“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

C. S. Lewis on Death and Rebirth: A Signpost for the Cross

“Death and Rebirth – go down to go up – it is a key principle” (Miracles 402), writes C. S. Lewis in his description of the “grand miracle” of Jesus Christ. What Lewis describes as a great pattern in all of creation is also an important theme in his own writings. The role of death and resurrection in the redemption of humanity (and revelation to humanity) is a topic treated by Lewis in such books as Miracles and Mere Christianity, but it can also be identified in a number of his works of fiction, most prominently in Perelandra. In both cases, Lewis portrays Christ’s death and resurrection as a critical turning point in the process of redemption – an event hinted at through death and rebirth in the natural world and in history, and an event with permanent redemptive effects on an enormous scale.

First, death and resurrection reflects a facet of God’s nature that is also reflected in creation in a number of other ways. At the cross we witness the primary and central manifestation of this pattern, but there are other places and things that, like “joy” (the primary theme in Lewis’ writings), function as signposts or reflections of the real thing. For example, we witness an annual “death and resurrection” of sorts in the form of plant growth in the natural world (Lewis, Miracles 402, cf. John 12:24). Supernatural events also point towards the “grand miracle”; Lewis writes that “Every other miracle prepares for this...every particular Christian miracle manifests at a particular place and moment the character and significance of the Incarnation” (Miracles 398).

Among these pointers or lesser images of death and rebirth, Lewis writes most commonly of pagan mythology as a reflection of the true myth. There is a “real connection” between pagan myths and the truth, as Lewis writes in Reflections on the Psalms:

“The resemblance between these myths and the Christian truth is no more accidental than the resemblance between the sun and the sun’s reflection in a pond, or that between a historical fact and the somewhat garbled version of it which lives in popular report, or between the trees and hills of the real world and the trees and hills in our dreams.” (107-108)1
Furthermore, in his essay “Is Theology Poetry,” Lewis writes, “The Divine light, we are told, ‘lighteneth every man.’ We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of great Pagan teachers and myth makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story – the theme of incarnation, death, and rebirth” (The Weight of Glory 128). As beings in the image of God, we are created with some knowledge of this divine theme. Pagans, writes Lewis in The Pilgrim’s Regress, were given revelation in the form of mythological “pictures” which contained a “divine call” (Hooper 569, 597). Just as Lewis had mistaken “joy” for the “real thing” when it was actually a reflection of or pointer towards the reality, so the Pagans misunderstood this “call” and were corrupted in their desires (Hooper 583). This theme of the “true myth” and of the reflection of Christ’s death and rebirth in nature and pagan religion is common in Lewis’ works and a key component of his thought. Only after realizing this connection did Lewis, a lifelong lover of myths, embrace Christianity as fact.2

All creation testifies to the cross as the central event in history, which Lewis describes as the unifying main theme in a great symphony (Miracles 399). The reality, writes Lewis, “hangs in the clouds of myth and ritual, vast and vague, then it condenses, grows hard and in a sense small, as a historical event in first century Palestine” (The Weight of Glory 129). And just as Christ is the supreme revelation of God to us, so the lesser images of Christ reveal a facet of God’s character to all people: “[T]he Corn-King is derived...from the facts of Nature, and the facts of Nature from her Creator; the Death and Rebirth pattern is in her because it was first in Him” (Lewis, Miracles 405). Like “joy,” death and rebirth is a means of revelation to us of who God is...

1 The theme of primary truth being reflected in fictional myths or stories was also an important element in the literary philosophy of J. R. R. Tolkien, who was instrumental in Lewis’ conversion. In his poem Mythopoeia, a response to the skeptic Lewis before his conversion, man is described as “the refracted light”; his stories and sub-created worlds reflect the primary world and the true Story.
2 In his essay “On Fairy-stories,” Tolkien develops the same idea: “History often resembles ‘Myth,’ because they are both ultimately of the same stuff” (The Tolkien Reader 30).

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