8 02 2006

My evangelical Christian mother-in-law recently invited me and my wife to go see “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” with her. Although I’ve read C.S. Lewis’ entire series several times (including reading it as a bedtime story to my children), I had been reluctant to go see the movie version, largely because so much has been made of it as a “Christian” movie, and because I didn’t want my visualizations of Narnia distorted by Disney Studios.

I didn’t have to worry. The movie is not preachy, and it is a feast for the eyes. But I’m not getting into a movie review from here, I’m getting into C.S. Lewis’ essential message, and what it meant to me when I first encountered Narnia, in a remote cabin in the mountains of California in the winter of 1969. I was visiting friends there, out beyond the power grid, where gravel roads tailed off into two-tracks that tailed off into saplings. It was the first time I had ever been so far away from civilization. As my surroundings sunk in on me, I was surprised and delighted with how overwhelmingly right it all felt. This was the way to live.

That night we sat down to read their young children a bedtime story. It was “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” and it was the first time I had ever heard of C.S. Lewis. My friends and I found the book so entrancing that, children sleeping in our laps, we continued to read the book out loud to each other, finally finishing in the wee small hours of the night. The book had connected with our deepest longings, a message down through time that we were not alone, need not fear the outcome of the struggle that endangered us then and still does today—our vision of a relaxed, pastoral, reverent, and magical world was eloquently shared in C.S. Lewis’ vision. At a deeper level, the psycho-spiritual evolution of his four young protagonists was an inspiration to us in our struggles with our own personal shortcomings.

Seeing the movie reminded me of that ecstatic weekend in the California pines. That weekend, with my friends and C.S. Lewis, I was granted a vision of the world and my role in it, and over thirty-five years later it remains one of my defining moments.

I went on to absorb as much C.S. Lewis as I could find, fiction and nonfiction, in the years after that.  Although I became a Buddhist, not a Christian, I have never lost my appreciation for him. Seeing “The Chronicles of Narnia” on the big screen caused me to revisit the lessons I had learned from him. Here are some quotes I found. Ollie North likes this guy? He must not have read far enough.

In one essay, Lewis wrote: “Christianity, with its claims in one way personal and in the other way ecumenical and both ways antithetical to omnicompetent government, must always in fact . . . be treated as an enemy [by the State]. Like learning, like the family, like any ancient and liberal profession, like the common law, it gives the individual a standing ground against the State.”

So much for the Christian right claiming Lewis, eh?

In his adult science-fiction story That Hideous Strength, Lewis shared his vision of the modern world: “However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren books: men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshipping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and the Father in Heaven. You might go East so far that East became West and returned to Britain across the great ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light. The shadow of one dark wing is over all.” That’s what Lewis said, about the darkness that has enveloped this planet, the darkness I like to refer to as “the religion of economics”–the notion that whatever makes the most money is best, and whoever makes the most money is most worthy.

In another essay, Lewis could easily have been speaking to the current political situation in America when he wrote (using a small “d”):

“I am a democrat… I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretentions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to the rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber baron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent.

“But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations. And since Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic, held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated. In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt.”

How could Lewis know that 43 years after his death, the United States would have a leader who believes he is appointed by God? And, as if speaking to the Bush junta’s plans to invade our privacy through the wonders of technology, Lewis wrote:

“The question… has become… whether we can discover any way of submitting to the worldwide paternalism of a technocracy without losing all personal privacy and independence. Is there any possibility of getting the super Welfare State’s honey and avoiding the sting? Let us make no mistake about the sting. … To live his own life in his own way, to call his house his castle, to enjoy the fruits of his own labour, to educate his children as his conscience directs, to save for their prosperity after his death–these are wishes deeply ingrained in … civilised man.” (from Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State”)

Lewis’ perspective on politics was to approach it by focusing on underlying principles, not short-term results. He is not left wing, he is not right wing. He is Green. I’m claiming him. And I’m grateful to be reminded of the inspiration at the heart of my politics. May I never forget where I’m coming from.

music:  Joan Baez, “Satisfied Mind”


Rock on, Bro.
Posted by sirensongs on 02/13/2006 12:08:22 PM




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