Just over a decade ago a confession from a college student sent me back to school. It went like this: “When we are in church and I’m listening to the preaching, it’s like someone is weaving a spell. I believe, and the world makes sense to me. But then I walk out the door, and it’s like the spell is broken.”[i]
I was a pastor in my early thirties, serving students in the suburbs of Chicago. I was also encountering a fragility in their faith that I felt inadequately prepared to address. To follow his metaphor, it was as if the spells I had learned in seminary – including my best apologetic arguments – didn’t seem to hold outside the walls of the church. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the arguments themselves. It was rather that the conversations failed to captivate, failed to “stick” in the moments that mattered.
As I reflected on the shape of my ministry, I realized that for many of my students the crisis of faith was first experienced in the imagination. That is, before they had worked their doubt out in the intellect, they felt like Christianity was narrow, oppressive, or irrelevant. Although I was adept in providing my students reasons to believe, I had not given enough attention to larger, imaginative context that framed their believing. To shift to an agricultural metaphor, I was planting seed without thinking about the soil, unpacking beliefs without giving attention to what makes beliefs believable (or unbelievable). I began to wonder if I needed to take the imagination as seriously as the intellect and to consider the beauty of the Christian faith to be as important as its truth.
The best apologists have always understood this. C.S. Lewis used the metaphor of magic to describe our modern resistance to faith. In The Weight of Glory, Lewis writes: “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.” What is the “enchantment of worldliness” that Lewis has in mind? Lewis describes it as a disciplined forgetting of our deepest desires. The enchantment is devised to convince us that “the good of man is to be found on earth,” but also that “earth can be made into heaven.”[ii]
Lewis also casts this argument in mythic terms in The Silver Chair. In that story, the heroes travel deep underground, where they are enchanted by a witch to believe that her realm is the only one that truly exists. Their longing for the surface world, she says, is no more than wishful thinking, an imaginative projection. The drab underground kingdom is the best they can hope for. I don’t want to spoil the ending; I will only say that the witch’s enchantment is broken by the testimony of a character who is able to resist the spell because of the better story he knows how to tell.[iii]
To say it another way, when Lewis writes about of “stronger spells,” he is talking about the way that Christian faith needs to do more than satisfy our intellect. It needs to capture our imagination, with a story that is large enough to make sense of our longings and losses. We are always in danger of having the right ideas in our heads, while also having our imaginations taken captive by stories that are not as good or as big as the true story of the world that is told to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Scripture makes it clear that vain imagining results in real-world wickedness (Rom 1:21, KJV). But to borrow one more line from Lewis, our Lord finds our imaginings not too strong, but too weak. What we imagine must be challenged and changed, transfigured and trained by the God who can do “more than we ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20). Which means that Christians must engage the imagination, rather than dismissing it.
I do not mean to posit a false choice between intellect and imagination; both are crucial in the dynamic of faith and doubt. But popular approaches to apologetics have often been top-heavy, as if human beings were no more than “brains on a stick,”[iv] and not embodied, imagining, desiring, hoping, creatures who make sense of the world with stories and songs. Indeed, long before Lewis became a Christian, he said that it was the stories of George Macdonald that “baptized his imagination,” preparing the way for him to consider its claim on his intellect.
Activist Andrew Fletcher famously said: “let me write the songs of a nation – I don’t care who writes its laws.” His point is that our songs embody and express human passion, and what really drives individuals and societies are the things that have captured our imaginations. In other words, don’t just tell me if you believe in an idea. Does it make you sing? If something makes you sing, then it has gotten into your bones, and it has the power to reorient your life. As Simeon Zahl has argued, in stories ideas put on flesh: “In the context of actual ministry, the best theology and the truest Christian information are just ghosts and vapor until they are communicated in a language the heart can hear.”[v]
This means that communicating the truth of the gospel requires some knowledge of the “heart language” of the people to whom we wish to speak. Like any language, it can only be learned from a place of compassion and convicted curiosity, from assuming the posture of a learner, and asking questions like this:
- Why do people resonate with this story or song?
- Why do they find it so compelling?
- Why is this good news to them?
- How does the good news of Jesus speak the longings in the story or song?
- How does the good news of Jesus challenge and subvert the story?
- How does the good news of Jesus offer something better?
In my next piece, I will offer a real-life example of what this might look like. For now, it is enough to say that we have much to learn from faithful artists, who can teach us to tell better stories and how to write stronger songs.
My student’s confession (and others like it) sent me in search of stronger spells: a more integrated way of doing apologetics and discipleship. It sent me back to graduate school, which ultimately led me to become a professor, where I am still working on these questions. I’ve learned that engaging the imagination is no silver bullet. If our apologetic fascination is winning arguments, or achieving mastery over other minds, or about being in control, then we will find imaginative engagement a poor tool for such a task. But if we want to help people respond rightly to reality, then perhaps we will find that the beauty of the gospel leads us into its goodness, which leads us finally into its truth.
[i] I tell this story and develop the argument in Justin Ariel Bailey, Reimagining Apologetics: The Beauty of Faith in a Secular Age. IVP Academic, 2020.
[ii] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. MacMillan, 1949, 31.
[iii] C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair. Harper Collins, 2002, 184.
[iv] See this phrase developed in James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love. Brazos, 2016.
[v] Simeon Zahl, “How Do People Actually Change? The Cure of Souls and Theory of Change in Christian Ministry,” Mockingbird Magazine 22, April 5, 2023. https://mbird.com/the-magazine/the-cure-of-souls/
Published October 30, 2023