In my last post, “The Narnia option,” I began to sketch out the background for a strategy of faithfulness in a post-Christian age. Our Covenant editor, Zachary Guiliano, called it “the Benedict option but with more magic.” Bingo.
But for this Narnia option to work in any way comparable to the Benedict option or any other option, we need to be clear about what Narnia is in the analogy: it is the Church. I would be surprised if many people naturally gravitate to this view. For example, I stumbled upon a Reddit stream of six modest posts about my article, and the second one called me out: “Lewis did not find his solution in the Church. He found it in Christ.”
In one way, this is absolutely right. Lewis is Mr. Mere Christianity. He does not talk about the Church a lot, although he does so more than many seem to remember. The Screwtape Letters is a great place to look for it. But fair enough. When Lewis set out to champion the Christian faith in his highest profile setting, he explicitly (almost) left ecclesiology out:
I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions …. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in (Mere Christianity, p. 11).
At first glance Lewis seems to be saying that he will leave it to the theologians and pastors to tell you which church is the real one. And yet he is making it clear that you cannot stay in the hallway. You must go into a church/the Church. He continues: “The worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable” (ibid.).
That is, the worst church is preferable to no church at all — meaning there are churches that succeed or fail in various degrees in being the Church. And it might indeed be the worst church to which God has called you on this side of eternity. Alas! We know Lewis disapproved of church-shopping, and he was a strong advocate of the traditional parochial structure in England (again, see Screwtape). In any case, being a Christian is about Church. You cannot read Lewis otherwise. Mere Christianity is the Church’s faith.
And so we return to the wardrobe. I am increasingly convinced that Narnia is best understood as analogous to the Church, where all kinds of magical things and all kinds of brokenness exist side-by-side.
First, Narnia may be an escape of sorts from our world, but it has its own (worse?) problems. Bombs may be falling on London, but in Narnia the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve have to take up arms and fight! A couple of Twitter followers, along with one of the Reddit commentators, mistook what I was arguing for as an apology for hiding out from the world until its various storms blow over. Far from it. The analogy simply will not support it.
No time passes in our world when people go to Narnia. Nothing blows over. The Pevensie children stumble out of the wardrobe after years inside the world within it only to find they are still evading Professor Kirk’s mean old housekeeper, Mrs. Macready. When Eustace returns via the painting on the wall at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, he still has the same dopey parents and goes to the same intolerable school. But they all know how to handle themselves in ways they did not before. They have matured while the world has stayed the same. They are prepared to lead outside because they have been miraculously nourished over an impossible span of time on the inside. The world within the wardrobe has changed them so that they may change their own world.
Second, there is also something perversely prophetic about Lewis’s warning against adopting mere Christianity as one’s church. And this may prove to be the value of thinking in terms of a Narnia option. Lewis has proved to be an extraordinarily unifying figure among Christians — and particularly among Evangelicals, many of whom start out with little appreciation for the sacramental universe that Lewis inhabited, before (as in my case) coming into it more deeply. Many Christians revere Lewis, and thus many of us in various ecclesiastical rooms can, as it were, reconvene out in the hallway of the faith that Lewis describes. As denominations crumble, perhaps Lewis’s mere Christianity, which necessarily involves walking through an ecclesiastical door, could reform with a focus on the wardrobe door. This door leads only to one place — the Church — the thing some are certain they are already in, others hope they may be in, and others still are not sure they need. Remember, Narnia is a diverse place, fraught with conflict. There are even other gods there! It, like our world, is a place that awaits a final judgment — a judgment that will surprise everyone inside (think of the Calormene soldier who learns in The Last Battle that he has been worshiping Aslan all along).
The Narnia option may, then, be a way for those of us from all the churches — the worst to the best and everything in between — to walk together in faith in a world that has gone mad. We may disagree on a lot, but we may also agree that we need a place to be equipped to hold fast to the faith we have received, even while we work out our sometimes vast differences. The Narnia option is, like Lewis’s books, ecumenical in scope: wounded people from wounded churches desiring wholeness in the Church that we cannot yet see. Such unity would be truly magical.
To my fellow believers I say, as Reepicheep says, “Welcome, in the Lion’s name. Come further up and further in.”
The featured image of Magdalen College Chapel, Oxford (2012) by Wikimedia Commons user Lord British is licensed under Creative Commons.