Finding God in Narnia: The Magician’s Nephew

This is the text of a sermon preached at Christ Church New Malden in April 2017 as part of a series of seven talks on each book in C.S. Lewis’  Narnia Chronicles. Click here to listen to an audio recording of the talk.

Why has Narnia been important to me?

Magicians NephewWhy even have a series of sermons on children’s books published in the 1950s? I think the reason is that they have been incredibly important to many people in their walk of faith.

I grew up in a Christian home as the son of a vicar – and now I am the brother of two vicars! In retrospect it gave me loads of things that I am grateful for but in many ways I disliked being the ‘vicar’s son’ in a large church. People treated you differently – Sunday school teachers really did say things like ‘I would have expected more from you Jonathan’ or ‘Honestly, what would your father say?’

I think for the children of church leaders it’s hard to separate out the difference between the church culture which we were so immersed in and the actual message of Christianity itself.  I felt that church as boring and never allowed myself to be personally convicted by what I heard. Church was just somewhere I had to spend a bit of time in each week and I built defences about engaging with the message at the heart of it all.

So one of the things I am MOST grateful for is that my parents could see the importance of me hearing the message in fresh and different environment. And when I was 16, a time when I was most disconnected from the church, my mum bent my arm to go to a CYFA youth camp in Devon.

It was here that I heard the message in a fresh way.  I had a great time but I spent most of the week having fun and still keeping the message at a distance. But on the last night of this camp, the defences I had built crumbled. I remember the very specific moment on 22nd August 1988 when I felt my heart changed through the Holy Spirit.  I knew I was a Christian.

So that’s part of my own journey of faith – but what does this have to do with Narnia?

Well, it was when I returned home from the camp that I re-discovered l the Narnia books and it was as a 16 year old that they made a profound impact on me. Following the camp, my mum had bought me a Bible and in the back I wrote down various quotes which inspired me. But the first one I wrote was the end passage from the final Narnia book, The Last Battle, which will be preached on next week, in the back of it:

‘The term is over, the holidays have begun. The dream is ended, this is the morning…Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

‘…the Great Story…’ – to be part of the Great Story – this is what excited and inspried me so much.

I think that what I was captured by was the adventure of faith that the Narnia books portrayed. That following Jesus could be something like following Aslan and fighting his battles with him. For a similar reason the Book of Acts became my favourite book of the Bible – as it shows how ordinary, fearful and flawed people are captured by faith in Jesus and risk everything for Him – and change the world. I think the theme of adventure was a key desire for me.

In his book on Narnia, Rowan Williams asks the question ‘What is the point of Narnia?’  His answer is:

‘Lewis is trying to re-create for the reader what it is like to encounter and believe in God…The point of Narnia is to help us rinse out what is stale in our thinking about Christianity – which is almost everything…the essential thing is this invitation to hear the story as if we have never heard it before.’

This is what it did for me. Alongside the summer camps, Narnia was a key way that my vision and imagination about what being a Christian was fed and nurtured.

Williams makes the point that there is no church in Narnia, no religion even – following Aslan is integrated within the everyday ‘something worked out in the routines of life itself’. And actually, this is how faith operates on summer camps – the idea of following Jesus runs as a thread through the whole day – very different to a Sunday religion. This is what makes camps magical and powerful.

We so need experiences which can rinse out what has become stale in our understandings of God. For our family, it is the key reason why we help run a youth camp at Lee Abbey in Devon because it gives us an experience of serving God and others which is real and powerful, utterly exhausting, but deeply renewing.

The Magician’s Nephew

And from the 7 Narnia books, The Magician’s Nephew, has always been my favourite. It is prequel to the whole series as Lewis describes it at the start:

‘It is a very important story because it shows how all the comings and goings between our world and the land of Narnia first began.’

So what happens in the book?

Well, it is set in Edwardian London at the turn of the century, and a boy called Digory has had to move to London from the country to live in a terrace housing with his Aunt and Uncle  because his mum is seriously ill and dying. During a wet summer, he gets to know the girl next door, Polly Plummer and they spend time together up in her secret hideway in the top of the house. They realise that they can get into the rafters and get into the other houses in the terrace. However, they actually stumble into the forbidden study of Digory’s Uncle Andrew.

Uncle Andrew tricks them into an experiment on some magic rings he has made which transport you out of this world into to a strange wood from which they can get into many different worlds. They travel to a post-apocolyptic world called Charn and due to Digory’s rashness they awaken a witch / Queen who has destroyed every living thing. Inadvertently they end up bringing her back to London where she creates violent chaos.

They manage to take her back to the wood, but along with Uncle Andrew, a cab driver and his horse and end up in a new, empty world which they witness being created through the song of a majestic Lion, Aslan. The Queen realises she is dealing with someone more powerful and runs off whilst the new world is coming into being. Digory asks Aslan for something that will heal his dying mother, but in doing so he has to admit that it was his fault that the witch ended up in Narnia in the first place.  Aslan gives him a quest to go on a long journey and pick an apple from a special tree and bring it back.

Digory completes this mission but in doing so is sorely tempted by the witch to take the fruit for himself just as she has already done. But he delivers the apple back and it grows into a tree which will protect Narnia. From this tree Digory picks another apple which he takes home and feeds to his Mum who makes a miraculous recovery.  Digory grows into the Professor whose home the children in the Lion and the Witch and the Wardrobe then go and stay with when evacuated. And the reason the wardrobe is magical is because it is made from the wood of the apple tree that grew from the core of the magic apple from Narnia.

I want to outline three elements of The Magician’s Nephew which struck me when I read it recently: the goodness of creation, the reality of evil and the need for honesty and truth.

1) The goodness of creation

Aslan, the central figure in all the Narnia stories and the only character to be in every book, sings this new world into being. Lewis captures beautifully the joyful, noisy, messy, organic, melodic creativity of new life springing forth as Narnia comes to life. The land is pregnant with opportunity and as Aslan calls it into being: ‘Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love.’

This joyful life of this new land could not contrast any more sharply with the stone-cold, deathly, silent emptiness of the constructed wasteland of Charn.

That Narnia is brought to life by a song is a beautifully poetic way to imagine God awakening his creation. It echoes John 1:

‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, Through Him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.’

In Michael Ward’s book Planet Narnia, he convincingly argues that each of the Narnia books relates to a different planet within the medieval cosmos.  For The Magician’s Nephew, it is Venus – the planet named after the Roman god of love, beauty, desire, sex and fertility.

Ward shows how a ‘venereal spirit’ of playful creativity, fertility and sexuality infuses the book. It is the most light-hearted of the series.  And there many references to how much Digory and his Uncle Andrew are struck by the dazzling beauty of the Queen ‘a superb creature, a dem fine woman’. And as Aslan sings the animals into life and instructs them to pro-create, ‘an erotic charge has been infused into the creation of Narnia itself.’

It reminds us that God designed sexuality to be at the heart of His good creation: that his created beings can themselves participate in his creative purposes. And this sexuality cannot be reduced to functional reproduction – it is infused with powerful feelings of attraction, desire, ecstasy and the deepest forms of human connection.  Our sexuality is at the heart of who we are and how we have been created.

2) The reality of evil

And yet into this beautiful new world, bursting full of life and joy, evil is present from the very start.

Most obviously, it is in the form of the witch who shows such a violent lust for power and conquest. As Queen in Charn, she learnt the secret of ‘The deplorable word’ which when spoken would kill every living thing in the world apart from the one who spoke it. Charn’s deathly emptiness is due to this holocaust.  Lewis is writing only 10 years after Heroshima and Nagasaki where man-made weaponry had similarly devastated whole cities.

But also in the form of Uncle Andrew who is my favourite character in the book.  He is selfish, cowardly, vain and deluded. When the witch arrives in London he is way out of his depth and simply makes weak and bumbling protestations at ‘unnecessary violence’.

But most significantly, the evil is brought into Narnia mainly because of an act of folly and bravado by the book’s hero, Digory who decides to ring the bell that awakens the queen despite Polly telling him not to.

So, like all the best stories, this is not a case of simply goodies and baddies. ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ and the poor behaviour of Uncle Andrew and Digory is fundamental to the story. As Aslan says:

‘Much evil will come of this evil, but I will ensure the worst falls on myself.’

Narnia never allows us to imagine a world without evil which needs to be resisted.  To go back to the theme of Venus, it is easy to see how the goodness of sexuality has been so deeply soured by evil and selfishness in our world. Rather than sexuality being expressed in loving generosity, so often it is used selfishly, to make money, to manipulate or subjugate. And the porn industry, now made so accessible via the internet is testament, to destructive forces of evil at work.

3) The importance of truth

The importance of truth is a theme which is constant in all the Narnia books – Aslan provides what Rowan Williams calls ‘The silent gaze of truth’. To come close to Aslan means having to face the truth and letting go of the delusions and self-justifications that we cling to.

Uncle Andrew remains so deluded that he refuses to see the reality before him. Digory faces up to what he has done and after accepting the truth, can play a part in putting things right.

I work with people affected by homelessness and addictions and helping people come to terms with the truth of their situation. If any of you have ever sat in a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous you will know how searingly honest these meetings are. To resist the evil of addiction, a raw commitment to truth is vital.

God’s grace is available, despite all our failings. Like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, God waits to embrace us. But like the lost son, we must come to our senses and accept the truth.

And to return to the Venus theme, in this age where porn and distorted images of sexuality surround us it is so important that we are honest about the challenges and temptations and that we support each other resist them.  That church is a place where we can be honest. The truth sets us free.

So these are some thoughts about my favourite Narnia book. These books have helped me to rinse out what was stale in my thinking about God and they continue to do so. I continue to be inspired by ‘the Great Story’ that they speak of and the adventure of faith that God invites us to.

This is the text of a sermon preached at Christ Church New Malden in April 2017 as part of a series of seven talks on each book in C.S. Lewis’  Narnia Chronicles. Click here to listen to an audio recording of the talk.