Tuesday, October 1st, 2013
2 October 2013: The audio of my presentation is available online now.
Last weekend Desiring God held its 2013 National Conference–The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis. Friday afternoon was filled with 10-minute Small Talks. I used my slot to think out loud about my introduction to Narnia and the effect in my life.
I’m the oldest of 10 children. Of course, in a household that size, there were plenty of responsibilities for all of us kids. Any one of us standing still with empty hands was a target for the dreaded, “Oh, you’re not doing anything. . .” followed by something to do.
Fortunately for me, it was understood that homework was a priority. That became my retreat—not mainly for doing homework which I finished quickly, but for reading. My fat, boring history book was a cover—literally—for the library book of the day, and the skirt of my chair was the screen to hide my contraband pleasure shoved hurriedly under the chair when I heard parental footsteps headed my way.
From the time I could read, I did. I can still tell you most of my favorite books from the library shelf at the back of each grade’s classroom in our country grammar school—The Little Girl with Seven Names . . . Little Lord Fauntleroy . . . Caddie Woodlawn—stories I could sit down and enjoy again today. They must have been good books, because as Lewis said,
A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.
But no Narnia. I hadn’t heard of C. S. Lewis or Narnia. God was saving me from Narnia. The hour had not yet come. I think that at that time, I would have gulped down each Narnia story at one sitting and then raced on to something new.
Then came the day in 1965 when Narnia’s hour was drawing nigh. I stood on one side of a door, and waved goodbye to my parents and brothers and sisters. Then I turned and walked through that open portal and disappeared from their sight and was transported—not quite instantly—from the Atlanta airport to O’Hare—my first ever flight.
There in college, I entered a world I had never known—a story I had never lived. Almost all the characters were close to my age. Once in a while, I heard my parents’ distant voices calling into my fantasy world, mediated faintly through an invisible agent whose magic incantation was “number please” (no dial phones yet in my small hometown and phone numbers of just 3 or 4 digits). They were far away.
But in my every day story? I wrote the plot. Yes, there were class schedules and professors, but I chose when, where, how, and whether to obey. I was free.
My problem, though I didn’t realize it, was that I didn’t know who I was in this new story and what role I played. I didn’t know what character I was.
I fell without much thought—and certainly no effort—into being Peter Pan. I reveled in this life. Fun. Friends. Freedom. No responsibility. My motto was “I don’t want to grow up.” I thought that was cute.
So, for example, if the night is sweltering and there’s cool water spraying up right there in the center of the campus lawn, why not dance with friends in the fountain—until the oldest college trustee hobbles up and ends it furiously, “What are you? A bunch of existentialists?”
Francis Schaeffer had been on campus one of the first weeks of my freshman year. The main thing I took away from his daily chapel messages was that he was the first person I’d seen in real life wearing knickers, and that when other people would have said pseudo-intellectualism (if they even used that word), he said suede-o-intellectualism. I had pretty much no idea what he was talking about, except that existentialism—whatever that was—was not good. I didn’t realize until later that Peter Pan could be the poster boy for existentialism.
(By the way, if you want to know one of the big differences between me and my husband, here’s a good place to mention it. I hadn’t met Johnny yet, but he probably really dug what Dr. Schaeffer was saying.)
But what I dig—then and now—is stories. Stories speak to me. My mind stays with me when I’m hearing a good story. I learn so much from stories—about God, life, people, places, relationships.
And now Narnia’s hour was upon me. At Wheaton, the sainted name of C S Lewis hovered in the air. People spoke casually about Narnia as if that was where they’d vacationed last summer.
If this were fiction, I’d tell you about the earth-shaking moment when I turned the first page of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Truth is, I don’t remember actual reading the Narnia books. What I do remember vividly are particular moments in the stories and what happened to me and in me afterward.
Just recently, I was chatting with one of our 8-year-old grandsons about the difference between adults acting like children in a good way—childlikeness—or in a stupid way—childishness.
For me, the most memorable moment in Lewis is a picture of that difference. Here’s the setting: Aslan humiliated, slaughtered. . . Susan and Lucy grief-stricken at the impossible. But then:
There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane. . . stood Aslan himself.
The awesome, mighty, living Aslan invites them to climb up high onto his back. And here’s my quote:
It was such a romp as no one has ever had except in Narnia; and whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten Lucy could never make up her mind.
There it is: childlikeness at its best. A romp like a child, yes. Playing like a child, yes. Playing as with a kitten like a child, yes. A lion as playful and soft as a kitten, but at the same time a kitten as perilous as a thunderstorm—“Of course he’s not safe, but he’s good.”
I wasn’t changed overnight, but I began to trade Peter Pan for Lucy. I understood Lucy, and she was the kind of person I wanted to be—With all the best traits of a child—brave, loyal, curious, truthful.
But not perfect, and so Lewis’s Lucy made me look at myself through clearer eyes. In Prince Caspian, when she sees Aslan, but the other children don’t, when she can’t persuade them to go toward Aslan, I say, “NO! Lucy! Don’t follow them. Go to Aslan!” And yet, I wonder, What would I have done?
Narnia was one of God’s good tools, turning me from childishness toward the desire to be childlike. The kind of child that can enter the kingdom of heaven.
That led me toward imagination. Imagination is childlike and Narnia opened my heart’s eyes to imagination—not make-believe, but imagination. My second favorite Lewis scene is Narnia’s creation in The Magician’s Nephew. It’s a long and glorious chapter. Here’s just one small part:
A voice had begun to sing. . . . Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. . . . It was beyond comparison, the most beautiful sound [Digory] had ever heard.
Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. . . . The blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. . . . The new stars and the new voices began at exactly the same time. . . . You would have felt quite certain . . . that it was the stars themselves which were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.
Sometime after reading that, I walked along a Wheaton street one dusky evening. Peering through the twilight into the next block, I saw a regal collie—one of my favorite kinds of dogs. As I came closer, the collie melted back to what it really was—a pile of golden autumn leaves.
Ashes to ashes. But in between is life. Leaves to leaves. But in between, my imagination was wakened to see a glorious Narnian creature. I could hear more and see more.
The last most memorable scene in my top-3 came when I traveled to Perelandra, the planet that hadn’t yet experienced sin. Ransom is wandering alone through an Eden-like forest of unimaginably luscious fruit.
As he let the empty [fruit] fall from his hand and was about to pluck a second one, it came into his head that he was now neither hungry nor thirsty. . . . What desire would turn from so much deliciousness? But for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.
Why do I remember this passage? I don’t know. Maybe because the thought was so foreign—not to take a second helping of a glorious taste? Maybe because I was grasped by the idea of something so perfect?
And that’s a good place to end—with perfection—where God means to take his people. He uses many means to get us there. And for me, Lewis’s fiction has been pictures, tastes, experiences that are shadows of what is to come.
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