Leading up to Good Friday we have the first of six short stories...
Narnia: Why stories matter
As humans, we love stories. Why? Nobody really knows. Yet research suggests that all of us – old and young – really like telling stories and hearing stories told. Given the choice between listening to a long and complicated argument or a well-crafted story, most of us know which we’d go for. Stories help us to make sense of what’s going on around us. They connect us with our past, and help us to figure out who we are, and what kind of people we ought to be.
Like most people I know, I think Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is useless as an account of Christian history. It’s biased and full of inaccuracies. But I couldn’t help noticing that I had some difficulty in putting the book down! It was so compellingly written that I kept on turning the pages. But there was something else. Because I was enjoying the story, some of Brown’s ideas began to stay in my mind. It was as if the story appealed to my imagination, and made me receptive to the rather anti-Christian message Brown wanted to convey. The way to my reason seemed to be through my imagination.
It’s a simple point, and one that we need to take to heart. Why do those traditional ‘teaching’ sermons so often fail to connect with children and young people? One reason might be that some of them are not especially good. But there’s another reason. There has been a major cultural shift away from the rational analysis of texts towards reflecting on images and stories. These have now become the gateways to understanding and insight and nobody knows this more than children. For them, it’s no longer the case that images and stories are merely useful supplements to traditional sermons Rather, they’re essential if they are to connect with what has been said. Images and stories create imaginative openings for the core themes of faith.
Retelling the story
C. S. Lewis anticipated this development years ago, and offers us resources to deal with it. During the 1940s, C. S. Lewis looked back affectionately to his childhood days. He recalled that he loved reading stories which captured his imagination. We know some of the books he read, such as the novels of Edith Nesbit, and Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin. Why, Lewis wondered, had he been so delighted with books like these, yet found Christianity to be so dull and uninteresting? Why couldn’t the Christian story be retold in such a way that it would captivate him, grasping him with its imaginative power, and making him want to know more, and become part of it? Once he became a Christian, Lewis wanted to connect the Christian faith with young people, and realised that telling stories might be one of the best ways of doing this.
Lewis decided he would retell the Christian story in a way that would use the imagination as a gateway to the soul. Conventional wisdom was to show that Christianity was true, and then persuade people that it was relevant. Lewis would do it the other way round. He would show, and then tell. He would help his readers to long to enter the wonderful world of faith, and then help them to see that they could do this. He would invent a new world that echoed the core images and stories of the Christian faith, making them accessible and showing that they were both wonderful and deeply satisfying. And so, Narnia was born.
The Narnia story helps us understand that we live in a world of competing narratives: in the end, we have to decide which is right
The Chronicles of Narnia – especially The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – have since become one of the best-loved children’s series, of all time. And as Lewis intended, they have worked their magic, opening the hearts and minds of many to the riches of the Christian faith. Lewis set out to make his readers wish there really was a world like Narnia, and then show that there was.
A better story
Lewis knew what he was doing. In his famous 1941 sermon ‘The Weight of Glory’, he reflected on how the Church could reconnect with a culture which was enthralled by the secular belief that there was nothing beyond everyday life. The only way to break this evil spell, Lewis believed, was to cast a better spell. The Church had to out-narrate secular culture, by showing that it had a better story to tell. The problem, in Lewis’ view, was that Christians had failed to appreciate the imaginative power of stories.
At the core of The Chronicles of Narnia lies Lewis’ imaginative retelling of the Christian ‘big story’ or ‘grand narrative;’ of creation, fall, redemption, and final consummation. A good and beautiful creation is spoiled and ruined by a fall, in which the creator’s power is denied and usurped. The creator then enters into the creation to break the power of the usurper, and restore things through a redemptive sacrifice. Yet even after the coming of the redeemer, the struggle against sin and evil continues, and will not end until the final restoration and transformation of all things.
When the four children enter the world of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the wardrobe, they hear stories about this mysterious land. But which story is right? Is Narnia really the realm of the White Witch? Or is she a usurper, whose power will be broken when two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve sit on the four thrones at Cair Paravel? Or is Narnia the realm of the mysterious Aslan, whose return is expected at any time?
Gradually, one story about Narnia emerges as truthful and trustworthy – the story of the great and noble lion Aslan. Each individual story of Narnia turns out to be part of this bigger story, which is expanded in the remainder of the Narnia series. This ‘grand narrative’ of interlocking stories makes sense of the riddles that the children see and experience. It allows the children to understand their experiences with new clarity and depth, like a camera lens bringing a landscape into sharp focus.
Lewis wanted us to understand that we live in a world that is shaped by stories and narratives, which tell us who we are, and what really matters. But which story can we trust? Probably the most influential story in western culture at the moment holds that we are here by accident, meaningless products of a random process. We can only invent meaning and purpose in life, and do our best to stay alive – even though there is no point to life. It’s influential. But is it right? And should we trust those who tell this story?
Joining a bigger story
There is another very different narrative, which tells us that we are precious creatures of a loving God, who has created us with something special which we are asked to do. We have the privilege of being able to do something good and useful for God in this world, and need to work out what it is. This is the story we find in the Bible, and echoed in great Christian writers down the ages. And this is the story that Lewis retells in his Narnia books. One of Lewis’ great achievements in these books is to help us understand that we live in a world of competing narratives. In the end, we have to decide which is right. And having made that decision, we then need to inhabit the story we trust. Lewis helps us to deal with both these questions.
J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is about finding a master ring that rules the other rings. Yet when this is found, it must be destroyed, because it is so dangerous and destructive. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are about finding a master story, that makes sense of all other stories – and then embracing it, because of its power to give meaning and value to life. We each have our own unique story. But our own story needs to be brought into connection with a ‘grand narrative’, a ‘big story’ which gives our new story a new importance and significance. Why? Because we realise that our story is part of something bigger. Our own story is framed by something greater, which gives us value and purpose. In one sense, faith is about embracing this ‘bigger story’, and allowing our own story to become part of it.
Lewis’ remarkable achievement in The Chronicles of Narnia is to allow his readers to inhabit this ‘big story’ – to get inside it, and feel what it is like to be part of it. Mere Christianity allows us to understand Christian ideas; the Narnia stories allow us to step inside and experience the Christian story, and judge it by its ability to make sense of things, and ‘chime in’ with our deepest intuitions about truth, beauty, and goodness.
Traditional ‘teaching’ sermons so often fail to connect with children and young people. There has been a major cultural shift away from the rational analysis of texts towards reflecting on images and stories
Lewis deftly shows how the stories of the individual children – particularly Lucy, who is in many ways the central human character of the series – become shaped by the story of Aslan. Lucy’s love for Aslan is expressed in her commitment to him. She wants to do what he wants; she wants her story to reflect who he is. As a result, Lewis speaks of Lucy feeling ‘lion-strength’ flowing within her. She has become part of the story of Aslan. But – and this is a hugely important ‘but’ – she has not lost her own identity. Her story remains her story. But it now makes more sense. Lucy has gained a sense of value and meaning. By embracing the story of Aslan as central to her story, she has gained a new sense of identity and purpose.
Changed by the story
Becoming part of this story changes us. Lewis here develops a New Testament theme which has a long history of exploration within the Christian faith. It is stated with particular clarity in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2: 19b–20). Faith involves putting to death the old self, and rising to a new life. We do not lose our individuality, rather, we gain a new identity, while remaining individuals that are loved by God.
We stop defining our own frame of reference. We come to realise that our individual story can become a trap, in which we become our own prisoners. We can get locked into ways of thinking and acting that are purely self-serving. Lucy and the other children realise that there is a ‘bigger story’, and long to become part of it. And they die to themselves, in that they relocate and recontextualise their own stories within this ‘grand narrative’. They die to themselves, and live for Aslan. They surrender a selfcentred story, and replace it with an Aslan-centred story. Not only does this make more sense of things, it gives them purpose, value, and meaning.
Christians tell the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ every Easter. The Gospels tell the story, the letters explore its meaning. Let’s make sure that we get the most out of this wonderful story of hope and transformation. Not only does it give meaning and purpose to our own lives. It can change the lives of others, by showing how their stories can become part of the greater story of a loving and living God, seen in and through Jesus Christ. We need to retell that story, and allow it to grasp the imaginations of our children and young people. Then we can begin to explain why it’s so important.
Alister McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, and author of many books, including the award-winning biography, CS Lewis: A Life