T. M. Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford, is a guest columnist this morning, since Maureen Dowd and Thomas L. Friedman are off today. In “C. S. Lewis, Evangelical Rock Star” she says C. S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” offers theological complexity, not simplicity — a chance to hang on to God in a secular age of doubt. Here she is:
In 2005, Time magazine called C. S. Lewis the “hottest theologian” of the year — 42 years after his death. That same year, a cover story in Christianity Today hailed him as a “superstar.” To this day Lewis, who published the first of his children’s books about “Narnia” in 1950, remains deeply compelling for many evangelicals, more so than for Catholics and mainline Protestants. Why?
Lewis’s remarkable combination of theological simplicity and tweedy British scholarship is no doubt one reason for his appeal. In his famous book “Mere Christianity,” adapted from a series of BBC radio talks during World War II, Lewis laid out a clear assertion of what it meant to be Christian. Molly Worthen, a historian of religion, points out that nearly a century after the Scopes trial, many evangelicals still worry that secular intellectuals regard them as country bumpkins. Christians like Lewis have helped to keep that sense of cultural inferiority at bay.
But the text for which Lewis is best known is his “Chronicles of Narnia.” And what “Narnia” offers is not theological simplicity, but complexity. The God represented in these books is not quite real (it’s fiction) and yet more real than the books pretend (that’s not a lion, it’s God). That complexity may help people to hang on to faith in a secular society, when they need a God who is in some ways insulated from human doubt about religion.
The story of Bob, a man I got to know while writing a book on evangelical belief, offers some insight here. He grew up in a strict evangelical church in Southern California, but he thought it dishonest and manipulative. He remembers seeing, as a child, videos of violent and vengeful Old Testament stories, images of people sent to hell for seemingly arbitrary reasons. He concluded that this was meant to scare people into choosing Jesus.
Bob married young — too young — and soon divorced. After that, he was no longer welcome in his church. He left for graduate school still a Christian, but with his faith in turmoil. He asked God to help him deal with his distress. Three nights later, he saw on his pillow a vision of Aslan, the lion Lewis created to represent God/Jesus in “Narnia.” Bob described Aslan as glittering gold, with a mane that moved as if it were blowing in the wind. A few months later, he had an image of Aslan tattooed on his chest — to remind him, he said, of whom God had called him to be.
What Aslan gave Bob was a sense that God was real and loved him, even though he did not trust the humans who told him all he had been taught about God. This sense that the human church isn’t always to be trusted crops up in many of the newer evangelical churches. People talk about being “church wounded” and say things like “this isn’t about church, it’s about a real God.”
In “Mere Christianity,” Lewis wrote that to pretend helps one to experience God as real. In “Narnia” he offered a way to pretend — by depicting a God who is so explicitly not a God from an ordinary human church. Aslan keeps God safe from human clumsiness and error.
What does it mean that our society places such a premium on fantasy and imagination? “No culture,” observes the child psychologist Suzanne Gaskins, “comes close to the level of resources for play provided by middle-class Euro-American parents.” In many traditional societies, children play by imitating adults. They pretend to cook, marry, plant, fish, hunt.
“Inventive pretend,” in which children pretend the fantastic or impossible (enchanted princesses, dragon hunters) “is rarely — if ever — observed in non-industrialized or traditional cultures,” Gaskins says. That may be because inventive play often requires adult involvement. Observing the lack of fantasy play among the Manus children in New Guinea, Margaret Mead noted that “the great majority of children will not even imagine bears under the bed unless the adult provides the bear.”
Westerners, by contrast, not only tolerate fantasy play but actively encourage it, for adults as well as for children. We are novel readers, movie watchers and game players. We have made J. K. Rowling very wealthy.
This suggests that we imagine a complex reality in which things might be true — materially, spiritually, psychologically. Science leads us to draw a sharp line between what is real and what is unreal. At the same time, we live in an age in which we are exquisitely aware that there are many theories, both religious and scientific, to explain the world, and many ways to be human.
Probably fiction does for us what the vision of Aslan did for Bob: it helps us to learn what we find emotionally true in the face of irreconcilable contradictions. That is what Joshua Landy, a professor of French literature, argues in “How to Do Things with Fictions”: fiction teaches us how to think about what we take to be true. In the cacophony of an information-soaked age, we need it.
If you’ve never read “The Screwtape Letters” by C. S. Lewis I heartily recommend it also.