I’ve been reading C.S. Lewis’ The Pilgrim’s Regress, and it sheds much light on an issue I’ve thought a lot about. Like many who did not grow up Christian, I sometimes struggle with which parts of my previous way of life are incompatible with the Christian way. In high school I was a huge Pearl Jam fan, but after becoming a Christian, the realization of the band’s stand on abortion and other moral issues quickly dulled their luster. My convictions against many of their ideas, and those of many other bands I used to love, was much greater than my appreciation of the music.
But this doesn’t change one fact. The music—all lyrics aside—is wonderful. There are many songs written and played by people against whom I have the most fundamental and passionate disagreements in the moral and intellectual realms (which are the most important ones), yet hearing their songs can evoke ecstatic feelings that are very much like feelings of worship and longing for God. For me this raises a puzzling question: How can art created by people who are so adamantly against the truth of Christianity evoke such a longing for Christ?
Lewis said the central story of his life was to find the source of an acute experience he referred to as “joy.” What he describes is not just the common meaning of the word, but a type of ravenous longing, a sweet, piercing pang. It is an experience that entails “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction,” usually brought about by aesthetic experience. Lewis proposed that this longing is a foretaste or scent of Heaven, as if aesthetics are the frequency through which glimpses of the reality of God are transmitted.
But this is a general hint; not a specific fact. Aesthetics arouse in us that longing for our true country, but do not tell us where specifically that country is to be found. And here is where he answers my question. The Pilgrim’s Regress is an allegory of Lewis’ journey to faith in Christ. At one point the protagonist, John, has a conversation with History in which History informs him that the Landlord (God) has sent “pictures” of Himself to many of the pagans in the land who live apart from Mother Kirk (The Church). In speaking of these pictures, History tells John that this acute, aesthetically-driven desire the pictures often bring “is a starting point from which one road leads home and a thousand roads lead into the wilderness.”
Can the music of a Pearl Jam song evoke a longing for Heaven in the listener? Yes, but it can’t take him there. If not properly guided, that longing can take someone in a thousand other directions. There are countless pagan artists who give us aesthetic experiences causing us to long for Christ, but they cannot lead us directly to Him. And if we don’t know Him by other means, we won’t know that it’s Him we want, and only Him who can satisfy the longing. We could, as was the story of much of Lewis’ pre-Christian life, look for the satisfaction of that deep desire in all the places except that which satisfies it. With this in mind, if the human experience is, as the quote suggests, a journey home, perhaps art puts us on a plane and the Bible holds a sign with our name in baggage claim.