[Rick Warren’s Ministry Toolbox, October 20, 2005]
When news came out that the first of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” was being made into major motion picture, Christians were understandably delighted. We have loved these stories for a long time. They’re the “bed-time stories” of evangelical Christianity. Most of us in pastoral ministry have read these seven short novels, maybe more than once. We’ve shared them with our children, and found more than one sermon illustration in their pages.
But what about those who have never heard them before? What about unbelievers? How will they receive this story of a kingly lion, who offers his life to amend human sin?
I had an opportunity to think about this recently when I began recording the Narnia series on tape for the blind. I am a volunteer for a closed-circuit radio station that broadcasts books, magazine articles, and news for people who are unable to read. While a similar station exists in every state (in Maryland, it’s called the “Radio Reading Network”), these worthy projects are not Christian. In fact, I was told that I could choose any book I wanted to record, except those that had an explicit religious message.
The Narnia books seemed like a good choice, then, because of their less-than-explicit message. As I read through the series again, I re-experienced the wonder that a new listener would have. The opening of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” takes us into a thoroughly believable setting, in which four children have been sent to stay in a professor’s rambling, historic country house, to get them safely away from the urban bombing of World War II. While exploring the house they find a room empty of everything except an apparently-ordinary old wardrobe. But when the youngest child, Lucy, hides in the wardrobe, and presses her way behind the hanging coats, she discovers that there is snow under her feet, and the prickly feel of branches against her face.
Lewis’ genius was to construct a story that is easy enough for a schoolchild to follow, but which an adult will find intriguing as well. As the events unfold they are just believable enough, and just wonderful enough, that any reader will be fascinated, eager to learn what happens next.
But when our unchurched neighbors go to the theaters to experience this delightful tale, they’ll be receiving something else as well: a deft re-telling of the Christian story. Of the four Pevensie children, one boy – the younger brother, Edmund – is prone to selfish and deceitful behavior. His greed and vanity make him vulnerable to the evil White Witch, who has gripped Narnia in an icy spell. She quickly makes a dupe of Edmund, and his treachery sets in motion events that require cosmic restitution. And so it is that one night the great lion, Aslan, trudges through the cold moonlight toward the Stone Table and his death.
There is more in this story that recalls the great tale of our salvation, including an indisputably real and exhilarating Resurrection. We’ll no doubt be hearing a lot about that, as secular media worry about whether this movie is “too Christian” and whether such boldly-stated faith is insensitive or impolite.
But I’d like to focus on one other aspect of the Narnia stories, which is more likely to be overlooked. It’s the humans in the story – Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. From the beginning, Lewis tells us a lot about their characters. Lucy, the first to visit Narnia, is well-mannered, kind, and always truthful. Susan, a bit older, is brave and resourceful. Peter is the natural leader, and he is always fair, and respectful of others’ feelings. Edmund is a troubled boy, however, and we see that he projects his own tendency toward selfishness and lying onto others. “To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure” (Titus 1:15).
The children have just as important a role in the story as Aslan does. You see, they fulfill an ancient prophecy in that land:
“When Adam’s flesh and Adam’s bone
Sits at Cair Paravel in throne,
The evil time will be over and done.”
In contemporary entertainment we hear almost nothing about the *character* of the characters: those who fill our movies, TV shows, and contemporary novels are expected to be simply entertaining, rather than kind or truthful or fair. Yet if you open the pages of Charles Dickens or Jane Austen or any writer from before our age, you find that the inner landscape of each individual is extremely important, and in fact, a vital thread in the plot. Much of “Pride and Prejudice” hinges on whether D’Arcy is too prideful to be a good husband. David Copperfield must mature, from being intoxicated with a silly, childlike woman to loving a woman who is noble and wise.
Earlier generations knew what we have largely forgotten, that it matters what kind of person you are. It matters if you are trying to become more Christlike every day – more fair, more kind, more honest. It matters whether you are growing into the “image and likeness” of God. It matters whether we are growing in light or darkness. “If the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:23).
In the Narnia books, the Pevensie children are not simply acted upon as if they were objects, while great spiritual forces clash above their heads. They themselves are actors in the drama. And, in a way, the whole story is for them.
Aslan lays his very heavy paw on Peter’s shoulder and says, “Come, Son of Adam, and I will show you a far-off sight of the castle where you are to be King.” Peter gazes from the hilltop to the countryside and river below, washed in the light of the setting sun.
“There was something on a little hill, shining. It was shining because it was a castle and of course the sunlight was reflected from all the windows which looked towards Peter and the sunset; but to Peter it looked like a great star resting on the seashore.
” ‘That, O Man,’ said Aslan, ‘Is Cair Paravel of the four thrones, in one of which you must sit as King. I show it to you because you are the first-born and you will be High King over all the rest.’“
The Narnia stories show us much about the spiritual battle that rages around us, and about our Savior. But it shows us something about ourselves as well: the destiny that God has in mind for each of us. We play our roles in this great drama, and prepare for that ultimate destiny, with every decision we make and every ”idle word“ we utter, as we turn toward or away from the light.