Saturday, January 17, 2015

Journey to Narnia

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 12, 2006

Everyone, so it seems, loves C.S. Lewis. Certainly, all different kinds of religious people want to claim him as their own. As one writer has put it: “C.S. Lewis has become all things to all readers.” “Perhaps never, in the history of Christianity, has one man bridged so many levels of understanding to the story of Christianity,” writes another. This writer [Duncan Sprague] continues:
“For the child at heart [Lewis] created the land of Narnia and the untamed lion/savior, Aslan. For science fiction readers, he traveled to Prelandra with Ransom. For the philosopher and theologian he reasoned about pain and miracles, as well as debating doctrines of Christianity and the philosophy of men. For the lover of myth, he wrote an adaptation of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. For the pain stricken he observed grief and spoke of prayer. For those enchanted with rhythm and rhyme he wrote poetry. For those concerned about the afterlife he wrote about Heaven and Hell and exposed the mind of Satan. For the weak and questioning he wrote letters of personal encouragement and advice.”
He was both an esteemed scholar and a best-selling writer; an ivy-halled lecturer and a radio commentator. Though he was officially an Anglican, all manner of Christians of a wide array of denominations claim Lewis as their own in spirit at least—from evangelical Baptists and orthodox Presbyterians to Roman Catholics of both the Vatican II and more traditional varieties.
Now, in a recent issue of Christianity Today, C.S. Lewis is called a “Christian superstar” (I think he would have shuddered at the very concept), and he is compared to none other than the “King” himself— to Elvis, that is. The article declares that:
“Like Elvis, C.S. Lewis had been a soldier.
Both men came to fame on the radio.
Both men’s homes (Graceland and the Kilns) have become pilgrimage sites,
Both left behind estates now valued in millions.
And both rose from relative obscurity—Elvis, a Mississippi truck driver, and Lewis, a [mere] tutor at Oxford—to become larger than life figures profiled in books and movies,
and beloved by legions of adoring fans.”
“Like Elvis,” the article concludes, “even after death, Lewis remains a superstar.”
(Perhaps there aren’t as many C.S. Lewis imitators running around in gold lame suits, however. Though, in a literary sense perhaps, there are.)
I don’t know if I’d call him a “superstar” or not, and I think the comparisons with Elvis are inane; but certainly, C.S. Lewis does have a resilience remarkable for a literary figure, and one with religious undertones to his writings, at that.
It is, of course, the Chronicle of Narnia series for which Lewis is chiefly remembered. Published originally between 1950 and 1956, I think it’s fair to say that the seven books of Narnia have never really gone “out of style”. They have sold collectively more than 100 million copies. I can remember Elizabeth spending hours reading them to our two oldest children in Vermont, back in our pre-television, pre-Nintendo, pre-computer days. That would have been in the 1980s.
About ten years ago or so, there was a popular series on the BBC which dramatized the books, and it became popular in America on PBS, as well.
Now, of course, with the premier of the new Disney epic, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (winner of this year’s Academy Award for “Best Makeup” to boot—thanks to one veryscary witch, I would say)—a new generation of children are being introduced to the heroic and mystical adventures of Lucy, and her older siblings, Peter, Susan, and Edmund.
The Chronicles are, at their very heart, adventure stories. They record the marvelous adventures of four seemingly weak and limited human beings (children, even) finding within themselves the power they need to face danger, meet challenges, and overcome evil itself.
Lewis had first had the idea to write a book for children in 1939. At that time, many children were evacuated from England's major cities and sent to live in the countryside because of the threat of bombing during World War II. Lewis had opened his home, The Kilns, near Oxford, to some of these young refugees. One day, he noticed that one of the children seemed fascinated by a wardrobe in one of the upper bedrooms, and seemed to be intrigued by imagining that there was another way out of it through to the other side. This image struck a chord with Lewis, and he remembered reading about a magic wardrobe as a boy, in a book called The Aunt and Anabel by Edith Nesbit.
Over time, other images appeared to Lewis as well—a street lamp in the snow, a faun in the woods, a saintly lion—and eventually Lewis sat down to start his work. Lewis completed the first Narnia story, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in 1948. In it, four children—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy—go to stay with a reclusive old professor in a mysterious country house. While playing a game of hide and seek, Lucy, the youngest, hides in an old abandoned wardrobe in the attic, and discovers that it leads to a magical world called Narnia. This land, which is inhabited by talking animals, is ruled by the lion Aslan, a good and powerful king. Narnia, however, had come under the spell of the evil White Witch, who had caused it to be always winter but never Christmas there.
Before Lucy can get back to tell the others about Narnia, her rather bad-tempered brother Edmund (the “black sheep” of the family, as it were; a child with a constant scowl [in the movie, at least]) discovers it for himself. Edmund is taken up by the White Witch, who lures him to her side with Turkish Delight, and promises of more candy and gifts and great powers. It is only when Aslan sacrifices his own life that Edmund is saved.
But then, to the amazement of everybody (especially, we might guess, the White Witch herself) Aslan comes back to life! With Peter at the head of their forces, and Edmund redeeming himself as a good and brave knight, Aslan and his followers win a great battle over the forces of evil; the White Witch is vanquished; and the four children are made kings and queens of Narnia.
At the end of the book, after many years have passed, the children return from Narnia the same way they came into it-- through the wardrobe-- only to discover that no time has passed at all. Their adventure in Narnia has been above time, beyond time. Although their adventure appears to be over, the professor tells them that they will again find themselves in Narnia again someday, when they least expect it.
Over the next eight years, C.S. Lewis went on to write six more Narnia books, though not chronologically, that is not necessarily in the order in which they were to be read. For instance, The Magician's Nephew, which tells of the creation of Narnia and sets the stage for the events that are to happen there, was written next to last and published in 1955.
Although Lewis wrote the Chronicles of Narnia with children in mind, he also wanted the stories to appeal to adults and to convey a larger message. Lewis was a lover of storytelling of all sorts, and a great believer in the power of myths to portray important lessons and values. He was also a brilliant scholar, with a vast memory, and instant recall of seemingly everything he had ever read. He wove many mythological themes from a wide variety of sources into his work (too many sources, his friend J.R.R. Tolkein believed, as we discussed earlier with the children.) He was happy to have his Narnia tales read on the level of fantasy and myth alone. But, obviously, there was “something more” to them. They’re something more than just adventure stories…
This “something more” was Lewis’s Christianity. For almost twenty years by the time he finished The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (that is, from about 1929), Lewis had been a committed Christian—and a very high profile and outspoken one, at that.
In his book, Surprised by Joy, Lewis tells of his conversion. He had been reading religious books for some time, he wrote, many of them classics by the likes of John Donne and Spenser and Milton and Doctor Johnson and G. K. Chesterton. One day, remembering an appointment in London, Lewis got on a bus at Oxford (Lewis never learned how to drive)-- still not convinced that God even existed, let alone of Christianity’s efficacy. But as he rode along, Lewis continued, he “reconsidered Hegel’s philosophy of the absolute and festooned it with Berkley’s notion of the spirit.” And so it was, from this heady intellectualization that most of us can’t even understand, C.S. Lewis discovered God. When his stop came, Lewis said, he got off the bus believing that God did indeed exist. He had entered at Oxford an atheist, and disembarked at London a theist!
This was no mundane discovery for Lewis, but an earth-shattering, soul-shaking experience. As he walked through the grounds of the London Zoo, he was bombarded by what he saw. Soon, his vision was turned inward, on himself—on the sin of the world, and the sin of his own soul. He saw, he wrote, “A Zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds." For the first time in his life, perhaps, he felt called to pray-- but to whom? All the way back to Oxford that afternoon he agonized over what to do next. Finally, he wrote: "I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and [back in my room] I knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England."
From the time of his full re-conversion to Christianity the next year, C.S. Lewis would become one of the most prolific and popular apologists in the history of the Christian Church. In books like Surprised by Joy,Mere Christianity, and A Pilgrim’s Regress, he would share openly his journey of faith and his deep belief in the Christian scriptures. Later, in the Screwtape Letters, and in his radio broadcasts in England during the war, he would spread his faith further, and even become something of a household name.
The Christian imagery in The Chronicles of Narnia is quite obvious. Edmund is, of course, a Judas-like figure. The battle against the White Witch is led by a boy named Peter—the same name as the apostle who would, traditionally, carry on the work of Christ through his Church. Lucy = “light”. There is no doubt that Aslan the lion represents Jesus Christ, who, according to Christian doctrine, died as a sacrifice to God for the sins of all people and then came back to life before ascending into heaven. There are dozens and dozens of other parallels we could draw as well, had we the time.
Unlike Tolkein (also a Christian) who was oftentimes coy about Christian allusions in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, C.S. Lewis was very open about them. In 1954 Lewis explained the impetus for his work this way in a letter to some Maryland fifth graders: "I said,” he wrote them, “'Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that [Jesus], as he became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen.'" And imagine he did—much to the delight of children of all ages (Christian and non-Christian alike) who have come since.
For while Lewis was vehement in his Christianity, and outspoken in his belief in its ultimate truth, he was never doctrinaire or rigid about it. He knew that, were Christianity to triumph in human affairs, it would be not through coercion, but through the example of its love poured out upon the world.
He knew that God’s power showed itself most often not in huge and cataclysmic events—but in everyday miracles of joy and grace—that it was here along the paths of everyday—on a bus between Oxford and London; in a musty old wardrobe in a lonely, quiet attic—that we can make the most profound discoveries of the Spirit.
Narnia is a strange place—so different than the ordinary, workaday world in which most of us dwell, most of the time.
The dream and vision of Narnia speaks to that within us which yearns for something more—something more than work and business, and idle chatter and conversation, and life on the surface of things; that something more which comes only when we dive deeply into our innermost beings, and reach out fearlessly to that which lies beyond.
“Like Lewis,” it has been said, “we long for something we can’t quite name, and maybe will never satisfy. But awareness of that longing can lead to [our] feeling more alive.” [Barbara Hamilton-Holway] This longing connects us, too, to all the fellow souls with whom we share this life, and with whom we share this longing.
It is little Lucy who is the first to enter this new world (may the child within be the one to lead us to our new discoveries). She makes her great discovery by reaching out to a stranger, Mr. Tumnus, this part goat, part human faun. Mr. Tumnus cannot resist reaching out in goodness to another, even when he knows when it well might cost him dearly.
In Lucy, and in Tumnus, we see that which is truest within each of us, that which is most like the love and mercy of God: our capacity for love and caring. When we feel cut off from one another-- locked within ourselves-- isolated from the swirl of life around us—may we remember Lucy and her lessons to us: Trust; fear not; we can learn the most wondrous things from people who are not like us; maybe even from people we may not like.
The evil White Witch has put a spell on Narnia: it’s always winter there. But through grace, and through imagination and wonder, we can know the enchantment of a new—and eternal—springtime of our souls.
Narnia does not belong to any one sect, but to all of us, Christians and non-Christians alike. It is a universal homeland of the human soul.
It is a universal land of hope and dreams.
It is the universal aspiration of the human spirit for love and wonder and joy and enchantment.
May we, too, become wide awake at last to the Narnias that lie in wait for us, deep within our souls.

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