Doodle: ‘He’s not Safe, but He’s Good’

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - LewisThe number of times I have heard that line from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the pulpit defies reason. I say this namely because I cannot remember a single sermon where the respective preacher used it to shed any light. It has been, in my own experience, tantamount to invoking the term “social construct” in debates, as if that settled anything. But if that is not reason enough, then its sheer abuse should convince us that it might be time to lay Mr Beaver’s epithet to rest (see Sammy Rhodes’ article on retiring sermon clichés). Lewis’ dangerous but good Aslan is somewhat opaque and seriously overused. Every time I hear it I struggle not to conclude that the only time the preacher reads is when he is trying to put his children to sleep.

This is obviously a theme in Lewis’ magisterial Narnia; when the children first meet Aslan we are told, “People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now” (p168). Later, when Mr Beaver is warning the children against pressing Aslan or tying him to their kingdom he says, “He’s wild you know. Not like a tame lion” (p194). They are moving words for those familiar with Aslan, and inadvertently the God of Scripture, but used alone and apart from the context of Lewis’ work such sentiments are little more than mere sentimentalism. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is rich narrative that boasts compelling truth, evokes genuine feeling, and draws the reader into another world in a way few novels achieve. But we are fooling ourselves if we think a few quotes about Aslan’s indomitable but inviting nature do any justice to Lewis’ intention, or assist our own.

There is so much more to the novel (and all of Narnia) than these almost common quotes convey. Let me offer an example, which I would love to unpack further in a sermon or writing, touching on John’s Gospel. While the Witch gloats in Aslan’s death, to redeem Edmund and restore Narnia, some of Jesus’ last words before the cross come to mind, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31). A little later the Lord says, “The ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me” (John 14:30-31). Before Susan and Lucy the supposed King of Narnia is shamefully shorn and cruelly slain on the Stone Table, and before Jesus’ disciples their supposed Messiah is mocked and executed; both events suggest the triumph of evil and the defeat of good. But hear Aslan’s words when the astonished sisters ask Aslan what (can only be described as) his resurrection means, “Though the Witch knew Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned…She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards” (p185). In his surrender to the evil powers of the world, he overcomes them.

Lord of the Rings - TolkienFinally, if that brief and slightly shoddy unpacking has not excited you to revisit Narnia then, please, for the sake of your congregation, drop Lewis’ overdone words; I will even provide you with a sacrificial substitute, from The Lord of the Rings. After Gandalf retells how he saw, and was indeed spotted by Treebeard, in the forest, Gimli remarks, ‘You speak of him as if he was a friend. I thought Fangorn was dangerous.’ ‘Dangerous!’ cried Gandalf. ‘And so am I, very dangerous: more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord. And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers, Gimli son of Glóin; for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion. Certainly the forest of Fangorn is perilous – not least to those that are too ready with their axes; and Fangorn himself, he is perilous too; yet he is wise and kindly nonetheless’.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: From Death to Life

C.S. Lewis NarniaThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is undoubtedly the most widely read and publically praised of the Narnia series. That makes writing this post harder than the previous one. For many people are familiar with this canonical piece from C.S. Lewis. The axis on which the book turns is both impossible to miss yet ironically, or conveniently, frequently overlooked: the death and resurrection of Aslan. So in this post I am going to concentrate on that central event, while hopefully bringing its surroundings into focus.

Narnia, where it is always winter but never Christmas, barely resembles the young, vibrant and vivid creation we encounter in The Magician’s Nephew. Lucy’s first meeting with Mr Tumnus the faun is awash with reminiscing of summer, when the forests were alive. Narnia is awaiting restoration, an irruption of new life. Signs of this transformation are manifold as the narrative moves towards its climax at the Stone Table. From the appearance of Father Christmas to the early marks of spring, Aslan comes nearer and Narnia anticipates renewal. Even Edmund, travelling in the terrifying presence of the White Witch can sense the change: “All round them though out of sight, there were streams, chattering, murmuring, bubbling, splashing, and even (in the distance) roaring. And his heart gave a great leap (though he hardly knew why) when he realized that the frost was over” (p164). The servile dwarf knows what they are seeing, “This is no thaw, this is Spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed” (p166).

C.S. Lewis NarniaBut we are getting ahead of ourselves. Another crucial aspect of Lewis’ tale is a theme he reproduced in much of his writing: the impotence of evil and the omnipotence of good. Leaving miserable Edmund with the self-proclaimed Queen of Narnia for a while, we come to the other Pevensies, and another loveable Narnian, Mr Beaver. With the news that Aslan is on the move, the children find in themselves an overpoweringly strange feeling evoked by his name, “like the first signs of spring, like good news” (p146). When they ask about Aslan, they are told that he is the King who will make all things right and rescue those in the Witch’s captivity. Then Mr Beaver recalls an old Narnian rhyme:

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bears bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again

Aslan Stone TableWhen asked if the Queen might turn Aslan into stone, as she does all her enemies, Mr Beaver laughs for no power can oppose the King of the wood, son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-sea. Though far from safe, Aslan is fully good. Another old rhyme is the reason the Queen is so interested in Edmund, along with all sons and daughters of Adam who might happen on Narnia: “When two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit on those four thrones [at Cair Paravel], then it will be the end not only of the White Witch’s reign but of her life” (p148). Thus the danger is not in any way that the Queen might resist Aslan’s unchallengeable sovereignty; she must keep the Pevensies from him, that is her only chance of impeding the promised spring, new life wrought by Aslan himself.

This brings us to Aslan. When the Pevensies meet Aslan, for the first time, we read, “People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children ever thought so, they were cured of it now” (p168). Later, we are told that Lucy could not figure out if playing with Aslan was more like playing with a thunderstorm or a kitten. Aslan is at the same time both frighteningly indomitable and invitingly friendly. The children cannot endure his “great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes” without trembling and averting theirs (p169). But Lucy boldly pleads for Aslan to save Edmund, his reply is heavy with anticipation of what is to come, “All shall be done. But it may be harder than you think.” And for the first time, Lucy notices sadness on Aslan’s face. As we skip ahead we can contrast this with the “look of fierce joy” on the face of the Witch, following her discussion of the Deep Magic with Aslan (p176). After issuing battle plans to Peter, Aslan sets off for the Stone Table, with Susan and Lucy following quietly behind, “He looked somehow different from the Aslan they knew. His tail and his head hung low and he walked slowly as if he were very, very tired” (p179). The glorious King heads up the hill towards the Stone Table, to his own death by cruel hands, greatly saddened and alone.

Importantly, the tension here is not between good and evil, for we have already noted that evil has no claim over good in Narnia; what we are invited to witness is how Aslan surrenders his life, better yet, lays it down, to save the one who betrayed him. This heart-breaking scene is not a defeat but the grandest demonstration of both his love and sovereign power. Ironically the Witch asks: “Now, who has won? Fool…you have given me Narnia for ever, you have lost your own life and you have not saved his. In that knowledge, despair and die” (p181).

C.S. Lewis NarniaSusan and Lucy approach the dead lion feeling unbearable sadness and utter hopelessness. Aslan lies dead. But the story does not end with death, it heaves into the great newness of life promised by spring. For “though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know…if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned…She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards” (p185). Evil does not triumph over good; Aslan’s absolute love puts all wrongs right and brings all sorrows to an end.

 

The Magician’s Nephew: A Strange but Familiar God

My wife and I recently decided to workLewis - Narnia through C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Growing up functionally illiterate, in a non-Christian home, meant that I stumbled into Narnia as an adult. Yet the subsequent comings and goings between my world and Narnia have retained the wonder of childlike discovery, and I cannot imagine that familiarity will ever dull my enjoyment Lewis’ resplendent masterpiece. Aiming to reflect on one chronicle a month, I hope to offer short posts sharing the light shed by each rereading, starting here with The Magician’s Nephew, though I think the point picked here applies to the entire series.

Referring to the Lewis’ entire Narnia narrative, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, argues in The Lion’s World that Lewis was not trying to simply translate or repackage Christian doctrine. Instead the stories evoke what it feels like to believe in the Christian faith. Thus Lewis offers his readers the opportunity of encountering what they think they know for the first time. This is no truer than Lewis’ portrayal of Aslan, the Christian God.

Lewis cleverly exhibits this in the character of the Cockney Cabby. Standing in the dark and unformed Narnia, Aslan begins to sing, “[What] was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it” (p61). Ironically, the Cabby exclaims, “Gawd,” as the Voice resonates with their souls and raises the new Narnian landscape. Then, alongside Digory and Polly, “[With] open mouths and shining eyes; they were drinking in the sound, and they looked as if it reminded them of something” (p62). “The earth was of many colours: they were fresh, hot and vivid. They made you feel excited; until you saw the Singer himself, and then you forgot everything else.” It is God indeed who the Cabby sees in the fresh light of Narnia’s young sun. Though however magnificent the newly created world is, and long before Jadis’ evil has sunken deep roots there, the Singer rather than the song demands the audience’s attention.

After addressing the animals and before Aslan establishes the Cabby and his wife as the first king and queen of Narnia, he asks the Cabby (p81-82), “I have known you long. Do you know me?” The Cabby replies, a little perplexed, “Well, no, sir. Leastways, not in an ordinary manner of speaking. Yet I feel somehow, if I may make so free, as ’ow we’ve met before.” To which the Lion says, “You know better than you think you know, and you shall live to know me better yet.” The Cabby is then asked if he would like to stay in Narnia, where he would not only rule but also come to know Aslan, without the obstructions of the world he knew, back in London. Lewis does this for us, his readers, too. We are invited to encounter our Creator, who does not merely invest his creation with the marvellous richness of his own mind but installs us as his honourable rulers. This is the story that we think we know, even possessing some vague recollection of, yet choose to forget.

Lewis in 1950Aslan is at the same time both oddly familiar and unsettlingly strange. The Cabby knows this Lion. And so do we. For this is no mere literary character, he is the immense God that Lewis loved. This God lends great dignity to people. He searches them out, drawing them to himself. He steps across worlds in order that they might know him. As Rowan Williams writes, “In a word, what Lewis portrays with such power and freshness in Narnia is simply grace: the unplanned and uncontrolled incursion in our self-preoccupied lives of God’s joy in himself.” But, and it is apt that the last word comes from Aslan, full of regret and a heavy heart, when he describes Digory’s uncle the magician, “Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good” (p98).

Music with Meaning

singing-in-the-carWhen do we utter words least true about our convictions, beliefs and attitudes if not during song? Often our words declared to melody lack scrutiny and we are not held accountable to them. In song the most unfaithful partner is permitted to declare themselves the most devoted lover; the timid observer morphs into an outraged blasphemer; for a few moments we become the very company we would never keep and others pledge allegiance to a belief they would never truly hold.

 

But of course we can say that the inverse is also true. It is when the music plays that our most private thoughts and intimate emotions are released, often revealing a fuller explanation to not only the hearer but ourselves. What we could never put into words suddenly flows freely off the tongue and takes on new and fresh meaning.

I doubt I need to persuade anyone about the power of music, especially in the church context. For it is under many steeples that our leaders have carefully structured the presentation and selection of music, knowing that it has often be used as a tool, a manipulator, to bring about superficial following and devotion. But how should we incorporate music? While we are all aware of its power I think most of us are also aware of its necessity; that we should not, simply out of fear, go without it.

An older person commented on a song we sang in church just the other day, talking about how difficult it is to sing these ‘new’ songs. ‘On the contrary’ I said, ‘many of the modern songs are repetitive and easy to sing in comparison to the range and melody line of some of the hymns.’ As with all our senses, we have preferences to certain tastes, smells and sounds. But these preferences do not come from no-where. They have been molded and influenced by experience.

Music Old vs NewTo quote a favorite writer of mine, F.W Boreham, “And thus music revives, as nothing else can do, the tender grace of a day that is dead…There is a sublime virtue in anything that brings us into vital touch with the glorious past.” When we are transported back into a time that was wonderful we cannot help but sing the song with gladness and joy. Even when we are reminded of times of sadness it allows us to sing with deeper meaning and reflection. It is our ability to feel and be driven by unexplainable emotion that connects us to music, for it is the music that pulls on these strings that are so seldom awakened throughout our tedious routine of life.

When we read the songs in Scripture indeed we are meant to reflect back on some past event and remember with emotion filled praise. Think of Moses & Mariam’s song in Exodus 15 “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea”; David’s Psalm in 1 Chronicles 16 “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts”; the song of Mary and Zechariah in Luke 1, praising God for what he has done for his people. We are to remember and be moved to praise. But not only to look back and praise, longing for a past experience to be repeated, but to look forward in great expectation of what is to come. This is what sets songs of worship apart from ordinary music.

“These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” C.S Lewis

St Augustine rightly treated music with caution. Aware of its power he wrestled with the balance of the moving melody and lyrical content, determined to always uphold the latter. He described himself as having ‘grievously sinned’ when being ‘more moved by the singing rather than the thing that is sung’.  But is it not also true that some words are sung with inappropriate melody? Moving music is not something we should altogether avoid but rather use appropriately. I have often read the words of the Psalms and hymns and been so moved by them, only to hear them sung and feel indifferent and removed. The mood should match the message and when it does I don’t think we should be afraid.

The fact that we are called to sing and not simply to recite tells me that there is an appropriate emotion expected from us as worshippers which we seldom experience or express without song. So while we are to be careful of extravagant emotions we should likewise be warned not to suppress those that are necessary – for we should not only sing as the expression of our minds’ understanding for then we could simply speak, but in song our souls should praise and our spirits rejoice!

Our Desires are Met in God

Broken cisternsContrary to what many people think, biblical Christianity is fond of desire. Scripture presents enjoyment and satisfaction in a brightly positive light, yet we are also taught in Scripture where to primarily direct our desires if they are to be fulfilled and dissuaded from and shown the emptiness of the man’s misguided quest for fulfillment in all the wrong things. Christians can discover healthy avenues for desire and simultaneously learn that our lives are not built around the pursuit of satisfaction. God fixed our desires in us. The mistake many people make is that they will be satisfied through the unchecked pursuit of satisfaction. Yet these impetuous searches are most often unrealistic and always unfulfilling. Desire is good but, to quote Jeremiah, ‘we hew out cisterns that can hold no water’ and wonder why we are perpetually thirsty.

I recently read David Gemmell’s Troy trilogy and in the second book, Shield of Thunder, Gemmell’s Aeneas is dying in bed, feverish and faint from an infected wound, when he has a vision of an immense Mycenaean soldier who fought and died beside him in a defense of Troy. He tells Aeneas that we are tiny flickering flames in the dark for no more than a heartbeat, “When we strive for wealth, glory and fame, it is meaningless. The nations we fight for will one day cease to be. Even the mountains we gaze upon will turn to dust. To truly live we must yearn for that which does not die.” These are arrestingly wise words. But what is the undying that we must yearn for? What is the true life that striving for will not result in those familiar feelings of being unfulfilled despite gratifying our desires?

C.S. Lewis, in his essay The Weight of Glory, memorably wrote of our vain pursuit and misplaced expectations, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” The pursuit of real Joy, what we might call the answer to our desires longings, is the obvious theme of Lewis’ autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy. Alister McGrath’s recent biography of Lewis highlights Blaise Pascal as one of Lewis’ implicit influences, for the French philosopher said that man has an “infinite abyss” inside of him that can only be filled by an “infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” It is not a far step from here to the too oft quoted words of Augustine in Confessions, “You [God] stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Williams - The truce of GodThe former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote in Truce of God that unreal desire stumbles from moment to moment desperate to gratify an immediate hunger. That hunger, writes Williams, is not realised as part of being human and therefore incapable of being plugged by our endless attempts. He goes on to say that we mistakenly set out to organise all things around our self, rather than seeing Christ as the magnetic centre of all things. There is one Person who can satisfy us, for whom we were made, yet we exchange that desire for wanting everything else and tragically spend our lives thinking those many things will replace the single and satisfactory one. Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well have never been truer, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I will give them will never be thirsty again.”

 

Doodle: An Interpretation of C.S. Lewis’ Lizard

the-great-divorceIn his small masterwork, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis tells the peculiar story of a Ghost being confronted by an Angel. Sitting upon the Ghost’s shoulder is a small lizard, incessantly whispering in his ear. The Ghost is heading back to whence he came because the lizard, who promised to remain silent, repeatedly disturbed the silence of the liminal plain, separating the dark lands and the effervescent mountains, heaven. This is where enlivening conversations take place and the prospect of becoming complete people is presented to comparatively frail and insubstantial ‘Ghosts’ from far off. I really hope you read the entire book. If not then the chapter concerned can be found here.

The Angel offers to free the Ghost from the lizard, who has a powerful hold over him. Despite being embarrassed by it and having to limp away from the splendidly hopeful mountains, back to the dislocated and desolate place he came from, it is unthinkable that the Angel must kill the lizard in order for him to be free. It is an odd event in the narrative. But what is it about?

When the Angel begins to uncouple the lizard and the Ghost it is agonising for the latter. Amidst the dialogical fireworks, the lizard furiously pleas for its life and swears it will be obedient in the future. The Ghost doubts he can endure the hurt, of losing his little companion, or going through with the painful parting that he knows will mean restoration. The Angel needs permission from the Ghost before removing the lizard and giving the Ghost his freedom. Though his suffering feels like dying the Ghost realises, “It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.”

red-lizardThen, “the Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed, on the turf.” Before the eyes of the narrator the Ghost begins to grow “solider”, “brighter” and “immense”. But something happens to the lizard too. Far from dying, it grows bigger and is transformed, becoming a splendidly silver and white stallion. He who was previously a mere Ghost, leaps onto the horse’s back and together they ride like a shooting star towards the mountains, “into the rose-brightness of that everlasting morning.”

What does it mean? Why did Lewis devote a whole chapter to tell this story? Is he explaining the desperate difficulty of conversion, dying to our self? Is it a picture of mortification, the agony of stripping away the old nature? Perhaps it is an example of the tension between human responsibility and God’s gracious salvation. Could it be the prolepsis of a prevalent theme in Till We Have Faces, as Rowan Williams puts it, “The impossibility of forcing any person to accept love and the monumental and excruciating difficulty of receiving love when you are wedded to a certain picture of yourself”? While these are fascinating interpretations I am going to suggest something else: a thought I had reading David VanDrunen, Living In God’s Two Kingdoms (especially p43-44).

The cultural mandate, given to Adam and Eve, was to rule and exercise authority over creation. They were to protect the Garden’s holiness, as faithful and obedient custodians. Their covenant with God meant that any challenge or attempt to usurp the Creator’s rule and his imprinted authority on them was to be destroyed. But they, as well as us today, are not the creaturely sovereigns he intended us to be. For the serpent, both a tempter and an intruder, was allowed to defile God’s pure Eden through Adam’s failure in exercising his kingly dominion. The regrettable result of this is highlighted by the author of Hebrews, who says we do not see everything subject to man, as it was meant to be (2:8). So presently the natural world is outside our sphere of control; we are at odds with its formidable force. This is not what the Creator intended. We were created to rule. But Adam’s careless inversion of the created order, placing himself under the dominion of the serpent, would have lasting and disastrous effects for his heirs.

MountainSunrise_0The picture that Lewis paints in this chapter is of wondrous restoration, reclamation of the Creator’s order. What was undone and reversed in Eden is put right. The Ghost no longer cowers beneath the lizard’s persuasive weight. He is not entrapped by its subversive whisperings. He now towers over the glorious stallion as a more magnificent ruler. Lewis’ picture forces our gaze to that everlasting morning. Despite standing somewhere in between, we are not stranded but hopeful, sure that God is making all things new; he will re-invert what Adam wrecked. This is one of the things Lewis does so vividly in The Great Divorce, and throughout his other works; he enlarges our view of glory and God’s restoration.