2016-06-30
Recently, I was chatting with my friend Summer. She's never read C. S. Lewis's great apologetics for the Christian faith, "Mere Christianity." Nor has she read his conversion story, "Surprised by Joy," or his adult fiction, or his essays of literary criticism. But she did, years ago as a kid, read his "Chronicles of Narnia," at about the same time she read "Anne of Green Gables" and "Nancy Drew." "Now, I know these Narnias are supposed to be Christian allegory, but I never saw anything Christian about them," she told me. "Frankly, I'm not sure I see them as much more religious than Anne or Nancy."

My friend is not alone. Part of what distinguishes the Narnia series is that it can be read on so many different levels. Setting aside any religious interpretation, it's still just a heck of a good tale.

Nonetheless, a deeply Christian vision shapes Narnia. The most unmistakably Christian trope in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"-- Lewis's famous novel about four British children who find themselves in a magical land called Narnia where they meet witches and fauns and a wonderful lion called Aslan--is Aslan's death and resurrection. In order to save one of the children from death at the hands of the evil White Witch, Aslan allows himself to be killed upon a great Stone Table. The "crucifiers" mock him, just as Jesus was mocked: "Why, he's only a great cat after all!"; "Poor Puss! Poor Pussy.... How many mice have you caught today, Cat?" These jeers, of course, recall the soldiers' cry to Jesus: If you are king of the Jews, save yourself!

The resurrected Aslan then reappears to Lucy and Susan. The girls, of course, are taken aback--Susan fears that she is seeing a ghost. But Lucy realizes this is no specter: "Oh, you're real, you're real! Oh, Aslan!" she cries. And Aslan explains that while the White Witch's magic is powerful, there is a deeper, truer, more powerful magic at work--and now that an innocent and willing victim was killed in the intended victim's place, "Death itself would start working backward."

That phrase is about as concise a summary of the Gospel message as one could hope for. Yet the story of Aslan is so engrossing in itself that readers understandably don't always make the connection. Pauline Baynes, who illustrated the first edition of The Chronicles, says she wept while creating the illustration for this scene--but she didn't realize until later that Aslan's death mirrored Christ's suffering on the cross.

The entire Chronicles follow biblical contours. If in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" we have a retelling of Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection, the subsequent Narnia stories tell about the children's adventures in Narnia--their adventures, that is, during the time between Aslan's redemption of Narnia, and his final victory. This is, from the Christian viewpoint, the very same in-between time in which we are living now.

That final coming is reckoned in "The Last Battle," the last book of the Chronicles, which describes the ultimate battle between good and evil, and the final triumph of Aslan. As David Downing has pointed out in his marvelous study "Into the Wardrobe," the very opening of the book sets an apocalyptic tone: "On the last days of Narnia." Echoing the foretelling of the end-times in The Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Revelation, "The Last Battle" depicts the children dying in London and being received at a fabulous banquet by Aslan. Lewis's depiction of Aslan's folding all of history and culture into his kingdom never fails to give me chills:

The things that began to happen...were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

Maybe it's even a little sacrilegious to think of God becoming a cat...
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  • For literary representations of the end times and the consummation of the new heavens and new earth, I'll take that over the apocalyptic "Left Behind" any day.

    Beyond the larger story of Aslan's death and resurrection, one could comb through the Chronicles page by page and point out innumerable ways in which Lewis specifically invokes Scripture. These are just a few examples:

  • A favorite "old rhyme" in Narnia, "At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more," echoes Hosea 11:10-11--"They shall go after the Lord, he will roar like a lion..."--and also Isaiah 65:19, "...no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress."
  • Aslan's admission, shortly before he is killed, that he is "sad and lonely" recalls Jesus' telling his disciples "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me."
  • "The Last Battle"'s "rock with refreshing water" echoes Paul's words in I Corinthians 10:4 that "our forefathers... drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ."
  • Lewis, however, never intended the "Chronicles of Narnia" to be read simply as a coded retelling of the Bible. He insisted that he didn't set out to write a "Christian children's story." Narnia came to him first as a series of images--a faun, a lion. That an unmistakably biblical narrative emerged is perhaps a testimony to Lewis's own formation, a reminder of how deeply steeped he was in the Christian story. Indeed, Lewis never liked to call the Chronicles "allegory," with the term's implication that every last animal, tree, and chair was simply a cipher, standing for some specific thing in the Bible. He preferred to think of the Chronicles as "supposals"--"Let us suppose," he wrote in his essay "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's to be Said," "that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen."

    Lewis once received a letter from a worried correspondent, who was distressed to find that Aslan's death stirred him more deeply than the biblical accounts of Christ's passion ever had. "The reason why the Passion of Aslan sometimes moves people more than the real story of the Gospels is," replied Lewis, "...that it takes them off their guard. In reading the real story the fatal knowledge that one ought to feel a certain way often inhibits the feeling."

    This may be one reason that "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" continually delights and startles Christian readers. For the novel not only offers an emotionally engaging retelling of the crucifixion story. It also gets at the essence of the wonderful, strange, remarkable fact of God's incarnation as a human being. For aren't we, Christians and non-Christians alike, a little uncomfortable with the idea that, in order to have communion with and redeem the creatures of Narnia, God became a lion. A lion? Surely not. I mean, maybe it's even a little sacrilegious to think of God becoming a cat.

    But the biblical story of God becoming man is no less startling. Of course, it doesn't startle us so much anymore, because after 2,000 years we've gotten used to it. Even Christians sometimes forget how bold and odd the Incarnation is: All our sweet Christmas pageants have domesticated, even tamed, the story of Jesus being born a babe in a manger. Christmas rolls around and it is hard, amid all the shopping, to recapture the radical shock of God becoming a baby. For those of us who proclaim the Christian faith, Narnia makes a fine Advent devotional, inspiring in us a little of the awe and discomfort that the Incarnation demands.

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