The Guideposts senior editor explains the Christian theory behind Laura Miller's The Magician's Book.
“A convincing attempt to rescue Aslan from the Christian imagination and embed him where he has always belonged—the human imagination,” writes author Tom Bissell on the back cover. Eh? Come again? Rescue Aslan? From—what do you call it—the Christian imagination? What on earth does that mean? What kind of book is this?
Actually, it’s a very good book, but wrong in ways that illustrate perfectly how dumb most of us are when we try to talk about faith. Miller, a professional book reviewer, writes lucidly of her on-again, off-again, sort-of-on-again love affair with the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis’ beloved books for children.
Miller first read The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe in second grade, and loved the Narnia books until, in her early teens, she discovered their Christian themes. She rejected Narnia—along with the “guilt-mongering and tedious” Christianity of her youth—seemingly for good.
Much later, as an adult, she tried the Narnia books again and, after researching deeply into Lewis’ biography and intellectual life, made her peace with the books by concluding that they are less Christian than is often supposed, or at least that they spring from a richness of reading and imagination in Lewis that ranges far beyond the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.
Fair enough. She’s right, to a point. Narnia is only intermittently a Christian allegory. And it is filled with the stuff of Lewis’ astonishingly capacious mind—Greek and Latin literature, medieval and Renaissance romances, Norse myths and a host of strange, usually ugly, prejudices (e.g., against modern education, people with dark skin and vegetarians).
Here’s where Miller is wrong, though. She presumes there is a difference between what she calls “the Christian symbolism” of Narnia and whatever she so loved as a child reader.
Lewis did not write the Narnia books to cleverly disguise Christian “doctrines” in an enticing story. He wrote them desiring what Miller desired as a child—what she still desires on the last page of her book when she writes of the magic of reading, “the whole new world” opened by a good book.
Lewis wanted that new world to be one where his Christianity made sense—where sacrificial love triumphs over selfish deception and where children, like the rest of us, muddle through moral choices and discover that life is largest and sweetest when truth and goodness meet.
Strip Narnia of those elements and it is no longer Narnia. Rescue Aslan from the “Christian imagination” and he becomes, as a Narnian might put it, a tame lion. Not even a talking beast.
Miller writes that she “never believed in Christianity as fully as I believed in Narnia, and this was largely because Christianity as I knew it offered such a drab, grinding, joyless view of life.” There—that, in a nutshell, is why our culture is so dumb about faith.
Anyone even vaguely hostile or indifferent toward faith thinks they know what faith is. They scribble a portrait culled from miserable childhood memories or news stories about whacky, hectoring Christians. They shake their heads at violent fundamentalists and fume at creationists’ inane objections to evolution (I fume, too). And they say, “There’s your Christian imagination. Surely anything enduringly good, like Narnia, is different from that.”
It is different. Because those things, those caricatures, are not faith. The longing engendered by Narnia is faith. The “liberation and delight” Miller finds there is faith. The hope that such delight is real—a hope so powerful, Miller as a child was “pretty sure the misery of not getting it will kill me”—is faith.
If there is such a thing as the “Christian imagination,” it is simply this: the decision to take Miller’s powerful desire for “a whole new world” seriously, to consider the possibility that it points toward something more real than a lifetime of reading.
Until everyone, believer and nonbeliever alike, acknowledges that this rich, mysterious, interior movement of the whole person is what we talk about when we talk about faith—well, we’ll continue to waste our time with useless phrases like “the Christian imagination.” Not to mention rescue expeditions for lions who need no rescuing.
Jim Hinch is a senior editor at GUIDEPOSTS. Reach him at [email protected].