In Search of the Baptism of the Imagination

These remarks were first delivered at the Second Annual Davenant DC Award Banquet, where Dr. Wilfred M. McClay was given the C.S. Lewis Award for Christian Wisdom. What follows is a lightly edited version of Dr. McClay’s acceptance speech.

I was very pleased to accept my recent award for Christian Wisdom from the Davenant Institute, and delighted that the award bears the name of C.S. Lewis, who has been so important to me and those closest to me–a surprisingly versatile and beloved guide. I say “surprising,” because each time in my life that I have achieved some fresh insight, climbed an inner spiritual mountain, I always seem to have discovered at the mountain’s peak a modest little flag, fluttering in the alpine breezes, informing me that “Jack was here.” I am sure that others have had a similar experience with him.

I am also delighted, if also a bit overwhelmed, by the privilege of following in the footsteps of last year’s recipient, Carl Trueman, who in many respects is a Lewis for our times, a thinker for whom I have the greatest admiration. Carl uses crystal-clear prose to recall the sharp insights of Christian theology and bring them to bear on the problems of our collapsing culture. He does it in ways that are both troubling—because he tells the whole truth—and also restorative—for the same reason. For the whole truth about our condition must always include the balm of hope. Optimism is merely wishful thinking, but hope is an imperishable virtue, and a token of redemptive possibility.

I share with Carl a concern with the alarming state of our culture, how to think about it, and what to do about it. I will get to that eventually tonight, but first let me lay some groundwork. My title might be puzzling to some of you. And indeed, whenever one borrows a sacramental concept such as baptism, and starts using it in a metaphorical way, attempting to appropriate some of its luster for the sake of a rhetorical flourish, well, one may be making trouble for oneself, especially if one is speaking to an audience of serious theologians.

But I can offer a preemptive excuse in this instance: I got the idea from C.S. Lewis. He described his own conversion to Christianity, from a fashionable and rather mindless form of atheism heavily tinged with late Romanticism; and he depicts that transformation as beginning with the unexpected effects of a chance reading of George MacDonald’s book Phantastes on a train ride. Lewis had snatched up a copy at the train station, “an Everyman edition in a dirty jacket,” to serve as a distraction for the ride ahead. How appropriate of him, to choose a lowly “everyman edition” of a book dressed in humble raiment, to be his preceptor.

The effect of reading the book turned out to be very dramatic. Let me allow Lewis to tell the story, as he relates it in his editorial introduction to a 1947 anthology of MacDonald’s writings. It’s a lengthy quotation, but worth every word, as it defies easy paraphrase:

It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought—almost unwillingly, for I had looked at the volume on the bookstall and rejected it on a dozen previous occasions—the Everyman edition of Phantastes. A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a great frontier. I had already been waist-deep in Romanticism; and likely enough, at any moment, to flounder into its darker and more evil forms, slithering down the steep descent that leads from the love of strangeness to that of eccentricity and thence to that of perversity.

Now Phantastes was romantic enough in all conscience; but there was a difference. Nothing was at that time further from my thoughts than Christianity and I therefore had no notion what this difference really was. I was only aware that if this new world was strange, it’s also homely and humble; that if this was a dream, it was a dream in which one at least felt strangely vigilant; that the whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of Death, good Death. What it actually did to me was convert, even to baptize (that was where the Death came in) my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later and with the help of many other books and men. But when the process was complete—by which, of course, I mean “when it had really begun”—I found that I was still with MacDonald and that he had accompanied me all the way and that I was not at least ready to hear from him much that he could not have told me at that first meeting.

But in a sense, what he was now telling me was the very same that he had told me from the beginning. There was no question of getting through to the kernel and throwing away the shell: no question of a gilded pill. The pill was gold all through. The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live. I should have been shocked in my teens if anyone had told me that what I learned to love in Phantastes was goodness. But now that I know, I see there was no deception. The deception is all other way round—in that prosaic moralism which confines goodness to the region of Law and Duty, which never lets us feel in our face the sweet air blowing from “the land of righteousness,” never reveals that elusive Form which if once seen must inevitably be desired with all but sensuous desire—the thing (in Sappho’s phrase) “more gold than gold.”

One could say a great deal about this rich and fascinating passage. In fact, we could be here all night with it. But let’s concentrate on a few things.

First, Lewis says very clearly that, even in the wake of this “baptism” of the imagination, the development of his intellect and conscience was just beginning—in fact, was yet to begin. But looking back, he was equally sure that a certain necessary threshold had been crossed, and that the capacity to see things as they actually are, radiant and vibrant with the life of Christ animating them, was being born in him at that moment. A kind of deep and nonverbal presupposition was becoming embedded, the basis for all other insights to come.

He did not say that this ability was rendered fully mature in that moment. Far from it. He admitted that he was not yet even a Christian at that moment, or much interested in Christianity! But he had made the essential move beyond life in the Shadowlands. The process was underway, the baptism had occurred, and the start that was made on that train ride would turn out to be something fundamental, a necessary foundation for all that was to come.

Lewis’s words make me think also of our much-abused countryman Jonathan Edwards—not the stern Jonathan Edwards of “Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God,” but the later, God-intoxicated Edwards who insisted that the essence of true religion is the experience of being overwhelmed by God’s beauty, of being drawn to the glory of His perfections, of being overcome by the power of His irresistible love. The Edwards who believed, as his biographer George Marsden put it, that “all created reality is like a quintessential explosion of light from the sun of God’s intertrinitarian love.”

“All the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation,” Edwards wrote, “is but the reflection of the diffused beams of the Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory.” In the pitch-perfect words of the theologian Gerald McDermott, which echo Lewis’s words so closely, “[Edwards’s God] does not drive us by duty, but draws us by beauty. Not by fear but by irresistible attraction….We feel compelled, and yet we are not coerced. We are drawn ineluctably.”

The greatest works of art have that effect on us. They mimic the work of God, by drawing us inescapably into their embrace. They are counterforces arrayed in opposition to what Lewis derided as that “prosaic moralism which confines goodness to the region of Law and Duty, which never lets us feel in our face the sweet air blowing from ‘the land of righteousness’.” Instead, they serve us as heralds of wonder, of the light and life that envelop our seemingly quotidian lives. Lewis would spend much of his career writing wondrous and captivating stories, not only for children, though often of a fanciful or fantastical character. He wrote imaginative fiction whose vividness and sweetness have had the demonstrable capacity to nourish the imaginations of its readers, in just the way that Lewis’s imagination had been affected by MacDonald’s writings.

So now we come around to the question with which I began. How can Christians be about the business of the transformation of our present cultural milieu? What can we learn from Lewis’s example?

I have no easy answers to either question. But it seems clear to me that we must begin with an enhanced respect for how foundational the imagination is to our intellectual life, our moral progress, and our worship, as Christians. Nowhere is that fact made more evident than in the pervasively metaphorical character of our religious speech.

Lewis insisted that the metaphorical language we use to express theological concepts is ultimately not translatable into nonmetaphorical language. When we say that “God came down from heaven,” we probably have gone as far as we need to go, and all other ways of translating that assertion into more respectably academic language will only amount to ways of trading one set of metaphors for another. Such a variety of figurative terms may serve to illuminate the subject at hand, just as different kinds of light can disclose different aspects of a landscape. When modern theologians choose to refer to God as “the ground of being” rather than “Our Father in Heaven,” they are only choosing to replace vivid words with pallid and abstract ones. Either way, it is language used in the service of metaphor. This is what Lewis meant when he said, in the passage I quoted earlier, that “There was no question of getting through to the kernel and throwing away the shell: no question of a gilded pill. The pill was gold all through.” The metaphor is not just a disposable carrier of detachable truth, it is an embodiment of meaning that is not entirely separable from the truth it delivers, serving truth in much in the way that a sacrament serves as a visible sign of an invisible grace.

Or think of it this way. Why did Jesus so often teach us by means of parables? Why didn’t He provide us with a tidy compendium of propositional statements, a handy cheat-sheet of Christian morality, an updated version of the Code of Hammurabi, instead of weaving his message into the fabric of stories, constantly challenging and provoking us to fresh thought, and new sight, by means of curious tales and mysterious koan-like summations? Is not His parabolic manner of expression itself designed to force us to make constant use of our imaginations, a form of labor that is an essential part of our moral education?

But as Lewis recognized, it is not the imagination per se that we are talking about. Left to its own unredeemed devices, the imagination can just as easily drag us down as lift us up. When Eve was seduced by the assurance given her by the serpent—he being the first revisionist historian in recorded history—he had told her that she’d been misled by God, that God told her a false story, and that in fact the true story was that she could aspire to be like God, if she would only be so bold as to disobey Him. When all of this happened, it was Eve’s imagination that betrayed her. The imagination must be educated, purified and chastened, just as all our other faculties must undergo the same redemptive process, made into servants of the God who does not lie, if their productions are to be worthy of our trust.

That is not to say that all the cultural productions of Christian artists should be required to run the gauntlet of theological censors, and obtain the Nihil Obstat from a panel of robed philistines before being set loose upon the public. But it is to say—and this is where the imagery of baptism has to be taken more seriously and strenuously—that the imagination has to experience a preliminary immersion (as in the Greek word baptizo), a cleansing and disciplining, a death to self and rebirth with Christ, which means adopting a new preconscious reorientation toward the world, a new way of seeing. The imagination of the old man dies and is reborn in the new man, reconsecrated to the new way of seeing. No matter how nuanced and sophisticated and systematic our theological understanding becomes, it will not be able to draw on our imaginations until those imaginations themselves have first been changed. That, I believe, is what Lewis was getting at.

How does this apply to our present condition? Simply in that we should do more, just as Lewis did, to seek to win people’s hearts and minds through art and expression—but we ought not to do it not by aiming to write certifiably Christian novels, compose certifiably Christian songs, or produce certifiably Christian movies, as if great art would emerge automatically from a self-conscious process of adhering to a theologically approved checklist. Instead, we should learn to honor and trust the baptized imagination as a faculty unlike any other, and learn to reach back to it as Lewis did all his life. For the impress of images and narratives drawing us toward the truth will do more to change the minds and hearts of the stony present than even the most astute moral exegesis. Who would want to replace the Parable of the Prodigal Son with a prosaic list of the moral insights it expresses?

I often think in this connection of the example of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which did so much to change the moral imagination of nineteenth-century America with respect to the institution of slavery, simply by convincingly depicting the lives of enslaved individuals and families, in the fullness of their humanity, living under that institution’s oppressive constraints. What was done then could be done now. There are hundreds of books and movies and paintings and other artifacts waiting to be fashioned, works that can pierce the moral blindnesses of our times better than even the best arguments, and draw us ineluctably toward the truth and beauty of our world. They cannot be produced on command. But they can be produced. Let us do whatever we can to cooperate with God’s grace, and make them possible.

Wilfred M. McClay holds the Victor Davis Hanson Chair in Classical History and Western Civilization at Hillsdale College. Before coming to Hillsdale in the fall of 2021, he was the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, and the Director of the Center for the History of Liberty. His book, The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, received the 1995 Merle Curti Award of the Organization of American Historians for the best book in American intellectual history. Among his other books is The Student’s Guide to U.S. History, Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America, Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past, Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Public Life in Modern America, and Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.


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