C. S. Lewis—Clive Staples, or, to his friends, Jack—is the author of the beloved children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia.
We say children’s series. But have you ever read them: The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy; and so on? These seven books are profound. And while they do indeed tell stories that children enjoy—for their telling is simple enough—their content can be contemplated for a lifetime.
We might call Lewis an accidental theologian. For, though a scholar of medieval literature by vocation, his heart, soul, mind, and strength bubbled a love for Christ that cannot but be noticed in everything he wrote, whether scholarly article or so-called children’s series. He’s a man definitely worth getting to know.
I want to spend some time today focusing on the seventh (and final) book in the Chronicles, called The Last Battle; for a major theme from this story is also a major theme in the words we hear from Jesus in today’s Gospel. This section of the Gospel of John, by the way, is a prayer. Jesus is praying for his followers; Jesus is praying for us. Theologians refer to this prayer of Jesus as the High Priestly Prayer.
There’s that age-old question: What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens? Well, if you will, my question today is: What does the High Priestly Prayer have to do with The Last Battle?
So then, to set the stage, The Chronicles of Narnia largely follow the lives of four children, siblings, the Pevensies: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.
In the second book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie children enter a land, Narnia, through a magical wardrobe. Narnia is entirely unknown to anyone on earth. Some of the animals there talk. There are mythological creatures come to life too: Fauns, dryads, naiads, centaurs, and so on. Ultimately, the ruler of all of that foreign world—including Narnia and its other lands: Calormen, Archenland, the Seven Isles—is a lion named Aslan. Aslan—spoiler alert!—is analogously Jesus Christ.
So I’ve mentioned the wardrobe and the lion; if you want to know how and where the witch fits in, read the book!—or talk to me later.
In the seventh book, The Last Battle, three of the Pevensie children—who are quite a bit older now—find themselves in Narnia once more. This time, apparently, they have been summoned to help the present king, Tirian, fight what at first appears to be a routine battle. Yet, as the story continues, Aslan appears and all characters realize that this battle is not routine at all, but will be the final battle between Narnia and Calormen.
But not all is lost. Aslan appears and establishes two doorways. All the world’s subjects will pass through one or the other.
When Peter, Edmund, and Lucy pass through the doorway on the right, they have no idea what they will find on the other side. But when they get there, they find themselves in familiar surroundings!
Presently they see familiar Narnian sights. There’s the castle, Cair Paravel! There’s the lamppost, the very first object they’d ever noticed when they’d first entered Narnia so long ago.
But then, focusing far away, like standing on one mountain peak and looking to another, they see familiar sights from London. St, Paul’s Cathedral. Westminster Abbey. Even some buildings that had been lost in the war to German bombings.
Somehow—it now dawns on them—this world beyond the door is everything the old world was but better, richer, fuller. The old world—the world in which we live—is a mere shadowland compared to what the new heavens and the new earth will be.
Now we see only in part; but then we shall see much more fully!
Have you ever heard the accusation that Christianity is an escape from reality? Or, if the person saying it is feeling especially harsh, that reality is an escape from Christianity? Have you ever heard this?
But—to reflect for a moment—is escape always wrong?
On the one hand, we know escape can be wrong. We all know people who have turned to drugs or alcohol as a means of temporary escape from reality. Perhaps you’ve done it yourself.
Without going into the dangers and damaging effects of such a practice, we all can agree that this is not an effective means of escape from reality. For drugs or alcohol merely suppresses the pain for a moment; they do nothing to produce hope.
But, on the other hand, consider this:
A long-time gospel favorite is the song “I’ll Fly Away.” Some glad mornin’, when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away; to that home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away. . . .
The focus here is escape. Life now, as we know it, is hard. We have bills to pay, obligations to meet, and often burdensome responsibilities to maintain. The constancy of these realities can wear us down. We might justifiably daydream about life in the new heavens and earth.
And what we experience in our daily lives—by and large anyway—is nothing in comparison to the hardships experienced by, say, American slaves a century-and-a-half ago. Imagine having to live a life as someone else’s property! And any acts of rebellion such as running away, or even natural processes such as growing too old to be any longer productive, were subject to brutal punishments or even death—without any means of appeal!
Many a great gospel song finds its roots here, in the oppressed American south.
In this case, and others like it, I submit to you that escape isn’t so wrong. Songs of escape—theologies of deliverance—offer hope. And hope can produce all manner of goodness in a person, even the ability to love and forgive a harsh slaveowner.
C. S. Lewis was accused by critics and skeptics of escaping from reality in his fantasy books—in his Chronicles of Narnia. These are children’s books, the argument goes; they encourage escaping from reality. And escaping from reality is not good; not something we want to encourage in children. Therefore children shouldn’t be allowed to read these books.
(And we see that the controversies surrounding Harry Potter—an example from more recent history—are nothing new.)
Well, I think you know where I stand on this already, from my point about escape not always being bad. But where did Mr. Lewis stand?
He answers this question in another book, called Surprised by Joy. This book is really a testimony, how he came to faith in Jesus Christ. From early on in his childhood, he explains, even from his earliest memories, he would catch glimpses of something—he couldn’t totally explain it—that would suggest a fuller reality. He felt it once when he viewed the mountains on the Irish horizon. He felt it another time when reading the Beatrix Potter story Squirrel Nutkin (if I remember correctly).
This sense of a fuller reality compelled him from early life that this material world in which we live—the here and now—is not all there is. Life can be so much fuller, he was persuaded; life can be so much richer. But how?
For C. S. Lewis—as for us—the answer is found in faith in Jesus Christ.
And for him the literary genre of fantasy was in fact a means of expressing this fuller, richer reality.
That was his answer to his critics; and he demonstrated this through The Last Battle, in which the heroes of the story enter a richer, fuller reality upon passing through the door on Aslan’s right.
Fantasy for Lewis, then, is not an escape from reality. If it is an escape at all, it is an escape to a fuller reality.
Now, as promised, we come to today’s Gospel, the Gospel of John.
The community in which John lived, and to which he wrote, was a persecuted community. It had been excommunicated from the focal point of its larger community, the synagogue. By the time the Gospel of John was written, this excommunicated group of Christ-believers—of Christians—had banded together, retreating from their larger community, feeling ostracized, excluded, and otherwise rejected. No doubt they wrestled with feelings of escape—escaping from their world; their reality.
In the Gospel written to this community, then, Jesus prays his high priestly prayer. He prays on their behalf, to his heavenly Father, for them. And he states, repeats, and reiterates that they are not of the world, but that they are in the world:
- I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.
- But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.
- I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.
- They do not belong to the world.
- As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.
Christ’s disciples are not called to escape from their reality. If anything, they are called to escape to a new, fuller reality, where they remain in the world but are not of the world.
And Jesus wasn’t just praying for that community—those disciples in that day. In today’s Gospel Jesus is praying for all disciples in whatever community we find ourselves. In today’s Gospel Jesus prays for us.
May we dwell now in that fuller reality that is the Kingdom of God.