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’.

Doodle: Resurrection Bodies and The Silmarillion

Corinthian mosaicThis year our small groups have worked through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. With us fast approaching the end of this apparently eclectic, immensely encouraging, and sin exposing epistle we have spent the last few weeks in chapter 15. What struck me in preparation was Paul’s contrast of our present earthly bodies and promised heavenly bodies (see 15:35-58).

The biggest contrast Paul draws is between our perishing present and the imperishable future. He writes, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (15:50). The Corinthians could not fathom how the dead would enter heaven (15:35), but Paul’s answer is that even the living are unfit for heaven for they need to become imperishable (15:42). An explanation of the material between these two points is that Paul stresses continuity between our earthly and heavenly, natural and spiritual, bodies. This continuity undergirds the entire section but what the Corinthians needed to learn was that our present bodies made from dust are perishable. The problem is not that the dead cannot be raised but rather that the perishable cannot inherit the imperishable (15:50). Our bodies need to be changed, transformed and clothed with immortality (15:52-54). The resurrection does not only mean that bodily death poses no threat to our hope of heaven; it promises that we will be made imperishable and fit for heaven.

Tolkien - SilmarillionWhat does that have to do with Tolkien’s The Silmarillion? I think that an episode towards the end of Tolkien’s masterful myth clearly illustrates the point made by Paul. In the Akallabêth, the Númenoreans, a mighty line of Men also known as the Dúnedain, yearn for the West, being enamoured by the undying lands of Aman they are embittered that their lives are tied to Middle-earth. Their unrest is told to the Valar by the Elves and it comes as grievous news. Manwë, one of the Valar, sends messengers, “who spoke earnestly to the King, and to all who would listen, concerning the fate and fashion of the world.” They told them there is no profit in voyaging to the Blessed Realm for, “There you would but wither and grow weary the sooner, as moths in a light too strong and steadfast.” There is no hope in leaving the perishable world, for their fate is intertwined with it. But even if they were to sail from Middle-earth to the Blessed Realm, the question Mandos, another one of the Valar, asks earlier about Eärendil rings loudly, “Shall mortal Man step living upon the undying lands, and yet live?”

Empty tombTo quote Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:53, “This perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” What guarantee do we have of this? “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead” (15:20-21).

The Futility of Fighting Sin with Sin

Ring PendantI think I may have started to find narrative more persuasive and more compelling than propositions (that’s quite a step for me). Again I have been thinking about Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, this time I have been thinking about sin through Tolkien’s spectacular metaphor of the ring. After Shelob’s lair – potentially the most exhilarating episode in the book – Sam believes Frodo to be dead and, after some deliberation, comes to the realisation that the responsibility of bearing the ring has fallen to him. This means that Sam carried it briefly and, for a short time, even wore it. My interest is the battle of wills that ensues as Sam puts on the ring.

The objective of the fellowship has always been the defeat of Sauron. The objective is a good one. It is the means of that objective being fulfilled that shifts and it is in the shift that Sauron would triumph. Sam barely wears the ring but simply having it hanging around his neck gives him courage and makes him fearsome in the eyes of orc enemies.

Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dûr. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.

Were he to wear it and try to wield it, it would certainly destroy him. His will would be engulfed in the will of Sauron and his good desire to defeat Sauron would turn into the evil desire for the power; the power for which Sauron himself longed (this is the vice of the ring; into it was poured all of Sauron’s evil will such that it will corrupt the will of whoever wears it).

While Sam’s desire to defeat Sauron remains and is still good, conflicting desires flare up that are evil and as Tolkien allows us briefly to peak into Sam’s ring-induced imaginings, we are exposed to the subtle yet perilous shift in means. Sauron’s defeat need not come at the expense of the ring; Sam is tempted by the idea that in his own power (with the help of the ring), he could overthrow Sauron. The seductive but errant notion that the defeat of evil need not come at the expense of evil.

Figurine: Gollum with The RingThe concept is illuminating. How often I now find myself using a sinful means to try to defeat sin. Allow me to illustrate, a man beats his wife. He knows it’s wrong but he constantly finds he succumbs to the temptation. He realises, however, that should this be discovered he would lose his reputation – a reputation that has become an idol to him. He therefore puts a stop to beating his wife in order to maintain his reputation. Of course, he would still beat his wife if no one could discover him. What’s more, the sinful passion that was fed as he found satisfaction in his sin will only find another outlet. Worst of all, in my opinion, he willfully feeds a sinful desire.

On the contrary, Sauron will not be defeated by the use of the ring, only by its destruction. Sin will not be defeated by the use of sin. This is why we are urged time and again to “put to death” “the deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13) and “what is earthly in you” (Colossians 3:5). Sin cannot be wielded for good, it can only corrupt. It began in Eden with a desire to be like God – a good desire (which will be accomplished by Christ in us) – but a sinful means in the serpent’s whisperings to Eve, “You need only eat the fruit and claim it for your own, and all this could be.” How often I take the bait.

Evil can only be overthrown by direct assault, only the pursuit of righteousness will defeat evil. So my exhortation is, “put to death whatever is earthly in you” and “clothe yourselves with compassionate hearts.”

A Light that Shines in the Darkness

Shelob, Frodo and SamI’ve been reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and have loved his narrative. One of the remarkable capacities of story is its emotive power and I’ve been thinking about how to utilise this in preaching. In the second book of the trilogy (The Two Towers), Sam and Frodo come to Cirith Ungol – home of Shelob, the mother of all spiders (literally and  idiomatically). In trying to make their way through her lair, the hobbits inevitably encounter this terrible creature. There is no escape for them, Shelob is at home in the darkness and her webs line the caverns which are stiflingly dark to the hobbits’ eyes. Frodo then remembers the gift he received which is essentially a bottled star; “a light when all other lights go out”. This he produces from his cloak and they see their dreadful foe and her mountainous eyes. As the light strengthens in Frodo’s hand and flares out to all the crevices of the cave Tolkein writes the following observing Shelob’s eyes:

They wavered. Doubt came into them as the light approached. One by one they dimmed, and slowly they drew back. No brightness so deadly had ever afflicted them before. From sun and moon and star they had been safe underground, but now a star had descended into the very earth. Still it approached, and the eyes began to quail. One by one they all went dark; they turned away, and a great bulk, beyond the light’s reach, heaved its huge shadow in between. They were gone.

It’s been difficult to read Tolkien and not think of the Bible. As I read this all I could hear was:

4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … 9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.

Imagine hearing a sermon on John 1:1-13 that brings its audience into the kind of story that Frodo and Sam find themselves in at Cirith Ungol. In which the audience realises that the spiritual darkness they live in is not unlike Frodo and Sam’s:

the air was still, stagnant, heavy, and sound fell dead. They walked as it were in a black vapour wrought of veritable darkness itself that, as it was breathed, brought blindness not only to the eyes but to the mind, so that even the memory of colours and of forms and of any light faded out of thought. Night always had been, and always would be, and night was all.

The darkness in which we find ourselves is not passive in it’s lightlessness; it increases the depth of darkness in our minds and our hearts. And living in that darkness which is itself our enemy, is the mother darkness who wishes to devour us. We must flee but we are blind and trapped. We must see but it is impossible. We are in desperate need of light or not only will we never find the way but we will be consumed.

But what light can be hoped for in this deep shadow?
What brightness could ever penetrate the place we find ourselves?

Well there is a light of all mankind that shines in the darkness. A light that even the deep darkness cannot overcome. The true light that gives light to everyone, a light that descended from the heavens into the very earth and at its approach, the darkness quails.

It is not mere narrative: darkness quails!

Admittedly, this is poor exegetical work on John. Nevertheless, given due exegetical time, I would find such delivery compelling. I wish preaching were more like this.