CWR asked 15 prominent Christians to reveal the book that has most impacted their lives and collected their thoughts into one book. In this exclusive extract from ‘The Read of My Life’, Mark Stibbe explains why C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles have powerfully influenced him.
If there really is a door in this house to some other world ...I should not be at all surprised to find that that other world had a separate time of its own; so that however long you stayed there it would never take up any of our time - from 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' by C.S. Lewis [copyright CS Lewis Pte. Ltd 1950]
One of my favourite memories from my childhood has to do with our family holidays in Scotland. Every summer we would leave the south of England and head up by car and train to the faraway reaches of the northwest isles. The little fishing village of Ullapool was our favourite holiday venue. We often stayed in a somewhat frugal little house on a high hill overlooking the expansive splendour of Loch Broom. From time to time we saw otters. On one occasion I remember my father and I went fishing in a small boat on the loch and a huge basking shark made an appearance alongside our frail vessel. 'Time to be getting back, I think,' were the only words my father uttered.
These days glimmer like gold in my memory. Of course, it is always possible to indulge in idealism when remembering things past. The poet Wordsworth - perhaps my father's favourite - called it 'emotion recollected in tranquillity'. I tend to forget the midges that feasted on our flesh every time we ventured outside, the occasional family rows over typically trivial issues, and the sometimes aggravating consequences of the lack of creature comforts. But one thing I do remember fondly, and without exaggeration, were the evenings. Without television or radio, we were forced to think outside the 'box' so my father came up with the idea of reading to us. And that is what he did.
Every evening, my brother, sister and I would listen to Dad reading as he moved to and fro in the rather creaky old rocking chair. As the light faded so too his reading would gradually decrease in volume. But not before we had been exposed to often several hours of enchantment. When the chair stopped rocking my mother would quietly gather us up and put us to bed, leaving Dad snoring where he had been sitting. But we would often not sleep. My twin Claire and I would retire to our shared bedroom and start creating our own mythic universes. An unquenchable passion for storytelling had been ignited in our hearts.My father read us many books during those golden days. But the one that made the most lasting impact was the first he ever read to us, C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia).
I am not entirely sure why he chose to begin our 'reading evenings' withthis particular work. We went on to The Lord of the Rings and other greatworks of literature. But I have a feeling we started with Narnia becauseDad had been a friend of its author. Along with several other promisingOxford undergraduates, my father had been given the privilege of meetingevery week with C.S. Lewis for dinner and debate. Humphrey Carpentermakes reference to Dad and to these dinners in his seminal study, The Inklings.
Whatever the reason, Dad started with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and we were immediately hooked. As the darkness drew in during those summer evenings, my sister, brother and I were held spellbound by the magic and mystery of the parallel world of Narnia. Hearing these stories stimulated many things in me personally - not least a tendency during my early years to climb into just about every wardrobe I came across. But most of all, the book triggered a yearning in my heart that I can only describe as spiritual. I wanted to be a child of destiny, like the children in the story. I wanted to be on the right side, on the side of all that is good and selfless - Aslan's side, if you will. I wanted to be a loyal servant - not easily seduced like Edmund, but totally faithful like Lucy. Deep within my heart, Lewis's classic tale gave birth to the longings that later were to result in me coming to the One whom the great Lion symbolised, Jesus Christ, and pledging the rest of my life to His service. Of all the books that I read or heard during my childhood, this one had most influence on my life. After the Bible, it remains the book of books for me.
Myth become factIt is truly a great story. But looking back today to the time I first heard it read, I ask the question, how come a book published in 1950 had such a dramatic effect on my soul many years later?
There are many general reasons why The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has had an enduring appeal. The relationship between Narnian time and our time is undoubtedly one. The very sure sense of what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, is also appealing in an age where absolutes have been so derided and eroded. There is a sense of adventure in the book, with the children conquering hostile forces of evil against all odds. Thoroughly human issues are addressed - such as Edmund falling into temptation. Big themes are also tackled, not least the theme of redemption. And then there's the wardrobe. For all Lewis's indebtedness to E. Nesbit's The Aunt and Amabel, this remains one of the most brilliant liminal images in children's fiction (one which lesser children's writers in our own time have sought but failed to emulate). These are all general reasons that account for the lasting popularity of Lewis's children's classic.
But none of these accounts for the life-changing impact of this book on me personally. Today I would say that the main reason why The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe captivated me is because its story somehow revealed Jesus to my heart - and this well before I became a Christian. In the story of Aslan's death and resurrection I encountered something of the reality towards which these symbols pointed - namely, the suffering and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. How did that happen?
One of the things that had originally persuaded Lewis of the truth of Christianity was a discussion with Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien in the early hours of a morning in September 1931. A big obstacle to Lewis's conversion had been the subject of mythology. Lewis had always had a problem concerning pre-Christian myths of dying and rising gods. In his view, these myths were great stories but they lacked any validity - and the accounts of Jesus' death and resurrection were myths too. Dyson and Tolkien helped Lewis to see that these pre-Christian myths had a grain of truth in them and that the story of Jesus' death and resurrection is the fulfilment of all these myths in concrete actuality. It is 'myth become fact'. In this light, myth becomes what Lewis was later to describe as 'an unfocussed gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination'. Myths of dying and rising gods are preparatio evangelica - God preparing pagan hearts for the truth of the gospel. They are revelatory stories.
What Lewis saw in September 1931 was to be critical 20 years later when he wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lewis knew very well the power of storytelling to awaken desire for the truth in a human soul. He had experienced precisely this sort of thing earlier in his life when reading George MacDonald's Phantastes (probably the biggest literary influence on the Chronicles of Narnia). As Lewis set to writing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe he realised the potential of story to create a longing for Jesus, just as many pre-Christian myths had done. This did not mean that Lewis decided to construct an allegory of the Christ event - Tolkien accused him of this but Lewis strenuously denied it. Rather, he started writing a story with its own internal consistency and allowed the Christian themes that were so much a part of his own soul to 'bubble up' naturally.
I believe that these views account for the immense impact of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in my own life and in the lives of many thousands of others. Aslan's death and resurrection functioned in my soul as a preparation for accepting the good news of Jesus. I became a Christian in a revival at my school, Winchester College, in 1977 - ten years or so after first discovering the Chronicles of Narnia. There is no doubt, looking back now, that the figure of Aslan somehow prepared me for encountering Jesus. Lewis introduced me to Aslan. The Holy Spirit introduced me to the Person of Jesus. And this is exactly what Lewis would have wanted.
As Aslan says to Lucy at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in England he is known by another name, 'You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there'.
Back to the real worldThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is not a perfect book. I am still not convinced that Father Christmas' appearance is anything other than awkward (and in this matter I agree with Tolkien over and against Lewis). I am also not persuaded that the characterisation of Susan is anything like as fully realised as that of Lucy, her younger sister. So the story is not without its flaws. And nor was its author, C.S. Lewis, and that needs emphasising today. There has been a tendency in Protestant circles - especially in the USA - to afford C.S. Lewis the same kind of canonisation as some of the heroes of Roman Catholicism have been granted. We must resist the temptation to apotheosise Lewis and to over-esteem the Narnia stories. At the same time my own story is this: that my father's indebtedness to Lewis and his subsequent reading of the Narnia stories had a hugely significant part to play in my conversion. After I became a Christian, that impact remained. I was awarded a scholarship at Cambridge University where I read English literature. There the influence of Lewis continued to work its power. In my final year, I wrote a three-hour answer to the following question: 'What work of literature, outside the realm of the tragic genre, has most influenced your understanding of tragic stories?' I wrote about the importance of the Gospels. In Lewis-like style, I talked about pre-Christian tragedies involving the sacrifice of a hero figure (often a figure with both divine and human qualities). I talked about the facts of Jesus' death and resurrection being the historical fulfilment of the longings expressed in these tragic mythoi. In short, I spoke about tragic myth having become fact in the historical Jesus. This was a huge risk in an almost exclusively non-Christian, even anti-Christian, department. But it paid off in the end.
Then I went to seminary where I studied theology as a second degree while I was training for the ordained ministry in the Anglican Church (of which Lewis was a member). After my second degree I gained a PhD looking at the passion narrative in John's Gospel from a narrative critical perspective, entitled John as Storyteller (thereafter published by the Cambridge University Press in 1992). One of the things I did there was examine the comparisons between the death of Jesus in John and the mythic account of King Pentheus' death in Euripides' tragedy, The Bacchae. Once again the influence of Lewis was keenly felt.
Since that time, the fruit from those first days in Narnia continue to be experienced. When I arrived in my present post in January 1997, I preached my first message from the Song of Songs 2:8-13. There the poet declares, 'the winter is over'. I used this phrase - along with references from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - to proclaim the beginning of a new season for the church I had been called to lead, St Andrew's, Chorleywood.
One of the things I have done in recent years at St Andrew's is to develop 'movie sermons' - evangelistic sermons looking at the spiritual message in contemporary mainstream movies. This often involves pointing out Christ figures in modern cinema and has resulted in the recent book, coauthored by J. John, A Passion for the Movies. These movie sermons have been very effective in helping post-modern seekers to find Christ through the myths and stories of Hollywood. Once again, I see the influence of C.S. Lewis here.
A priceless legacyC.S. Lewis once said 'if I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing ... I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death.'
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe awakened a spiritual desire in my life as a child in the 1960s. My father's reading of the Chronicles of Narnia caused me to hunger after the reality to which these mythic tales so elegantly pointed. C.S. Lewis once wrote in Surprised by Joy that 'a desire is turned not to itself but to its object'. The object to which the desire in my heart was directed - after my very first encounter with Aslan - was simply to know Jesus. Jesus is the reality for which the myths of Narnia are really just shadows. Jesus is fact. He is truth. He is history. As Lewis once said, 'Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call "real things".' Today I look back and give thanks for my father introducing me to the man that influenced him more than any other. I give thanks for those first steps through the wardrobe door into a world that created such an awakening in my soul. I really do owe a huge debt to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for the decision I made to follow Christ nearly 30 years ago.
But I am also conscious of many other debts in the present. I owe a great deal to Lewis for a balanced understanding of God's transcendent, awesome otherness and his immanent, affectionate nearness. Much of this sense of balance comes from Lewis's portrayal of Aslan, who Mr Beaver tells Lucy is not safe but is good. Lucy herself says in The Magician's Nephew that with Aslan she was never sure whether she was playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten. That is a perfect description of the transcendence and immanence we find in the biblical description of Jesus Christ. These, among many other influences from Narnia, have unquestionably affected me in the ongoing present.
And I believe there is a future legacy too. Recently I took my whole family (including four children) to Adam Adamson's faithful cinematic version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. My youngest son, Sam (nine years old) has heard at least three of the Narnia stories read to him at bedtime. His face was wide-eyed with wonder as we all watched the story came to life on the big screen. All of us felt a lump in our throats as Aslan made his first appearance in the film. Who knows what kind of longer legacy will flow from C.S. Lewis's imagination in my family? My 16-year-old daughter Hannah is talking of studying film at university and eventually writing a screenplay for That Hideous Strength. Who knows what lies ahead?
Ultimately, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the Narnia books set me on course for heaven. And that is perhaps the best place to end this short tribute to the book - after the Bible of course - that without a doubt has most influenced me spiritually and intellectually. I have written a lot about the first of the seven Chronicles of Narnia. But the seventh is equally impressive. The Last Battle - published in 1956 - justly received a prize for outstanding children's literature. It presents in narrative form many of Lewis's beliefs about the end of the world seen from a Christian perspective. I cannot think of a better way to finish this tribute than by quoting what the narrator says of the children - praying in the process that the Holy Spirit stirs up a deep desire for heaven in your heart:We can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after.
But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventure in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one onearth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before. C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle, copyright (c) C.S. Lewis Pte. Ltd. 1956. Extract reprinted by permission.
The Read of My Life published by CWR £8.99 (ISBN 1853453862) is available from most good Christian bookshops or from CWR's on-line store: www.cwr.org.uk
Popular 21st century Christian fiction
UK sales of 'Christian fiction' in the 1990s were small outside of a couple of popular authors including Frank Peretti and Tim LaHaye who with Jerry B. Jenkins penned the 'Left Behind' series. But since then sales of Christian fiction have grown fast. However the popularity of this genre in the US is not yet equally reflected in the UK market. John Buckeridge reveals the likely most popular fiction page turners this summer.
* Karen Kingsbury's books have sold in massive numbers in the US and in recent years have become a popular choice among British women. With over 30 titles to her name Karen's inspirational books are also popular with women's reading groups. Her next novel Found is released in August. "Karen's books have helped me," says Nicola James a 30-something teacher who attends an Anglican church in southeast England. "Even though some of the dialogue may seem clichéd, they have functioned a little like a devotional, in that God seems to use the situations the characters face in Karen's novels as reminders for me about a Christian response in situations I face in my daily work." * Penny Culliford's books tap into the chicklit genre and describe the amusing daily doings of a 30-something Christian woman. Theodora's Diary and the follow-ups Theodora's Wedding and Theodora's Baby have been a popular read both sides of the Atlantic.* Frank Peretti's books about angels, demons and dragons have sold a staggering 12 million copies. This Present Darkness published in 1989, pitched Christian fiction into the field of spiritual warfare and Pentecostal and Charismatic readers loved it. Peretti's books continue to sell, he has also written a range of books for children that sell well, but nothing has got close to matching the popularity of Present Darkness. * A recent release, The Fall of Lucifer is written by Wendy Alec, the creative director of Christian satellite channel, God TV. The first of what could become a popular series of books entitled The Chronicles of Brothers, this tale begins pre- the creation of the world and describes how the relationship between Lucifer, Michael and Gabriel breaks down through Lucifer's rebellion. The embellishment of what little scripture reveals about Satan's rebellion, will not endear her to conservative evangelicals. I found her page-turning style over-the-top, but can see how this will appeal to many Peretti and Harry Potter fans. * Former Anglican vicar GP Taylor has achieved huge sales with his ripping yarn about a group of kids who are pitched into an allegorical good verses evil tale. Taylor sold his motorbike to raise enough cash to publish his first novel Shadowmancer which is now a best seller and is highly visible in mainstream bookshop shelves. Follow up books Wormwood and Tersias have consolidated his popularity with younger readers as well as some adults. * Cindy Thomson's historical novel Brigid of Ireland is one of a growing pile of novels published by Monarch an imprint of UK publisher LionHudson. Monarch's commissioning editor Tony Collins is shrewd and brave and has chosen to publish a significant amount of Christian fiction. Thomson's Brigid convincingly embellishes the few known facts about this 5th century national heroine into a compelling Celtic Christian tale of derring do.
Dr Mark Stibbe is the vicar of St Andrews, Chorleywood and a prolific author - his books include the bestselling, Prophetic Evangelism.