Sunday, February 26, 2017

Insight from The Chronicles of Narnia: Are The Chronicles Too Violent for Children?

This is another topical post rather than from one of the remaining Chronicles. Another recurring criticism of the stories is that they are too violent for children. There is plenty of fighting and war in them. If your standard is that any violence is too much, that children should not be exposed to such material, then, yes, Lewis’ stories are too violent for children. But is this reasonable or even possible in our world?

Taking possibility first, I doubt anyone would think that a child raised in the West today can be shielded from violence. It hardly seems possible even if one deems it desirable. This seems to me self-evident. For good or ill violence sells and whatever sells hits the media. And what’s in the media gets into our homes, heads, and hearts. No matter how vigilant we as parents may be.

Even if we could block our children from every hint of violence, is this a good thing? I don’t think so. Unrestricted abundance of violence is surely bad. And not just for children. We’re not talking about that. But our children are going to see some violence, warfare, and death in the course of growing up. What role might violence in The Chronicles play for its young readers?

A first matter is literary. Lewis affects a medieval chivalric style in most of the stories. The honorable knight serving the Lord and the land with his sword is how he portrays many of his male characters. Battle, then, is a part of the style of the stories.

G. K. Chesterton points in one direction.

“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”[1]

          Further, martial imagery in the stories prepares children and reminds adults that life is in one sense or another a struggle, a battle, a war. We must be called, equipped, trained, and deployed by that to which we are committed. This war has been won by Aslan. But there remain battles to be fought and resistance pacified as the reality of that victory spreads far and wide. It is this part of the struggle God calls us to participate in.

          The Bible also sees God’s people engaged in battle on God’s behalf. Not physical combat, of course. At least in the New Testament. The Old Testament is another matter for another time and place. St. Paul, in fact, says God has given us his very own armor for the battle to which we are called. He also says our warfare is not against other human beings but against malignant spiritual forces. But it is no less battle for that!

          Lewis’ stories reflect this biblical perspective that we are engaged in God’s side on battle against evil in the world. We must have that mentality if we are to faithfully serve him. This awareness communicated through fairy stories allow young readers to gain a measure of realism on the world they live in and the sense that greater powers have and are acting powerfully on their behalf.

          For these reasons, I submit, the martial and violent features of the stories are part and parcel of what young readers need to grapple with their world and gain a sense of their place in God’s purposes for them.  

 [1]Tremendous Trifles (1909), XVII: "The Red Angel"

Resisting Trump with Revelation (12)

Jesus’ sermon begins: Opening the seals (6:1-8:1)

The risen Christ’s sermon begins with him opening the seven seals that bound the scroll he received from the One on the throne. This very kinetic sermon full of words, actions, and song tell the story contained in the scroll.  As the scroll is unsealed, a series of seven trumpets unfold from the last seal, and from the last trumpet emerges another series of seven, this time plagues. These three series of sevens are the main points of Jesus’ sermon. After all, every good sermon has three points and a poem or sad story, doesn’t it?

The first two series of sevens, the seals and trumpets, have a pause between the sixth and seventh of their series. After the trumpet and plague series are a number of vignettes dealing with important matters of faithful resistance to the empire. In these pauses and vignettes we find our access into the story Jesus is preaching, the way we find ourselves immersed in God’s story.

The way these sequences of sevens are to be read is much disputed. The two main kinds of view are the chronological (Greek word chronos) where each scene is to be read one after the other in time, and what I call the kairotic (Greek word kairos), overlapping scenes telling the meaning of the same story from different perspectives thus not denoting chronological movement. I believe the latter approach is correct and will follow it though I will not attempt to justify it here.

Christ’s Sermon Outlined

Seals opened (6:1-8:5)

-Pause (ch.7)

Trumpets sound (8:6-11:19)

                -Pause (10:1-11:4)

Woman and dragon (ch.12)                                                                                                                                                   Two beasts (ch.13)                                                                                                                                The Lamb and 144,000 (14:1-5)                                                                                                        Three angels (14:6—13)                                                                                                                           Two harvests (14:14-20)

Plague bowls (chs.15-16)

                                Great prostitute (ch.17)                                                                                                                                                                    Fall of Babylon (ch.18)                                                                                                                                                                      Rejoicing in heaven (19:1-10)                                                                                                                                                         Rider on the White Horse (19:11-21)                                                                                                                                      Millennium (20:1-10)                                                                                                                                                                                 Final judgment (20:11-15)

New Creation (21:1-22:7)

The First Section of Christ’s Sermon: The Seven Seals (6:1-8:1)

This first section of Christ’s sermon addresses the question churches in the belly of the beast of Empire always have: what’s really going on here? Things seem out of control. Nothing seems to be going God’s way. How are we to make sense of all this?

It’s a natural question for us. And crucial. We’ve just sung God’s praises as the sovereign Creator of all. And the Lamb as ruler of all. But when we look out the window, it sure doesn’t look like it.

Things aren’t unfolding just as God wants them to. That would make God a monster we rightly resist and turn away from. No matter what theological justifications we come up with, this cannot be the case.

Nor is God completely uninvolved, with things just unfolding as they unfold. Sovereignty and rulership have to mean more than that.

That’s why we have to look again at chs.4 and 5 to be clear on how divine sovereignty and the Lamb’s rule are carried out. Ch.5, the revelation of the Lion as a Lamb, refocuses notion of sovereignty and power in terms of self-sacrificial servanthood that goes to the cross to accomplish its will. This reflects back on to the picture of God in ch.4 with whom the Lamb is acclaimed as worthy of praise and honor. The Lamb’s way is thus identified with God’s way. The cross is revealed at the heart of God’s sovereign and creative power as well as that of the Lamb.

That can’t mean God is directly in charge of history unfolding as a hot mess as one unjust and oppressive empire succeeds another crushing the poor, helpless, and hapless as they go. But neither can it mean God is uninvolved and that history unfolds according to some other power or rhyme or reason. John (and the rest of the New Testament) says it unfolds according to the counterintuitive, indeed, rationally unfathomable, of a divine love that suffers to save and expresses the sovereign power of the triune God.

This divine alchemy, beyond what we can fathom as I said, calls for discernment when look at the often chaotic and scary world we live in. Things are not as they seem, if what John has seen is right. All our calculations are turned on their head and power relations reversed. And that’s what the seals the Lamb opens tell John’s first readers and his readers today. We have to be told this truth because we cannot figure it out on our own.

The first four seals the Lamb cracks open unloose the famous four horsemen of the Apocalypse. As each one emerges one of the living creatures cries out, “Come!” Is this a summons for the horsemen? Or for John to “come and see”? Neither, I think. Rather, I believe that as each horsemen emerge the living creature matches their appearance with a cry for Jesus the Lamb to come as well. As history unfolds it horrors are answered by the creatures around God’s throne calling for the Lamb to come as well. This is the way John’s vision answers the question it addresses. The ills and harms of history are real and too often mortal. But the Lamb is present in their midst continuing his healing restorative work. And his people are there with him. And our hope, the answer to how we are to respond and understand what is going on around us, is in his presence and our joining with him in his work amid the chaos and traumas that befall our world.

The first horseman to emerge is a rider on a white horse wearing a crown, holding a bow intent on conquering (6:2). Rome feared invasion from the Parthians to the east. They were known for their use of the bow. Empires conquer and fear being conquered. The white horse symbolizes that intent and fear.

A rider on a red horse emerges next. The color of blood (6:4). Slaughter and chaos are unleashed. Twin terrors our world knows all too well.

A black horse with its rider comes next. Economic privation (a day’s wage for bare necessities) but plenty of luxuries for those with means to purchase (6:6). Poverty and wealth inequality – again something we are too familiar with from our world.  

The last of the horsemen, riding a pale green horse, brings Death and Hades in his wake. Enough said. But the reach of Death and Hades is limited to ¼ of the earth. This is not a literal number of course but an indication that the reach of these ultimate terrors are limited (presumably) by God.

With each horseman the call for the Lamb to come means that these disasters are not beyond the purview of God’s attention and that the Lamb’s healing and restorative work is present in crises the horsemen bring. That is the sense we are to make of what is going on around us.

We’ll pick up the last three seals and the interlude between the sixth and seventh seal in the next post.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Mission and the Priesthood of the Christ

March 25, 2013

One does not have to hang around the church very long to hear some weird stuff.1 For example, when I converted to Protestantism, one of the dominant narratives as I picked it up—usually via some kind of epistemological osmosis but sometimes quite explicitly—was that the incarnation was God’s attempt to get the reconciliation ball rolling, that Jesus had laid the foundations for reconciliation and then he went back to heaven to sit down next to God in the great lounge room in the sky to watch over how events would pan out. But just before his exodus, Jesus formed a little community who would work as subcontractors to the big boss upstairs. And foreman Jesus trusted this community to carry on his work while he was away, promising to turn up again when the job was nearly done just to check that it had all been done according to his instructions. What this means, as one often hears, is that if God’s costly work in Jesus is to make any real difference in the world then we need to get off our bums and make sure that we get everyone we know into a home group or along to a church service or, at the very least, reading a book or watching a DVD that communicates, among other themes, just how warm one’s future existence is going to be unless one prays some magic words.

In other words, according to this narrative, although God had once been personally invested in this little project called “creation,” God had now essentially taken a back seat to the whole program. God is now a bit like a corporation’s founding director who still serves on the board in a sort of honorary position but who has really relinquished the right to call the shots—the shareholders now do that. More seriously, in this plot, the church’s central claims about God—namely that God is triune and that God has, in Jesus Christ, embraced a fully human existence—make little if any practical difference in how we think and go about being a faithful community. This is a profound problem.

About twenty-five years ago, I came across a remarkable essay on the place of Jesus Christ in worship.2

Insights from The Chronicles of Narnia: Was C. S. Lewis a Male Chauvinist?

          We take a break from moving through the series to consider a regular criticism made of Lewis’ Narnian stories. He portrays the characters in stereotypical gender roles that reflect the patriarchal roots of Western culture. And they can cite a number of details from the stories in support of this charge.

          But Monika Hilder's has recently offered an acute, perceptive, and, in my judgment, compelling, interpretation that counters this charge. Her book The Feminine Ethos in C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia she challenges the terms and assumptions of this criticism itself. Matthew and Joy Steem explain in their article in Christianity Today ( from which the rest of this post comes. They write:

“. . .by pointing to the disturbing assumptions underlying the traditional model of gender criticism, Hilder makes a convincing case that Lewis was not a sexist, and instead was consciously presenting a ‘radical theological feminism’ that actually liberates us from our sexism.

“In her call to seriously consider what our culture considers characteristic of ‘successful’ women, she challenges readers to reflect on how our ideas of female equality get shaped by the very same power-exertion paradigm we try to eschew in the first place.

“In an age that worships the cult of personality and aggrandizes the ‘virtues’ of the energetic, the magnetic, the stunning, and the forceful – because these traits lead to more materialistic wealth and power – what room left is there for the fruit of the Spirit? Qualities such as self-control, meekness, patience, and peace sound quite out of vogue; ‘Let's see how far the meek, patient, and peace-loving female can succeed,’ I can hear the cynic ask. Hilder, though, suggests that our struggle for independence, power, and autonomy echo Satan's thirst for domination more than Christ's model of humble servanthood.

“If we are uncomfortable with some of the female characterizations throughout Lewis's series, perhaps we should reconsider where this discomfort stems from. While we as women are right to strive for gender equality, we are wrong to measure it according to mere chauvinistic ideas of accomplishment. As Hilder states, ‘to the extent we have not examined our own chauvinism, we demean the 'feminine' qualities and extol the 'masculine'—not noticing that Lewis does the opposite.’ And indeed, it is in doing exactly that opposite that Hilder suggests Lewis's radical theological feminism can be found.

“So what brand of feminism does Hilder see in Lewis's presentation of certain stereotypically feminine traits? And how is this applicable to my pursuit of a physically, emotionally, and spiritually integrated life?

“To be honest, at first I was a wary participant of Hilder's controversial tour of Narnia. As a Christian, I know that I have been called to community, love, and reliance on God; as a secularly educated graduate, however, female characters who embody these non-assertive characteristics frankly insult my conventional ideas of politically correct gender discourse. What I can I learn about authentic living from this late-married bachelor?

“Lewis's idea of true spiritual strength— for both men and women— rests in openness to our Father, community, submission, compassion, truth, grace, and humility. So, when Lewis has Lucy run towards Eustace-the-dragon and bestow upon him grace only expressible in a child's unrestrained kisses, or Lucy and Susan weep with Aslan while he is on the stone table, or, even Mrs. Beaver demonstrate foresight and responsibility for those in her care (or one could even dare say, community mindedness) in bringing along her domestically stigmatized sewing machine, Lewis wasn't belittling these characters. I can learn that true spiritual strength, or spiritual heroism as Hilder terms it, ‘establishes the kingdom of heaven through humility, not independence.

“Lewis had the same model for men and women: spiritual heroism ever rooted in love and mercy. Indeed Peter's or Edmund's independent thinking, physical ability in battle, or autonomous action don't earn them praise. Instead, their actions are held to the same standards as the girls. Indeed, as Hilder suggests, it may often be because of our own sexist assumptions that we accuse Lewis of sexism.

“If the Christ life serves as our model, we can't be surprised by Susan's dismissal from Narnia. Not at all because we reject all interests in heels, hair, and cosmetics, but because we know what is of lasting importance: relationship with and delight in the divine. According to Hilder's interpretation, Lewis reproves Susan not because she is growing into womanhood, but because she falls into the trap of idealizing youth and beauty at the cost of investing in fellowship and love.

“In contrast to Lucy's enlarging commitment to faith in the wondrous nature of Aslan, joy in simplicity, and childlike obedience, Susan's world is made smaller by her shrinking realm of superficial pursuits. And isn't it exactly Lucy's childlike eagerness to abandon self-interests and respond to Aslan's numinous call of love that makes her so appealing?

“If Hilder is right, as long as we measure achievement according to attributes of conquest, autonomy, and self-assertion, we have all truly fallen prey to a merely chauvinistic narrative. It is only when we grow large enough to see the beauty of dependence, the value of compassion, and the splendor of love that we, like Lucy, will learn that every year we grow, we will find God has too.”

Thursday, February 23, 2017

How The Shack movie unveils toxic representations of God

The following is a guest post from Orthodox theologian and author Brad Jersak (PhD)

Heresy Hunters Are At it Again
Paul Young’s bestseller finally hits the big screen on March 3. That’s news—great news—as I’ll explain shortly.
What’s not news is how the so-called ‘discernment ministries’ (a euphemism for heresy-hunters) have begun yelping. They’re recycling ‘ye olde’ objections but, typically, barking up the wrong tree.
The charge of ‘heresy’ is serious, so it ought to be taken seriously, especially by those wielding it. But as an Orthodox theologian, I confess that its sloppy use as a pejorative, grates on my doctrinal nerves.
For example, the outcry against Young’s creative portrayal of God’s ‘Threeness’ or his imaging the invisible God as a black woman betrays a crass literalism that the author obviously never intended.
Rublev’s Trinity and Modern Misogyny
Russian painter Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity (15th c.) would seem to break the same rules as The Shack, . . .


Insight from The Chronicles of Narnia:  The Trinity in The Horse and His Boy

The Horse and His Boy (HHB) is occupied with the importance of discovering one’s true identity and living out of that identity. Shasta and Aravis, along with their horses Hwin and Bree, learn through their adventures fleeing Calormene across the desert to the north that they are not who they believed themselves to be and that their true longings were fulfilled only in learning and living into their true identities

          Lewis wrote this series of stories out of the Christian convictions that grounded and shaped his own life. The emphasis on identity in HHB is consistent with those convictions. However, there is one other identity that comes into clearer focus in this story. And that is the identity of God. Throughout the series we have heard of the Emperor-beyond-the-sea (analogous to God the Father in Christianity), seen Aslan in action (analogous to God the Son), and, if we’ve read carefully, noticed how Aslan’s “breath” brings life to whatever it is breathed on. Aslan is the Emperor’s Son, Creator and Lord of Narnia, but Aslan’s breath is never related to the Emperor the way we find the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are occasionally in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 13:13).                                                                                                                                           

Lewis writes in Mere Christianity of the fundamental importance of God’s triunty: “The whole dance or drama or pattern of this three-Personal life is being played out in each one of us: or putting it the other way round, each of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we are made.”

Narnia and Aslan and all that happens there is analogous in certain ways to the Christian story. As we have just seen, Lewis believed the triune character of the Christian God is integral to that story. It would be surprising, then, if some trace of that view of God did not find its way into The Chronicles in spite of the obvious difficulties involved. Such a trace is found, in my view, in the following interaction between Shasta and a Presence Shasta suddenly realizes is at his side as he wanders alone on a mountain trail.

“Who are you?” asked Shasta. “Myself,” said the Voice, very deep and low so              that the earth shook: and again “Myself,” loud and clear and gay: and then            the third time “Myself,” whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet             it seemed to come from all round you as if the leaves rustled with it.”

It is hard to think this is not an allusion to the Christian understanding of God as triune. The deep, low, earth-shaking “Myself” is the voice of the Father. The “loud, clear, and gay” voice that of the Son, and whispered “Myself” that of the Spirit. The “Myself” alludes to Exodus 3:14, “I am who I am.”

Lewis stands dead-center in the heart of the historic Christian faith with his views on the trinity. Participating in the dance of love of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit is human fulfillment, God’s intention for us. Graciously invited and welcomed to share in this relationship we experience and practice the love that brought us and our world into being. Baxter Kruger tells this lovely story to illustrate what this participation in God’s life is like:

“Many years ago when my son was six (he’s 18 now), I was sitting on the          couch in the den sorting through junk mail on a Saturday afternoon. He and          his buddy came in and they were decked out in their camouflage, face paint,     plastic guns and knives, the whole nine yards. My son peers around the corn-           er of the door and looks at me, and the next thing I know, he comes flying      through the air and jumps on me. We start wrestling and horsing around and        we end up on the floor. Then his buddy flies into us and all three of us are just       like a wad of laughter.

“Right in the middle of that event the Lord spoke to me and said to pay atten-      tion. I’m thinking, it’s Saturday afternoon, your son comes in and you’re hors-        ing around on the floor, it happens every day all over the world, so what’s the         big deal? Then it started to dawn on me that I didn’t know who this other kid       was. I had never met him. He had never met me. So I re-wound the story and               thought about what would have happened if this little boy would have walked        into my den alone. Remember, he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him, and         he didn’t know my name and I didn’t know his name. So he looks over and sees            me, a complete stranger, sitting on the couch. Would he fly through the air and engage me in play? Would we end up in a pile of laughter on the floor? Of course not. That is the last thing that would have happened.

“Within himself, that little boy had no freedom to have a relationship with me.                  We were strangers. He had no right to that kind of familiarity and fellowship. But    my son knows me. My son knows that I love him and that I accept him and that    he’s the apple of my eye. So in the knowledge of my love and affection, he did       the most natural thing in the world. He dove into my lap. The miracle that hap-  pened was that my son’s knowledge of my acceptance and delight, and my son’s freedom for fellowship with me, rubbed off onto that other little boy. He got to experience it. That other little boy got to taste and feel and know my son’s relationship with me. He participated in my son’s life and communion with me.”[1]

          Unless God is triune, the mystery of the one-in-three and three-in-one deity, he has no shared life to invite us to share in. Love requires an other and shared love requires a third outside itself for genuine community. The Father loves the Son, the Son returns the love of the Father, and both love the Spirit who is the eternal bond of their shared love. However abstract and inadequate such language may seem, and it is, it points beyond itself to the reality Lewis gestures toward with his three-fold “Myself” in HHB. And to the experience Baxter Kruger shares which is a real but dim expression of the difference God’s tri-unity makes. It seems appropriate, then, to close with the Pauline expression of this truth I referenced above, 2 Corinthians 13:13: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of[a] the Holy Spirit be with all of you.


Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds

New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason.

In 1975, researchers at Stanford invited a group of undergraduates to take part in a study about suicide. They were presented with pairs of suicide notes. In each pair, one note had been composed by a random individual, the other by a person who had subsequently taken his own life. The students were then asked to distinguish between the genuine notes and the fake ones.

Some students discovered that they had a genius for the task. Out of twenty-five pairs of notes, they correctly identified the real one twenty-four times. Others discovered that they were hopeless. They identified the real note in only ten instances.

As is often the case with psychological studies, the whole setup was a put-on. Though half the notes were indeed genuine—they’d been obtained from the Los Angeles County coroner’s office—the scores were fictitious. The students who’d been told they were almost always right were, on average, no more discerning than those who had been told they were mostly wrong.