Baker Academic

Monday, October 13, 2014

C. S. Lewis on Sacred Fiction

I've found myself revisiting C. S. Lewis again in preparation for a new project. Lewis remains an odd and fascinating figure to me. In more ways that I can number, Lewis helped to create the evangelical world into which I was born and would eventually need to deconstruct. In many ways, however, Lewis did not fit well within that world. I was reminded of his complicated legacy again when my mother showed me a quotation by Lewis (thanks Mom!). He writes this in a letter to Janet Wise, October 5, 1955:
My own position is not Fundamentalist, if Fundamentalism means accepting as a point of faith at the outset the proposition “Every statement in the Bible is completely true in the literal, historical sense.” That would break down at once on the parables. All the same commonsense and general understanding of literary kinds would forbid anyone to take the parables as historical statements, …. Books like Esther, or Jonah, or Job which deal with otherwise unknown characters living in unspecified period, & pretty well proclaim themselves to be sacred fiction. 
Such distinctions are not new. Calvin left the historicity of Job an open question and, from earlier, St. Jerome said that the whole Mosaic account of creation was done “after the method of a popular poet.” Of course I believe the composition, presentation, & selection for the inclusion in the Bible, of all the books to have been guided by the Holy Ghost. But I think He meant us to have sacred myth & sacred fiction as well as sacred history.
I think that many Bible professors wish that their students possessed the category of "sacred fiction" as Lewis did. For too many, the category of "fiction" precludes the qualifier "sacred." But until this category is in place, the category of "sacred history" will be misunderstood.



  1. I'm interested to hear more about your new project. Have your read Royce Gruenler's chapter, "On Transposition and Attentiveness: C.S. Lewis's Approach to Jesus and the Gospels" in _New Approaches to Jesus and the Gospels_ (Baker, 1982)? His chapter, "Jesus As Author of the Evangelium: J.R.R. Tolkien and the Spell of the Great Story," is also good.

  2. Is it wrong or is it right that this passage makes me want to re-read Lord of the Rings as opposed to The Chronicles of Narnia?

    1. Don't know right from wrong on this one... but I'm pretty sure Lewis would agree with your preference.

  3. Great post. C.S. Lewis is indeed a far more complex figure than he is often made out to be. Thanks for calling attention to this quote.

    In his essay, "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism", he also seems to acknowledge that while the Fourth Gospel may have some errors it nonetheless seems to preserve historical memory. Specifically, he lays out two possibilities: either John is "mostly reliable" ("it may no doubt contain errors") or it is entirely fiction. Obviously, elements of his claim would be challenged today, but isn't it interesting that he doesn't seem to think the Fourth Gospel gives us what might be called a purely "tape-recorded" level kind of reporting. Here's an excerpt:

    "Either this is reportage - though it may no doubt contain errors - pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors, or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn't see this has simply not learned to read."

  4. I like the category of sacred fiction so much that I will include within it the idea that the composition, presentation, & selection for inclusion in the Bible of all its books have been guided by the Holy Ghost.


  5. Acts 16:25
    But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them;

    Night Prayer