"When the sunset is nice, it means it's going to be a good day tomorrow," said Lyric, my oldest of three daughters as I sat staring at the breakfast table.
"What was that, Love?"
"What are you staring at, Daddy?"
"I was just thinking while staring at the sky."
That's when she told me to write about the sunset, and dropped her Curious George wisdom on me.
And why not? The sunset, I mean. What does it tell us?
You and I will stop what we're doing if we see oranges and indigoes streaking the sky. We'll even pull the car over if we can, and we'll snap a few photographs for the Instagram feed. The sunset is the universal language of beauty.
The Language of Beauty
Since moving to Oxford in September I've plunged into the works of C.S. Lewis with a very specific set of reading goggles. I'm looking at beauty and imagination. Here's one glaring issue I see with my CSL Beauty Goggles:
Readers of Lewis love to hoist him up as the Apologetic King of Rationalism, while it seems that Lewis himself was up to something else.
What moved Lewis into his conversion to Christianity was less of a "glib and shallow rationalism (SBJ)," as he put it, and more the lingering aura from a boyhood encounter with a currant flower.
I'm not saying Lewis was a naturalist hippie, though one of his former students referred to him as a country-bumpkin. I am, however, suggesting we re-evaluate the way in which we read Lewis.
After all, the tiny work many Lewis scholars refer to as his most eloquent is an essay in which he discusses "the thing" behind all the beautiful things in this world: "The Weight of Glory." The entire essay examines longing and beauty.
Consider also that Mere Christianity was originally a series of addresses, delivered less as a manifesto to convince the unbelieving and more as an encouragement to a doubting and war-beaten England.
I think many of us would agree with Lewis's character Psyche, in Till We Have Faces, when she says:
The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing—to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from—my country, the place where I ought to have been born.
You and I want to know why the sunset moves us so much; where does all this beauty come from? The majority of people do not sit around tables with tea or port and discuss epistemology. They sit around watching Sherlock; they wrap their lives in stories. Why?
Maybe we feel stories will get us there, to the mountain, to the beauty ... the thing behind it.
Apologetics of Enchantment
Certainly epistemology and other -ologies have their place at the apologetic table. But perhaps we should be less concerned with rational debates and more concerned with finding ways around the watchful dragons, to borrow a phrase from Lewis; Lewis searched for a way into people's minds by first getting in through their hearts, their imaginations.
In his feature article in Christianity Today Lewis scholar Michael Ward says, "C.S. Lewis understood, like few in the past century, just how deeply faith is both imaginative and rational (CT, Nov. 2013)."
In the article Ward aptly shows us how Lewis used rational apologetics and poetic apologetics. And though I agree with Ward that Christians should understand and employ both kinds of apologetics, my mind wanders down the path of effectiveness—which is the better approach in a story-saturated culture?
In his best works, Lewis enchants us. Where is the enchantment now, in today's Christian circles? Sometimes I think Christians enjoy apologetics more as a topic for themselves to discuss than as an actual mode of discourse with an unbelieving world. We love to argue. We love to sound intelligent. We leave the things of imagination to the naturalist hippies, to the country-bumpkins.
What if we wrote less books on apologetics and ventured into the mountain of imagination, that place where truth is cloaked in the beautiful? What if we debated less and lived apologetically; employing whimsy and enchantment into our lifestyle?
At some point, my daughter Lyric will need to understand how to effectively defend her faith rationally. But right now, she almost exclusively speaks the language of beauty. She lives in her imagination, creating new worlds and characters.
And though, as Ward rightly suggests, we need a both/and approach regarding apologetics, I think we also need to take a clue from Lewis and learn to better speak the language of the sunset—that universal, enchanted language that unlocks the door to our hearts and reveals the Keeper of the mountain.
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Timothy Willard loves to sit with his wife by the bonfire and make up stories about Tom the Backyard-Badger for his three lovely daughters. When he's not carving up the Appalachian Mountains on his Salsa El Mariachi, you can find him busy writing a book, collaborating on a book, or reading a book written by someone dead and gone. Timothy studied beauty in the works of C.S. Lewis under theologian Alister McGrath. The author of five books, including Veneer: Living Deeply in a Surface Society (Zondervan), Timothy is currently finishing The Life-Changing Adventure of Chasing Beauty (Eerdmans, 2019), preparing his doctoral thesis for publication, and trying to find a publisher for his first novel The Tempest and the Bloom. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.