December 10, 2005

A Lesson From the Narnia Chronicles

With the high interest in the C. S. Lewis story The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe the Adventist Review presents the following Web exclusive commentary as a service to our readers. --Editors

capThe story might as well begin ?Once upon a time . . .?

Four British children, two girls and two boys, have come to the beautiful English countryside because their parents want them out of harm?s way. It is World War II and the cities are being bombed nightly. The children have been sent to live with an eccentric and forbidding man known as ?the professor? and his dour housekeeper in his rambling country estate.

1548 swanson linkOne rainy afternoon the children decide to play hide and seek to alleviate their boredom. While Peter, the eldest, counts to 100 with eyes covered, the other three scramble through the house in search of the perfect hiding place. They have been warned by the housekeeper against such behavior. But they are, after all, children.

In a remote and otherwise empty room, Lucy, the youngest, discovers an elaborately carved wardrobe draped by a large sheet. The perfect hiding place! She pulls the sheet to the floor and creaks open the door. A bright light radiates from behind the garments hanging inside. Awestruck, she picks her way through the clothing toward the light and bursts through them into a cold, blinding, snow-covered landscape?a whole new world: Narnia.

Later, when Lucy?s three siblings step into Narnia for the first time, her elder sister Susan, spellbound, breathes one word: ?Impossible!?

Yes?and no.

For centuries Christians have disagreed over what to do about ?Once upon a time.? What possible benefit, if any, can there be for such stories? Should we shun them entirely?

1548 page30The creator of the imaginary world of Narnia, of course, is author C. S. Lewis, probably best described as Christianity?s most articulate and popular apologist of the twentieth century. He introduced to the modernist world arguments for Christianity that could stand up to the most rigorous rational thinking. His Mere Christianity is a classic. But he also explored the Gospel vision through some of his other writings such as the seven books comprising The Chronicles of Narnia.

Certainly these seven books cannot be dismissed as merely an extended fairy tale for children. Its author addressed this directly in his dedication of the first book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, to his goddaughter, Lucy Barfield: ?I wrote this story for you,? he says, ?but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.? 1

A fairy tale is a culturally universal way of exploring that part of human existence that transcends the literal and everyday. We live in a natural and a supernatural existence, and this God-given use of our imaginations expresses the deepest concerns and loftiest hopes of children and adults.

1548 swansonThe prophet Nathan used just such imagination in presenting to King David the elegantly clever fable of the ewe-lamb (2 Sam. 12:1-4). Gideon?s youngest son Jotham, faced with a similarly delicate situation, began a story with ? ?Once upon a time the trees decided to elect a king . . .? ? (Judg. 9:8, NLT). And, of course, Jesus? imaginative, non-literal stories are so organic to Western culture that many people today refer to them without any knowledge of where they?ve come from: ?the prodigal son,? ?the lost sheep,? ?the salt of the earth.?

Why does Scripture often resort to the fictional?rather than the literal?presentation of truth? George MacDonald, to whom C. S. Lewis often attributed literary inspiration and indebtedness, offers this: ?There may be more truth in a parable than in a whole biography.?2

What should Christians do when they discover that they may be entering the land of ?Once upon a time?? In an important?and literal?sense, we?re already living in such a land. It is comprised of a geography that is both physical and spiritual, both immediate and transcendent. We are living in a story that has a brilliant beginning, a cataclysmic middle, and a thrilling conclusion.

When we recognize the reality and the gravity of this plotline, the question rises desperately to our lips: ? ? ?How can we then live?? ? ? (Ezek. 33:10, NKJV). Scripture?and, to a lesser degree, The Chronicles of Narnia?answer this question in remarkable unison.

1. (New York: Collier Books, 1950), p. iii, emphasis supplied.
2. The Laird?s Inheritance (Bloomington, Minn.: Bethany House, 1987) p. 332.

Gary Swanson is associate director of the General Conference Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department.