At the upcoming C.S. Lewis-themed Desiring God National Conference, Joe Rigney (@joe_rigney), Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College & Seminary, will deliver a message titled, “Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in the C.S. Lewis Chronicles.” Birthed out of this passion and message is a new book, written by Joe, with the same name: Live Like a Narnian. We invited Joe to GCD today to talk about his new book and the motif of discipleship in Lewis’s works.
Brandon: What led you to write Live Like a Narnian?
Joe: Three things. The immediate cause was being invited to speak at the Desiring God National Conference on the topic next week. The idea for the book had been banging around in my head since I taught a class on Narnia a few years back. The conference invitation gave me an excuse to get it on paper.
Second, I’ve been noticing over the last few years how often I use quotations and scenes from Narnia when shepherding and mentoring college students. For whatever reason, they often come to mind whenever I have a student with a particular problem sitting in my office, and so that set me to thinking about whether it’s a good thing to use Narnia in this way.
And finally, the result of that last question was my own recognition that the Narnian stories have been a deep means of grace for me in my own spiritual growth. As I say in the book, I have met the living God in my reading of Narnia, and my affections for Jesus have been stoked and increased by my time there. I’ve received the same sort of grace and encouragement through them that I have received through sermons, small group accountability, devotional books, and theological tomes. Lewis’s stories certainly aren’t the equivalent of Scripture, but they have been used by God to allow the truths of Scripture to appear to me in their true potency (which is exactly what Lewis intended).
B: What does it mean to live like a Narnian?
J: “Live like a Narnian” is a riff on a phrase used by Puddleglum in The Silver Chair. It’s essentially my way of summarizing all of the good, true, and beautiful qualities that are expressed by the kings, queens, fauns, good dwarfs, centaurs, badgers, mice, and moles of Narnia. Whether it be bravery, courage, sacrifice, honesty, repentance, tactfulness, glad-heartedness, or humility, the Narnian stories have given lively and concrete pictures of these qualities, and I’ve found them becoming a part of me as I’ve breathed Narnian air.
To put it in more traditional terms, to live like a Narnian is to faithfully follow Jesus Christ. It’s to be a disciple of the High King above all kings, and to emulate and embody his ways in the world in which we live.
B: In the book, you talk a lot about character, actions, and obedience. What does Narnia teach us about these things?
J: Let me mention two basic lessons (which I unpack in much more detail in the book). First, Lewis vividly shows that our trajectory really matters. Our direction determines our destination. When it comes to the grand voyage of life, we are embarked, and we are heading somewhere. Sooner or later, we’re bound to end up there. Lewis shows us (through characters like Edmund) that we might not like the destination at the end of our road. This ought to move us to examine where we are making small compromises, where we are sowing small seeds of sin that will grow into big trees that will bear bitter fruit. As Paul reminds us, God is not mocked; we will reap what we’ve sown (Galatians 6:7).
Second, Lewis demonstrates the truthfulness of a statement by one of his heroes, George MacDonald: “Obedience is the opener of eyes.” Oftentimes, we want to negotiate with God, withholding our obedience until he gives us a fuller understanding of the circumstances that we find ourselves in. But this is not the biblical way. We come to see more clearly through our obedience. Or, to put it the way Jesus did in John 7:17, “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God.” This sort of truth has massive implications for how we respond to seasons of doubt and depression. It’s easy to use our own spiritual dryness as an excuse to commit sin. But sinking deeper in the mire is the surest way to stay there. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis reminds us that the cause of Devil is never more in danger than when we Christians look around upon a universe from which every trace of God’s presence seems to have vanished, and we ask why we’ve been forsaken, and then we obey anyway.
B: You have an interesting chapter dealing with “the peculiar majesty of women.” Could you explain this phrase a little?
J: Lewis loved the fact that men were men and women were women. He gloried in the distinctions between the sexes, the way that our Wise God has made us to be different but complementary. The chapter on Narnian queens is my attempt to celebrate this ‘peculiar majesty.’ As the son of a mother, the husband of a wife, and the friend of numerous women, I find the bright glory of femininity to be almost ineffable, and it leaves me feeling a bit shy, like Adam must have felt when he woke and saw Eve for the first time. It’s a strange sensation, and one that I expect most husbands understand at an intuitive level. Lewis, I think, does a wonderful job of depicting (though only as an outsider) the gracefulness and grandeur of women: their intuition, their feminine courage and loyalty, and the beauty of glad-hearted submission and strength. These are not popular virtues in our day, and Lewis recognized that appealing to our imaginations by showing us what womanhood (and manhood) look like has a particular potency.
B: How can C.S. Lewis teach us about discipleship?
J: I regularly have students come into my office who are struggling through a time of spiritual dryness. Often they’ve recently had a period of tremendous growth, or the Lord has done a great work and set them to fighting their sin in new and fresh ways. Inevitably, they hit that spiritual wall and the temptation is to think that something is going badly, that the pain and difficulty shows that they’re doing something wrong.
Well, Lewis has a great scene in The Horse and His Boy in which Shasta, the main character, has been racing across a barren desert with little sleep and no food in order to warn the king that an army is approaching his castle in order to mount a surprise attack. In the midst of this, he and his friends (a girl and two horses) are chased by lions, and the girl is wounded. They make it to a hermit’s house who welcomes them in as the horses collapse. The hermit then turns to Shasta and tells the exhausted boy that he must run, run, run in order to warn the king. Shasta is dismayed, but turns and obeys. The narrator makes this extremely wise and perceptive comment, which encourages me (and usually) my students: “Shasta had not yet learned that if you do one good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one.” In other words, when things get hard after a season of growth, this is a sign that we’ve been promoted, that God is giving us his “Well done, good and faithful servant” speech, that having been faithful in little, God is putting us over a little bit more.
B: What do you hope readers take away from this book?
J: In the end, I hope that people come away from the book with an eagerness to live life to the fullest, to follow Jesus with gratitude and humility in their hearts. I hope that they are awake to the wonder of the world, to the enchantment that hangs over every nook and cranny of God’s creation. I hope that biblical truths like humility and sacrifice and grace and forgiveness and light have are more vivid and concrete, and that their souls are enlarged, their minds expanded, and their hearts are filled with love for Christ because they seem him more clearly in and through Narnia and the great Lion at the center of those stories.
Brandon Smith (@BrandonSmith85) is Director of GCD, Associate Editor of The Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, and Director of Communications at Criswell College. He is proud to be Christa’s husband and Harper’s daddy.