Smuggling for God: What the Emerging Church Movement Can Learn from C. S. Lewis’ Incarnational Aesthetic

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Ten years ago, at a gathering at Lambeth Palace, an “alternative worship” service was vividly described as follows:

“On the first visit to a service, the main impression is visual. Screens and hanging fabrics, containing a multiplicity of colours, moving and static images continuously dominate the perceptions. There are other things: the type of music, often electronic, whose textures and range seem curiously attuned to the context of worship, smells, the postures adopted by the other worshippers…. As the mental picture begins to fill up with details, there is a growing appreciation that considerable technological complexity is sitting alongside simplicity and directness. The rituals—perhaps walking though patterns, tieing [sic] a knot, or having one’s hands or feet anointed—are introduced with simple, non-fussy directions. The emphasis is on allowing people to do what will help, liberate, and encourage their worship rather than on the orchestration of a great event…. Where something is rather obscure, its purpose is to invite further reflection, perhaps teasing the worshippers to look deeper beyond the surface meaning…. For many of those who stay, they have never before had an experience of Christian worship like it. It is as though they have come to a new place which they instantly recognize as home.”

Then, as now, the Rev. Dr. Paul Roberts pleaded for a renewed appreciation of the artistic sensibility in worship, not for art’s sake alone, but as part of a “vibrant missionary engagement” with postmodern aesthetics—embracing its “richer, multi-layered, and more fluid textuality—envisioning meanings and appreciating multivalence through a variety of media.”1

Roberts presently serves Anglican parishes in Bristol, England while co-hosting, a self-described “gateway for anyone researching Alternative Worship and new forms of church.” A similar web-based service is provided at by a counterpart to Roberts on my side of the pond, Dan Kimball, pastor at Santa Cruz Bible Church in California. Accordingly, Kimball wants the aethetics at his church “to scream out who we are and what we are about the moment people walk in the doors.”2 Neither enterprise sees itself as trendy, seeker-sensitive, or mere window-dressing. Rather, the basic conviction is that the arts speak to more fundamental concerns regarding the transcendent realities of truth, goodness, and beauty. Assuming that “people who value beauty might eventually look for truth,” the arts become a tool of evangelism, a pathway to God.3 Indeed, Brian McLaren, a leading spokesperson for the Emergent Church/Conversation [EC] in the U.S., believes that “image (the language of imagination) and emotion (including the emotion of wonder) are essential elements of fully human knowing, and thus we seek to integrate them in our search for this precious, wonderful, sacred gift called truth…”4 Otherwise, the gospel remains “flattened, trivialized, and rendered inane,” observes McLaren—with a message stuck in the small world of “Sunday School Christianity,” unable to connect with a postmodern culture that is visually inclined, aesthetically charged, and open to—if not in outright pursuit of—mystery.5

Seasoned insiders to the EC like Alan Roxburgh, a writer and theological educator in Vancouver, B.C., admire such “wonderfully creative movements of bright young leaders,” while, at the same time, worries that they might cater to self-actualization and become “purveyors of more experiential, artsy, aesthetic forms of religious goods and services.”6 The aesthetic media may very well morph into the message and confuse style and substance—“undeniably cool,” yes, but never actually answering the question, “What is the Gospel?” Scott Bader-Sayre and Andy Crouch, authors of two important cover-page articles on the EC in The Christian Century and Christianity Today (respectively), heartily endorse the recovery of a sense of mystery and transcendence through the arts—especially for those who have given up on the “small life” and superficiality of contemporary evangelicalism. Perhaps the emerging experience—in worship gatherings as well any artistic engagement with the wider world—will also nudge today’s alienated youth to see beyond their angst into the numinous so that they can find a spiritual place they can call home. But all this relevance, according to Bader-Sayer, will have to be “modulated” by resistance—by the counter-cultural move to “[interpret] the culture to itself” in light of the hope conveyed in the story of Jesus Christ.7 Lauren Winner expresses the tension well when she asks, “How do you simultaneously attend to the culture and be a pocket of resistance?”8

If any of this sounds familiar, it is likely because the contemporary EC interest in artistic expression is reminiscent of the challenges and opportunities C. S. Lewis encountered as he smuggled theology into his own post-Christian world through the literary media of fantasy and myth. I see two significant areas of correspondence here. First, regarding context, Lewis was just as persuaded then as the EC is now that the church is in a “missionary situation.” Writing in 1945, he observed: “A century ago our task was to edify those who had been brought up in the Faith: our present task is chiefly to convert and instruct infidels.”9 Given the pervasive spiritual alienation of his day and, indeed, of his own early life, Lewis advised an indirect or “latent” approach to evangelism that nurtured, through the poetic and mythic imaginations, a disposition to hear (pre-evangelism) then believe (pre-apologetics) the Gospel.10 Just as Paul Roberts hopes that today’s “alternative” worship services will “tease” their participants to “look deeper” at life and its ultimate destination, Lewis hoped his fantasy writing would, at the least, awaken deep longings for transcendence. Both see re-enchantment and its attendant aesthetic practices as evangelistic endeavors in a world filled with competing ideologies and narratives, or perhaps a world that has no story to tell at all.11

There is a second important area of correspondence between the missional aesthetics of Lewis and the EC, and that has to do with the way both understand the stealthy relationship between artistic or literary expression and apologetics. Lewis actually used the term smuggle in reference to his fictional works much the same way that EC proponents speak today of the subversive ways they are communicating the Gospel in the eclectic vernacular of postmodern culture. In a letter to Anglican nun Sister Penelope (CSMV), written in the summer of 1939, Lewis observed how “any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.” He recalled his early experience of “almost believing in the gods”—indeed, feeling something akin to “holiness”—through George MacDonald’s “fantasies for grown-ups.”12 Later in life, in a more familiar passage from his essay, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” Lewis observed:

I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood…. But supposing that by casting all these things [Christian teachings] into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.13

Indeed, Lewis knew those “watchful dragons” quite well because he had moved in fits and starts beyond the smallness of his Sunday School Christianity into a “region of awe”—a spiritual journey of deconversion and reconversion that anticipated much of the religious autobiography we see among today’s self-described postmoderns.14 Smuggling was, in effect, an act of “redemptive deconstruction,” according to Louis Markos: “Lewis dissociated the signifieds of Christian theology from their typical, uninspiring signifiers (their Sunday school associations) and attached them instead to a new set of signifiers with the power to reinvigorate and inspire young and old alike.”15 He accomplished this through bold use of allegory, myth, and symbol—genres and literary devices that are most amenable to an incarnational aesthetic, the “transposing” of divine presence or, at least, transcendent meaning into a “lower” medium of communication.16 Little wonder that emergent writers like Charlie Peacock and Brian McLaren admire Lewis for his “imaginative and mystical sensitivities,” especially his literary “portals” which lead the reader beyond the confines of the self into the heavenlies.17