The Lion's World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia by Rowan Williams
(Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK: 2012)
I approached this book with some misgivings. During his ten years as Archbishop of Canterbury (2002-2012), Rowan Williams seemed to blunder into one controversy after another, like a stranger lost in an unlit china shop at midnight. ("Maybe we could have some sharia law in Britain ..." crash "How about some female bishops?" smash "Let's ordain gay clergy ... er, maybe not ..." boom) It was not a good ten years for the worldwide Anglican Communion, and I formed a strong impression of Archbishop Williams as a feckless nincompoop. What insight could such a ninnie give me into Narnia?
Before I finished reading this little book (144 pages), I came to learn that Rowan Williams is not a fool, and not a false prophet out to subvert the Christian faith. This is a wise book by a man who loves the Lord and has delight in others who love God. It's written with feeling, in clear and simple language not often achieved by academics at Williams' level.
It belongs in your library, right next to the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis.
Not to make too much of it, but I have learned a lesson-judge no one by what you read about him in the papers. The stories might be true, but they won't be the whole truth.
It seems to me now that Williams was simply the wrong man for the job. Being Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012 was going to be a challenge and a minefield for anyone who dared to try it. I find it makes me surprisingly happy to have to change my mind about him.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that The Lion's World is well worth reading.
The Point of Narnia
In his Preface, Williams writes, "I can only confess to being repeatedly humbled and reconverted by Lewis in a way that is true of few other modern Christian writers" (p. xi). We applaud Williams for keeping the focus tightly fixed on C. S. Lewis and his seven books about the fantasy world of Narnia-written for children, and loved also by adults the world over.
In these books, writes Williams, "Lewis is trying to recreate for the reader what it is like to encounter and believe in God" (p. 16). Why? Because, "The point of Narnia is to help us rinse out what is stale in our thinking about Christianity" (p. 28). What could be a bigger problem in Christianity than simply taking it for granted? But in the Narnia books, Lewis tried to put his readers in a position of seeing Christ for the very first time, as something new and fresh and strange-strange enough to make us hungry to know much more.
Lewis invited his readers to encounter Jesus Christ in an unfamiliar form-Aslan, the great lion who sang the world of Narnia into existence. Writes Williams, "[T]he essential thing is this invitation to hear the story as if we had never heard it before. And for a growing number of readers who actually haven't, the effectiveness can be measured" (p. 29).
Have we here encountered something new? When the Narnia books were first published in the 1950s, it was a different world: still Christian, if only on the surface. Things that are commonplace today-e.g., atheists being lionized as oracles, notorious homosexuals being feted at the White House, baby showers for out-of-wedlock births-were then unheard of. Narnia was popular and successful then. But could it be, under God's providence, that the books will be even more fruitful now than they were then? Because they are more needed now?
We can see a parallel in Rowan Williams' own career. His ten years as Archbishop of Canterbury, whatever we might think of his performance in that office, came to an end in 2012. He stepped down and took a less exalted post, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge.
In January of this year, in his new role, Williams engaged in a formal debate at Oxford with world-famous atheist militant Richard Dawkins-and decisively defeated him.1 With the atheists falling back on sophomore penis jokes, the ex-archbishop was voted the winner by a crushing margin of two to one.
To clobber the world's loudest and most celebrated atheist in debate, at a major Western university which the atheist would probably consider his own home turf, is a glorious achievement in God's service-in my own opinion, greater than anything Williams was able to accomplish as Archbishop of Canterbury. Might it not be that his most fruitful work still lies ahead of him? We probably won't hear about it in the news; but he may reach minds at Cambridge that he couldn't reach from Canterbury. His quiet service as a teacher, out of the public eye, may bring forth abundantly.
To Know Him by Another Name
Williams is suggesting that such might be the case with Narnia. The Western world today is full of children who, had they been born sixty years ago, would have been raised as at least nominally Christian, but who are now raised with no Christian instruction at all. At the same time, Christian homeschooling continues to grow steadily. This homeschooled Christian generation will grow up to find a vast mission field laid out before them, right on their doorstep.
In this different world, with different opportunities for a classic book to have an impact, the young missionaries who have read Narnia will have learned that Jesus Christ can be approached in unexpected ways, and met in unexpected places. Williams quotes from the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lucy has just asked the Lion, "And how can we live, never meeting you?"
"But you shall meet me, dear one," said Aslan.
"Are-are you there, too, Sir?" said Edmund.
"I am," said Aslan. "But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there" (p. 143).
For the work of re-Christianizing the West, the new generation of missionaries will have to be creative. The Narnia books are an example of how that might be done.
But Rowan Williams writes that many of us have a recurring need to re-Christianize ourselves. He cites a critic who "speaks of the shock of finding on the last page of The Last Battle [the seventh and final Chronicle of Narnia-ed.] the great lion ... given a capital H-‘and as He spoke to them, He no longer looked like a lion': pure shock, as if cold water had spouted up from the page." Williams concludes, "Lewis could have asked no better reaction than such a shock, the shock of unexpected homecoming as the Lion's world is revealed once and for all as our own" (p. 144).
For Williams, this is what the Narnia books are all about: to re-encounter Jesus, to refresh and renew one's relationship with Christ-or, for some, to meet Him for the first time, maybe without even realizing that it's Jesus, and at least to imagine being loved by Him: to taste God's grace and see that it is good (p. 142).
Williams examines other issues, too. He answers Narnia's critics, past and present; explores the concept of Christianity as a kind of rebellion against the world: not only against the world, but against the whole mass of lies, rationalizations, and delusions which we build around our own selves, that hide us from the truth; and explains how Christians must deal with both the world and with themselves as they truly are, not as how we wish to think they are. But he never loses sight of his main theme: that the Chronicles help us to re-discover Jesus Christ and renew our minds in Him. It's no accident that the Christian teacher and commentator, R. C. Sproul Sr., named his long-running radio show, "Renewing Your Mind," after St. Paul's teaching in Romans 12:2,
"And be not conformed to this world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God."
A month ago, had anyone suggested to me that I would ever find Williams and Sproul on the same page, I would have gaped at him in sheer amazement. But then I wouldn't have expected Williams and C. S. Lewis to go together, either.
I have learned some valuable lessons from this book and I think that you will, too.