As this month marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Christians would do well to ask whether The Chronicles of Narnia might show us the way to address the generations to come. Narnia persists in our imaginations because Lewis knew something about us that we sometimes forget. We’re not mere cerebral networks or limbic systems, but creatures made to look for signposts. The gospel, then, addresses us not just with logical reason or practical wisdom or enlightened self-interest, but—deeper than all of that—in an imagination that can feel what it is to tremble at a lion’s roar.
When asked in surveys about influential books of Christian apologetics, people in the Western world—regardless of age or background—almost always include Mere Christianity near the top of the list. And that’s true no matter how many chin-stroking contrarians say “Well, actually” to its arguments. For many of us shaped by Mere Christianity, though, the most important thing about the book isn’t the arguments for God—although those are sound and have withstood their critics like an eagle against a child.
For many, Mere Christianity resonates because of the written voice of the author. It’s a tone that, unlike the cynicism of modern religion, isn’t trying to market us a political agenda or a line of products, but is simply, with pipe in hand, bearing witness to something true—or, rather, to Someone who is Truth. In that sense, Lewis’s most important contributions in persuading skeptics or reassuring wavering Christians come not, first, from his training as an Oxford classicist but from his experience guiding children through a spare room, past a lamppost, and on into Cair Paravel and beyond.
Neil Gaiman—perhaps the most respected fantasy author alive today, and by no means a Christian—is one of many who’ve confessed feeling shaken to learn of Lewis’s “hidden agenda” (of orthodox Christianity) while, at the same time, acknowledging their indebtedness to Lewis’s magical world. “The weird things about the Narnia books for me was that mostly they seemed true,” he wrote. “These were reports from a real place.”
The reason Narnia persists in our imaginations is that Lewis knew something about us that we sometimes forget. We’re not mere cerebral networks or limbic systems, but creatures made to look for signposts.
The “place” of Narnia is controversial, even among—or maybe especially among—those most acquainted with the genre of fantasy. Even Lewis’s fellow Inklings knew that, compared to carefully constructed sub-creations like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Narnia was a mess from the moment Lucy walks through the wardrobe. Jewish and Christian cosmologies merged with Greek, Roman, and Norse mythologies and beyond—right up to Father Christmas.
And yet, not only has Narnia persisted for 70 years in popular culture, but it tends to persist with those who love it across a lifetime. Perhaps that’s not in spite of the seemingly chaotic and slipshod mythologies, but because of them. After all, in this universe in which we’ve come to see that time and space are relative, that light can be both particle and wave, that most of what makes up the cosmos is maybe “dark matter” we can’t even picture, can we say that the “real place” we know feels consistent and predictable to us? It’s a strange universe we inhabit.
Surprised by Joy
The strangeness of Narnia—a strangeness bounded by the familiarity of tea and fireplaces and so on—is one of the reasons it remains compelling. Much of Christian apologetics—whether modernist or fundamentalist—has sought, first, to make Christianity familiar and intelligible—either by scholastic rationalism or by civilizational hegemony or by political ideologies of the left, right, or center. That’s not Narnia.
Lewis recognized that a major obstacle to his generation receiving the gospel wasn’t that the gospel was too mysterious to them, but that it was too familiar. The Lion of Judah seemed tame; the biblical narrative was confused with a respectable cultural script. And people can’t hear as good news that which they no longer hear as news at all.
“But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass at Sunday school associations one could make them for the first time in their real potency,” Lewis wrote. “Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”
Lewis recognized a central biblical truth about human nature. . . . By walking outside the protected places, we can be surprised by joy.
That’s why, for many of us, tears well up—no matter how many times we read these books—as we approach Aslan, shorn of his mane, dead on the Stone Table. That’s why, as much as we may pretend to hate the obnoxious Edmund, we secretly identify with him more than we want to—recovering Turkish Delight addicts, all of us—and why we’re amazed by grace when we read Aslan’s words about him: “Here is your brother—and there is no need to talk to him about what is past.” Why can hope still well up in people’s psyches, even on their deathbeds, when they think of the words, “Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.”
Lewis recognized a central biblical truth about human nature. We protect our consciences. We shape our intuitions. We “spin” our reason—just as we do the news—by filtering out whatever doesn’t fit our self-crafted image. But, by walking outside the protected places, we can be surprised by joy. The prophet Nathan told the story of the ewe lamb because he wanted not just to reason with David but to emotionally involve him in a narrative the king couldn’t see—until it had done its work—was about him. And, of course, Jesus speaks to us in stories and images and parables, not so that we can map out the propositions or boil them down to their moral applications, but because “A man had two sons” reaches us at a deeper creaturely level than the words “Forgiveness is good.” Paul does the same by refusing to simply say, “God’s covenant with Israel stands,” but also, “If those grafted onto the branch are alive, what about the root?”
The Chronicles of Narnia persists not because they’re allegories to be decoded—the Stone Table is the cross, the White Witch is the Devil, The Magician’s Nephew is Genesis—but because they take us to unexpected places and cause us to rehearse what it is to feel true things, as though we were feeling them for the first time. And these stories persist because they have the patience to wait, like a seed fallen in winter ground, for the snow of our psyches to start to melt and for the wind of the Spirit to blow where he will. In a secularizing age, this isn’t at all a bad place to start.
But of course, this 70-year-old project isn’t all we need. The professor told the children that the spare room wasn’t a portal they could control. “You won’t get into Narnia again by that route,” he said. “Indeed don’t try to get there at all. It’ll happen when you’re not looking for it.” Still—at 70, the sum of a good long life, the Bible tells us—we should reflect on what we’ve learned from Lewis the storyteller about a gospel that can grip the imagination. And we can walk “further up and further in,” as Narnian Christians in a Screwtape world.