Author’s Note: This article is adapted from my recently released book Mere Evangelism: 10 Insights from C. S. Lewis to Help You Share Your Faith.

My childhood house had a vestibule. It’s a seldom-used word for a seldom-seen structure. Built onto the outside of a house, it serves as a halfway stop between outside and inside. When my brothers and I returned from a camping trip, my mother insisted we take off our smoky, smelly clothes in the vestibule before entering our house.

When C.S. Lewis criticized secular writers, he snuck in an image: these writers did not “see this world as the vestibule of eternity.”[1] Allow that to soak in for a second. Imagine what it means. This world leads to another. It’s only temporary: a halfway stop, not a place to settle into. Our real destination lies elsewhere. With this simple phrase, Lewis didn’t just inform the intellect; he stirred the imagination.

This highlights the biggest difference between Lewis’s evangelistic strategy and most others. He peppered his evangelism with images so as to enchant, not just explain. I’d be willing to bet that if you knew three lines from Lewis before reading this article, at least two of them contain images rather than propositions. When you read Lewis, you don’t just say, “That makes sense.” You also add, “That sounds wonderful.”

This article explores the role of imagination in evangelism because I fear that most outreach fails to engage the heart. We state theologically sound points but fail to go beyond the intellect. Lewis can help us correct this imbalance. Please hear me carefully: I do not want to downplay the importance of sound theology. In our day, shallow theology lurks all around. But I do want to push us in the direction of presenting a multifaceted gospel to multifaceted people.

Lewis the Enchanter

C.S. Lewis was a poet at heart. One published collection contains over 100 of his poems. But imagery seeped beyond his poems into all his writings, both fiction and nonfiction. When asked how he came to write The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he said that all seven of his Narnia books “began with seeing pictures in my head. At first, they were not a story, just pictures.”[2]

Examples of imagery in his nonfiction abound. For example, in The Problem of Pain he likened suffering to God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[3] In The Weight of Glory he compared our willingness to settle for the pleasures of this life instead of pursuing the goodness of God to “an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”[4] He could have just made the statement “We are far too easily pleased,” but that would not have elicited emotions the way images of mud pies and seaside holidays do.

Even Lewis’s personal letters teemed with imagery. Just a few months before he died, he slipped into a coma but then revived. When writing to his lifelong friend Arthur Greeves about the experience, he packed his report with numerous images, the last one hitting like the punch line of a joke: “Tho’ I am by no means unhappy I can’t help feeling it was rather a pity I did revive in July. I mean, having been glided so painlessly up to the Gate it seems hard to have it shut in one’s face and know that the whole process must some day be gone thro’ again, and perhaps far less pleasantly! Poor Lazarus!”[5]

Weaving Images into Our Story

When you speak of your journey to faith, do you use images? To be sure, we must make clarity and understanding our highest priorities. But sprinkling in images to trigger desire should not be ruled out. My wife begins her story with, “I’m sure you’ve heard about pirates searching for buried treasure. They don’t know exactly where it is but they believe it’s out there and it’s worth finding. That’s how I thought about life for a long time. I knew there was something more and it would be worth finding. I just didn’t know where to look.” I imagine many people share her experience.

What image might you use? To help you select one, here’s a list, compiled by Lewis scholar Michael Ward, of ways in which Lewis described what conversion was like:

“Becoming a Christian (passing from death to life) is like joining in a campaign of sabotage, like falling at someone’s feet or putting yourself in someone’s hands, like taking on board fuel or food, like laying down your rebel arms and surrendering, saying sorry, laying yourself open, turning full speed astern; it is like killing part of yourself, like learning to walk or to write, like buying God a present with his own money; it is like a drowning man clutching at a rescuer’s hand, like a tin soldier or a statue becoming alive, like waking after a long sleep, like getting close to someone or becoming infected, like dressing up or pretending or playing; it is like emerging from the womb or hatching from an egg; it is like a compass needle swinging to north, or a cottage being made into a palace, or a field being plowed and resown, or a horse turning into a Pegasus, or a greenhouse roof becoming bright in the sunlight; it is like coming around from anesthetic, like coming in out of the wind, like going home.”[6]

And let’s not forget that Lewis described his own conversion using such pictures as “a soldier unbuckling his protective armor, a snowman beginning to melt, a man being arrested or a fox being hounded, or check and then checkmate in a game of chess.”[7]

If Lewis did it, so can we. What is the image that, for you, most naturally describes the experience of becoming a Christian? Get ready to use it in your conversations.

Stealing Past the Dragons

Lewis tied his rationale for stirring the imagination to his own experience. In “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” he shared, “I saw how stories … could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood … Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”[8] Thus, he concluded, “Imagination is the organ of meaning,” while “reason [is] the organ of truth.”[9] He felt we might reach more people with images than arguments. Or, at least, the imagination served as a better beachhead for a future, logical invasion.

Part of Lewis’s motivation to write imaginative works flowed from frustration. Years before writing three science fiction books and a full decade before publishing the first of the Chronicles of Narnia, he told J.R.R. Tolkien, “Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves.”[10] But their efforts had greater goals than mere entertainment. They both knew that the gateway to the whole person was the emotions and that imaginative fiction could do more than just offer enjoyment.

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis retells the gospel story of Jesus’ death and resurrection in ways that trigger deep feelings. Tragically, many people have heard this story (or think they have) so many times that it fails to move their emotions. Lewis’s transposing of the story onto Aslan, the lion, being tied down onto the stone table and killed, moves readers’ emotions so powerfully that many people can’t help crying as they read. Listening in as Lucy and Susan weep uncontrollably brings the horror of Jesus’ death into the pit of our emotions.

Then there’s their joy when Aslan rises:

“‘You’re not a—not a—?’ asked Susan in a shaky voice. She couldn’t bring herself to say the word ghost. Aslan stooped his golden head and licked her forehead. The warmth of his breath and a rich sort of smell that seemed to hang about his hair came all over her.

“‘Do I look it?’ he said.

“‘Oh, you’re real, you’re real! Oh, Aslan!’ cried Lucy, and both girls flung themselves upon him and covered him with kisses.”[11]

It wasn’t only in evangelism that Lewis employed imagery. It was his weapon of choice for helping Christians grow as well. Even mature believers resist God’s pruning work of sanctification from time to time. But they may weaken that resistance when seeing themselves in a well-told story. Once you’ve read it, can you ever forget the painful process that Eustace went through to become “de-dragoned” in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader? His greedy dragonish thoughts in his heart caused him to become a dragon. His horror at seeing his reflection in a pool of water horrifies us as well. And his efforts to shed the dragon’s skin never worked, as long as he tried to do it himself. Only by allowing Aslan, his deliverer, to remove the dragon-shell—an excruciating process—could he be restored to his human self.

Straightforward didactic teaching about sin—that it harms me and distorts my personhood—informs me. Knowing I cannot save myself or produce godly character on my own also helps. But the imagery of Eustace’s transformations (from a person into a dragon and then back again) makes me far more repulsed by my sin and even more desirous of God’s sanctifying work, no matter how painful the process may be.

Or here’s another image Lewis used to describe the transformation process. “You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”[12] A very different illustration, but one which makes readers all the more eager to be refined by God.

Some may be suspicious of all this emphasis on images and the imagination—worrying that it is just emotional manipulation. Lewis anticipated that concern and addressed it this way: “Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.”[13] He first preached that warning in 1941. Think of how worldliness has mushroomed since then. Sensuality, self-indulgence, materialism, and dozens of other “isms” saturate and surround us so thoroughly that we need Lewis’s “spell” more than ever.

A psychologist recently published an article in The Wall Street Journal about how to help children overcome anxiety and depression. “As a therapist,” she began, “I’m often asked to explain why depression and anxiety are so common among children and adolescents. One of the most important explanations—and perhaps the most neglected—is declining interest in religion.” She goes on to document that decline and its negative effects on children. “Nihilism is fertilizer for anxiety and depression, and being ‘realistic’ is overrated. The belief in God—in a protective and guiding figure to rely on when times are tough—is one of the best kinds of support for kids in an increasingly pessimistic world.” But what if parents don’t believe in God? “I am often asked by parents, ‘How do I talk to my child about death if I don’t believe in God or heaven?’ My answer is always the same: ‘Lie.’ The idea that you simply die and turn to dust may work for some adults, but it doesn’t help children.”[14] She goes on to prescribe offering children images of heaven—even if you have to lie!—to counter the bad images all around us in our broken world.

We can do better than that! We can offer images of heaven that are true. We can and we must.

We have a far greater authority than C.S. Lewis for valuing the imagination: the Bible itself. But before we turn to the Scriptures, let’s pause for another moment of application. Can you think of an image that expresses how God is working in your life now? In other words, after your conversion, how do you see the gospel at work today? Perhaps you would describe it with images like balm, foundation, lifejacket, comfort, a listening ear, an arm around the shoulder, the best counselor ever, or a best friend forever. You could practice this during a small group gathering of believers; take turns sharing images or illustrations that capture aspects of your faith. You may find that you spark each other’s creativity. Then try out one of these images in a conversation with a non-Christian. Are there people you’ve been trying to witness to for a long time who seem deaf to your words? Perhaps an image might awaken their spiritual eardrums.

The Bible’s Image Saturation

The Bible, too, is full of images. First, there’s the narrative nature of the Bible. Some estimate that more than half of God’s word comes through stories. Couldn’t God have revealed himself more concisely through a series of proclamations? Of course he could. But he didn’t. Why? Because stories engage us as whole persons. They drive home messages more deeply by taking longer. In fact, sometimes it’s the length of a story that makes it hit in ways a short lesson couldn’t. It’s only after I read of Israel’s turning away from God—over and over and over again, throughout their history—that I start to examine my own propensity to do the same.

Try this the next time you read a narrative portion of the Scriptures. Ask what a particular story does that a summary statement couldn’t. Notice when stories seem to take longer than you think they should and ask why the Master Storyteller chose to inspire his book that way. For example, when Nathan rebukes David for his adultery, he first tells a story that riles David’s (and our!) anger (2 Samuel 12). The painful drama of a rich man who had “a very large number of sheep and cattle” stealing and killing a poor man’s “one little ewe lamb” sparks readers’ righteous indignation better than if the text just said, “Nathan confronted David and told him he had sinned.”

Second, there is the poetic nature of the Bible. Poems stir the emotions in ways that prose doesn’t. They intensify feelings—of all varieties. The prophets delivered many of their messages in poetry because they wanted changed hearts, not just ritual performance. Israel had already had the straightforward law handed to them. And they had turned away from it. The poetic prophets sought to sneak past watchful dragons to turn rebels back.

Before your next reading of one of the poetic books of the Bible (Job, Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon), or any of the vast poetic sections in the prophets, ask why the message of that particular book or section packs a more potent punch through poetry than it would have through a dissertation. Suffering requires endurance more than understanding, and Job’s poetry provides that better than a philosophical treatise. Pose the same question about the meaning of life in Ecclesiastes, the wonder of worship in the Psalms, the perplexities of wise living in Proverbs, and the beauty of marital love in the Song of Solomon. We need poetic images for those aspects of life more than notebooks filled with data.

Third, marvel at how Jesus captivated our whole selves through images. Just for starters, recall his seven I AM statements about himself in John’s Gospel: I am the bread of life (6 v 35), the light of the world (8 v 12), the gate (10 v 7), the resurrection and the life (11 v 25), the good shepherd (10 v 11), the way, the truth, and the life (14 v 6), and the vine (15 v 1). Go back over that list now and allow each image to spark emotions. What does each one convey? How might they speak to your non-Christian friends and acquaintances?

Or read through the Gospels and look for the other ways in which Jesus used imagery to teach profound truths. He called his disciples “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5 v 13) but labeled his opponents “a brood of vipers” (Matthew 12 v 34). He likened his love for Jerusalem to a hen who “gathers her chicks under her wings” (Luke 13 v 34) and God’s judgment at the end of time to the moment when a shepherd “separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25 v 32). He spoke of foxes without holes to live in, new wine in old wineskins, a father giving his son a stone instead of bread, specks and planks in eyes—and on and on we could go.

Think of how much less potent Jesus’ teaching would have been without his parables. For example, he could have merely told the self-righteous Pharisees that their sin was just as bad as that of the tax collectors and prostitutes. Instead, he told the three parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and two sons (Luke 15). He contrasted the two brothers drastically. But then he snuck in the rebuke that the older brother disrespected his father just as much as (or more than!) the younger brother. Delaying the punch line of the elder brother’s pity party hit far more forcefully than just saying, Your sins are really bad. Got it?

Finally, reflect on the variety of images used to describe the gospel in the rest of the New Testament. It is referred to as justification, salvation, regeneration, redemption, propitiation, eternal life, rebirth, reconciliation, and more.[15]If those seem like boring academic terms, unpack what they mean. God pronounces us innocent. He rescues us from disaster. He makes us brand new creatures. He pays for our sins. He gives us a new lease on life—one that never ends. He welcomes us home from all our rebellious wanderings with open arms.

These images do more than just teach a doctrine. And their diversity holds important significance for evangelism. Different people latch on to the gospel at different starting points for different reasons. Some people feel guilty for things they’ve done. The gospel’s message of forgiveness brings freedom to them. Other people feel ashamed of who they are. The gospel’s message of adoption grants them a new identity. Some people believe in some kind of God but feel alienated from him. The gospel’s offer of reconciliation unites them to the God they’ve longed for.

Of course, we must also acknowledge and revel in the Bible’s straightforward, didactic teaching. The Scriptures come to us in a variety of literary genres. We have the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon, but we also have Romans, Ephesians, and Jude. Jesus told parables, but he also taught theology. So let’s not pit imagery against reason or poetry against epistles. All have strengths. All have limits. God inspired them all. And note that all are conveyed through words.

Many people insist that images are better than language. “A picture’s worth a thousand words,” they love to quip (failing to acknowledge the need for words to make their point). Biblical scholar Peter Adam loved to respond to that cliché with this: “How many pictures would you need to convey that idea?”[16]

Imaginative Evangelism

If you had to choose one image to share evangelistically, which one might it be? Finding buried treasure? Or getting a clean slate? Or gaining a new status? Or receiving a new name? Or putting on a fresh set of clothes? Or obtaining citizenship of a new country? Try writing this out in just a few sentences. Writing will jump-start and clarify your thinking. Then, try this out in conversations with non-Christians and see if it doesn’t pry open a closed heart.

This discussion about imagery also raises the need for waves of new art that exalt the good, the true, and the beautiful. If you sense God’s call to explore art, music, film, or other aesthetic careers, press on. Our world desperately needs more Narnias and Middle-earths, more songs, movies, television series, and books that stimulate affections toward heaven rather than tempt flesh toward that other place.

Lewis urged would-be academics to “learn in wartime” (that is, persevere in scholarship) because “to be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”[17]

Likewise, good imagery needs to exist, if for no other reason, because bad imagery needs to be countered. Both on a grand scale (producing movies, publishing books, etc.) and on a personal level (weaving imagery into gospel conversations), we need to marshal the creativity God gave us and connect to the longings he’s built into us. People just might respond wholeheartedly when they hear the most beautiful story they could have ever imagined.

 

[1] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, Eerdmans (1970), p 219.

[2] C.S. Lewis, On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, Harvest (1982), p 53.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, HarperCollins (2001), p 91.

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, HarperCollins (1976), p 26.

[5] Walter Hooper, ed., The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (1914-1963): They Stand Together, Macmillan (1979), p 566.

[6] Michael Ward, “Escape to Wallaby Wood,” in C.S. Lewis, Light-Bearer in the Shadowlands: The Evangelistic Vision of C.S. Lewis, Angus J.L. Menuge, ed., Crossway (1997) p 151.

[7] Michael Ward, “Escape to Wallaby Wood,” p 152.

[8] C.S. Lewis, On Stories and Other Essays on Literature Harvest (1982), p 47.

[9] C.S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare” in Selected Literary Essays, Walter Hooper, ed., Cambridge University Press (1969), p 265.

[10] Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2015), p 240.

[11] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Geoffrey Bles, 1950; this edition, The Chronicles of Narnia, Collins, 1998) p 184-185.

[12] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity HarperCollins (1980), p. 205.

[13] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, p 31.

[14] Erica Komisar, “Don’t Believe in God? Lie to Your Children,” The Wall Street Journal, December 5, 2019. https://www.wsj.com/articles/dont-believe-in-god-lie-to-your-children-11575591658

[15] Two valuable resources to help you grow in appreciation for the many aspects of the gospel are Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance, InterVarsity (1983) and John Stott, The Cross of Christ, InterVarsity (1986).

[16] Peter Adam, Hearing God’s Words: Exploring biblical spirituality, InterVarsity (2004), p 141.

[17] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, p 58.

 

Dr. Randy Newman is the Senior Fellow for Apologetics and Evangelism at the CS Lewis Institute. After serving for over 30 years with Campus Crusade for Christ, he established Connection Points, a ministry to help Christians engage people’s hearts the way Jesus did. He has written five books, Questioning Evangelism, Corner Conversations, Bringing the Gospel Home, Engaging with Jewish People, Unlikely Converts: Improbable Stories of Faith and What They Teach Us About Evangelism and numerous articles about evangelism and other ways our lives intertwine with God’s creation.

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