The upcoming Desiring God National Conference is focused on C.S. Lewis, “The Romantic Rationalist.” At the conference, Joe Rigney, Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College & Seminary, will speak on the topic of living like a Narnian. In preparation for his presentation, Joe developed the idea into a book on how Lewis’ Narnia can be used in discipleship.
Live Like A Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis’s Chronicles has now become my favorite “commentary” on Narnia, maybe because it’s not a commentary strictly speaking, but an exploration of Narnian virtue and how it applies to life. Joe was gracious enough to answer some questions about his book, the Narnia series and how the virtues on display in these books can be transformative for children.
Trevin: Some may look at us having this conversation and ask, why would a grown-up write a grown-up book about stories intended for children. What would you say to that?
Joe: I think the question is whether the stories are truly intended only for children. Lewis and his friend Tolkien were both of the mind that the association of fairy tales with children was purely a modern (and misleading) phenomenon. Lewis went so far as to say that a children’s story that is only enjoyable to children is a lousy children’s story.
A good story, a true story, a beautiful story will have layers and depths to it, the kind that can only be appreciated as one matures and grows throughout life. A child, of course, will be oblivious to many of these layers, but this just means that the child will have new things to enjoy as they grow up.
To put it another way, our appreciation of stories ought to be a matter of addition (maybe even multiplication), rather than exchange. As we grow, we shouldn’t trade away the simple pleasures we had as children; we should simply add new pleasures, and discover layers to old pleasures, as we change and grow. That’s certainly been my experience with Narnia. I find new things to love every time I read them.
Trevin: Regarding children who read Narnia, you write:
“Like John the Baptist, Lewis and his cast of Narnians will have prepared the way [for Jesus].”
What role does good fiction have in our spiritual formation, and why should we learn to “breathe Narnian air?”
Joe: Good fiction — by which I mean fiction that reflects in some way the truth, goodness, and beauty of the world that God made — is helpful for children because as human beings, we are imitative creatures all the way down. In his little book on education (The Abolition of Man), Lewis rightly argues that the goal of education ought to be to train students in the appropriate responses to the “givenness” of the world. In other words, the world simply is a certain way, and we ought to respond to the world with affections that are appropriate to the worth and value that we see.
One of the fundamental ways that children learn how they ought to respond to good and evil, beauty and ugliness, truth and lies, is through the faithful modeling of older people. My argument (following Lewis) is that we can learn to imitate properly not only through living examples, but through fictional ones as well.
In fact, Lewis went so far as to argue that fantasy has a peculiar quality about it — what Tolkien calls its “arresting strangeness,” or unreality. The fact that fantasies and fairy tales are one step removed from reality means that they are able, in Lewis’s words, to “steal past the watchful dragons” and allow the truth about God and Christ and the Christian life to appear for the first time in their true potency.
In short, it’s good for children (and adults) to breathe Narnian air because the Narnian stories display through imaginative fiction and fairy tale the way the world truly is. Here is courage and bravery in its shining glory. Here is honesty and truth-telling in its simplicity and profundity. Here is treachery in all its ugliness. Here is the face of Evil. Here also is the face of God.
When we are initiated into virtue and godliness in this way, then, when we encounter Ultimate Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the person of Jesus Christ, we’ll be well-prepared to embrace him, since, as Lewis says, we will in some measure resemble him already.
Trevin: You believe the Narnia books include subtle attacks on progressivism, including the tyranny that results when the person in power believes he or she is acting for the good of those who are under them. What are some examples of progressivism in the book, and how did Lewis counter them?
Joe: This is a good example of something that children are largely oblivious to, but which Lewis put in the stories so that they would be shaped anyway. Lewis was concerned about the statist tendencies that were gaining prominence in his own day. Readers interested in Lewis’s thoughts on progressivism, statism, and other modern idolatries should consult The Abolition of Man, That Hideous Strength, and a few of his essays in God in the Dock (“The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” “Is Progress Possible?” and “Delinquents in the Snow”).
Lewis was particularly worried about the way that progressives placed themselves outside the bounds of ordinary humanity and traditional morality in their attempt to reshape society and what it means to be human. He saw the great potential for evil in the utopian dreams of scientific planners.
This progressivism was bound up with theories of government in which the state “exists not to protect our rights but to do good or make us good.” He thought that this statism — which is so integral to the progressive mindset — was fundamentally at odds with what he called “the freeborn mind.”
Of course, explaining the intricacies of progressivism, statism, and scientism to children is silly (and boring). So instead, he includes snapshots of these worldviews and depicts them in a negative (but accurate) light, so that children learn to be suspicious of that sort of people when they encounter them as they grow up.
The most prominent examples are the Scrubb family (pay attention to the little details that Lewis gives about Eustace’s parents), Experiment House, and the pragmatic evil of Uncle Andrew and Empress Jadis. And we can’t forget the cowardly and regulations-obsessed Governor Gumpas of the Lone Islands. He is the Narnian counterpart to Lewis’s description of the bureaucratic evil of the devils in The Screwtape Letters.
In part two of our discussion, Joe tells me why I’m wrong about The Horse and His Boy, why it is important to read The Chronicles of Narnia in publication order, and how the series helped him through a time of doubt and depression.