The house is old and full of mystery. Wooden stairways rise, beckoning exploration. Against a wall in an abandoned room stands a curiously carved wardrobe. The door cracks open and from the interior issues a blinding white light. And somewhere deep inside you something stirs.
Narnia is calling. And you are desperate to answer.
Why, in a culture that prizes scientific materialism, are grown men and women discovering a catch in their throats and tears of longing welling up in their eyes as they watch the trailer for The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe? The answer to that question may well explain why the first film installment of The Chronicles of Narnia could be one of the most powerful spiritual conversation starters ever to hit the screen. It lies in a desperate longing for wonder, rescue, and the triumph of good over evil that many are discovering today through a remythologizing of the Gospel found in Narnia.
There is no way to completely describe the feeling you get when you experience a moving passage of music, tremble beneath the array of stars on a dark and moonless mountain night, or even when you bask in the afterglow of a particularly wonderful day. C.S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, called this feeling sehnsucht, which, roughly translated, means longing.
The longing of sehnsucht is not a thing to be grasped. It is always in passing, like an image that strikes upon the senses and is gone. Sehnsucht carries with it the connotation of the sounding of distant horns, calling, then receding — and the hearer wishing, but unable, to follow. All that is left is to seek and hope to recover that which was lost. It is a kind of desire that knows it cannot be fulfilled here, yet is worth desiring and seeking after nonetheless.
Lewis argued that humans long “to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own.” We were made for awe. Unfortunately, the modern privileging of scientific fact as the “only” reliable type of truth often tries to push aside the competing truth claims of intuition and revelation. But the longing for transcendence — the desire of human nature to move beyond that nature into something beyond — will not be denied. If transcendence is banned from the classroom — or from the pulpit — we will seek it at the cinema.
We want to enter Narnia, initially, because we long for wonder. We want to commune with animals who can talk back to us. We want to see a land bursting with the fantastic, and where our actions have dreadful or wonderful consequences. We want a place where action matters. And we would rather seek it without ever having it, than not seek it at all. The promise of Narnia is enough.
Even in the absence of the mass media recounting the day's catastrophes, it would not take long to recognize that the world we inhabit has gone wrong. How is it, though, that we have that idea of “wrong” or “right” at all? With no true examples of perfection, why do we experience dissatisfaction with the world as it is? Deep down inside we know that the world has gone awry. We bend our scientific, artistic, social, economic, and political will in attempts to fix it, but no sooner do we appear to solve one problem than another arises. It feels like we are cursed — and so it should be no surprise to find that we are. We are under the curse of sin — a condition for which we are responsible, and from which we have no power to ultimately deliver ourselves.
Narnia takes the truth of the curse and externalizes it — making it visible in a unique and striking way. Though Narnia is full of wonder for the humans that enter it (providing wonder in turn to the inhabitants of Narnia for whom humans are a myth), it is a country under siege. The White Witch, Jadis, has ensorcelled the land so that it is always winter, but never Christmas. Under her icy, evil grip the land perishes because hope is not only denied, but forbidden. Those who struggle against her reign are turned to stone.
It has been winter so long that many Narnians have known nothing else. What gives them hope is not their empirical experience — how can they fight against such an oppressive and persistent power? Hope comes from their belief in a revelation, a prophecy, that help will come from outside Narnia that will destroy the Witch's power, bringing Christmas, and spring, in its wake. Rescue is on the way. The children of prophecy have arrived. Aslan is on the move.
Such a story rings true with those living on the mundane side of the wardrobe. The world we inhabit is under a curse. Our best efforts have not abated it. Even in areas where we see progress, it is all ultimately made moot by the arrival of death. We are temporal, finite beings attempting to wage a transcendent war. We need rescue. And, just like C.S. Lewis once admitted about himself, we are most willing to recognize both the problem and the solution when we encounter it in fiction. Narnia delivers.
The Triumph of Good Over Evil
C.S Lewis' good friend and fellow Inkling, J.R.R. Tolkien, said that fairy stories work because they tap into our innate desire for the eucatastrophe — the good end. We are hardwired to believe that, in the end, good will triumph over evil. To abandon this belief is to abandon hope. What some skeptics call realism is really abdication. The knowledge that good will win out comes with a responsibility to act on its behalf. Every battle requires people to choose sides — ignoring the battle will not save you.
Once the children arrive in Narnia, the power of evil begins to weaken. Rumors abound of the appearance of Aslan, the Son of the great Emperor Over the Sea, who has come to deliver Narnia from its imprisonment. Good is coming to crush evil — but an unexpected twist arises. Edmund, one of the children of prophecy, has turned traitor — aligning himself with evil. If the story were to follow that character arc to the end I doubt if many people would finish the book or remain in their seats until the credits rolled. Leaving Narnia to perish in eternal winter would be devastating beyond endurance. Unknown to the children, there is a plan to overcome even this obstacle — though it comes at a terrible price.
And before the good end comes, choices will need to be made. Even when the battle appears bleak, when winning seems impossible, perseverance in doing what is right, despite the odds, is the requirement to march in Aslan's army. Though Aslan has the power to overcome evil without aid, the Great Lion desires both humans and Narnians to take part and declare their allegiances.
The ReMythologizing of the Gospel
Both Lewis and Tolkien argued that the seeds of the Gospel of Christ were planted within the myths of pagan antiquity. Stories of the living, dying, and resurrecting Corn God are prolific and pervasive. Rather than dismissing these as the wishful thinking of primitive people, or (even worse) as proof that the Gospel is just some variant of this fanciful tale, both men claimed that the story of sin and redemption through the act of a dying and resurrecting god was merely a seed sown. When the myth became fact in the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus, people exposed to such stories would recognize the Gospel's import and truth.
Many cultural analysts agree that the west has moved into a post-Christian culture. If Lewis and Tolkien were right, and humans are hardwired by God to be moved by this story, it is not surprising that in abandoning the fact people will return to the myth. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is a retelling of the Gospel story, made personal and moving by the passion C.S. Lewis brings to the tale. Many people will be touched; many will experience the longing of wonder and redemption. But unless Christians are ready to explain the reality that this fictional film conveys, those longings will fade, unrealized. Now is the time to talk.
Our own world is filled with wonders; we simply must learn to see them. But things have gone wrong, and we bear guilt. Despite our flaws, God loves us, and so provided a way of rescue through the death and resurrection of His Son. He wants us to be a part of His family, and, once we are redeemed, He requires that we reject our old alliance with evil and represent His good Kingdom in this foreign land. But this is not just a story — it is our story. Jesus is on the move. This chapter of our history will someday come to an end. We can have the true desire of our hearts, our longings fulfilled, if we join in His triumph. And that is a story worth sharing.
(Marc T. Newman, PhD, is the president of MovieMinistry.com — an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people. This article courtesy of Agape Press).
Please don't miss The Chronicles of Narnia Catholic Outreach Site where you can get resources and news on how to use the Narnia movie in your parishes and schools. A definitive Catholic resource A Guide to The Chronicles of Narnia has just been released for individual or bulk purchases.