Telling it Slant: What’s Happening in the Narnia Stories

Paper given at the Annual Conference of the Academy for Evangelism in Theological Education, 2005.

In 1959, C.S.Lewis wrote to BBC producer Lance Sieveking, who had apparently proposed that a movie be made of The Chronicles of Narnia. Here is part of Lewis’ response:

I am absolutely opposed—adamant isn’t in it!—to a TV version. Anthropomorphic animals, when taken out of narrative into actual visibility, always turn into buffoonery or nightmare. At least, with photography. Cartoons (if only Disney did not combine so much vulgarity with his genius!) wld. be another matter. A human, pantomime, Aslan wld. be to me blasphemy.

All the best,
C. S. Lewis[1]

So was he turning in his grave at the release of the first Narnia movie in 2005? Personally, I thought the movie was wonderful–neither buffoonery nor nightmare—and I would like to think that, with the advances in movie making since 1959 and the co-direction of Lewis’ stepson Douglas Gresham, he might have been pleased after all.

Most churches were excited about the movie, and various websites offered various ways to turn it into a great evangelistic opportunity. The website for example, had pages for youth groups, one for “Becoming a Parish promoter”, and one for starting a study group. invited us to find a Lion party near to us; and Tales of introduced us to four “deeper truths” (which bore a suspicious resemblance to the Four Spiritual Laws) to be found in the Chronicles. This enthusiasm will probably continue for as long as the series is turned into movies.

Was this the right way to think about the movies, however? My fear is that on the one hand people went expecting the wrong thing and were disappointed, and that on the other hand they may have missed what Lewis is actually trying to do, and thus fail to benefit from what the movie does have to offer.

So what was Lewis trying to do?

It is helpful to know something of Lewis’ background. He grew up as an Anglican in Northern Ireland, but by the age of thirteen he had decided that there was no God. He stayed an atheist until his early thirties. During those years, however, he had what he later came to recognise as spiritual experiences, flashes of what he called “joy” which spoke to him of something beyond present material experience. These experiences came to him through the beauty of nature and through ancient mythology, particularly Norse mythology.

For years, he made no connection between his experiences of joy and Christianity, until he made friends with J.R.R.Tolkien, who argued that mythology contained glimpses of God’s truth, and that all mythology pointed to Jesus and was fulfilled in Christian faith. As Lewis wrote later:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.[2]

Once he had decided that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, he started going to church again, and began to explore and write about his newfound faith. From that time on, he published on average one book per year till his death in 1963.

So what did Lewis think about evangelism? He was ambivalent in his attitude to conventional evangelism. In an interview with Decision magazine in 1963 (six months before his death), he said, “There are many different ways of bringing people into His Kingdom, even some ways that I specially dislike.”[3] Among other things, he clearly disliked evangelical jargon. When Sherwood Eliot Wirt asked him: “Would you say that the aim of Christian writing, including your own writing, is to bring about an encounter of the reader with Jesus Christ?” Lewis replied: “That is not my language, yet it is the purpose I have in mind.”[4] 

Lewis’ High View of Evangelism

Yet Lewis had a high view of evangelism itself. He wrote: “The glory of God, and, as our only means to glorying him, the salvation of human souls, is the real business of life.”[5]  And for him, this was not merely a theory. He wrote in a letter in 1949:

I have two lists of names in my prayers, those for whose conversion I pray, and those for whose conversion I give thanks. The little trickle of transferences from List A to List B is a great comfort.[6]

He developed an understanding that different people with different gifts contribute different things to the process of evangelism. His contribution, he came to feel, was very specific. In a paper on apologetics, he said:

I turn now to the question of the actual attack. This may be either emotional or intellectual. If I speak only of the intellectual kind, that is not because I undervalue the other but because, not having been given the gifts necessary for carrying it out, I cannot give advice about it.[7]

He came to believe therefore that evangelism was best done by a team:

I am not sure that the ideal missionary team ought not to consist of one who argues and one who (in the fullest sense of the word) preaches. Put up your arguer first to undermine their intellectual prejudices; then let the evangelist proper launch his appeal. I have seen this done with great success.[8]

He had seen it done because in at least two instances he was the “arguer.” When Lewis started doing lectures to the RAF during the Second World War, he worked with an English bishop, A.W.Goodwin-Hudson, to whom he said:

I wish I could do the heart-stuff . . . I can’t. . . I wish I could. . . . I wish I could press home to these boys how much they need Christ. . . . You do the heart stuff and I’ll do the head stuff.[9]

They agreed that Lewis would first of all do a 20-minute lecture presenting the rational case for Christianity, and Goodwin-Hudson would then follow up with the evangelistic appeal.

As far as I know, Lewis never wrote about evangelism as a process. But clearly he sees himself as playing a part in the work of evangelism, though not the only part or necessarily the most important part. The way he understood his role was as preparation for the Gospel rather than the Gospel itself.[10]

If this is how Lewis sees his own role as an evangelist—as an intellectual John the Baptist—there are nevertheless two distinct ways in his writing in which he fulfils this role. I am thinking of Mere Christianity and the Narnia stories.

Mere Christianity began life as a series of radio broadcasts on the BBC in 1941; these were followed by two other similar series.’ They were finally published in the form in which we know them in 1952. At the beginning of the series, he wrote to Dr. James Welch, the producer of the series to explain what he was trying to do:

It seems to me that the New Testament, by preaching repentance and forgiveness, always assumes an audience who already believe in the law of Nature and know they have disobeyed it. In modern England we cannot at present assume this, and therefore most apologetic begins a stage too far on. The first step is to create, or recover, the sense of guilt. Hence if I give a series of talks I should mention Christianity only at the end, and would prefer not to unmask my battery till then.[11]

His intention, then, was to start where people are at—with humankind’s innate sense of right and wrong—and to work back from there to the necessity of a lawgiver, and thence to a sense of sin (our failed responsibility to the lawgiver), and to a saviour from sin. It was a rational, logical, step by step approach, illustrated profusely with brilliant analogies and metaphors.

Although he said it was preparation for the Gospel in fact it has been the means of countless people coming to faith—most famously, in the twentieth century, Charles Colson.[12] Which is indicative, I think, of the fact that God is no respecter of our neat categories like evangelism and pre-evangelism. Some of what is intended as pre-evangelism actually brings people to faith; some that is intended to be directly evangelistic is for some people only early preparation for their conversion much later.

The Purpose of the Narnia Books

The Narnia series began in 1950 with the publication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe . This was two years before Mere Christianity, but six years after the last of the radio broadcasts. Whether or not Lewis was aware of it at first, the Narnia stories demonstrate a quite different approach to evangelism. They do not begin with an attempt to establish a sense of sinfulness. They do not argue in a linear fashion for the truth of Christianity. In fact they do not argue at all. After all, they are children’s fantasies.

Perhaps then we are wrong to think of them as evangelistic. But Lewis’ own words confirm his evangelistic intention:

I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood. . . . [S]upposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.[13]

Lewis is concerned for people like himself who thought they knew Christianity but had never really known or experienced its true nature. In his life, his experience of church on the one hand and his experience of the things that touched him most deeply on the other were totally different. It took many years before he came to realise (through Tolkien) that the thrill he found in mythology was not an end in itself but merely (to use his own image) a signpost pointing him for its fulfillment toward faith in Christ.[14] The mythology of Narnia, he felt, might provide a similar kind of signpost to point people to Christ.

Lewis is the master of metaphor, and it is not surprising that he gives another image for what he was doing in Narnia to his friend and biographer, George Sayer:

His idea, as he once explained to me, was to make it easier for children to accept Christianity when they met it later in life. He hoped they would be vaguely reminded of the somewhat similar stories that they had read and enjoyed years before. “I am aiming at a sort of pre-baptism of the child’s imagination.”[15]

The Gospel may not yet have reached their minds or their wills, but if their imagination has been captured by Narnian images of redemption, then when they hear the Gospel, it will resonate more readily because of that preparatory work done by Narnia.

Thus Lewis is still John the Baptist, preparing the ground for the hearing of the Gospel, perhaps years later. Only now, unlike the Lewis of Mere Christianity, he is primarily trying to win the imagination, not the mind.

So what is there in the Chronicles that can be understood as evangelistic or pre-evangelistic? Barth says somewhere: “The best apologetics is a good dogmatics.”  If so, there is a wealth of good apologetics in the Chronicles, because behind Lewis the storyteller is Lewis the teacher, fleshing out almost every Christian doctrine. There are theologies of creation, the imago dei, the cultural mandate, and the fall; there is a Redeemer who dies because of sin and is raised again; there is a doctrine of the Spirit (the breath of Aslan); there are experiences of conversion, and lessons in repentance, faith, obedience, and sanctification; there is an eschaton, an Armageddon, a heaven, and a hell.

All that is lacking is an altar call—but Lewis has already told us he cannot do “the heart stuff.” Yet it seems to me that, in spite of his words, Lewis is not simply baptizing readers’ imaginations, preparing them for a future response. He hopes that people will respond to Jesus, both immediately and in the future.

Why do I say this? There are several occasions in the Chronicles when Lewis comes close to giving away the identity of Aslan. Maybe the clearest is at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. There the children meet Aslan in the form of a lamb, who has prepared breakfast for them on an open fire on a beach. The children are about to return to our world, and Lucy is upset because they will be leaving Aslan behind. Aslan, however, reassures her: “But you shall meet me, dear one”:

“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. That was the very reason you were brought into Narnia, that by knowing me for a little, you may know me better there.”[16]

Lewis’ intention is that readers, having got to know Aslan in Narnia, should try to discover Aslan’s “other name” in our world, and indeed that what they have learned about Aslan will help them in getting to know him in our world. Thus he does not seem surprised when a girl called Hila wrote to him about this question. He comes close to giving the answer, but not quite:

As to Aslan’s other name, well I want you to guess. Has there never been anyone in this world who (1) Arrived at the same time as Father Christmas. (2) Said he was the son of the great Emperor. (3) Gave himself up for someone else’s fault to be jeered at and killed by wicked people. (4) Came to life again. (5) Is sometimes spoke of as a Lamb . . . Don’t you really know His name in this world. Think it over and let me know your answer![17]

Like the good teacher he is, Lewis does not spell things out for his students, but points them in the right direction, and lets them discover the truth for themselves. Most evangelists are reluctant to do this! Lewis however is content to sow seeds, nurturing curiosity that he trusts will lead people to consider or reconsider the stories of Jesus without the interference of the watchful dragons. Is this evangelistic? In the sense of calling for an immediate decision to follow Jesus, no. But if evangelism is anything that helps people take steps towards faith in Jesus, then the stories of Narnia certainly count.

Does it work?

In the past eighteen months, I have been in email communication with a woman of 40, in England, whom I have never met. In the spring of 2005, I suggested she needed to read the Narnia stories, and sent her some thoughts of my own about them. With her permission, I’m going to share some of the questions that reading Narnia has raised for her:

What have I been created (designed) for?  Who am I meant to be? I found the whole creation scene [in The Magician’s Nephew] very moving. It has made me realise that rather than simply (!) being created, I’ve been called to life for a purpose.

I’ve been questioning my work anyway regarding its moral validity [she works in the gambling industry]; reading about how the dwarves loved making the crowns (as you put it, “it is what they were made to do and thus what they do well”) has made me question it in another way – “Where does my passion lie?” “What is it that I have been made to do well?”

How do logic and faith contribute to what I think is the truth?  I have questions about my reliance on my own reason to understand/believe some things, but also helped me understand why and how I know the truth I know about other things.

What are the things that stop me following Aslan even though I believe in him (like Susan in Prince Caspian)? This is one I really need to work on.

The way Aslan accepts people and their failings has made me understand much better how God accepts us (and question how I accept myself and others).

I cannot imagine that (humanly speaking) any amount of preaching would have caused her to ask such questions. But Narnia has reached very deep into her soul and is drawing her closer to Aslan almost by the day. The watchful dragons have been driven back.


Lewis leaves me with many questions about our evangelistic practices. Many people in our world are guarded by the watchful dragons—they can smell religiosity a mile off and they do not want it—how do we get round the dragons? We know how to appeal to people’s minds and wills in our evangelism, but how do we appeal to people’s imaginations? Are we willing to trust the Holy Spirit enough to ask questions and let people figure out the answers themselves–without our spelling everything out? Do we feel the only way to explain the Gospel is by beginning with sin? Or are we prepared to think there might be other starting points, such as people’s longing for joy, which will lead them to the same conclusion? Are we prepared to make use of a wide range of gifts within the Body of Christ to nurture people’s progress towards Christ, however slow it may seem?

And, most relevantly, are we prepared for a movie like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe simply to baptize people’s imaginations, rather than producing actual conversions?  I would argue that if the movie succeeds in disarming the watchful dragons, that is an essential contribution to the process we call evangelism. And unless such sowing and watering takes place, there will never be any reaping.

[1] Walter Hooper, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3 (New York: Harper Collins 2007), 1111.

[2] “Myth Became Fact” in God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1970), 166.

[3] “Cross examination”, in God in the Dock, 262.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Christianity and Culture” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 14.

[6] Letter to Dom Bede Griffiths, June 27, 1949 Walter Hooper ed. The Collected Letters of C.S.Lewis, Volume 2 (New York: HarperCollins 2004), 948..

[7] “Christian Apologetics” (1945) in God in the Dock, 99. Italics mine.

[8] “Christian Apologetics”, 99.

[9] Ryken 60.

[10] W.H.Lewis ed. Letters of C.S.Lewis (New York: Harcourt Brace 1966), 359.

[11] Cited in Green and Hooper, C.S.Lewis: A Biography, (New York: Harcourt Brace 1974), 202.

[12] Charles Colson, Born Again, 113, 121.

[13] C.S.Lewis “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said”, in Of This and Other Worlds (London: Collins Fount Paperbacks, 1984), 73.

[14] C.S.Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life (London: Geoffrey Bles 1955; Collins Fontana 1960), 190.

[15] George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C.S.Lewis (Wheaton IL: Crossway Books 1988), 318.

[16] The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1955; London: HarperCollins 1980), 209.

[17] C.S.Lewis, Letters to Children, ed. Lyle Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead (Toronto: Simon and Schuster 1985), June 3, 1953.