Life reads more like stories which our hearts desire than like puzzles our minds solve. We remember yarns spun at camp fires more keenly than a rehearsal of dry concepts.
Our lives flow as compilations of stories. “We humans are stories with legs,” observes Michael L. Lindvall, novelist-preacher at Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City. He describes how stories shape lives. “We understand ourselves in terms of what we’ve done, what’s happened to us, whom we’ve loved and been loved by, where we’ve been — the unfolding narrative of a life. In his book ‘The Gates of the Forest,’ Elie Wiesel notes (perhaps quoting a traditional Hebrew proverb) that ‘There is something in the story which is almost eternal. God created man (and woman) because He loves stories.’” (The Presbyterian Outlook, Dec. 10, p. 31).
We applaud marathon runners because they “still have legs.” Running is in their blood. We run best, also, when life’s script features stories that inform, delight and inspire. Then our biographies read as if they are “stories on legs.”
Master story-teller C.S. Lewis, the 20th century’s ablest defender of historic Christian faith, died on Nov. 22, 1963, the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Many overlooked his demise because their attention was focused on the tragedy in Dallas.
Lewis’ story-telling abilities will be recognized with a commemorative plaque placed in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abby. This ceremony occurs on Nov. 22, exactly a half-century after his death. Lewis joins Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens and Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose bodies were interred there.
It might seem strange that C.S. Lewis, a theological essayist and children’s author, finds a resting place in Poets’ Corner. This teacher of English literature at Oxford and Cambridge didn’t gain fame because of the verse he published at the start of his career.
What’s preserved at Poets’ Corner, however, is what “poetry” originally meant. Long ago, poets melded words to music and drama. In this larger sense, C.S. Lewis groomed a poet’s soul, writing imaginative stories that appeal to children and to young-at-heart veterans.
Fifty years ago, conservative believers cited Lewis’ book “Mere Christianity,” which defended historic Christian faith. During World War II, the BBC invited Lewis to host radio programs in which he provided rational arguments for God’s existence, Christ’s divinity and life beyond the grave. These war-time broadcasts, like Churchill’s speeches, furnished spiritual anchors to steel Brits’ souls. Later, radio scripts evolved into “Mere Christianity.”
In 1945, at the height of fame as Christianity’s prime defender, Lewis admitted inadequacies about advancing arguments for Christian faith. “I have found,” he confessed, “that nothing is more dangerous to one’s own faith than the work of an apologist (a debater proving what’s religiously true). No doctrine of that faith seems to me so spectral (ghostly), so unreal as the one I have just successfully defended in a public debate.” That is, reasoned argument doesn’t produce open and shut cases for Christianity’s truth.
Stories, however, couch religious meaning in vivid events. Lewis wrote a series of books which intrigue young and old readers entitled “The Chronicles of Narnia.” They appeal to our imagination. Our loves and hopes are seldom defined by rationales. Stories stir the heart more than logical formulas. Narratives trigger laughter and sadness because they touch our hearts.
Today, C.S. Lewis attracts those curious about Christianity through children’s literature more than by his defenses for believing in Christ. The land of Narnia enchants readers. Biographer Alister McGrath asks why Narnia makes an impact. Is this imaginative world “a retreat into the security of his childhood at a time of personal and professional stress? Was Lewis like Peter Pan, a … boy who never really grew up, and Narnia his version of ‘Never Never Land’?”
Doesn’t Peter Pan lurk within each of us? Don’t suppress him by shriveling up imagination. To imagine isn’t a silly exercise in concocting what’s juvenile. Cultivating imagination leads to enriched living, not stunted growth.
In 1820, during retirement from public life, Thomas Jefferson preserved gospel accounts of stories about Jesus. In “The Life and Morals of Jesus,” he excised scriptural passages “of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, or superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications.” Jefferson chronologically arranged events that account for Jesus’ impact on listeners. Although he and C.S. Lewis differ widely as to Jesus’ identity — whether he was godly or God in human form — they appreciated the power of story.
Isn’t this why we read? Lewis’ biographer McGrath tells how “children’s stories offered him a marvelous way of exploring philosophical and theological questions — such as the origins of evil, the nature of faith and the human desire for God. A good story could weave these themes together, using the imagination as the gateway to serious thinking” (“C.S. Lewis: A Life,” page 264, 2013). This is why Jesus spun stories of God relating to humankind. He taught inquirers of “many things in parables” (Mark 4:2).
Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, reaches for children’s literature, especially “The Chronicles of Narnia,” because he believes “children’s books ... are quite powerful tools for grown-ups’ imaginations.”
Our lives really are stories on legs.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.