Saturday, November 21, 2009

Disenchanted by the Gospel

Years ago, before I entered the Jesuits, I went to a local bookstore to purchase a newly released book in the Harry Potter series. While I was standing in line, a well-intentioned customer eyed the book under my arm (which I carried, if memory serves me correctly, with a paperback copy of the Catechism that I wanted to buy) and promptly informed me that the book I was holding contained "the devil." With feigned horror I allowed the book to drop to the floor and stared at her, exclaiming, "Good Lord! So that's where he's been all this time!" I then picked the book back up and made my way to the cashier.

One of the reasons I liked the Harry Potter books so much is that, many years before any students took up residence at Hogwart's, my heart and mind had been captivated by a different magician: C. S. Lewis. As a little boy in the second grade (so we're talking 1987-88), I remember distinctly my mom giving me a copy of his The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to read. Now Mom never never claimed it as a Christian story or told me who the characters were meant to represent. Instead, she entrusted me to the steady hand and capacious heart of Lewis who became, in some sense, my tutor in literary Christianity.

Over the last 23 years, I've read the book perhaps a dozen times. My heart still beats a little faster when I hear the beavers say to the children, "Aslan is on the move." Aslan - the unseen king of Narnia who is coming. Aslan, whose very name causes the White Witch to fly into a towering rage; Aslan, the ruler whose mere presence releases the icy grip of winter on an evilly enchanted world. It is Aslan who who the name "that is above every other name, so that at the name of [Aslan] every knee will bend of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that [Aslan] is Lord, to the glory of the [Emperor over the Sea]. (Philipians 2:10-11). Note: yeah, it's a somewhat tendentious use of Scripture...but you get the point

My sense of exhilaration at the very name of Aslan may account for the tremendous sorrow I still feel when watching Aslan's agonizing submission to the White Witch, when he stands in the stead of the treacherous Edmund. Possessed of a knowledge of the Deeper Magic, Aslan offers himself to the witch to be sacrificed. He gives himself over to her to do with him as she will and what she does is just what we expect of her: she murders him. She makes a great display of immolating the "great cat." My stomach still churns when in my mind's eye I see the grotesque cadre of characters gathered around the noble and gentle Aslan, taunting and torturing him.

After the act of satanic violence has been completed, as the shorn body of the once-great king lies on the table, the reader is left aghast: is this it? The horrific buildup that culminated in the plunging of the knife plummets the reader into a vacuum. But in the matter of a few pages, the violent act is undone: the stone table cracks and the great lord of Narnia returns, in all his glory. He returns not to offer a sermon but, rather, to summon all of creation - even those creatures who had fallen under the witch's spell - to rally against the force of evil. As Aslan leaps and bounds toward the witch's castle where he will restore life to those who'd been turned to stone, I still to this day grow misty eyed thinking of the power and majesty of Aslan and desire greatly to fight on his side for the glory of Narnia.

Is it any wonder that when I prayed, and still continue to pray, through the "Call of the King" [91-100 of the Spiritual Exercises] that my mind goes to Aslan? I cannot describe the joy and excitement I still feel when I contemplate the Eternal King addressing his followers, exhorting, "My will is to conquer the whole world and all my enemies, and thus to enter into the glory of my Father. Therefore whoever wishes to come with me must labor with me, so that through following me in the pain he or she may follow me also in the glory."

When I say that I am disenchanted by the Gospel, I mean it in this way: the Good News has freed me from the icy spell of the White Witch, has shown me that the promises of riches and honor and pride in a cold and dead kingdom are empty and hollow. The logic or magic that runs our day-to-day world, the spell that many of us have succumbed to that says, "You are what you do" and "My value is how much I earn," has lost its grip on me. I prefer to stand under the banner of a different king, a king who does not serve the logic of this world but who knows, and shares with others, the Deeper Magic that the world has forgotten. In and through this King, the Deeper Magic that has lain under the surface of creation has begun to ooze out into the created world. I want to stand with this King and to serve this Deeper Magic as Narnia is the Kingdom of God breaks into the world.

Now I'll go out on a limb: the Deep Magic, the very magic that empowered the Witch's heinous murder of Aslan, is not secularism. Unreflected secularism is a Less-than-Deep Magic, an attitude that looks no deeper than the surface of reality and rejects any effort to penetrate to reality's core. No, the Witch was intoxicated by what seems to be a religious understanding of the Deep Magic - her execution of Aslan was certainly a liturgical ritual. But her failure, as we see, is her refusal to be humble before the true source of her knowledge, it is in not recognizing that the Deep Magic that gave her self-righteous justification to murder was itself powered by an even Deeper Source. The Witch, it turns out, had made an idol of the Deep Magic; it had become a totem, a token, that she was able to manipulate.

What we see is that the Deeper Magic was not some archaic doctrine, some proposition to be quoted in a debate, a thesis used to trump an opponent. The Deeper Magic is encountered in and through the person of intimate were the two, it would seem, that Aslan appears to be the incarnation of the Deeper Magic. It is this Deeper Magic that is "not tame." It is this Deeper Magic that refuses to be domesticated or controlled. It is this Deeper Magic, this King, who calls whom he wills: he goes even into the Witch's castle and frees those who had fallen under her stone-casting spell. This Aslan, this Lord, whose name excites the heart and whose return from death mists the eyes is the one who calls all those who will fight for Good and Right and gathers them into a body in and through whom his Reign shall come.

By way of conclusion, it still seems to me that so many in our country have become self-righteous servants of the "Deep Magic" and have used it to advance their own political agendas. They have made the Bible, or the Catechism, into weapons and idols that they can wield. They have, in effect, "made tame" what is not able to be tamed. They have fallen under the Witch's spell and their hearts have gone cold and angry and embittered.

So recall, then, the wonderful scene in the novel when Father Christmas comes to Narnia. He comes as a herald of the Great King's manifestation, his Epiphany. Father Christmas is not the highlight of the season but, rather, a mere preparatory figure who paves the way for the true star of the show. As we prepare to enter the Advent season, it may serve many of us well to consider who the true focal point of the season is. The gifts Father Christmas bears are not ends to themselves. Instead, they are those things that empower the following of the True King, the real Reason for the Season.

Recall how Aslan's breath turns stone into living flesh and, as a response, the restored individuals join in Aslan's battle against evil. The Breath of the King, the Spirit, vanquishes the grasp of evil's enchantment and frees us to be lovers and followers of the King. We must, then, allow ourselves to be reached by the Spirit so that we, too, may be disenchanted by the Gospels. A heart so disenchanted by the Good News is a humbled, fleshly heart that risks everything to serve the cause of the Good King, who dedicates himself and invites all of creation in to the the friendship and service of the Kingdom that our lives and beings may proclaim the Greater Glory of God.

1 comment:

Charlie Roy said...

On Saturdays before my family wakes I like to take an hour or so and go through the Google reader account. I started with your post and it was a great way to start the day. Thank you for this wonderful post on Narnia and our Lord. I'll go to Mass with some more fire as we work to build the Kingdom. Be well in Christ!