C.S. Lewis famously, albeit flippantly, cautioned, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” Lewis made this remark in his autobiography, Surprised By Joy, in which he chronicled his move away from atheism to Christianity.
That move began, oddly enough, through fantastical literature.
For example, during his readings of George MacDonald’s Phantastes, Lewis described encountering something akin to Joy, a “bright shadow,” a deep melancholy or nostalgia. Something he could only describe as “Holiness.” Then there was Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin which awakened something Lewis labeled sehnsucht — an ecstasy or intangible longing. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes it this way:
It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, ‘in another dimension’ . . . [it was] an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy . . . anyone who has experienced it will want it again . . . I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. (C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955, 16-18)
There were other books, works of art and music that niggled into Lewis’ then atheistic worldview, creating great internal conflict. In The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, authors Philip and Carol Zaleski highlight the role that fantastical literature, myth and fairy tales, played in Lewis’ conversion.
Lewis “was open to the preternatural, but remained deaf to supernatural claims. This could not have been a comfortable position. Those who delight in mythology and fantasy already have one foot in a spiritual cosmos.” (pg. 77, bold mine)
It was Lewis’ “delight in mythology and fantasy” that awakened something inside him — “the possibility of worldviews beyond strict materialism.” (pg. 84) However, as a professing atheist, this left him incredibly conflicted.
“…[Lewis] lived a double life: ‘[caring] for almost nothing but the gods and heroes, the garden of the Hesperides, Launcelot and the Grail, and [believing] in nothing but atoms and evolution and military service.'” (pg. 84)
It was Lewis’ “incessant worrying over and gradual penetration into the mystery of Joy” which helped him avoid “any self-crystallization into adamantine atheism” (pg. 84). Furthermore,
…his catalyst for this process of circumnavigating, possessing, and losing Joy was almost always a work of the imagination with spiritual overtones — an opera by Wagner, a drawing by Rackham, a novel by Morris. No wonder the possibility of the reality of spirit never died wholly within him” (pg. 84, bold mine)
What prevented Lewis from embracing an “adamantine atheism,” or to put it another way, what undermined the atheism he professed, was a steady diet of “work[s] of the imagination with Spiritual overtones.” What nurtured “the reality of the spirit” inside this professing materialist was his “delight in mythology and fantasy.”
Which is why Lewis said in retrospect, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.”
One of the compelling arguments for why Christian novelists should write speculative fiction is its ability to invoke “the possibility of worldviews beyond strict materialism,” to undermine the materialist notion that the world is “nothing but atoms and evolution.” By entertaining a “spiritual cosmos,” the Christian author can quietly subvert the atheism of her readers. If anyone should be invested in writing “works of the imagination with spiritual overtones” it should be believers. And if it’s true that those who “delight in mythology and fantasy already have one foot in a spiritual cosmos,” then the believing author should delight in creating such cosmoses and getting them into the hands of readers. Preferably readers who, like C.S. Lewis, are already living a “double life.”