The Books that Shape Us: Thoughts on C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces

This post is the first in a series I'll be doing periodically called "The Books that Shape Us." There are a number of books I've read throughout my life that have had a major impact on the way that I view God, myself, and the world around me. I'm sharing them with you because I think they're worth the read. However, I would throw in a little disclaimer up front, and that would be that ANYTHING and EVERYTHING you read, watch, hear, or believe should be viewed through the lens of Scripture - that's our guide for discerning what is true and what isn't. So read your Bible, and read everything else cum grano salis.

Whenever I go to a bookstore, I'm always amazed at the sheer number of books that are being published. I also find it amazing how many of those books are pure rubbish. (A little sermonette: parents, be discerning about what you allow your kids to read. "Reading" isn't good or healthy for them if they're being indoctrinated with the wrong worldviews. Give them good books, or none at all. I'd rather have my kids play with rocks all day than read garbage. And along those lines, make sure you're not reading garbage yourself. Okay... sermonette over... thanks for listening. Re-read the beginning of this paragraph if you need to remember where we were... :o) )

Every once in a while, however, you'll hit gold. I love finding books that are not only well-written and interesting, but also have the potential to deliver a "sucker-punch" of truth right to your stomach. Hmm... not the most pleasant-sounding analogy, but stay with me - a sucker-punch of truth is a good and necessary thing sometimes.

I've read quite a lot of Christian fiction, and, to be frank, most of the time I'm disappointed with it. The bulk of what's being written seems to be mediocre copies of secular dime-novel romances or thrillers, except for the fact that they've removed the blatant pornography and profanity, and they've inserted a "canned" Gospel tract message somewhere in the middle that doesn't really flow with the rest of the plot and obviously hasn't influenced any of the characters all that much. And quite often, the writing is second-rate. Ugh. That's why I usually stick with the classics. I appreciate novels in which the entire plot is symbolic of a greater truth. A few examples of that would beThe Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, and The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan, to name a few.

Another such novel would be the book I want to focus on today: Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis.

(Spoiler alert: if you're going to read this book - {which you should} - be aware that I'm giving away parts of the plot below.... if you want the full sucker-punch effect, skip the next few paragraphs, read the book, and enjoy my pictures. Then come back and tell me what you thought of the book!)

To give you a brief synopsis, Till We Have Faces is a re-telling of the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche. Lewis' version focuses on two princesses - Orual, the ugly, jealous sister, and Psyche, the beautiful sister destined to become the bride of the god of the mountain (Cupid). Orual loves Psyche and is obsessively possessive of her. When Cupid claims Psyche and takes her to his mountain, Orual is outraged and attempts to get her back.

The book is narrated by Orual, who is writing to document her "complaint against the gods." Orual's jealousy of the god of the mountain causes her to tempt Psyche to disobey one of the god's rules, which leads to disaster for them both. Psyche and Orual must then undertake a series of difficult tasks, each on their own. Eventually, they both find restoration, and Orual realizes that her version of "love" is a perversion of true love. She finds that she is not unlike the false goddess, Ungit, who is the goddess of her village - an all-consuming, all-devouring, barren, foul, grasping being who devours the lives of others.

I read this book in college, and to be honest, I found it a bit confusing the first time around. This isn't a clear-cut allegory of salvation like Pilgrim's Progress, where it's easy to follow and identify everything that's going on. The multiple "gods" in the story threw me a bit, and I had trouble figuring out who and what everything represented. However, I re-read this book this past summer, and this time, I got it - the slam of conviction coupled with the "lightbulb-ah-ha!" moment. Without giving too much away, I'll just say that I was convicted about the way I "love" people, and I realized that my version of love is often very different than God's version of Love.

Anyway, at the time I was reading this book in college, I was also taking a sculpture class. We were doing some low relief clay pieces at the time, and I decided to do a relief of the image on the cover of this book with some leftover clay I had from another project. It turned out beautiful, and I put it in the kiln to be fired overnight. When I came into class the next day, my art professor had a grim look on his face. The leftover clay scraps I had used to make my piece apparently had an air bubble in them which I failed to remove, and that spells DISASTER when it's placed in a kiln. You can probably guess - heat causes the air to expand; hardened clay doesn't like to expand -


This is what I was able to piece together from the remains:

The lesson I learned then
When your professor says, "No air bubbles;" it really does matter.

The lesson I learned this summer when I re-read the book and dug this piece out of my closet:
The Holy Spirit has the power to shatter things you once believed about yourself and convict you of sin or wrong thinking in your life, and He will use anything that it takes (including novels that are a bit on the strange side or "applying the heat" by allowing difficult circumstances to come into your life) to do it.

I'd like to share a few of my favorite passages from the book with you. If you plan to read it, then skip the quotes - I don't want to ruin it. But if not, then here's a little taste:

Psyche: "The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing - to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from -..... - my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back. All my life the god of the Mountain has been wooing me. Oh, look up once at least before the end and wish me joy. I am going to my lover."
Orual: "I could never be at peace again till I had written my charge against the gods. It burned me from within. It quickened; I was with book, as a woman is with child."
Orual (who has hidden her face behind a veil most of her life, removes her veil and makes the discovery): "I am Ungit... It was I who was Ungit. That ruinous face was mine. I was that Batta-thing, that all-devouring womblike, yet barren, thing. Glome was a web - I the swollen spider, squat at its center, gorged with men's stolen lives... I will not be Ungit."
The god of the Mountain: "You cannot escape Ungit by going to the deadlands, for she is there also. Die before you die. There is no chance after."
Orual: "The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered. Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, 'Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that's the whole art and joy of words.' A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?"
The Fox: "All, even Psyche, are born into the house of Ungit. And all must get free from her."
Orual: "I was being unmade. I was no one. But that's little to say; rather, Psyche herself was, in a manner, no one. I loved her as I would once have thought it impossible to love, would have died any death for her. And yet, it was not, not now, she that really counted. Or if she counted (and oh, gloriously she did) it was for another's sake. The earth and stars and sun, all that was or will be, existed for his sake. And he was coming. The most dreadful, the most beautiful, the only dread and beauty there is, was coming. The pillars on the far side of the pool flushed with his approach. I cast down my eyes."
Orual: "I ended my first book with the words no answer. I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words. Long did I hate you, long did I fear you. I might ---" (then the book is finished by Arnom, the priest of Ungit - Orual died mid-sentence.)
After re-reading the book and digging out my piece, I was struck by the irony of the fact that the face was shattered. It was a good visual of how I felt - I wasn't who I thought I was. My version of "love" wasn't what I thought it was - certainly not always as God desires it to be. I looked back on my life and realized that I have quite a bit of the "Ungit" in me too.

Hidden sin, false beliefs, and wrong thinking have a way of coming to the surface - especially when under heat. The "face" that I think I have isn't the "face" that God sees on me. The "speech" that is lying at the center of my soul isn't the noble thing I usually believe it to be. This book helped me recognize some of the hidden "air pockets" of sin in my own life, and realize that I must constantly return to God's Word to be reminded of what He says about my heart, my motives, and the cure for my sin: Jesus - the god of the Mountain, who is always wooing us. But we often miss His call "till we have faces" -- until we see our sin for what it really is, and recognize that we need a Savior from it.

So, anyway -  read the book.... and read the Book. :o) Happy Monday....

...Till We Have Faces...


  1. Beth, this was so beautifully written and I read it all even though I have not yet read the book. It is one of the few of Lewis' that I haven't read. I shall still read it first opportunity that I have.
    Your low relief sculpture is beautiful even in it's brokenness and perhaps more beautiful because of it! Thank you for this reminder that we need to look honestly at who we are and the way that he sees us and allow him to mold us into what he wants us to be. Blessings, Vicki ♥

  2. Thank you, Vicki! I'm glad you enjoyed the post - You should definitely read Till We Have Faces when you get a chance! Thanks for stopping by. :o)

  3. hi, Beth, thanks for dropping by my blog. i only read parts of your post because i thought i would try to read this book but i appreciated the analogy you wrote about your sculpture, the air bubble and the Holy Spirit. i love it when we can reflect on the seen things in our life and relate them to things unseen.

  4. Beth,
    Now I have to read this!! But must say, my favourite line of all is " I'd rather have my kids play with rocks all day than read garbage!" I couldn't agree more!!! LOL!

    You're a blessing!

  5. Thanks for stopping by, Peggy and Linda. I'm glad you enjoyed the post and pics... you will enjoy the book too when you read it!


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