In this excerpt from All Thy Lights Combine, Judith Wolfe explores the connection between C. S. Lewis’s fiction and his understanding of figurative exegesis of Scripture.
C . S. Lewis is one of the towering intellects of twentieth-century Anglicanism, whose works of public theology and religious literature have brought the Christian faith alive not only to his own generation but also to those who came after. He is best known for his fiction, above all the Chronicles of Narnia, which offer not figurative readings of Scripture but scriptural figurations: transpositions of biblical stories into imaginary otherworlds. These fictional retellings are intimately related to Lewis’s understanding of figurative exegesis of Scripture, both in the form of allegory or typology, and in that of moral and anagogical (that is, eschatological) readings.
The Primacy of Images
Moral and anagogical readings of apocalyptic images form the backbone of several of Lewis’s discussions of eschatology, especially the dazzling 1941 sermon “The Weight of Glory.” For the most part, however, Lewis is more interested in the quality of the biblical imagery than in its interpretation. Biblical stories and pictures, especially but not only eschatological ones, do not exist to be deciphered but to be inhabited. Of course such inhabitation includes some work of interpretation. But any discursive exegesis, Lewis insists, involves translating into poorer language what God has spoken more perfectly in his own language, whether it be the language of poetry or of history itself.
In Letters to Malcolm, Lewis discusses what this means for exegetes and theologians. He chooses as an example the tension between biblical descriptions of a wrathful, pitying, or grieving God, and traditional belief in divine impassibility (which he shares). Lewis begins by acknowledging that such biblical descriptions are analogical rather than literal. However, the analogies are never redundant: they are not simply replaceable by more accurate, literal speech. The alternative to figurative language is not so much literal truth as “theological abstraction.” And the value of such abstractions, far from definitive, is “almost entirely negative,” guarding against absurd extrapolations from the biblical imagery, but not offering material substitutes for it.
Lewis therefore proposes two “rules for exegetics”:
(1) Never take the images literally. (2) When the purport of the images—what they say to our fear and hope and will and affections—seems to conflict with the theological abstractions, trust the purport of the images every time. For our abstract thinking is itself a tissue of analogies: a continual modelling of spiritual reality in legal or chemical or mechanical terms. Are these likely to be more adequate than the sensuous, organic, and personal images of scripture—light and darkness, river and well, seed and harvest, master and servant, hen and chickens, father and child? The footprints of the Divine are more visible in that rich soil than across rocks or slagheaps. Hence what they now call “de-mythologising” Christianity can easily be “re-mythologising” it—and substituting a poorer mythology for a richer.
Although Lewis’s argument is particular to Scripture as divinely inspired, yet it is also, like his analysis of typology, related to his wider understanding of humanity’s relationship to the truth. In the present case, the surrounding question is the role of figurative language in human understanding. Lewis approaches this question by distinguishing between allegory on the one hand and “sacramentalism or symbolism” on the other. “The allegorist,” he argues, “leaves the given … to talk of that which is confessedly less real, which is a fiction. The symbolist leaves the given to find that which is more real.” In other words, allegorists begin with psychological or spiritual realities they understand, and translate them into pictorial language in order to teach those who do not yet understand. Symbolists, by contrast, reach for spiritual realities they do not understand and cannot express except in images. Edmund Spenser and John Bunyan were superb allegorists; George MacDonald and William Morris were supreme symbolists.
Although some Old Testament passages can be read “allegorically” in the specific sense of “typologically,” biblical imagery as a whole is closer to what Lewis calls “symbolic” than to what he calls allegorical. This is not primarily because the biblical writers groped for realities they did not understand—Lewis believes in the divine inspiration of Scripture—but because the realities they describe are beyond human reason and may be apprehended, in this life, only through the imagination: “For now we see through a glass darkly.” Such images, including the white stone of our individuality or the broken jar of our heart, may guide action until such a time when they give way to seeing God “face to face.”
C. S. Lewis’s Biblical Figurations
This brings us to Lewis’s most distinctive and well-known contribution to figurations of Scripture—namely, fictional works figuratively tracing the biblical story. These figurations form the core of his imaginative work: The Magician’s Nephew is a story of creation and fall, Perelandra a fantasy of paradise retained, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a retelling of salvation, and The Last Battle a vision of the second coming. They are not allegories any more than the Bible is a collection of allegories. Rather, they refract through the prism of fantasy that light which shines with focused clarity through Scripture. Lewis’s stories are images of the many forms which God’s story with Israel, the church, and creation at large might take in otherworlds animated by the same divine goodness. Such stories are far from necessary, but neither are they superfluous as long as images are part of the way we think and understand.
This post is adapted from All Thy Lights Combine: Figural Reading in the Anglican Tradition edited by Ephraim Radner and David Ney (Lexham Press, 2022).