Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. – C.S. Lewis
When Flannery O’Connor described the American South as “Christ Haunted,” she meant that even the irreligious Southerner has an ethic, a faintly Christian ethic, that governs all his doings. He may not believe in God or feel his immediate presence, but he feels God’s shadow. He lives in fear that the ghost of God will one day manifest Himself out of the shadows and demand a reckoning. This fear, this haunting, is what causes the Southern to live an ethical and practical life.
Most of the people who attended the small Baptist church I grew up in professed to be religious. Why else would they gather three times a week to be yelled at from behind the pulpit? But even to my young mind it seemed as though something was missing. I’ll never forget my pastor’s advice: “You know there are some things you don’t even have to pray about.”
The advice came after my parents told him of a new business opportunity that seemed an incredibly good deal. By telling my parents they need not always pray, our “spiritual advisor” meant only that there are some things that don’t concern the supernatural.
Some things are just a matter of plain common sense…or are they?
Looking back I now, realize that even the supposed man-of-God himself was Christ-haunted. He did not deny that there was a right and Christian way of doing things, but in his statement he admitted that God was not immediately concerned with all our decisions.
In the Christ-haunted world, imagination is not allowed.
After all, those who play with imagination may see through the shadows being cast. They may see that the ghost of God is still there waiting for us and demanding to be acknowledged in our daily life.
I remember standing in our Church’s small book-shop while thumbing through some history or systematic theology. My pastor walked by and paused. He looked at me inquisitively and asked, “You don’t read much fiction, do you?”
I knew this question was supposed to be a compliment. It meant he approved of my choice of reading, and was pleased to see I read the important practical things that adults read. I was not a child who wasted his time with fiction and fairy tales.
I smiled and answered, “No. No I don’t.”
The Christ-haunted life is prejudiced against the imagination.
Confronting the Christ-like Shadow
My childhood dream was to grow up and become a practical business man, who would make money and impress his neighbors.
It was not until a beach-bum professor at the local community college forced me to read fiction that I finally had what might be called a conversion experience.
The class was Latin. The book was Virgil’s Aenead. It was the perfect book to stir the imagination of a boy raised on practical Southern stoicism. I was never taught imagination, but I was taught the virtue of manliness, and in Aeneas, like the Saints in the Christian calendar, I found a standard to raise myself towards.
When Virgil awakened my imagination with great-souled men full of duty and women enamored of love unto death, it was really only a matter of time until I turned to face the shadow that was haunting me. I found that a great author, C.S. Lewis, was one of Virgil’s biggest fans and described him as the proto-Christian. His shadow over the Roman world prepared it for the coming of Christ.
In the same way he lifted the scales from my own eyes. Only by awakening the imagination could I begin to see the cosmic dance that was occurring all around me. I knew I no longer had to live in the shadows, haunted by fear.
Only with a little imagination can we see that our world is really more like Narnia or Middle Earth than the world of practical businessmen.
In those worlds the supernatural is a real presence, and with their help we can see the supernatural is just as much a real presence in our own world. To stifle the imagination is to live a haunted life in the shadow of God. In doing so we deny he has any real importance in our immediate lives and it makes sense to say there are things we need not pray about.
But if you see the world with a little imagination, as Chesterton saw it, then you see why we ought to “say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”
Brian Miller is currently studying Law at George Mason University where he also works as a Research Assistant. His writings have appeared in The Intercollegiate Review, Ethika Politika, and The Imaginative Conservative.