Contrary to what I suspected, I actually had quite a bit of reading time on vacation. My family wanted me to make sure everyone was aware that they were not so cruel as to deprive me of my reading/quiet/alone time even while on vacation. So while everyone else was hanging out at the pool I was wandering around until I found a secluded spot by the lake to read. It was really, really nice. So one of the books I got to read was Douglas Wilson’s What I Learned in Narnia. This book intrigued me for several reasons:
1) I love The Chronicles of Narnia. I suspect I would be a staunch Lord of the Rings fan if I had the time to read the books. The Narnia series is so much more accessible and far less intimidating than Lord of the Rings, although I think some have argued quite convincingly that LotR is a more nuanced, deep, and well-rounded Christian fantasy story than Narnia. I admit, Lewis can be very overt about his Christian message, which doesn’t bother me, but I see the point of wanting a less simplistic story. Anyways…I first read The Chronicles probably about ten years ago. And they were fun, adventurous stories. And then I’m not sure when it was that I came back to them, probably within the last five or six years, and I suddenly discovered a whole new dimension. I had always known they were Christian books, but my second time through, the themes just really clicked in my mind. I think part of it is because as I was developing as a writer, I began to think more in stories than I had before. The stories of Narnia just really resonated with me on a spiritual level. I could now relate them to Christianity in a more complete way. I kid you not, during almost every sermon I listen to, I at least once think, “oh, that’s like this scene or quote from Narnia” and then suddenly the theology makes more sense to me. So I was curious to read a book about Narnia because it is such a favorite place to me.
2) It saddens me when I hear reactions about Narnia from others that go like, “well, those are nice stories for kids” or “I don’t see why anyone would bother reading that when you could read more theological books.” Granted, there is a point where Narnia fails to convey the nitty-gritty theological details of Christianity. It isn’t like reading The Institutes of the Christian Religion. But I think especially in Calvinist circles, it helps balance the intellectual theological knowledge by offering a story that mirrors, in many ways, the themes of Christianity. I thought it would help me show others how valuable these stories can be if I read a book specifically highlighting the lessons or themes we can take away from it.
So, in my typical style, I’m not going to refer to the book, but will only mention the things which I can remember about it.
As an overall review, I greatly enjoyed the book. I was afraid it would be dry and formulaic and would drain away the joy and content of the actual story. However, Wilson showed great respect for the Narnia books as firstly stories and secondly lessons, not the other way around. You can tell that he also loves Narnia not just as useful stories but as good stories, and as all good stories do, they point us to a bigger, grander story.
Also, as a caveat, I have heard rumors that Douglas Wilson has strayed from orthodox Christian theology, particularly in the area of salvation by grace alone through Christ alone. I tried to be on the look-out for any theological errors in this book but did not see anything. On the contrary, it seemed that he only affirmed the doctrine of sola gratia. I would hope that if the book did have any doctrinal errors of that level I would have noticed it, but perhaps not. And I don’t know if his position has evolved over time, so I can’t recommend any of his other books because I don’t know if they are theologically accurate.
So, some of the topics he mentioned…
– Rank/hierarchy. This is a theme I ran across first while reading a review of one of the new Narnia movies (which, being a Narnia purist, I have not seen). The country of Narnia celebrates the dignity and respect of everyone, yet each person and creature has their own place in the structure of the society, and some are lower than others and some are higher than others. An example being Trumpkin the Dwarf in Prince Caspian. Trumpkin is skeptical that Aslan will send any aid to help them defeat the usurper King Miraz who has taken Prince Caspian’s place. Trumpkin is skeptical that Aslan even exists and certainly doesn’t think it is worth trekking across Narnia to the abandoned castle where Aslan might send the children from this world just because Prince Caspian blows a supposedly magic trumpet which may reach Aslan (if Aslan even exists). So he states his case before Prince Caspian and makes his disbelief very clear, yet when Prince Caspian decides to blow the horn anyways and then when he determines that Trumpkin should be the one to go to the ancient castle ruins, Trumpkin realizes it is his place now to obey because, well, he’s not in charge. And in the first book, when the four children end up being crowned kings and queens, Peter is made High King because he’s the oldest, but yet there is no squabbling or bickering that it is unfair he’s High King when the rest are just ordinary kings and queens. Everyone rejoices in where they are meant to be. This is a healthy response to the idea of egalitarianism where there is forced equality of rank. And this is not some kind of tyrannical determinism of your place in society but rather the acceptance of the order of creation and submission to the Creator who is the only one, after all, who knows where you really belong.
– Confession. I found this to be an interesting theme because I had not considered it much. But when I thought back to the stories, it makes perfect sense. Time after time, one of the children has done something wrong and when they encounter Aslan, he prods the story out. Maybe they’ll tell him the lie of justification they’ve been trying to convince themselves of, but that will never do with Aslan. They know he knows it isn’t the truth and Aslan will only accept the whole truth, not just a half-truth/half-lie. Just as in the Garden of Eden when God confronts Adam and Eve after the Fall, the children have a tendency to start blaming others for their wrongdoing. But Aslan will not accept this either, He forces them to confess the reality of their own responsibility and guilt. It is only after they give up trying to justify themselves, only after they give up on trying to make it okay, only after they realize their only hope is to throw themselves on the mercy of Aslan, only then are they forgiven.
– Jollification. Who doesn’t love this word? Doesn’t it just make you smile? 🙂 I think C.S. Lewis was offering a rebuttal to the “pious”, strict killjoys who disguise themselves as Christians. Why should we not rejoice and be merry? The spell of evil has been broken, good has triumphed, the richness of God’s grace has been bestowed upon the traitors, and Christmas is coming. If Christians appear to be these morbid, petty people who spend their days squeezing any last drop of happiness out of anyone else, who in the world would want to be a Christian? What sort of witness is this to world? “Yes, become a Christian so you can be miserable too!” On the contrary, speaking from my own experience, Christians who have this deep, abiding joy and contentment in life are the ones who have had the most powerful impact on my life. It isn’t wrong to be happy or joyful because, of course, we have been redeemed from eternal judgement! Our purpose now is to glory God and praise Him because of His glorious grace towards us, so there is no room for gloom and misery. The witch’s reign is over, Christ has crushed the head of the Serpent, and we are now the children of the King.