art.”
[J]ust as God’s very good creation is God’s very good creation in and of itself and without need of so-called “religious” justification, so we live in an intrinsically good world and we create creatively and imaginatively as something very good in and of itself without need of pragmatic or didactic justification because we are made in the image and likeness of a creative and imaginative Creator. Christian doctors, dentists and coaches shouldn’t neglect or ignore the importance of good medicine, dentistry, or coaching just in order to do evangelism and so on. Such would be a serious misuse, even a prostitution, of their God-given crafts and calling. They should be excellent first and foremost as doctors, dentists, and coaches; the gospel will follow.
For Lewis, Naugle continues, the artistic idea came first and “the Christianity which was in him came through … naturally.” Or, in Lewis’s own words, “Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord. It was part of the bubbling.”
Following a year as scholar-in-residence at the Kilns, Lewis’s home place, Dr. Naugle pulled together several observations on Lewis’s views on the arts and aesthetics and their relationship to the Christian faith. His article is titled “With their Christianity Latent: C. S. Lewis on the Arts.”
1. First, beauty (along with truth and goodness) in art and aesthetics is objective.
Lewis did not believe that the way things are … was merely in the eye of the beholder in some sort of poisonous, person-relative, subjective sense. Rather Lewis believed in the existence of an objectively true reality, the way things really are. He called it the Tao — a Chinese word he used to convey the notion of an objective natural law that constituted reality and was spread over everything, beauty included (along with truth and goodness). …
2. Second, art and aesthetics can be signposts pointing to God and true joy.
[Lewis pointed out that] experiences … of nature, art, and literature may evoke within … us an experience of intense longing and desire for joy. The Germans, Lewis says, called this longing and desire Sehnsucht.
[In Lewis’s own word in] Mere Christianity: “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exist. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire [like Senhsucht] which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world.”
3. Third, art and aesthetics must be incarnational.
For Lewis … the incarnation meant the transformation of human nature and all nature or creation. Both now shimmer with life and glory and this must be depicted artistically. Thus, according to Lewis, all of art and aesthetics must be informed by this “Grand Miracle” of the incarnation.
[Lewis] saw divinely ordained, objective beauty embedded in ordinary things of everyday life. Life was sacred, sacramental, holy. The challenge, for him and us, is to represent this artistically and aesthetically. And almost every page of Lewis’s art of writing does exactly that. So should ours.
4. Fourth, art and aesthetics are not just for pragmatic and didactic purposes, Christian or otherwise.
From Lewis’s book An Experiment in Criticism we learn first of all that Lewis believed that true art wasn’t meant to promote an ideological agenda, whether Christian or some other outlook. If we did, we would butcher art as art. Instead, art is meant to enable us to see with other’s eyes, and to experience by way of other’s experience. …
Lewis values literature and the arts apart from their utilitarian purpose. Artistic and aesthetic sensibilities are lost – the powerful imaginative dimensions – if worldview analysis becomes the primary way of approaching art. In other words, we can become myopic, narrow-minded, bigoted, prejudiced, and intolerant. Food and cooking, for example, is more than mere nutrition, and there is more to art and aesthetics than worldview underpinnings. We need flavor!
Though he does not reject worldview analysis entirely (as is made clear in his essay “Christianity and Culture”), he would couple it with other basic artistic and aesthetic concerns and the entertainment, play, fun, and leisure that should accompany good art. In any case, avoid propaganda. …
5. Fifth, art and aesthetics can convey Christian themes, but the Christianity within a work of art is best if it is “latent” or indirect.
This was Lewis’s strategy in the creation of his fairy stories, Narnia included. The Christianity within it merely “bubbled up.” He did not, I repeat, did not start by asking himself how he could present the Christian gospel in a way children and others could understand. He did not produce a list of Christian teachings and then developed the idea of presenting them through fairy tales. NO. Rather, he came up with the artistic idea and the Christianity which was in him came through … naturally.
[For Christian artists, their] first priority ought to be excellence and delight in the craft itself, first and foremost, as a painter, musician, poet, writer, and so on, else the artistic craft suffer misuse and abuse. The kingdom content and implications will then be there … naturally, latent, even if indirect, bubbling up. …
Dr. David K. Naugle’s article, “With their Christianity Latent: C. S. Lewis on the Arts,” is available here. He is chair and professor of philosophy at Dallas Baptist University. Dr. Naugle is the author of Worldview: The History of a Concept, which was selected by Christianity Today as the 2003 book of the year in theology and ethics. He is also the author of Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness and Philosophy: A Student’s Guide.
David Nugle’s website is a treasure-trove of valuable resources. A great place to start browsing is his “Academic Papers” page, which can be found here.