Books! We wants them, yes, precious!

Let me bring to your attention two recent books that belong in the library of every Christian college, Christian school, and Evangelical seminary—and in the personal libraries of many of their professors of English literature and theology–not to mention hordes of their students!  Not to mention yours.

First is Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2016).  Diana Glyer says, “Williams has done the impossible: he has written a highly readable overview of C. S. Lewis’s theology.  He draws from the deep well of a lifetime spent studying literature and theology and Lewis.  My understanding has been greatly enriched; yours will be too.  This book is a marvel.”  Lewis was the greatest apologist and one of the most influential Christian thinkers and writers of the Twentieth Century.  Yet until now we have not had a study of Lewis’s theology that was both comprehensive and critical, asking, “What is the theology that lies behind the Narnia books, the Space Trilogy, and the popular apologetics, and what are its strengths and weaknesses as a guide to biblical truth?”  Clearly this book meets a critical need.

Then there is An Encouraging Thought: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of J. R. R. Tolkien (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2018).  Jim Prothero writes, “This book on Tolkien is not only readable, it is profound. The counter-culture movement latched onto to The Fellowship of the Ring more than a decade after its 1954 publication and never let go. The ultimate irony is that many of those young people were looking for alternative world-views to traditional values. And all the while, Professor Tolkien was a devout believer writing stories that reflected precisely traditional Christian beliefs and values. Donald T. Williams explores all the nuances of that irony here with humor and insight.”

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was listed as the book of the century in three separate polls, and remains one of the most popular and beloved books of all time.  And it was built on the biblical worldview of its author, as he himself said, “unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”  That grounding in the Christian worldview is less obvious and in-your-face than in his friend Lewis’s books, but Williams brings it into clear focus here.  Tolkien’s vision is a lens that lets us see the Gospel as true in the real world too.  Williams is a good guide to why that is true and to what difference it makes.

Donald T. Williams (M.Div., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, PhD, University of Georgia) is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia.  The author of eleven books and countless articles, he is a border dweller, camped out on the borders between theology and literature, serious scholarship and pastoral ministry, Narnia and Middle Earth.  These books are most easily ordered from Amazon.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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Susan Pevensie: Always a Queen of Narnia?

This month LHP is highlighting some of our readers’ favorite previous posts from our authors.  We hope you enjoy them!

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Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a picture of Susan that ISN’T Anna Popplewell?

When we think of The Chronicles of Narnia, Susan is not, perhaps, the first character that comes to mind.  She is robust and relatively well developed, but she also seems to be more of a supporting character.  After all, it is Lucy who leads the children into Narnia and seems to form the strongest bond with Aslan.  Edmund is the traitor redeemed, and Peter becomes the High King.  Susan’s most unique aspect is also one of the most controversial points of The Chronicles:  She is the only one of the four Pevensie children to fall away and not make it into Aslan’s country at the end of The Last Battle.  This has upset a couple of generations of readers now, and it has led to charges of sexism against her creator, C. S. Lewis.  For many people, Susan’s fall is one of the worst points of the books; it bothers them enough that they can’t let it go.  Fortunately, there is much more to Susan and her situation than what her critics imply.

As early as Prince Caspian, we see hints of something happening to Su.  When Lucy sees Aslan, Susan knows in her heart of hearts that she is telling the truth.  She refuses to admit it, even to herself, and later feels horribly guilty about it.  At the end of the book, Susan and Peter are returned to our world where they are expected to grow up and apply all of the lessons learned in Narnia.  By the time we meet them again in The Last Battle, their paths have diverged dramatically.

When the group meets inside the stable, in Aslan’s country, Susan is notably absent.  When that fact is brought up, Susan is described as “no longer a friend of Narnia.”  Jill notes that she pays attention to “nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.  She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”  Su has even gone so far as to deny Narnia’s very existence:  “Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.”  As such, she isn’t on the train when the wreck occurs, and she isn’t granted entrance into Aslan’s country at that point. [1]

This subplot has provoked (and continues to provoke) howls of outrage.  J. K. Rowling made the comment to Time magazine that “There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that.” [2]  Phillip Pullman, who constructed an atheistic fantasy series that has been described as sort of the “anti-Narnia,” stated that,

In other words, Susan, like Cinderella, is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn’t approve of that. He didn’t like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up. Susan, who did want to grow up, and who might have been the most interesting character in the whole cycle if she’d been allowed to, is a Cinderella in a story where the Ugly Sisters win.[3]

I would argue that Rowling and Pullman have misrepresented Lewis’s point entirely.  In fact, they may well have done so for the simple reason that they “got” it all too well.  Lewis is making a comment so pointed that it has made millions of people uncomfortable, which is something we aren’t used to seeing in Narnia.  It seems to come out of the proverbial blue, and people simply react to it with hostility rather than really trying to understand it. [4]

What the book is trying to say is that sex and the emergence of femininity aren’t sufficient ends in and of themselves.  Su isn’t kept out of Narnia because she discovered sex, she is kept out because she idolized it to the point that all other things–including Aslan and Narnia itself–were placed in subjection to it.  Growing up became not simply a natural process of maturation, but rather a stylized, exclusive state of being that precluded everything else.  Worse, the idealized state of anything has no existence in reality. [5]  Susan was chasing moonshine, when the real world around her could offer her much more. Polly noted this when she remarked,

“Grown-up indeed,” said the Lady Polly.  “I wish she would grow up!  She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste the rest of her life trying to stay that age.  Her whole idea is to race to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”  [6]

Susan has not, in fact, grown up at all.  What she has done is take on an empty obsession, a false idealization of what being “grown-up” means, and that keeps her from experiencing life as a whole.  That obsession has led her away from Narnia, and not “lipstick” at all.  Lewis’s critics are mistaking a symptom for the disease.

None of this involves a denigration of women or  real, meaningful sex.  In fact, it is a very positive portrayal of a  broader, deeper form of femininity where the value of one’s soul isn’t determined by one’s social circle or sex appeal.  Those things have their places, but cannot be ends in and of themselves.

This is made doubly clear in Lewis’s depiction of Susan in The Horse and His Boy.  While far from perfect, she is shown to be completely confident in her own beauty and sexuality.  During the story, she is even considering marriage–which obviously implies an approval of sex.  So, it is clear that the Susan we see referenced in The Last Battle isn’t an inevitability; she could and in fact had taken another, better path before.

Very well, if I must. Not that she isn’t pretty cute…

Of course, much of that level of nuance is obviously lost on Lewis’s critics.  They simply see a criticism of modern conceptions of sex and maturity.  They assume that Lewis’s criticism must fit into a certain sort of mold and, if it doesn’t, they are determined to forcibly conform it to their strawman assumptions.

I think that is a normal, human reaction, by the way.  We all want to be told that “We’re OK.”  We all want to know that our wants, our desires are indeed good, right, and normal.   What Lewis is getting at is a philosophy that is directly antagonistic to modern definitions of feminism, especially its glorification of sex and female sexuality as an ultimate arbiter of meaning.  When that point is challenged, especially in a way that implies that there is something more, something greater, the reactions are naturally instinctual and visceral.  We don’t want to understand the details because, perhaps, the details may just prove us wrong. I can’t say I would necessarily respond differently were the tables turned on me– “There but for the grace of God go I!”

One final point:  Most of Lewis’s critics assign a finality to Susan’s position that simply isn’t justified.  Susan isn’t turned away at the door of the stable–she simply isn’t there when it was closed on Narnia.   There are other doors into Aslan’s country from many other worlds, including our own.  Susan did not die in the train wreck that sent the others into Aslan’s country.   As Lewis noted, “there is still plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get into Aslan’s country in the end–in her own way.” [7]

What’s more, since Lewis did not consider Narnia to be his own private domain–he regularly encouraged his younger correspondents to write Narnia stories of their own–perhaps the final word has yet to be written on Susan.  While I doubt the Lewis estate would tolerate the publication of such a story these days, perhaps someone who understands what really happened to Susan should write it nonetheless.  Lewis left the door open to Susan.  It is now up to our own imaginations–not his–to take her through it.

And so, “Further up and further in!”

 

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, (New York:  Harper-trophy, 2004), 154.
[2] http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1083935,00.html
[3] http://www.crlamppost.org/darkside.htm
[4] Of course, applying Pullman’s own method to his own statements, I might ask why he himself is so biased against “ugly” women that he apparently objects to them “winning” on occasion.  In fact, I am quite disturbed by his use of bigoted visual stereotypes regarding facial structure and arbitrary gravitational measurement, when he should be celebrating the empowerment of a traditionally downtrodden and forgotten underclass.
[5] To illustrate this tendency, just think of Christmas Day (or some other event that you hold dear).  The time we are in never seems to be “as real” or “as perfect” as times past. Worse, our idealized memory often distracts us from our enjoyment of a perfectly good present.
[6] Lewis, The Last Battle, 2004.
[7]  Letter to Martin, 22 January 1957, Letters to Children, (New York:  Touchstone, 1995), 67.

https://lanternhollow.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/newrule5.gif?w=239&h=27&h=27

 

Meditations with C. S. Lewis: Successful Stupidity

C. S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was also one of the most profound thinkers of twentieth century Christianity.  Along with J. R. R. Tolkien, he has inspired millions of people, include all of the authors at Lantern Hollow Press.  On Sundays we would like to take a moment to offer up a little Lewis for your consideration.

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“Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.”  The Magician’s Nephew (126)

We forget that the we ourselves are the most important ingredient in the making of an idiot.  That usually means that we are more effective in making idiots our of ourselves rather than of others.

Of course, I’m not making any particular statement here about the state of education in general.*  There is a significant difference between “ignorance” and “stupidity.”  The former is a simple lack of knowledge about a particular subject or subjects.  That can be be caused by influences external to ourselves that we may not have control over.  The latter, on the other hand, is generally willful in some way.  It implies that the requisite knowledge to address a situation is at least available, but the person has somehow failed to do the right thing.  It is therefore possible to be ignorant without being stupid, and to bear no responsibility for it.  On the other hand, when we are being stupid, we are almost always ignorant and it is almost always our own fault.

In the character of Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew (to whom the quote above was applied) we have a brilliant example of stupidity in action.  He is perfectly capable of following what is going around him, but he chooses to understand only what suits him.  He has decided that he is, in fact, one of the “profound students and great thinkers and sages” and a powerful magician (18).  That presupposition renders him unable to see truths about himself that are very plain to everyone else–that he is really a doddering old coward, a greedy fool, and a ridiculous knave.  He is oblivious to his cowardice in forcing Digory to rescue Polly and deludes himself into thinking that the witch could fall in love with him.  Is it any surprise, then, that when he arrives in Narnia at its creation, he succeeds in making himself “stupider” than he really is?  As a result, he not only misses out on a tremendous adventure, he goes down in Narnian history as the least of all men–and in human history this “profound student, great thinker, and sage” is remembered not at all.

I’m afraid to ask myself how often do I follow Andrew Ketterley’s example.  Often enough, I have no doubt.  Lewis is reminding us that we should do all we can to see ourselves, the world around us, and how we relate to it was as much clarity as we can muster,  especially if we don’t think we’ll like what we see.

After all, I am “stupid” enough already–I need go no further!

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*Were you to ask, I could give you an earful.  In fact, I will in a few more weeks.

Click here for the entire run of “Meditations with C. S. Lewis” so far.  Interested in more about C. S. Lewis?  Check out Passing Through the Shadowlands–an extended project where I am blogging through his life in letters, essays, and books.

References:

  • The Magician’s Nephew.  New York:  Collier Books, 1974.

Meditations with C. S. Lewis: The Deep Magic and the Human Mind

C. S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was also one of the most profound thinkers of twentieth century Christianity.  Along with J. R. R. Tolkien, he has inspired millions of people, include all of the authors at Lantern Hollow Press.  On Sundays we would like to take a moment to offer up a little Lewis for your consideration.

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[T]hough the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still that she did not know.  Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time.  But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation.

–Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

One pre-requisite of any religion worth my time and effort is that it must be able to blow my mind, to provide me with insights that no mere human invention could.  In order to do that, the object of belief must, by definition, transcend anything that intellect could obviously produce.*  It is that fact about Christianity, and its Narnian equivalent, that Aslan is alluding to here.

The problem for any of the purely secular religions–including all the variations of scientism, atheism, and secular humanism–is that they are limited by the very real shortcomings of the human mind, since we are dependent wholly on ourselves for their formulation.  A purely naturalistic intellect and the evidence it observes can only take us as far as the edge of all possible human knowledge (to assert otherwise is to make the claim in blind faith and to imagine something frankly akin to a supernatural god).  We know that human knowledge, while impressive to creatures like us, is not and never could be infinite.  We are severely limited to the few years allotted our short lives and, were we to somehow extend them, we would still be bound by the realities of our position inside time and space.  Even if I lived forever, I could never know everything, especially things that happened before I came along or that fell outside the purview of time itself.  In the words of Hamlet, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Indeed, there are more things out there than philosophy or science ever could dream of, even in theory–and that is saying something.**

The Christian God, quite explicitly, transcends both Time and Space.  Genesis tells of God hovering over the deeps when there are no words to truly describe what He knew.  With Him was Christ, the Word, through whom “all things were made.”  As such, the power and majesty of God and Christ emerge as not only believable but what we should expect to see if Christianity is actually what it claims to be.  This stands in sharp contrast to so many other early religions, where the gods are really little more than exalted, petty men and women, squabbling with themselves and with humans for pieces of a self-created pie.

Of course, it isn’t my purpose here to convince anyone of the essential Truth of particular facts–those are discussions for another time and place where space isn’t so limited.  I am merely attempting to say that on this one point–the sheer size and majesty of the God to which Lewis alludes–makes good sense indeed.

In a few short words, then, Lewis has pointed us to precisely the sort of God I would expect to find as the mastermind behind Time itself.  In comparison, the vaunted might of the human intellect seems suitably small.

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*It must also exist.  While I’ve never been swayed by his famous argument, I would agree with St. Anselm on that much.

**That said, I must stick up for the many, many amazing things that we can know and are still learning through the very good, very useful pursuit of science.  In the end, though, the more we discover, the more we realize how much there is still to learn!  All of human experience, which is much more vast than the tiny slice we’ve collected and call “human knowledge” is but the blink of the cosmic eye.  The effect of all this should be humbling, to those not drunk on the tiny draught of understanding of which we as a species have so far partaken.

Click here for the entire run of “Meditations with C. S. Lewis” so far.  Interested in more about C. S. Lewis?  Check out Passing Through the Shadowlands–an extended project where I am blogging through his life in letters, essays, and books.

Meditations with C. S. Lewis: Narnia, rightly!

C. S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was also one of the most profound thinkers of twentieth century Christianity.  Along with J. R. R. Tolkien, he has inspired millions of people, include all of the authors at Lantern Hollow Press.  On Sundays we would like to take a moment to offer up a little Lewis for your consideration.

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There is a simmering debate into which every mere Lewisian descends at some point or other during the course of their life:  What is the “best” way to read the Chronicles of Narnia?  Should we read them in the order they were published or in chronological order according to the actual timeline of Narnia?  Lewis himself weighed in on that question in a letter to response to one of his young pen pals:

I think I agree with your order for reading the books [the chronological one] more than with your mother’s [who thought the published order was intentional].  The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks.  When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more.  Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn’t think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last.  So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone reads them.  I’m not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published.  I never keep notes on that sort of thing and never remember dates.

Letters to Children

In the end, readers will likely glean something from either approach.  It is far easier to get a real sense of the growth and history of Narnia if we read chronologically, but also, perhaps, a unique insight into Lewis’s own mind and life to read them in the order they were published.

In either case, the journey is more than justified.  “Further up and further in!”

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Click here for the entire run of “Meditations with C. S. Lewis” so far.  Interested in more about C. S. Lewis?  Check out Passing Through the Shadowlands–an extended project where I am blogging through his life in letters, essays, and books.