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).

William Golding and Original Sin

Golding - Lord of the FliesAs Lord of the Flies draws to an end, William Golding writes, “Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart.” Though the story concludes with rescue, the resounding note throughout is the insidious “beast” that lurks within each child. And the absence of authority on the island serves as the catalyst that draws it out of the children. The answer to the boys’ searching question, ‘Why does everything fall apart?’ is the daunting truth that there is no supernatural horror on the island, just the horror of humanity.

The boys are terrified by the evil they perceive to be around them, which some of the “littluns” claim emerges from the sea at night. Others believe that the island itself is bad. And who can forget the lifeless body of the pilot gently swaying in the wind, “the beast from the air”? Towards the middle of the narrative, in an assembly, both Simon and Piggy suggest that the unseen horrors of the island might be people, the boys themselves. But it is only when Simon gets lost in conversation with the Lord of the Flies that the reader can begin to understand what Golding is doing. The head says, “Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill.” It then chillingly asks, “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close!” Alone in the clearing, far from the rest of the boys, as Simon falls apart before the impaled pig head, he hears, “You know perfectly well you’ll only meet me down there – so don’t try to escape!” I do not think it coincidental that this internal dialogue is juxtaposed with Simon’s murder. The beast arrived at the island with the boys, and the unfolding events serve to show that man’s heart is indeed dark.

Black and white - William GoldingFirst published in the 1954, Golding’s masterpiece represents the idea that there is something inherently wrong with mankind. This is an offensive view for people today. The prevailing mind-set is that our environment wounds our psyche and shapes us for the worst, claiming that morally we are like John Locke’s tabula rasa (blank slate). But Golding’s novel introduces us to boys who are influenced by nothing but their own psyches, suggesting that it was not an evil society that ruined them. It was rather the evil in their souls that became manifest. Their English decorum and respect for authority quickly disappeared when the control of society was removed. This suggests truth in the maxim, ‘the reality of evil in our world is more than the sum total of evil deeds.’ Golding describes how our savagery is revealed when left to ourselves, when the restrictions imposed on us are removed and we gain the mantra of our age, freedom. With nothing to curb the boys’ dark hearts their adventure quickly turns from exploration to hostile factions and, in the end, tragedy. To use Golding’s language, things are the way they are on the island because of the boys.

The two themes I have touched on, respectively, are what Christian theology calls original sin and common grace. Golding does, in my opinion, clearly give expression to both of these in Lord of the Flies. N.T. Wright writes in Simply Jesus that despite much misunderstanding surrounding the doctrine of original sin, “It would be extremely foolish to suppose that humans, left to themselves have not done amazingly horrible things as well as amazingly wonderful ones.” Humans have inside of them the capacity for great evil, and this is a serious problem because it means that much of our respectability and goodness are nothing more than a thin veneer hiding – from others and ourselves – the darkness of our hearts. Jesus taught that all the things that truly defile us originate in our hearts, for evil words and deeds flow from what is stored up in our hearts (Matthew 12:34-37; 15:18-19). What an unpopular and unkind thing to say yet it is also an indisputable truth regarding human nature. Changing how we act and think is easy; societies, rules and regulations have done that for generations of children through history. But it is impossible for us to change hearts, where there rests a deep-seated darkness. Yet the Old Testament prophet who recorded these words from Yahweh, “The heart is desperately deceitful above all things and desperately sick,” also preached Yahweh’s promise, “I will write my law on their hearts. And I will be their God and they will be my people.” We need a realistic view of our problem and condition, what we might call the evil within. Without that we will remain as people who look healthy but are in fact desperately sick.

Austerity as IdeologyI will conclude with a passage from Marilynne Robinson’s essay, Austerity as Ideology, “This teeming world, so steeped in its sins. No one could begin to count them. This does sound like theology of the darker sort, the kind that would make us all inheritors not so much of primal guilt as of a primal predisposition to incur guilt. We moderns are supposed to have liberated ourselves from such thinking. Belief in a bent toward acting badly has been taken to inhibit our potentiality for acting well, though why this should be true is not obvious. In any case, since we have behaved badly under both dispensations, we have provided ourselves with strong evidence for the soundness of the darker view.”

Three books from 2012

person-reading-a-book-226x300It is no secret: there are times when I love books more than people. Because I spend so much time reading I thought that I should offer some book suggestions, not summaries, from last year. The three books that I have chosen were those that I found most significant for my Christian life, the content of them was both practical and pressing. I pray that these brief caveats will encourage thoughtful reading and application to your own lives.

ministriesmercyMinistries of Mercy by Timothy Keller. Admittedly, if not obviously, my appreciative venture into this book is long overdue. But even though the 2nd edition was published 15 years ago it seems, because it hit bookstore shelves before Keller was in vogue, that it has been largely overlooked. And that is a great pity. Without getting entrenched in the war over word ministry and social work, Keller takes us beyond theological nuts and bolts to make it apparent one cannot function without the other. Sure, they can exist without each other, but only in an impoverished form of Christian life. I was immensely challenged by Keller’s clear application of the gospel to motivate generous love that partners the gospel truth. Furthermore, the book is heavily weighted with plain, practical advice for Christians, both individually and corporately, to put structures into place for ministries of mercy. You may not agree with everything Keller writes, but I think that much of our resistance to what he is saying is our own hardness towards gospel motivated works, the kind that Jesus said would make the church stand out from its surrounding society. They are an inconvenience, difficult and time consuming. Yet, as Keller clearly articulates, God’s people who have grasped grace should be at the forefront of this work.

bookreview-next-challiesThe Next Story by Tim Challies. This book, which I also got to reading later than many, is Challies’ exploration of the relationship between technology, especially social networking and online communication, and the Christian faith. Perhaps one of the reasons I found this book such a helpfully insightful read is because I have long felt  that we are becoming increasingly enslaved to our technology, idolising communication and convenience, as well as outsourcing knowledge – or memory – to data stores. This has, in my opinion, damaged Christian fellowship and hindered the deep, intimate, and personal relationships that God created us for. While it is a bugbear for me, Challies has worked hard at locating the place of technology in our lives – for it’s too late to revert to how things were before, Graham said nostalgically – and he challenges Christians to think with theological discernment regarding the internet, time spent in the digital world, lives that are interrupted and disjointed by technology, and our dependence on (tending towards idolatry of) immediate or instant communication. As with Keller, this book will disturb and challenge you. We always assume that progress is good, but the reminder of this book is that it always depends on how we make use of it, whether we become its slave or wield it in our service of God.

Lit!Lit by Tony ReinkeThe people who need to read this book more than everyone else are those who don’t read. I often find myself bemoaning Christians’ fixation with terrible literature or functional illiteracy. If Christians would just read Reinke’s book I believe that our sluggish apathy towards reading, with theological thoughtfulness, would be upended. I don’t remember if Reinke makes the point, but when one looks over church history you will notice that wherever the gospel went, literacy and education dovetailed. But today our engagement with other worldviews and contemporary culture is limited to tabloids, tweets, television sitcoms, and news-bytes. If you are a reader, which is quite likely since you’ve made it this far through my post, then Reinke’s book will aid you in establishing sound theology for reading. As an avid reader, he helps plan a reading schedule that will assure giving the right amount of time to different types of literature. The book is broken up into theory and practice of reading. If you don’t read, then I would challenge you to read the first half: a theology of reading. In closing, reading is a discipline and being unfit for it, finding the stimulation unnecessary or time unavailable, might shed light on your Bible reading, or lack thereof. Revealed biblical truth is our touchstone, but very few Christians in the past have stopped there, and I would go as far to say it pleases God when we become thoughtfully engaged with literature, seeing it through gospel eyes.

Out of the Silent Planet: Modernism and Malacandra

 

CS Lewis“To you I may seem a vulgar robber, but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race. Your tribal life with its stone-age weapons and beehive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our civilization – with our science, medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time. Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower.”

These are the bold words of the scientist Weston, confronting the Oyarsa (the godlike, benevolent leader of Malacandra) at the finale of Lewis’ first installment of his Space Trilogy. When Ransom translates this into Old Solar he simply says that Weston did not consider genocide of the Malacandrians, to further the progress of humanity, to be “bent”, evil or wrong.

Weston continues, “Life is greater than any system of morality; her claims are absolute. It is not by tribal taboos and copy-book maxims that she has pursued her relentless march from the amoeba to man and from man to civilization.” Ransom struggles to translate, “living creatures are stronger than the question whether an act is bent or good…it is better to be alive and bent than to be dead”. Weston announces that the superiority of mankind justifies them to stretch their empire across the universe, throughout Deep Heaven. While reading this I could not help but notice the similarities of Weston’s philosophy to the primitive modernism that came with the Enlightenment.

Darwin’s natural religion came with great hubris, and was reinforced with cultural superiority and domination. Though few people would agree today with the European mindset of the 18th and early 19th century which saw those who lagged in the evolutionary march as inferior not only in the realm of science, medicine and the likes but even when it came to our genes. Thinking back to the dialogue from Lewis, Weston thought that progress of the human race would come about through the advancement of natural science, how much we can control by it and where it could take us. Without lessening the great gifts of the Enlightenment, modernism promised to improve the human race but could not for the fact that the emphasis was on everything else but humans themselves. Though quality of life and command of nature are good things, they are in and of themselves external to the human problem. This human problem shows itself in the attitude of Weston, and the natural religion of Darwin.

The Oyarsa of Malacandra puts the human problem quite well, “In your own world you have attained great wisdom concerning bodies and by this you have been able to make a ship that can cross the heaven; but in all other things you have the mind of an animal.” Once mankind, but more specifically the West, established themselves as superior in everything ranging from culture to social structures then they are not far from imperialism, enslavement and extermination. Through the developments of science we can, I think, rightly pat ourselves on the back for the great capacity for knowledge and advance we possess. But the danger is that we forget what we actually are. Life extends beyond laboratories, hospitals and classrooms to communities, families and cultures. I can understand why existentialism arose in angst against modernism; and why it carried through to full flower in postmodernism that tore off the dangerous shackles of imperial modernism.

Weston went to Malacandra, in an attempt to win ground on which humanity might multiply; only, it would be as effective in making people better, as trying to improve the skills of footballers by giving them a larger field on which to play. Obviously this depends largely on how we define “better” and what we think constitutes progress. But modernism offered little of what most people would understand as fixing the problems that are endemic to human nature, furthermore it offered little to nothing in bolstering culture, the arts and so on (you only need to Google ‘modern architecture’ for proof of this). What does any of this matter? As a Westerner, and a Christian, I think we need to be very careful that we do not enact a new imperialism. The biblical picture of Isaiah 60 and Revelation 21-22 depict a renewed, perfect future in which we retain our cultural differences. Therefore every human culture has inherent good and distinct strengths for the enrichment of the human race. Scientific advance does enlighten our minds, but can do little if anything to change hearts. Christianity has too often been rightly critiqued as eradicating cultures which were and replacing them with Western culture. Weston threatened domination of Malacandra and anything else that stood in the way of his enterprise, we should be careful we do not end up doing the same.

All the quotations above are from chapter 20 of Out of the Silent Planet, unless otherwise stated.