Devin Brown is a Professor of English at Asbury University where he teaches a class on C. S. Lewis. He is the author of Inside Narnia (2005), Inside Prince Caspian (2008), and Inside the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010).
“Further Up and Further In”
Narnia as an Introduction to Lewis’s Thought and Theology
In The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis presents in story form many ideas that he further develops in his non-fiction writings. The following five lessons each explore a major concept from Lewis’s thought and theology found in the Narnia stories and connect it with what Lewis had to say about this topic in his other works.
NOTE: Since there are a number of different editions of most of Lewis’s books, each with different page numbers, chapter numbers or names will be given to help anyone who wants to look up specific passages.
LESSON 1: “He Isn’t Safe But He’s Good”: Lewis’s View of Divine Love and Divine Sovereignty
In chapter eight of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as Mr. Beaver is trying to describe what Aslan is like, Susan jumps in to ask, “Is he—quite safe?”
We might ask the same question about Christ, and the answer we would like to hear might be something like, “Of course, coming to Christ will be perfectly safe.”
“Who said anything about safe”? Mr. Beaver replies. “Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
Four chapters later when the group finally meets Aslan, Lewis’s narrator tells us, “But as for Aslan himself, the Beavers and the children didn’t know what to do or say when they saw him. People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time.”
Lewis provides this image of Aslan, who is both good and terrible at the same time, for Christians who may have an image of God that is out of balance. Some may have a conception of a God who is only terrible, a God who is only fear-inspiring. They need to be reminded that God is also good and compassionate. Others may have an image of a God who is only safe and huggable. Lewis would remind them that the God of the universe is not just a larger version of their favorite grandparent.
During the celebrations in the book’s final chapter, Aslan slips away without any notice, and we hear Mr. Beaver’s words to the children: “He’ll be coming and going…. One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down—and of course he has other countries to attend to… He’ll drop in often. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”
Lewis returns to this subject of Aslan not being tame or subject to anyone’s control in the first chapter of The Silver Chair. There as Eustace and Jill are trying to evade the Experiment House bullies, they decide to ask Aslan to let them into Narnia. Eustace points out that they cannot “make him do things.” He tells Jill, “Really, we can only ask him.” Later in chapter two, Jill, who is desperately thirsty, wants to drink from a stream which the great lion is next to. She asks, “Will you promise not to—do anything to me, if I do come?”
“I make no promise,” Aslan answers—clearly indicating that he is neither safe nor tame.
In chapter fourteen of Letters to Malcolm, Lewis takes up the topic of “a safe God” or “a tame God” and reminds us, “He comes not only to raise up but to cast down.” There Lewis also cautions against “the feebleness of all those watered versions of Christianity which leave out all the darker elements and try to establish a religion of pure consolation.”
In the Narnia stories, while Aslan often comes to comfort and to console, he also comes to rebuke and admonish. He is not only good, he is terrible. He is not only terrible, he is good.
Interestingly, as a child Lewis began with an image of God that was neither good nor terrible. In the first chapter of his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis writes about his early ideas of God as a sort of vending machine, where if he did the right thing—if he could “produce by will power a firm belief”—then his wishes would be granted. Looking back on this kind of faith, faith that thought it could make God “do things,” Lewis explains: “I had approached God, or my idea of God, without love, without awe, even without fear. He was, in my mental picture …, to appear neither as Savior nor as Judge, but merely as a magician; and when He had done what was required of Him I supposed He would simply—well, go away.”
Like Susan, who would have preferred to have a safe Aslan, we, too, sometimes want a God who will be all consolation and no correction. In chapter three of The Problem of Pain, Lewis writes, “What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven.” Lewis goes on to note that if our concept of God’s love evokes merely an image of this kind of smiling, benevolent grandparent who only coddles and never disciplines, then our conception of God’s love needs to be changed.
Lewis was well aware that the potter’s hand which shapes flawed humans into something perfect, while always needed, might not always be pleasant. He concludes his discussion from chapter three of The Problem of Pain this way: “It is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less…. We may wish, indeed, that we were of so little account to God that He left us alone to follow our natural impulses—that He would give over trying to train us into something so unlike our natural selves: but once again, we are asking not for more Love, but for less.”
Behind God’s correction and consolation, Lewis saw the magnificent potential of each person. He also recognized the deep-seated discrepancy between who we are and who God made us to be. In the chapter titled “Counting the Cost” from Mere Christianity, Lewis presents God’s radical invitation to us this way:
“‘Make no mistake,’ He says, ‘if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for, Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away. But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through.’”
1. How does your own concept of God relate to Lewis’s notion of Aslan being good and terrible at the same time?
2. How do our images of Divine Love and Divine Sovereignty sometimes become distorted?
3. What can be done to correct our imperfect images of Divine Love and Divine Sovereignty?
Devin Brown is an English Professor at Asbury University and the author of Inside Narnia (2005), Inside Prince Caspian (2008), and Inside the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010).