Mission and the Imagination.

I have recently been reading Alister McGrath’s ‘C.S. Lewis; A Life,’ it’s brilliant!

McGrath provides a really interesting, thought provoking, analysis of Lewis’ ‘unique’ conversion experience. I suspect that, even though McGrath warns that ‘we must, however, avoid portraying Lewis’s as a typical or representative conversion,’ there are significant, and far reaching, lessons to be learnt for contemporary mission.

Taking my life into my hands, by arguing against, one of Britain’s leading scholars, and his biography of Lewis proves just how brilliant McGrath is, I suggest that words like ‘typical,’ and ‘representative’ make sense only in relation to categories, or broad groupings, of individuals, and that for certain categories, Lewis’s conversion story may be regarded as more or less typical, and representative.

Lewis, I think, may also be regarded as a forerunner for two large and growing categories of potential convert, those who seek to understand deeper truths through the deployment of the imagination and, those who self-identify as ‘spiritual but not religious.’

I also think that we need to guard against the tendency to create opposite perspectives. Allowing for the fact (and it probably is a fact) that Lewis’s conversion was neither typical or representative, for the mission field in aggregate, does not mean that his experience was either atypical, or, unrepresentative for certain numerically significant categories, as already suggested.

Let me explain further, starting with a couple of questions:

‘Do you think that the existence of God, and therefore your faith in God, is verifiable through rational, scientific, analysis?’  If your answer is ‘no’ ‘does this then mean that belief, and active faith, are irrational?’ For me the answer is no.

Irrational, is not therefore the exact opposite of rational. I would hate to live in a world where belief , or disbelief, in anything, let alone religion, means that we are regarded as inhabitants  one of two categories; one labelled rational the other irrational.

In just the same way that process evangelism (courses such as Alpha) is rightly regarded as successful in ‘targeting’ various categories of individuals, it presumably is also true that such approaches are unattractive to other ‘target groups? For many process evangelism provides a typical, or representative journey, towards conversion, for others it cannot be considered representative, or typical.

Those whose preference is to find meaning through experiential and imaginative approaches such as engaging with the arts and through mediation may be two categories for who process evangelism is likely to produce negative results. If  I am correct we need to be aware of a potential danger: inviting individuals interested in exploring faith to an inappropriate mission initiative may, in reality, be the biggest of turn offs.

So what may the implications of this be for the true missionary church? My urging would be to offer a smorgasbord of approaches. The smorgasbord could blend contemporary and traditional dishes.

So, let me finish by finish by giving a brief synopsis of how Lewis, according to McGrath’s analysis, crossed the threshold from Theism (belief in the existence of a Deity) to Christian faith and three examples of how churches may offer, as part of the smorgasbord, approaches to mission and ministry designed to appeal to the categories of potential convert whose preference it is to find meaning through the imaginative, inner, experiences.

McGrath credits another great ‘imaginative Christian,’ J.R.R. Tolkien, for providing the route map which allowed Lewis to cross the great divide between theism and Christianity. Tolkien’s challenge to Lewis was that he was overly focused on ‘the journey of the mind to God,’ and that the problem therefore lay not ‘in Lewis’s rational failure to understand the theory, but in his imaginative failure to grasp its significance.’ He also states that for Lewis ‘the issue was not primarily about truth but about meaning.  When engaging (with – my addition)the Christian narrative, Lewis was limiting himself to his reason when he ought to be opening himself to the deepest intuitions of his imagination.’ 

So let’s make sure that our contemporary mission initiatives are not limited to approaches which seek to verify the various truth claims Christians make, recognizing that for many (but not all) truth follows meaning. So here are my three mission ideas.

Use film as a lens through which to explore faith and the bible. Recent blockbusters such as Les Mis, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Lincoln are excellent.

Buy and use the Church Missionary Societies ‘The Christ we Share’ resource pack – it is fabulous. An amazing opportunity to engage with those who learn through the visual arts.

Rediscover Benedictine (Lectio) and Jesuit approaches for entering imaginatively into Scripture.

Is your church / community stimulating the imagination?


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