On All Saints’ Day, my wife and I often tell stories about the saints who have most impacted us. This year, I shared with my family the story of C. S. Lewis’s conversion.
For some time, he had been teetering on the precipice of faith, unable to resolve his intellectual difficulties with Christianity. On a late-night walk around Oxford with his friends Hugo Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien, he voiced his essential objection.
Everything that matters, Lewis said, belongs in the realm of myth.
Lewis had a great fondness for Norse mythology that went all the way back to his youth in Northern Ireland. For him, however, myth was about meaning making , whereas history was about unrepeatable facts, collected and analyzed in an empirical way. The great tragedy of human existence was that myth and history did not and could never intersect.
Like the German thinker G. E. Lessing before him, Lewis described the “ugly ditch” between history and theology. Irrespective of how radiant his life was, a man named Jesus who lived 2,000 years ago could never be anything more than an inspirational figure.
Dyson’s and Tolkien’s responses were electrifying: In this instance, they said, myth had become fact. Everything eternal and mystical—the deep magic of the world—was real and incarnate in the person of Christ. He was not simply a historical person but the Creator God enfleshed to save the human beings he had created.
With that riposte, Lewis was suddenly able to put the pieces together. As he wrote later to his friend Arthur Greeves, “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”
Through the Son of God, there was a true marriage of heaven and earth. God embraced matter in the person of Jesus. The Incarnation happened in one place, but it was “diffused” and “communicated” in all places, as the Jesuit priest and scholar Henri de Lubac wrote.
In his “infinity dwindled to infancy,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, God’s descent into human flesh was not simply about dignifying us or being with us in our joys and sorrows. Heaven descended to earth so that the stuff of earth might ascend to heaven.
The idea of a union between heaven and earth resonates so much with me because it’s strikingly non-individualistic. It involves an acute understanding of the human person. As modern Westerners, many of us walk around with a distorted understanding of the person as an “autonomous, self-directing, therapeutically oriented individual,” in the words of sociologist Christian Smith.
But if we simply follow Lewis’s insight, we can see immediately how far short that vision falls. We are, Lewis seems to say, the myths that have made us. We are the stories that we’ve inherited—that give shape to what we hope for and define our view of the good life. The idea of myth becoming fact is an inherently culture-affirming idea, because myths arise only within cultures.
A person is thus something infinitely greater and more sacred than an interchangeable individual. Each one is involved in relational, narrative, geographic, and institutional webs that are essential to personal identity and flourishing. The Incarnation demonstrates that these cultural forms are not a mere accident of history, nor are they simply the outgrowth of human sinfulness. God’s intention is to subtly, gently reframe those bent cultural forms until they express the shape of integrity he designed for them.
Lewis recognized all of this. But here I need to acknowledge that Lewis was an Englishman of his times, and it’s here that I find it necessary to part ways with him. His Christianity had a distinctively English hue. But if he was right, then the Incarnation means there is no distinctively Christian culture. The myths that prepare the way for Christ are not only Norse myths or Greco-Roman myths. Christianity is not a Western religion, nor is it a white one. It’s not properly expressed exclusively in English.
We know this from studying the global church. Diaspora networks and immigration are driving the resurgence of Christianity in post-Christian places, and migration and the mixing of cultures have been major engines for the propagation of the gospel in history. As Andrew Walls once argued, Christianity is always an incarnation—a translation into an already-existing culture that subverts and draws people from that culture to Christ. It is precisely this “infinite translatability” of the Christian faith that distinguishes it from other world religions.
As a Latino who grew up and continues to serve in predominantly white and English-speaking contexts, I have been amazed to find Jesus honored and glorified by Dominican Pentecostal musicians like Lizzy Parra and Ander Bock. I have been astonished to meet fellow Anglicans from Nigeria who worship Jesus with an energy and intensity that give me hope in the living, active work of the Holy Spirit. My faith has been expanded after encountering Iranians who’ve suffered the loss of everything and who follow a Jesus who speaks Farsi.
In all these cultural expressions, we see the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy—that all nations will stream into Zion (Isa. 2:2; 60:3). Christ is the desire of every nation, because he’s been at work sowing preparatory grace among every people. As Lewis put it, the Lord is present in the “good dreams” of every people group; it’s their myths that make them ready to receive him when he comes.
The Incarnation touches every part of human existence. It’s an essential part of the hope we celebrate at Christmas. There is no human culture from which Jesus is a foreigner. Myths—the myths of all nations—became fact in Jesus Christ. It’s hard to deny the power of the Incarnation when we see vibrant communities of Christians who look and sound nothing like us praising the name of Jesus.
We see that it is all of humanity that Christ came to save. This is what we remember when we meet Christ in the manger.
Jonathan Warren Pagán is an Anglican priest living and serving in Austin, Texas.