Recently my husband and I had the privilege of visiting Oxford. Ever since I read C.S. Lewis’s account of his memorable walk with his friends JRR Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, I wanted to visit Addison’s walk myself. Walking where two of my favorite authors discussed faith and myth made a dream come true.
C.S. Lewis’s writings gave me permission to both employ my intellect and follow Christ. In high school, I lived with my feet in two worlds: a church that though faithful, didn’t think teenagers capable – or desiring – of any intellectual richness in their faith, and my honors classes full of nerdy friends who loved to discuss ideas, but few of whom followed Christ. In all fairness to the church, this was a nearly unavoidable trend in churches at the time. Indeed, the culture as a whole tended to discount teenagers as little more than instinct-driven idiots. (See teen movies from the early aughts.) In the company of the nerds and geeks, I found a home for my mind. However, this God I loved – whom I couldn’t deny – didn’t seem to have room there.
Enter C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. In it, I found a shining gem of intellect, wit, winsomeness, and mostly importantly, robust faith. I quickly bought every book by him or about him I could find. I read too quickly, and most of it flew over my head. I had not yet learned to slow down and digest while reading, but Lewis’s account of seeing Christianity as the “True Myth” stuck with me through high school and into college where I studied anthropology.
Anthropology gave me a fuller understanding of how myths work and function within a culture. With Lewis’s idea of Christianity as the the true myth, I found a new richness in Scripture I had never seen before. A myth forms a people group’s identity and values. It explains to them who their god is and how they relate to him. When I read the Old Testament through that framework, I saw it shouting out the character of God. Even more I saw anew how clearly it reveals how God relates to His people.
Since my first introduction to Lewis, I’ve read numerous wildly intelligent, steadfastly faithful Christian authors. He opened the door of that world to me, and he gave me permission to hold fast to the person of Jesus as well as to learn as much as I could with all the vigor I could muster. He also demonstrated to me intelligence shaped by the Holy Spirit, which differed vastly from the arrogance I frequently witness in intellectual communities. Lewis’s writing shone with humility and grace. In short, Lewis proved to me the possibility of becoming the type of person I wanted to be: faithful, intelligent, and humbly following Christ.
One can find C.S. Lewis’s account of his walk and talk in two letters to his good friend and long time correspondent, Arthur Greeves. The relevant quotes are as follows. The italics and abbreviations are Lewis’s.
“We began (in Addison’s walk just after dinner) on metaphor and myth — interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we though it was raining. We all held our breath, the other two appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing almost as you would. We continued (in my room) on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot: then discussed the difference between love and friendship — then finally drifted back to poetry and books.” – Letter to Arthur Greeves Sept 22nd 1931
“Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself (cf. the quotation opposite the title page of Dymer) I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant.’
“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’. Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of wh. God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened.” – Letter to Arthur Greeves, Oct 18th 1931