Preaching In Narnia Harry L. Poe November 1, 2005 When “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” makes its screen debut in December 2005, millions of people who have never heard of C. S. Lewis will go to see the picture. Millions will also buy the DVD when it goes on sale after the theatrical release. If the experience of “The Lord of the Rings” holds true, then millions more will buy the other volumes in The Chronicles of Narnia and read the stories for themselves. Narnia will become a cultural phenomenon like Middle Earth, and preachers will have an opportunity to engage their congregations about the movie and the books that can serve as a model for how to examine any movie or novel. C. S. Lewis never claimed to be a theologian. He taught literature and loved stories. He also understood that stories operate at a much deeper level than logical arguments. He did not oppose logical arguments. In fact, the argument he presents in Mere Christianity has persuaded vast numbers of people to take the gospel seriously. All the same, he understood that logical arguments and stories serve different purposes. Lewis did not write The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the other books in The Chronicles of Narnia series to teach Christian doctrine. He believed that a story had to stand on its own two feet as a story. To teach doctrine, a person should use logical discourse. On the other hand, Lewis believed that a story told by a Christian who actually believed the gospel would reflect the essential Christian faith to the extent that the author had actually made their faith more than a formality. He argued that the best apologetics did not consist in a lecture or book about why Christianity is true. The best apologetics involved Christians writing books about all sorts of subjects from art to physics, with their Christian faith latent within their discussion.1 As a literary man, Lewis recognized the power of stories to shape the way people think and organize their world. In his own life, Lewis had experienced the power of stories to prepare him to accept the truth of the gospel. Lewis had the unique background to appreciate this character of stories since he had what Americans would call a double major in philosophy and English literature and had maintained what Americans would call an “A” average in his college studies.2 Through his university years, Lewis had heard all of the standard arguments for the existence of God, but he had his own argument for why he did not believe in God. His mother had died of cancer when he was a boy. Logical argument has its place, but it does not reach into the deep recesses of the emotions. From earliest childhood, Lewis had devoured the myths of classical antiquity and of the Norse peoples with relish. Once he began teaching medieval and renaissance literature at Oxford, Lewis grew to regard Christianity as just another of the great myths that spoke of a dying and rising god, like Osiris, Baal, and Baldur. In conversation one night with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis raised this objection to the truth of Christianity. Tolkien replied that Christianity certainly was another myth of the dying and rising god, with one exception. It was the myth that actually happened in time and space: in Bethlehem, Galilee, and Jerusalem between the time that Augustus sent out a decree to tax the world (when Quirinius was first governor of Syria) and the time when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee (during the high priesthood of Caiaphas and Annas).3 Shortly after the late night talk with Tolkien, Lewis realized that he did believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate. The stories had come to Lewis as preparation for the gospel, but they came at him “under the radar” of his intellectual defense mechanisms. Lewis would remark that, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful about his reading.”4 Tolkien’s remark about Christianity being the myth that really happened would clash with Rudolf Bultmann’s understanding of myth, but it also gave Lewis an insight into why the same story appears in so many unconnected cultures around the world. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader the children ask Aslan if he is in their world too. He replies that he is known by another name in their world, but that by knowing him a little in Narnia, they will know him better in their world. It is as though God placed the stories in every culture as stories that raise expectations but do not satisfy in and of themselves. The Chronicles of Narnia are like these myths, though most of the details have a direct correspondence to the Christian story. They are not, however, for teaching Christian doctrine but for recognizing human longing that only the gospel satisfies. Lewis observed that a journey provides the best vehicle for exploring human spiritual struggles.5 John Bunyan understood this principle when he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, as did Dante when he wrote The Divine Comedy. The stories in The Chronicles of Narnia, as in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, involve a journey in which people change. The only ones who remain unchanged are the ones who do not undertake the journey. The narrative foundation for Lewis’s Narnia stories and his space trilogy is the Christian understanding that life involves a journey. Consider the place of journey and its spiritual implications in the Bible: Adam and Eve leaving Eden Cain going to the Land of Nod Noah’s voyage on the flood The dispersion of people from Babel Abraham and Sarah leaving Ur and going to Caanan The children of Jacob going down to Egypt The nation of Israel leaving Egypt The wilderness wandering The Babylonian Captivity The gospel story itself involves the journey from heaven to earth, the flight to Egypt, the itinerant ministry, the journey to Jerusalem, the journey to Golgotha, and the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the entire world. If human longing found in the world’s stories finds its fulfillment in the gospel, it is not surprising that The Chronicles of Narnia express these basic longings again in terms that sound familiar when one knows the gospel. Likewise, if one has read the Chronicles but never heard the gospel, the gospel will sound familiar when it finally comes. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe contains the most obvious Christian metaphors of any of the Narnia books. In this story, the great lion Aslan – whom no one has seen in perhaps centuries – offers himself as a hostage to substitute for a boy who is to be killed. Aslan sacrifices himself so that the child can go free. The morning after he is slain on a stone table, strongly suggesting an altar, Aslan rises from the dead more powerful and dreadful than ever. He has defeated his enemy through a “deeper” magic. If one tries to develop a Christian theology of the atonement from this story, frustration will ensue. For one thing, Aslan does not die for the sins of the world. Lewis does not “teach” a doctrine of sin. Rather, he describes behavior that children understand from their own experience as worthy of punishment. Lewis relies upon reminding people of what they already know about right and wrong. In Mere Christianity, Lewis advocates a theory of natural law by which everyone knows when someone has treated them wrong. The human dilemma is not one of insufficient information about right and wrong. The human dilemma concerns the failure to do right even though we know right. Less obvious than the substitutionary, atoning sacrifice of Aslan is the idea of the incarnation. Aslan is not just another lion, just as Jesus Christ was not just another man. Lewis does not provide a full-blown Christology or theology of the incarnation, but he suggests the need for a savior who can save because of his uniqueness. Aslan is really there and he really dies. The story also assumes a theory of divine revelation. The Narnians all seem to know of a prophecy about sons of Adam and daughters of Eve who will usher in the defeat of the dreadful witch-queen. The concept of prophecy requires a source of revelation and narrows the possibilities of what kind of ultimate reality exists. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism have no prophecies because they have no personal God. Prince Caspian Lewis did not shy away from retelling the great stories of literature that others have retold countless times. During the Middle Ages, dozens of poets wove together their own attempts at the story of King Arthur. To a certain extent, Prince Caspian involves a retelling of Homer’s Iliad. In the Iliad a princess is stolen and a great war ensues. In Prince Caspian a throne is stolen from Caspian by his uncle and a great war ensues. One might suggest any number of alternative sources for the basic conflict of Prince Caspian and in the suggestion, Lewis’s point is made. The human race keeps telling the same stories over and over again about human treachery. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader If Prince Caspian derives its inspiration from the Iliad, then surely The Voyage of the Dawn Treader derives its inspiration from the Odyssey. Just as the Greeks wandered from place to place after the Trojan War, so too Caspian and his crew travel from place to place. While the Greek story has a foundational presupposition of fate, Lewis’ story has a foundational presupposition of purpose, choice, and hope. The Silver Chair The Silver Chair retells the story of Orpheus who went to the underworld to retrieve his wife, or of Hermod’s journey to Hell to retrieve Baldur. In the gospel, Jesus Christ descended to Paradise to retrieve Abraham and all the righteous dead from the realm of Sheol. One would think that Aslan should make the journey to the underworld to retrieve the son of Prince Caspian who dwells in darkness, snared by lies. Instead, two children and a Marsh Wiggle make the journey on behalf of Aslan, who sends them. The trio are apostles who bring the good news that sets at liberty the captives and restores sight to the blind; they bring the light of the gospel to people who dwell in darkness. The Horse and His Boy In The Horse and His Boy, Lewis explores the issue of religious pluralism. Who is to say that one religion is true and another religion false? In an ingenious way, Lewis does not deal with the question head on, but in terms of the Pauline theology of slavery and freedom. He tells a story of flight from slavery in a despotic culture where life is cheap, to a place where freedom and dignity are the expectations of Aslan. He does not merely compare the theological systems or the concepts of deity, but the impact that theology has on everyday life. The Magician’s Nephew In The Magician’s Nephew Lewis explores the problem of evil and the problem of pain in the context of the doctrine of creation. Aslan does not create evil, nor is evil a rival to Aslan. Evil corrupts the good of Aslan’s creation, but it provides the opportunity of free choice. Not all religions believe in a deity who created the world, nor do all religions believe that the world actually exists. Lewis introduces the idea of creation into his Narnia stories, but in doing so, he also explores a number of serious issues for modern science that represent a different “layer” of the story for adults. In all the Narnia stories, Lewis introduces Narnia time, which allows children to spend days or years in Narnia while barely moments have passed on earth. In other words, he tells his stories in Einstein’s universe with its relative understanding of time and space. In The Magician’s Nephew he introduces the possibility of parallel universes, rather than merely different planets. These modern discussions in science pose no threat whatsoever for Lewis’s God, who could just as easily manage a billion universes as one universe with billions of galaxies. The Last Battle In The Last Battle, Lewis explores what Christians think of as the end of time, the second coming, and the last judgment. The point of the story is that heaven is the real thing and earth merely the shadow. Because he has stressed the reality of the physical world throughout, Lewis is not demeaning the physical world like the ascetics. Rather, he is confronting the growing materialism of the West after World War II. After introducing ideas of time and space in earlier books, Lewis imagines what it might be like when a person dies. People die at different times and places, but Lewis imagines them all arriving in “Aslan’s country” at the same time; yet our understanding of time hardly prepares us for it. The world has not come to an end, but the last judgment has taken place. The children pass from life to life without experiencing the pain of death (‘O death, where is thy sting?’). Some are present who experience death as darkness (dwarves who believed in Aslan but were only for themselves), while one is included from a different flock (a soldier from Calormen who had worshipped the idol Tash). Some adults get confused at this point, wondering if Lewis teaches that someone may be saved apart from faith in Jesus Christ. Lewis does not teach anything about how to be saved in the Narnia stories. He only conveys that we all need to be saved and that salvation is possible. Aslan is a fictitious character, but the stories raise the spiritual questions and the occasion for their biblical answers. _____________ Harry Lee Poe is Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University in Jackson, TN. _____________ 1 C. S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” God in the Dock , ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 93. 2 Lewis earned a first in Classical Moderations in 1920 and then stayed on at Oxford to take a first in Literae Humaniores (Greats) in 1922 and a first in English in 1923. 3 For Lewis’s account of this conversation in a letter to Arthur Greaves, see C. S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper, vol. I (New York: Harper SanFrancisco, 2004), 976-977. 4 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1956), 191. 5 Lewis discusses the power of journey to convey inner spiritual struggle in C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), 63, 68-69. Leave a Reply Cancel Reply Your email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email.