The Rebellious Privacy of God: Rowan Williams on Narnia in “The Lion’s World”
I’d heard good things of this book: Rowan Williams’ surprisingly readable appreciation of CS Lewis’ Narnia, The Lion’s World. It seemed appropriate to move on to this having relished Francis Spufford’s recreation of his childhood delight in Narnia. And there are loads of good things about it for he is simply seeking to be an exegete of Lewis’ creativity. I especially appreciated this comment on how the whole experiment works (and thus why it is inappropriate to squeeze details too much into an allegorical mould).
But in spite of everything, he is not just trying to ‘translate’ Christian doctrine; he is trying to evoke what it feels like to believe in the God of Christian revelation, and his portrayal of Aslan is an extremely daring essay in bringing to the foreground what is obscured by a too habitual and too easy stress on solidarity. (p27)
By ‘stress on solidarity’ here, Williams is referring to our glib tendency to empasize the immanence of God (especially through the incarnation) at the expense of his transcendence (despite the occasional alienness of the incarnation as at the Transfiguration or the Calming of the Storm).
God the Rebel
As an example of how Lewis crafts his ‘daring essay’, Williams offers this brilliant insight:
Aslan may be the rightful king of Narnia, but he makes his first appearance as a rebel against the established order. … If we think back to what I suggested were Lewis’s basic aims in the story, we can see that he is introducing us to a God who, so far from being the guarantor of the order that we see around us, is its deadly enemy. (p50)
It is a consistent theme in Lewis. The truth of God is found in rebellion against the oppressive clichés of the world (p51)
This is a salutary reminder of the lowly status both of Christ during his life and the church in its first centuries of existence. Before Constantine pitched up, to be Christian was to be de facto a misfit, potentially subversive and perhaps even a political threat. While true in many parts of the contemporary world, it’s not something we’ve really come to terms with in the West for a long time. Perhaps that time is coming. And as it does, our appreciation of the Lamb who is the Lion will only deepen in dependence. For without that, hope is not possible.
But this does not mean we are ourselves lacking culpability. Williams is very clear that Lewis also points the finger back at the human heart as an integral part of the order against which Aslan rebels.
But Lewis is taking the opportunity of striking a blow against that over-optimistic humanism which he saw as the greatest corporate self-deceit of the age. (p92)
An aspect of this is our sheer delusion:
Lewis echoes the insight of Bishop Butler, the great eighteenth century moralist who saw the greatest and most dangerous delusion of human agents as the belief that the consequences of my actions shall be as I please…. What is devilish… is the illusion that we can somehow control reality by denying it. (p67)
For Aslan controls the order of the world (despite appearances sometimes). And when Aslan begins to be recognised for who he is, as, for example, Lucy consistently does, we are see ourselves as we truly are (both negatively and positively).
… putting humanity in its place is an important aspect of the Narnia stories – both in the obvious negative sense of puncturing human self-confidence and illusory optimism and in the positive sense of reaffirming the unique role of humanity in the history not only of our universe but also of other worlds. Knowing the truth about ourselves, as individuals and as a human race, involves being able to see where we actually are in relation to Creator and Creation. (p96)
Spot on. Calvin couldn’t have put it better himself (ho ho).
God in Private
But what really struck me forcefully is how gently Aslan deals with those who come back to him, when he does it in private.
It’s interesting – I’m all for testimonies in church. In fact they’re crucial. They prevent theological concerns getting preserved in formaldehyde by rooting them in mundane reality and human pain.
But are there occasions when some spiritual experiences should remain private? I remember years ago the late great John Chapman talking about the strange terms of Paul’s boasting in 2 Cor 12, which focuses more on his weaknesses than his ecstatic experiences. Chappo simply made the point that sharing one’s spiritual highs is not necessarily that helpful, since God doesn’t promise the same to all. Doing so can provoke unnecessary insecurity or jealousy. He simply said, ‘I rejoice and thank God for you and his grace to you; but please don’t tell me more!’ I think there was real godly wisdom in that.
Now I can think of all the sorts of ways that people will counter that with – I’m not so concerned with that for now. Simply to ponder this issue of whether somethings should remain private (not least because they might be indescribable in the first place!). Williams makes this point when Puzzle the Donkey encounters Aslan at the end of the Last Battle, having clearly done wrong.
Like Edmund, Puzzle has been an agent of real catastrophe and suffering; there is no way in which his complicity can be overlooked, any more than with Edmund. But here, at the narrative climax of a particularly intense series of episodes, this agent of deception and manipulation is welcomed and absolved – once again, out of earshot, because the most important and transforming words Aslan can say are regularly out of earshot. … We can’t be sure, but I suspect that Lewis is here reinforcing a point familiar from St Augustine – that most sins are actually not dramatic acts of defiance but a half-conscious and certainly half-witted drift toward falsehood or a course reluctantly undertaken out of feebleness and cowardice. Aslan does not despise any of this, nor does he make light of it; he simply deals with it. (p80 – my emphasis)
Thank God he does ‘simply deal with it’ – we just don’t always need to know all the specific details, even if the overarching means is by the gloriously grace-filled gospel.
When he becomes He
But let me finish with Williams’ closing paragraph, one which gave me goosebumps all by itself.
The reader is brought to Narnia for a little in order to know Aslan better in this world. All that we have been trying to do in these pages is to make sure that the doors between the worlds are in reasonably good order, so that we may share that slowly flowering awareness of something constantly discovered and rediscovered and always new. Stella Gibbons, in an essay I have quoted several times, speaks of the shock of finding on the last page of Last Battle, ‘the great lion… given a capital H – “and as He spoke to them, He no longer looked like a lion.”’: ‘pure shock, as if cold water had spouted up from the page.’ Lewis could have asked no better reaction than such a shock, the shock of unexpected homecoming as the Lion’s world is revealed once and for all as our own. (p144)