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EPISODE 57: Biblical Themes in Narnia

C. S. Lewis wove dozens of Biblical themes into his Narnia Chronicles. But some of them may escape our notice. Christin Ditchfield has written a helpful guide so we don’t miss them - and can teach them to our children and grandchildren in delightful ways.

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Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and today we're going to Narnia. Well, we're going to explore a guide to Narnia from a great book written by Christin Ditchfield, who's written A Family Guide to Narnia: Biblical Truths in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. Christin, welcome to Questions That Matter.

It's great to be with you. Thanks for having me.

Now, we've had you involved with our ministry a number of times. You did a video presentation for us about Lewis and Narnia, and so this dovetails with some of those things, and we're going to give some references or links to your ministry. You have written so much. You've written 80 books, and I think you must write books faster than I read them. And I'm so delighted with the way the Lord has blessed you to be so prolific. From what I see from your writings and your website, you have a deep, deep passion for people to find a deeper relationship with the Lord.

Yes.

So tell us about that. How have you arrived at this place where you sense your calling is to call people to a deeper walk with the Lord Jesus?

Well, my grandmother told me many years ago that, when I was three years old, I used to line up my stuffed animals in front of the staircase, and I would drag my cousin and my brother, who were in their diapers, and plop them down with the stuffed animals, and I would climb up on the stairs and preach to them.

Nice!

I would tell them what the word of God says. I've been passionate about Jesus for as long as I can remember, but I also grew up in the church with a strong Christian tradition, and I learned how easy it is for us to take that for granted, for our faith to be more of the background of our lives or more of kind of a cultural thing. It's part of our family and part of our upbringing, part of our community, but not something that we really appropriate on a personal level. And sometimes it takes a lot for us to break through kind of all those layers of what we grew up with or that tradition and really understand what it means to have a personal relationship with Christ and to grow in that relationship on a daily basis and to overcome the obstacles and challenges that we face. It's not always easy to grow in our faith. It's not always easy to walk with Jesus. And some of us hit roadblocks. We stumble over issues, questions in our hearts and lives and things that… misunderstandings, misconceptions, and we get sidetracked or distracted or pulled away. And so, as someone who has been on that journey and is constantly asking God to bring me back to Him and keep me in close fellowship with Him, I'm excited to encourage others to do the same and to share what I'm learning along the way.

Yeah. Here's something from your website: You say, “Over the years, I've met so many people like me, people who love Jesus but sometimes feel overwhelmed or distracted or disconnected from Him.” And you wrote this book that we're going to be talking about almost twenty years ago, but it seems to me that things have gotten more difficult and we're more distracted and the things we're distracted by are really disturbing. And so this call to a deeper discipleship is so very, very crucial. I wonder if we could take a minute. Let's not go too far on this, but why do you think it is that, generally speaking, we tend to have a shallow Christianity, at least in America?

Well, the short answer to that that no one is going to like is we haven't had enough suffering.

Yeah, right. No one's going to like that. But I think you're right.

I mean it's suffering and persecution and being really forced to grow. I think that is changing for many of us. And many of us individually and personally have experienced great suffering. I'm not saying no one individual hasn't had more than their share, but as a culture, as a Christian church, we've had a lot of prosperity, and we've had a lot of advantages that the church in the rest of the world doesn't have. It hasn't cost us much to follow Jesus. It hasn't required a whole lot of us. In our area, we’ve got five different Christian radio stations and dozens of Christian bookstores, and we've got scripture verses slapped on every flat surface. And it becomes part of that background of our lives, not our lifeline sometimes. And so it takes personal suffering, individual struggles and challenges, and corporate challenges, challenges in our culture and in the world, to help us, to force us to realize how much we desperately need Jesus and remind us to cling to Him.

Well, I'm afraid that I think you're right, and I'm afraid that that's changing. The temperature is getting hotter in our culture. So, well, let's turn our attention to C.S. Lewis, because he turned our attention to this reality of suffering. That was certainly a pretty significant theme in his own life. And he also faced some real persecution for taking a stand for the Christian faith in his academic world there at Oxford. So you've written this book, A Family Guide to Narnia, where, as Wayne Martindale wrote in the forward to your book, Lewis brought things from scripture and then wove those themes into his Narnia stories. And you've gone and looked at the Narnia stories and shown what those biblical themes are, so it's full cycle. I think it's safe to say Lewis was so immersed in the biblical worldview, the biblical thinking, that these things just kind of seeped in to the Narnia stories. And in some places they're so subtle that we could miss them or not feel the force of them. And you've written a great book to help us not miss those things, and I'm really grateful for it.

Let's just pick one. What is a theme in Narnia that is obviously from scripture, but you wanted to make sure that people didn't miss it? You wanted to highlight it and really show the biblical depth behind this moment in the story.

Oh, my goodness. There are so many to choose from. But you know what? I will grab one that just is relevant to what we're talking about in our Christian life. Two of the later Chronicles, The Silver Chair and The Last Battle, have a lot to say about undergoing suffering, living through hard times, finding your faith challenged, and how to resist evil and stand firm. And I think of, in The Silver Chair, where Aslan sends Jill and Eustace on a quest, and he gives them some signs to watch for that will help them carry out their mission. And he tells them to remember and remember and remember the signs. Repeat them to yourself constantly. And that immediately reminds me of the scripture in Deuteronomy, where it says, “These truths, these commandments that I give you are to be upon your hearts. Write them across your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses. Talk about them with your children as you walk along the way.” Live in that truth and let it live in you so that you recognize what's going on in the world, so that you know good from evil, so that you have courage and strength to take a stand and to live a life that honors God. You need to have the Word ever before you. Otherwise, as Jill discovers in the Silver Chair, it becomes all too easy to forget, to be distracted, to be pulled away, and to find yourself in all kinds of trouble.

Yeah, there's so many times for me, reading Lewis—I certainly felt this way the first time I read The Screwtape Letters. I feel this way whenever I go back and visit these spots in Narnia. I don't know. I don't want to say I'm deceived, but I'm lured in with, “Oh, this is going to be fun. This is going to be funny. I'm going to laugh,” and I get two pages into The Screwtape Letters and think, “Oh, this is a lot more probing than I would have liked.”

So I'm bouncing all over the place. Your book, it goes through each of the books and each of the chapters in each of the books, and what are the biblical themes there? And so when I came to the section of Prince Caspian, my first thought when I think of Prince Caspian is—well, I'm really hoping I'm remembering this right. That's where Reepicheep shows up, yes? Or is he in Dawn Treader?

He's in the Dawn Treader.

When I get there, I'm reminded, “Reepicheep. Oh, the talking mouse. Oh, this is going to be so much fun. This is going to be silly,” and then it's, “Oh, wait a minute. There’s some really, really serious themes here.” And in Caspian the theme about God is in control. These are difficult times, there's opposition, there's signs all around of the other side winning, and yet we need to remember, “Okay, God is in control here. Aslan is still Aslan. The Lord Jesus is still Lord Jesus.” And so, yeah, these are children's books, but boy, the depth and the theological richness to them is really quite, quite strong. Am I close to remembering any of this?

Yes. You're right. We meet Reepicheep at the very end of Prince Caspian, and then he becomes a central character in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. But yes, Prince Caspian. A lot of people would say, “Well, there's not so many spiritual things.” We all know that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has the story of Aslan dying for a sinner and being raised from the dead, and we can see Jesus in that. A lot of people think there is isn't much spiritual truth in Prince Caspian, but actually it's all about, again like The Silver Chair and The Last Battle, it's all about remaining strong in our faith, in our hope, in our courage, even in dark times, even when we have to go into hiding. The Old Narnians in Prince Caspian, they're forced underground. They are attacked and oppressed, and they have to find a way to hold on to their faith and to believe that Aslan is coming again, right? That he will return. And they have to find a way to believe and to keep faithful, even in spite of persecution and opposition. And some of them do and some of them don't. And there, they are a lesson for us.

And then of course, Reepicheep becomes one of the ultimate examples. He reminds me so much of David in scripture, a man after God's own heart, that Reepicheep’s whole life and longing is about seeking God's face and walking in His light, in His presence and what a role model for us.

I regularly talk about all of the resources that we've put together at the C.S. Lewis Institute, and I want to highlight one right now. It's our Keeping the Faith, and it is a whole library and collection of resources for you, parents and grandparents. It's a whole entire program with courses and materials that have been developed to equip you, parents and grandparents and other caring adults, for intentional discipleship of the children that God has placed in your life. And we've got videos, we've got articles, we've got study courses. This is one of the things we've made as a major emphasis on our newly designed, award winning website. And I really want to encourage you to check it out. And even if you are not a parent, that you'll check it out and recommend it to the parents that you know or perhaps use it at your church in Sunday school. It's a wealth of things, resources for equipping the next generation of disciples.

We've touched on this theme of persecution a number of times, but I think for a lot of us it's much more subtle and therefore much more hideous. It’s these are ideas that are floating around in culture, and they're so dominant, and they can really discourage us internally, in our own mental ruminations. And so I love the fact that there's a theme talked about in the forward, again by Wayne Martindale, where he talks about how Lewis had a biblical imagination. And that phrase is really helpful for me, to allow the themes and stories and pictures and analogies in Scripture to fuel my own imagination. Not to go wherever my own crazy mind or my flesh will go, but to expand and think about these themes in imaginative ways. Can you speak to that a little bit more?

Absolutely. It's really important to remember, and I kept this uppermost in my mind when I was writing this book, that Lewis wasn't setting out to write a bunch of trite Sunday school lessons, a bunch of cliche bumper sticker Christian moral lessons that we can use to train up our children. He was writing these amazing stories that came out of his imagination, but because he was, as someone once put it, the most thoroughly converted man, his faith was so transformative, it came spilling out everywhere, including in his fabulous stories. And so when we read them, even though they're fiction, even though they're fairy tale, they give us a deep longing for those greater spiritual truths. They remind us. They have echoes of biblical parallels and principles. They can help us understand Scripture, maybe even better than we have before, if our eyes are open, if our ears are open, maybe if we have a little help to point us in the right direction and figure out which of those scriptures he's referring to. But they're all over the place in the stories, and he set such a good example for us. We don't have to be preachy to preach the gospel. We don't have to be screechy in the way that we proclaim the truth. We can use imagination and art and culture and story, and in some ways that helps us more than ever to understand and have our faith come alive.

Well, you used the phrase “a little help.” “We just need a little help.” Well, that's what your book is, except that it's a lot of help. It's not a little. And you've written this as… well, it’s called a family guide. It's for parents, right? Well, I mean, it's for children as well, too, but it's for parents, how to read The Chronicles of Narnia with your children. And I want to quickly add or with your grandchildren. That's the stage I'm at now. Soon to be reading Narnia to the grandchildren. We're not there yet. Right now, we’re still reading Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss, which I'm not so sure—there probably are biblical themes, but not as many as are in Narnia.

Yes.

Wait. Now I'm thinking. “Biblical themes in Green Eggs and Ham.”

There are!

I'm sure there are. Okay. But let's take a moment for you to be a little bit for us of… give us some very, very pragmatic helps. How would you hope a parent or a grandparent would use this family guide as they're reading the Narnia stories with their children or grandchildren?

That's a great question. And we called it, my publisher and I, when we came up with the title, we called it a family guide because we figured it's probably mostly going to be used by families, by parents, by grandparents, aunts and uncles. I'm an aunt of many nieces and nephews that I love introducing to Narnia. Teachers, youth workers. Of course, you can also use it as an individual. You don't have to have kids or have kids that you're reading The Chronicles to. But we needed to come up with a title for it, and that's where we went. And the idea is not that you would sit there and read all of this text aloud to your kids or grand kids or youth group. The idea is that it's kind of like… well, we used to call it Cliff Notes. I think it's called SparkNotes today. It's kind of like a quick hit literature guide, but a biblical scriptural guide, that you can use to kind of brush up on those spiritual truths, be familiar with the themes, so that as you are reading the story together, as you're talking about the story, you have at your fingertips those Scripture references. It came out of an experience I had as a teacher. I was actually reading The Chronicles of Narnia to a bunch of middle school kids, and there were moments when I wanted to pause and say, “Okay. Hey, did you notice that? Did you get that?” I wanted to point out that spiritual truth. I knew it was a teachable moment, but I couldn't always remember, “Wait, was it Jesus that said that? Or was that Paul? Am I thinking of an Old Testament scripture here? Is this in the Psalms? I know there's a verse that says that,” and it wasn't an opportune time to pull out a concordance and start hunting for it.

Yeah, yeah.

So what I did was try to try to put them all together and put them in such a way that you could briefly look over it before or after story time or family devotions. You could read from it. It's written to be readable, but mostly to give those who are sharing the stories with others or using them on their own some guidance about where to go from here, how to talk about the story in scriptural terms.

Yeah. And that's exactly what your book does. For each chapter, you have just a page of, so here's a Scripture, here's biblical parallels and principles, here are a couple of questions, and then here are some other scriptures to explore.

As you're working on the book, I'm sure that you already had lots of ideas of different parts of Narnia that pointed to different parts of the Scripture. Were there some surprises for you when you got to a certain chapter in a certain book and say, “Oh, I don't think I saw that before,” or maybe if it's not a total surprise, something that struck you with much more force than before when you had been just reading the Chronicles on your own?

Absolutely. I mean, I spent several months once I—I worked on it off and on for several years. But once we had the green light from the publisher, and we knew what form we wanted it to take, and I was sat there. I spent day after day in the scripture, chapter by chapter, and probably the biggest thing that surprised me was how much content there was. I was a little worried when we decided on this format. Is there going to be enough in every chapter? Well, there might have been one or two chapters in all of the Chronicles where we're pushing it just a little bit. Maybe it's mostly a travel journey scene, and I put in a scripture or two about our spiritual journey or something. But, many cases, there was so much I had to cut down. I had to focus on the key scripture references.

But just to give you one example of one of my favorites that I'm not sure I had thought about until I read it again and was really paying attention, is from The Horse and His Boy, where Shasta is walking along the side of a mountain, and there's a mysterious figure walking with him that appears out of the mist. He can't quite see it. And Shasta is downhearted and depressed and upset and miserable and full of self pity, and the creature beside him says, “Tell me your troubles,” and invites him to pour out his heart. And then he begins to tell him how he has completely misunderstood his own personal journey and how every step of the way, Aslan has been there for him. And suddenly the mist clears, and who is it walking beside him but Aslan himself? And I'm not sure when I first connected that with the Road to Emmaus, but I've never been able to forget it. How Jesus meets us in our place of discouragement and hopelessness and disappointment, and He walks beside us, and He helps us to see with new eyes what we've been going through, what He’s been doing in our hearts and lives. He walks beside us. He's with us. And what a powerful moment when we can recognize Him and become aware of His presence and receive what He has to say to us through those moments.

Oh, that's so important! I love that! I'm reading a book now about anxiety—that gives you an idea about something I'm going through—by Ed Welch. And I really hope we can have Ed on this podcast sometime. But he builds this whole very small book about around that passage in Philippians. “Be anxious for nothing, but with prayer….” And then there's this phrase tucked into that passage: “The Lord is near.” And I think, so many times when I've read that, I just sort of skim over that. Well, he wants to say, this is the most important thing for you to remember when you're going through fearful times or anxious times or persecution or you're looking at the surrounding world going in some horrible directions. “The Lord is near.” And I love that. So reading The Horse and His Boy through that lens, it shapes the reading of the whole entire book.

It does.

Yeah. Can you give us another one? Is there another one that comes off the top of your head?

Sure. You were talking about fear and anxiety, and that's something I've wrestled with in my own life. And for me as a child, the idea of Aslan at the foot of my bed, I could picture that more easily sometimes than imagining Jesus sitting there. But it was one and the same to me. I understood that, even as a small child. I would picture Aslan being there for me, just like he was for the children. And there are numerous scenes, but there's one I want to get to.

There's one where in The Horse and His Boy, he's the cat that comforts Shasta in the tombs. And then in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which we talked about a few minutes ago, if you remember, the crew is on the ship, and they're sailing toward this dark island, where all of their worst nightmares come true. And they are feeling the fear begin to grip them and the darkness begin to grip them. And Lucy's up in the crow’s nest, and all of a sudden she sees a bird that’s shaped like a cross, an albatross that comes and circles the mast and begins to lead them out of the darkness. An albatross is a symbol of Christ. And as it flies around the crow’s nest, she hears the voice of Aslan say, “Courage, Dear Heart.” And that's a phrase you'll see on T-shirts, and many of us have taken that phrase to heart. “Courage, Dear Heart.” As even in that darkest moment, He is there, and He is leading the way out of the darkness. We just need to lift up our eyes and look for Him.

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And I think what Lewis does so very, very well in these books is he creates moods. So he doesn't just tell us they were going through a scary time, he creates this scary time. He immerses you in it. And so when deliverance comes, it's this sense of, “Oh, good! Oh, we needed this. We needed this provision from the Lord of escape or confidence of His nearness.” Well, that's what fiction does. Fiction helps us step into not just the truths, but the flavors of those truths. And so these books are so powerful for that.

Yes.

Can I ask you this? So what are some biblical truths that you talk about in this book that you really hope people take to heart? Because, generally speaking, they're not taking these biblical truths to heart. So are there some that you think, “This is really a big deal in Scripture, but I don't think it's a big deal in a lot of Christians’ lives.”

Wow. That's a great question. And it's hard to answer only because our world is… we are in the middle of a lot of transition and change. And so my answer maybe two years ago, it would be very different before the pandemic, right?

Yeah, yeah.

The kinds of things that we're wrestling with now. Yeah. Let me think about that. But I guess I think that what's a constant, regardless of what is changing in our world around us or what is changing—I mean, you and I are experiencing this. We're going through different things in our lives now than we did twenty years ago or thirty years ago. We're facing new challenges, and some of them are the same old, same old, but with new twists. And some of them are new and different as we get older. But something that's constant is that assurance of God's presence. I think the importance of staying in His word, of finding ways to hold on to our hope and have courage and not give up, not be distracted. We see that.

There's a lot of that in what I like to refer to as Puddleglum's profession in The Silver Chair. The witch is trying to distract the children and ridicule them for their faith and make them believe that everything that they have fought for and tried to hold onto is just fairy tales. And Puddleglum says, “Well, that may be as you say, but I'm going to live like a Narnian even if there isn't a Narnia. And I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't an Aslan,” and he makes this bold declaration that reminds me of the words of Paul: “I know Whom I have believed in. He is faithful.” And if we can find some of that fighting spirit to hold on to our faith in hard times, I think we'll do very well. And I think The Chronicles of Narnia do a fabulous job of helping us understand what that looks like.

In the book—I was not surprised by this, but it did stand out to me. So many of your themes come from the Old Testament. I think a lot of people think of Narnia as primarily a New Testament book…. That's not right. That it refers to—because it starts with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and it's such an obvious picture of the cross and the resurrection. But then throughout the rest of the Chronicles, there's lots of allusions to Old Testament narratives. Were there a few that stood out to you, again, in your writing and then even in speaking about it these past 20 years, about this book, that you really want people to engage with, wrestle with?

There are a lot of psalms and proverbs that come to life in Narnia, but I think of one of my favorites is the conversation, the confrontation with Rabadash at the end of The Horse and His Boy, when Aslan confronts the evil young prince, the arrogant young prince who has tried to destroy Narnia and destroy Archenland, and it sounds almost exactly like the conversation that God has with Cain. He says, “Sin is crouching at your door. It desires to master you, but you must resist it,” and I'm always confronted with that we have a choice. And very often the lion is standing there, Aslan is standing there, Jesus is standing there saying to us, “You’re in a precarious position, and the choice that you make next is really important. Make the right choice. Make the right choice. If you don't, there will be consequences.” Now, even in those consequences, there is still mercy and grace and forgiveness and a way back home, but it's a long road sometimes, and how much better if we can learn to hear His voice at the beginning?

Well, this is a great resource, and I'm glad that it is still gaining traction, even twenty years after it was written. It's the kind of guide that's going to be good for generation upon generation. So I'm looking forward to using it in my readings with my grandchildren, and I really do encourage our listeners to explore this and consider it as a great resource in your parenting or your grand parenting, or even in just your own discipleship, in your own spiritual growth. Any last thoughts you have for us that you want us to take away from this conversation?

Absolutely. Thank you. And thank you for all your kind words. I hope this will be a blessing to you and to your grand kids and to your listeners. At the end of The Chronicles of Narnia, we hear the call over and over. There's a refrain. “Further up, further in,” and it speaks to the fact that we can never get to the end of God. There is always more to learn, always more to grow, always more to discover about His goodness and His love and His mercy and grace. And we learn throughout our whole lifetime, and what an encouragement that is. I want to encourage your listeners today to keep growing, keep walking, keep running toward the arms of Jesus, and discover that He has so much more for you even than you can imagine right now. There's always more to learn, more to discover, if you're willing to hear His call and go further up and further in.

Oh, that's a great place to bring this to a close. Thanks so much. I think, for me, being reminded of the Narnia stories, what they do is they make things more visible. The spiritual battle can be invisible, and we can forget that it's there, but it's really crouching at the door. And the goodness and grace and love of God can also be invisible, and we could lose sight of it. But Lewis helps us bring it to the fore, which then helps us really read scripture more alive with, “Oh, yes. This is really the reality that I'm facing,” and I think I've mentioned this a bunch of times on different podcasts, but it always strikes me that we're told in Ephesians 3 Paul prays that we would know the love of Christ, which is beyond knowledge. We would know something that surpasses knowledge. We'll never get to the full knowledge of it, but we can keep growing in it. And so you've given us a resource that's helpful towards that.

To my listeners, I want to say we hope that all of our resources at the C.S. Lewis Institute help you with, that to grow in knowledge of the love of Christ, which surpasses knowledge. And that all of these resources, and we're going to link a bunch of different things in the show notes, will help you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.


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