For the past two years during Advent, my church has focused on beloved works of literature in our formation classes. Given all the stress and angst, it felt good to return to familiar stories to search for new or forgotten wisdom. The first year we read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and realized that it might just as accurately be titled “An Advent Carol.” There is so much in there about darkness and light, judgment and repentance, and the confluence of time. We were entirely on Zoom that year, so we set our backdrops to Victorian London and watched clips from various cinematic adaptations. It was great fun.
Last year, we read together C.S. Lewis’ classic novel, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. By then we were back together again in-person, so we transformed our Parish Hall into a winterscape, created a faux wardrobe at the doorway, and invited children and adults to pass through to the imaginary realm of Narnia for a few weeks. We certainly weren’t the first to make this seasonal connection, and I am particularly grateful for the work of Episcopal priest and author Heidi Haverkamp in her book Advent in Narnia.
As you are almost certainly aware, Lion (as it is known for short) was the first of a series of six books by Lewis set in Narnia—a place of talking animals, fauns, centaurs, ambulatory trees, witches, and even Santa Claus. Lewis’ good friend J.R.R. Tolkien poked fun at the hodge-podge of characters and genres, but Lewis wrote the stories to entertain children, not impress university scholars. Not that these books aren’t serious. Lewis was determined to convey lasting truths about life and faith, evil and goodness, sacrifice and redemption, and the character of God. Their continued popularity demonstrates his success.
Rowan Williams has written an excellent book on the theology of Narnia, so if you want to engage or re-engage with Narnia as an adult, this is a good place to start. Williams unpacks the obvious religious ideas (the atoning death of Aslan, for example), but also more inconspicuous themes, too. And Williams doesn’t shy away from the sexism and violence that are at the heart of a few troubling moments in the stories.
Even with those scenes, I have no problem reading the Narnia series to my daughters, and I thoroughly enjoyed exploring Lion with my church. It’s hard for me to count the number of sermons in which I’ve quoted Mr. Beaver talking about Aslan (“Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”). I am grateful that children in the stories are complex protagonists who grapple with difficult moral decisions. I appreciate how the happy endings are tinged with grief, and courageous actions are costly. I love that the world of Narnia is not human-centric, and salvation involves animals and ecosystems.
Mostly, though, I love Aslan, who is the most compelling representation of Christ outside of the gospels. When so much Christian literature turns Jesus into a shell of saccharine “niceness,” Lewis’ produces a truly Christlike figure in the form of a lion. Aslan is somehow both personal and mysterious. He is utterly devoted to the Narnians, but totally beyond anyone’s control. He moves with loving purpose, but he is also unpredictable. Reading about Aslan does much to help us better understand our Lord.
For all these reasons, and more, I love going back to Narnia. My kids would say the pace is sort of slow and the dialogue is a bit old-fashioned, but the stories still resonate with them. They have Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Letters to look forward to, but Narnia is doing plenty for our spiritual imaginations right now. The fauns and beavers and dwarves have plenty to teach us—both children and adults—about the deepest mysteries of our faith. They’ve opened the door to some wonderful conversations with my girls about big things: the bottomlessness of greed, the easy path from pettiness to cruelty, the surprising identity of heroes (Reepicheep!), what stands in the way of forgiveness and reconciliation, and even the feel of the breath of God.
So today, I think I’ll break out our tattered old copy of Lion, snuggle with my girls in bed, and reread a chapter or two about the “deep magic” of our marvelous God.
“Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”