Christian Storytelling and the Upsidedown Shadowlands

I have been humming a lot of Christmas songs lately. As of writing this piece, it’s still a little too early for that, but this year, I think it’s warranted. The Advent season isn’t far off, and Advent is a time for hope in the darkness. Sacred songs that I have dedicated to memory over the course of long years come back to me now, in 2020, reminding me of the goodness that has already happened and of the even better things that are coming. They ground me in tumultuous times, making me restless for the New Heavens and the New Earth. 

A good story can have that same effect—I would argue that a good story (if it can be called “good”) should have that same effect. This is what first drew me to fantasy literature as a child, what made me push on the back of my closet wall to try and get to Narnia, what called me back to Middle Earth again and again, what made me long for my Hogwarts letter. Long before I ever read the term Sensucht, as a young teen I said such stories contained an “eternal spark,” and I set out to try and write novels that replicated that longing. Ultimately, it led me to my career as a writer and novelist. 

But I also grew up Evangelical in the 1990s, and while I was never barred from reading anything I desired to read in my house, the church culture of that age held to a different perspective on the arts: on literature, television, movies, music—and even board and video games. Anything produced by “the world” was suspect because the world itself was a hostile place, and forming our worldview as being one counter-cultural to this hostile world was of paramount importance. It was hammered into our minds that we were fighting a culture war, and so we were raised to be soldiers, crusaders for Christ who had to fight a corrupt society bent on dragging us to Hell with words, music, and moving pictures. 

It wasn’t until the last four years that I have really looked around and seen with clear eyes the destructive force of the culture war narrative on my generation—and on the White Evangelical church, in particular. We’ve seen an exodus from the Church by adults of my generation—so many that there is a term for them: Exvangelicals. At its core a political movement and very much reactionary against the 2016 election of Donald Trump (and White Evangelical support for him), as I’ve studied Exvangelicalism, I’ve also noticed a linked cultural trend among Exvangelicals that I think is significant. Raised (as I was) in Evangelical bubbles, these people tell stories of finding themselves restless for something better outside of the Church and Christianity. The subculture of their Christian church life was unfulfilling—it had become a Shadowland

That is a term that comes from a fusion of Plato and C. S. Lewis. Part of the reason C. S. Lewis was able to write stories that were so enchanting—and that remain so enchanting to readers so long after his death and outside the context of his life as an Oxford professor in WWII-torn England—is because of the breadth of his religious imagination and the depth of his classical liberal arts training and knowledge. Lewis produced tales that so mixed the sacred and the profane that a straight reading of his work by informed readers would raise the eyebrows of the most ardent religious gatekeepers of the culture war. One such product of Lewis’s storytelling was this idea of the Shadowlands, which appears over and over again in various ways—straightforward and thematically—throughout his writing, and which Lewis developed via his study of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” 

“Further up and further in” is an imaginary concept, informed by legend and myth, and also Scripture. These are invitations for all to partake in bigger experiences, conversations, joy, and peace.

The “Allegory of the Cave” tells the story of people trapped in a dark cave who can only see shadows on a cave wall. The shadows are produced by some flickers of light from a fire, and the people trapped there know no other reality than the cave—their whole reality is the shadows. But outside the cave is a world filled with real light, and with sun and trees and birds and all good things. For Plato, this would be the Realm of Forms, of Ideals. For C. S. Lewis, the cave became what he termed the “Shadowlands,” from which people can be rescued to enter into their “true home” in the world above. Here’s how theologian Alister McGrath explains Lewis’s perspective on it: 

Perhaps the occupants of the cave have some deep intuition that there has to be more to life than the drab and dull world they have always known. Surely there must be something better than this? Perhaps they experience a deep sense of restlessness, or a profound longing for another world—a world that they have never seen, but which seems to haunt their memories and hopes.

…What if someone from the better world were to enter their shadowlands? What if he entered their world, not by accident but by design, in order to bring them to a better place—a place that was always meant to be theirs? What if she were to gain their confidence, and gradually help them to realize that something more wonderful lies beyond the cave? He might use analogies drawn from their own world to tell them of this strange new world, and its values. While sharing their world, he would point beyond it.

And perhaps best of all, she might speak in whispered tones of taking them there… of opening a door to this new world so that they might leave smoke and shadows behind, and breathe its fresh air and take in its brilliant vistas. More than that, they would not be trespassing into this land, but would be welcome and expected guests of its Lord. This is where they really belong. They are returning home.

A Shadowland is essentially a false world; it is a world filled with mere imitations of what is real. C. S. Lewis understood how to weave the Shadowland theme into his stories in such a way as to point readers to the goodness of what is real or what is yet to come. In The Last Battle, the final book of The Chronicles of Narnia, the Pevensie children make it through into New Narnia after the end of the world. It is Lewis’s fantastical rendition of the New Heavens and the New Earth, and once there, Peter says, “I’ve a feeling we’ve got to the country where everything is allowed.” I’ve meditated on this a great deal over the last couple of years, especially because so much of my Evangelical upbringing was about what was not allowed. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, and this is not a statement on Lewis’s part (or mine) in favor of hedonism, but rather a call to remember that what is coming is very good

When we resolve contraries, when we woo people into marriage, when we step through portals into fantasy lands and through TARDIS doors into “bigger on the inside” adventures and climb out of caves into the light and so much more, we are entering into stories of infinite possibilities. “Further up and further in” is an imaginary concept, informed by legend and myth, and also Scripture. These are invitations for all to partake in bigger experiences, conversations, joy, and peace. But tragically, what I see in my generation and beyond is a disenchantment with a Christian subculture that has made the Church itself into a sort of Shadowland—a place Exvangelicals long to escape from. The Church grew so afraid of the world that they decided to bar the doors against it. This has led me to conclude that the exodus of young people from the Church is as much a product of the failure of the culture war narrative as it is a political crisis. It’s not that the Church in America in the 80s and 90s didn’t have a religious imagination—it’s that their imagination was bent on war.  

Romeo and Juliet came from warring families, yet they fell in love. Instead of warring with each other, they wooed each other. And although they gave their lives for their forbidden, star-crossed love, their marriage resolved the contraries between their families. This is a Gospel message. Stories should help create a winsomeness like this that draws people toward the beauty of the Gospel. And then there should be a reconciliation that redeems. The Gospel should not feel like a Shadowland—within a story or without. If it does, then something has become perverted about either the medium or the message of our faith. Perhaps both. 

Wicked people throughout the course of history have twisted the medium and message of Christianity for their own purposes. What we’re experiencing now is not the first time power has been married to the Gospel, playing a dismaying role in discouraging people from drawing near to Christ. The phrase “compel them to come in” in Luke 14:23 was used as justification for such horrors as the Inquisition, but that is a gross misreading of the text. To be compelled to come into fellowship with Christ means to fall into his abundant grace—it means to have all your inhibitions stripped away by what C. S. Lewis calls “divine mercy.” Lewis, who felt “hounded” by God in a number of ways (and not the least of which by stories and myths) wrote of this verse in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy: “[God’s] compulsion is our liberation.” 

Lewis was not talking about an earthly liberation—this was no modern construction of freedom or religious liberty. He meant a liberation that would only fully manifest in the New Heavens and the New Earth, and one that he spent the majority of his writing-life crafting stories about. Lewis was one of a very few authors who gave me hope as a young storyteller because he didn’t exist, write, or create inside a subcultural bubble of the sort I saw while growing up Evangelical in America. 

Good art in and of itself, stories crafted well—these things please the heart of God because they reflect the nature of God as Creator. The Christian as storyteller has the very great privilege of creating something so beautiful that it recreates out of the Fall. Our stories should invite people out of the Shadowlands to infinite, radical possibilities of the imagination. But the Christian subculture has, for many decades, been trying to keep people in a sort of upsidedown Shadowlands, one crafted by the Church to keep the world out. It was a natural product of the culture wars. If the world is bad and the ways of the world are bad, then we must create a Christian subculture replete with our own books, movies, and music. But focused so heavily on message over medium, the Christian subculture was and remains a place filled with far too much bad art.

Having grown up in the heyday of the Christian subculture, I feel that there is a connection between the artistic apathy (and outright antipathy) that exists there and a hollowing out of the faith. Those of us who were fortunate enough to grow up in churches that at least cared about our spiritual formation were taught all the apologetics, but none—or very little of—the beauty of the liberal arts. I read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology at home in secret and came to church to hear my peers talk about the “oppression” of having to learn pagan myths in school. But Greek mythology helped me to love Jesus more, ultimately. It helped me to understand the satyrs and the fauns in The Chronicles of Narnia and to understand the parallels across cultures of the “dying god myths.” My personal and school readings and studies of the strange and beautiful stories of the world made Christianity more beautiful to me—and it led to a near constant internal conflict as a “good Christian girl.” So much of the world was beautiful, and I could not bring myself to be at war with it. I also could not believe that war was what God desired of me. 

I never wanted to fight a culture war, but it wasn’t until 2016 that I was able to fully let my “training” go. Those of us who were groomed to fight in the culture wars might need to take a step back and realize that we lost those wars—and not because we were bad fighters, but because there was never a war to be fought. God’s commission for us was to go and make disciples, not to go and conquer. Perhaps there are many “decommissioned soldiers” like me trying to find their way in a world that they now realize is not as hostile as we were always told. That the people our churches and spiritual mentors told us were our enemies (or certainly driven by The Enemy) are actually also the people Christ compels us to love. When this reconciliation feels impossible is when deconstruction of faith occurs.

Augustine’s heart was restless until it found its rest in Christ, but I see so many who grew up in my generation falling away from a faith that offered them no home for any desires outside of the culture war. Most of them say they left Evangelicalism because of Donald Trump or some related social justice issues, but couched in their language are words like “disenchantment” and finding “freedom” and “hope” outside the Church. There is a perceived lack of rest, peace, and joy within the Church for people such as this, especially for the Millennials and younger crowd, and especially during these fraught and divided times. 

And so when I hum my Christmas carols, I meditate on lyrics like this: “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” The world is weary—do we offer a thrill of hope anymore? It is so important now for the storytellers, the artists, and the songwriters to woo people back to the true beauty of Christ. There are many faithful disciples in these areas who have never stopped telling a better story, but it is an uphill struggle in an age when so much of Christianity is tied to militant, aggressive politicism. The Christian as storyteller doesn’t bear the burden of evangelization any more than any other Christian following the Great Commission, but we can help create a longing and a restlessness that can drive people out of the true Shadowlands and back to Christ. Christian stories in this world should reflect, point toward, and compel people to imagine the New Heavens and the New Earth—and not as Evangelistic altar calls, but as expressions of art that are as naturally worshipful as the first bird call of the day or sunrise on a mountain. This is the purpose of a religious imagination. 


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