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The Chronicles of Narnia Still Grips Our Imagination, 70 Years Later

As this month marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of C. S. Lewiss 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. Were 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, butdeeper than all of thatin an imagination that can feel what it is to tremble at a lions roar.

When asked in surveys about influential books of Christian apologetics, people in the Western worldregardless of age or backgroundalmost 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 isnt the arguments for Godalthough 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, isnt trying to market us a political agenda or a line of products, but is simply, with pipe in hand, bearing witness to something trueor, rather, to Someone who is Truth. In that sense, Lewiss 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.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

C. S. Lewis

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

C. S. Lewis

Geoffrey Bles. 208 pp.

Geoffrey Bles. 208 pp.

Neil Gaimanperhaps the most respected fantasy author alive today, and by no means a Christianis one of many whove confessed feeling shaken to learn of Lewiss hidden agenda (of orthodox Christianity) while, at the same time, acknowledging their indebtedness to Lewiss 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. Were not mere cerebral networks or limbic systems, but creatures made to look for signposts.

The place of Narnia is controversial, even amongor maybe especially amongthose most acquainted with the genre of fantasy. Even Lewiss fellow Inklings knew that, compared to carefully constructed sub-creations like J. R. R. Tolkiens 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 beyondright 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 thats not in spite of the seemingly chaotic and slipshod mythologies, but because of them. After all, in this universe in which weve 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 cant 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 Narniaa strangeness bounded by the familiarity of tea and fireplaces and so onis one of the reasons it remains compelling. Much of Christian apologeticswhether modernist or fundamentalisthas sought, first, to make Christianity familiar and intelligibleeither by scholastic rationalism or by civilizational hegemony or by political ideologies of the left, right, or center. Thats not Narnia.

Lewis recognized that a major obstacle to his generation receiving the gospel wasnt 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 cant hear as good news that which they no longer hear as newsat 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.

Thats why, for many of us, tears well upno matter how many times we read these booksas we approach Aslan, shorn of his mane, dead on the Stone Table. Thats why, as much as we may pretend to hate the obnoxious Edmund, we secretly identify with him more than we want torecovering Turkish Delight addicts, all of usand why were amazed by grace when we read Aslans words about him: Here is your brotherand 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 Witchs magic is weakening.

Lewis recognized a central biblical truth about human nature. We protect our consciences. We shape our intuitions. We spin our reasonjust as we do the newsby filtering out whatever doesnt 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 couldnt seeuntil it had done its workwas 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, Gods covenant with Israel stands, but also, If those grafted onto the branch are alive, what about the root?

Narnian Christians

The Chronicles of Narnia persists not because theyre allegories to be decodedthe Stone Table is the cross, the White Witch is the Devil, The Magicians Nephew is Genesisbut 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 isnt at all a bad place to start.

But of course, this 70-year-old project isnt all we need. The professor told the children that the spare room wasnt a portal they could control. You wont get into Narnia again by that route, he said. Indeed dont try to get there at all. Itll happen when youre not looking for it. Stillat 70, the sum of a good long life, the Bible tells uswe should reflect on what weve 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.

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