C. S. Lewis and the Apt Metaphor

C. S. Lewis once wrote an essay on apologetics in which he said there are two things Christians in the Modern age must do in defending the faith. The first of these makes immediate sense to us: we must defend the supernatural elements of the Bible. The second, however, seems less relevant to apologetics. Lewis said we must show people the difference between thinking and imagining. For instance, have you ever had someone attack your beliefs this way: “I can’t believe in an old man sitting on a throne in the clouds with his finger on the button to hell”? Or this one: “How can you believe in a devil in red tights with horns and a pitch fork—that’s just ridiculous”? But when you look at these arguments, of course, you realize immediately that they are not ideas but images. As a Christian, I don’t believe in these images either—not in any literal sense. But many people, and Christians among them, fail to realize the mistake they’re making at the core of their thinking: they’re confusing images for ideas; that is, they are failing to realize we have two kinds of thinking: reason and imagination.

As a fiction writer and English teacher, Lewis knew the power of the imagination—it’s one of the reasons he’s been so influential as a writer. Lewis knew that any kind of reasoning began with the imagination’s ability to make meanings—that is, to connect symbols to objects and ideas. Lewis understood that meaning precedes reasoning and not all meanings are the kinds of abstract propositions which are the bread and butter of the act of reasoning. If I say, “It’s cold out,” I’ve made a propositional statement which may or may not be true. If I say, “Man it’s as cold outside as a Taco Bell dog on the South Pole,” I’ve made non-literal connections using a simile which, while probably not factually accurate, nevertheless express the idea that it’s cold outside while also expressing my rather negative response to that cold—my experience of the cold. The implications of this distinction are huge.

In theology, for example, Lewis argues that much of what we have to say about God is metaphorical. Even a statement as simple as “Jesus Christ is the Son of God” is a metaphor. Jesus is NOT a son as we understand sonship in human experience. There was a time when my son did not exist—then he came into existence. But Jesus has always existed with the Father. They have a relationship which is best described as one like sonship—but for earthly, human understanding, what’s left is a metaphor. It’s a good one because it’s accurate. But it’s not literal in the same way that saying, “Jesus rose from the dead” is literal. True metaphors are just that: they use comparison to capture truths which can’t be abstracted any further into reason—at least not without losing something in the translation: as Lewis said, we might try to state the relationship between God and Christ more literally by saying something like, “There is between Jesus and God an asymmetrical, social, harmonious relation involving homogeneity” (in “The Language of Religion” in Christian Reflections 137), but one, who really understands that—the metaphor better captures and communicates the meaning, and two, God chose the metaphor to speak the truth He wanted to speak—He is a God who frequently uses metaphorical language, the language of poetry and imagination, to say what He means. Thus in Isaiah:

“‘Come now, let us reason together,’
says the Lord.
‘Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool’” (Isa 1:18).

On a literal level, as far as we know anyway, sin has no color. But we get the simile here with all of its immediacy and potency.

And this leads us to another significant implication of imaginative language: its power to communicate. Part of what makes Lewis’s arguments devastating is his ability to state a complex, abstract argument in a simple but powerful metaphor, simile, or illustration, one which often destroys any counter argument by its sheer intuitive clarity when perceived in the imagination. For example, Lewis argues the existence of universal moral truth in Mere Christianity with a clear illustration:

“[T]hink what a totally different morality would mean. Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five” (5).

In talking about the nature and purpose of art in his essay, “Christianity and Culture,” Lewis points out the importance of judging things based on what they are. In the case of art, we should judge it first for its value as art—for its ability to entertain (in the case of a novel)—not for secondary purposes or purposes for which it was never made (for example, many evangelical Christians today have falsely concluded that the purpose of art should be to preach truth—one result in recent decades, with only some exceptions, has been a slew of forgettable Christian movies no one wants to see twice). Lewis brings this point home with a simple metaphor: “you cannot judge any artefact [sic] except by using it as it was intended. It is no good judging a butter-knife by seeing whether it will saw logs” (in Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces 90).

This style of writing is vintage Lewis. He makes clear to the imagination what is sometimes unclear to reason. In Miracles, Lewis argues that one of the problems with Naturalism, the rejection of anything supernatural—anything beyond or outside our universe, especially God—is that it cannot give a reason for moral statements to be true. It may explain how morality arises in mankind, but it cannot give any method for verifying moral truth. In fact, by being what it is, it must reject any truth claims of all moral statements. As Lewis puts it, “if Naturalism is true, ‘I ought’ is the same sort of statement as ‘I itch’ or ‘I’m going to be sick’” (51).

Notice how Lewis strengthens his arguments with powerful images—he brings a clarity to his apologetics through the proper use of imaginative language. He can do this because he knows what imaginative thought is and how it can be used to both obscure and clarify truth. Our own communication will improve drastically when we come to understand imaginative thought as well (see footnote). We can use Lewis as a model but should also consider the example of an even more influential communicator, one who might say about our ability to share with others through the use of imaginative language something like, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men…” (Matthew 5:14-16). Apt metaphors indeed.

To this end, readers might consider the following books: Word Pictures  by Brian Godawa (Intervarsity Press), C. S. Lewis and the Arts ed. Rod Miller (Square Halo), and Lewis’s own works including An Experiment in Criticism, Reflections on the Psalms, The Abolition of Man, and such essays as “Christianity and Culture,” “Is Theology Poetry?,” “Horrid Red Things,” and “The Language of Religion.”

Dr. Charlie W. Starr is a Professor of English and Humanities and Chair of the Humanities Program at Kentucky Christian University. He is the author five books including Light: C. S. Lewis’s First and Final Short Story (Winged Lion, 2012).