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Aslan of Narnia, ‘The Shack,’ and the Second Commandment

March 1, 2017 3 comments

Tim Challies recently posted an article that provides a good contrast between ‘The Shack’ and the Aslan character of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series.  I find such articles interesting, as they consider and contrast different types of literature–in answer to the many superficial comparisons made by people who would lump all fiction into the same category.  In a post last year, I referenced a good online article that examines in detail seven key differences between Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter in reference to the literary use of magic.

Challies’ post provides similar comparison between the Chronicles of Narnia and another newer fiction work, The Shack, noting three key differences:  these are different genres of literature, portray different characters, and teach different messages.  He makes good points concerning the difference between Narnia and The Shack in overall terms, of the type of fiction and especially the serious doctrinal error being taught in The Shack.

Challies notes these differences, and then concludes that because of these differences, The Shack violates the Second Commandment, but Aslan the Lion of Narnia does not.  As he points out, The Shack has characters representing all three members of the Godhead:  God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, whereas Narnia only represents the second person of the Trinity, the Son.  However, I think Challies’ answer on one particular point is weak:  his assertion that Aslan is like Christ, a Christ-like figure rather than actually representing Christ:

Aslan is a Christ-like figure, but is not Christ. We should expect to find a general but not perfect correspondence between the words and deeds of Aslan and the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. A right reading of Narnia does not lead to the declaration, “Aslan is Jesus,” but the realization, “Aslan is like Jesus.” Lewis meant for Aslan to evoke a kind of wonder that would cause the reader to search for someone in the real world who is equally awe-inspiring.

The Narnia stories, through the “general allegory” fiction, present many Christian doctrines.  True, not all doctrines are brought out within the context of the seven stories—and a few of the doctrines presented are Arminianism and “wider mercy” (both in The Last Battle: the dwarves with free-will, and Emeth the saved pagan).  Yet it is clear that Lewis intended an actual identification of Aslan with Christ, and not merely “to evoke a kind of wonder that would cause the reader to search for someone in the real world who is equally awe-inspiring.”  Keep in mind the following specific points.

  • In the original volume (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) Aslan only dies for Edmund.  However, in The Last Battle the last Narnian king (Tirian) holds to an atonement belief that encompasses all Narnians:

He [Tirian] meant to go on and ask how the terrible god Tash who fed on the blood of his people could possibly be the same as the good Lion by whose blood all Narnia was saved.

  • At the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan tells Lucy and Edmund that they cannot return to Narnia because they are too old, and adds that he is known by another name “in your world” and that they will come to know him better by that name.

“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.
“Are—are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.
“I am [in your world].’ said Aslan. ‘But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

The ending of The Last Battle provides Lewis’ clearest and direct identification of Aslan with Christ.  His stepson Douglas Gresham, in an email discussion years later, also specifically pointed this out. Notice the use of the capital letter in the pronoun He:

And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion…And for us this is the end…But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: 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.”

So, while The Chronicles of Narnia clearly is a different genre of fiction, and clearly teaches a different message than the blasphemy of The Shack, the question of Aslan in reference to the Second Commandment and images representing God, is not so clear cut.  From googling, I found a few other articles that have previously considered this question–at the time of other movie releases such as Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and the Disney version of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”  A sampling of these includes people who recognize the close connection of Aslan to Christ, and thus do consider the portrayal on film of Aslan the lion as a Second Commandment problem.  One example is R.C. Sproul Jr’s comments at the Ligionier blog:

The root of idolatry, however, is here—images move us at a basic level, and evoke worship in us, worship that God abhors. I first felt this watching another movie that presented an image of Christ—The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. When Aslan first appeared on the screen my heart swelled and like a teetotaler taking his first drink, a health nut tasting his first Twinky, I thought, “Oh, so this is what He warned us about.” I was taken up, enraptured, spellbound because of the sheer majestic beauty of the Lion.

This discussion from 2005 at the Puritan board is also helpful, a Reformed perspective on the question of Aslan and other fictional works, especially this observation:

To me, a devout Christian writing a story about a Lion who is a king and gives his life for his people is a bit too obvious not to be seen as a direct representation of Christ.

Furthermore, since the second commandment applies equally to all the readers and viewers just as much as it did to Lewis himself, does his authorial intent really even have any bearing on people’s own obedience to the commandment when they see Aslan and purposefully think of Christ?

So, while Challies’ article is helpful for pointing out the major differences between Narnia and The Shack, it misses the mark in his attempt to downplay the role of Aslan as not really representing God the Son.  Lewis’ writing and intent was rather obvious, of Aslan representing Christ, the Son of God — as Lewis saw it, Christ as He would choose to reveal Himself if such a world as Narnia existed.  For further study, the following article looks at the many parallels between Aslan and the Son of God: Symbolism and the Identity of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia.

I did not say to myself ‘Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia’: I said ‘Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would have happened.’

Challies’ Reading Challenge: Biography, Robert Murray McCheyne

February 16, 2017 Leave a comment

biography-mccheyneContinuing in the 2017 Challies’ Reading Challenge, I have now completed four of the books – classic novel, history, book about theology, and a biography  —  with two more in progress (a children’s book, The Hobbit; and Christian Living, J.R. Miller’s A Life of Character).  Of the four completed so far, I have most enjoyed the biography – Andrew Bonar’s classic that tells us of someone who might well have been forgotten, the life of an ordinary pastor who died at age 29 (lived May 1813 to April 1843).   As John Piper observed in this article, a tribute to McCheyne’s life,  Robert Murray McCheyne is one of church history’s amazing young people greatly used of God in their short lives:

It is amazing to me how God has raised up extraordinary young people with great impact and then cut them off in their youth, and then has preserved their impact with a book for decades to come, and centuries.

This biography was published about two years after McCheyne’s death, a compilation of McCheyne’s own personal journal and letters, combined with narrative from his friend Andrew Bonar.  The story is told chronologically, with brief information about McCheyne’s parents and upbringing, but really beginning the story at age 18, when he was saved, and continuing with the events of his life, including excerpts from McCheyne’s writings each year.  Illness and early death were more common in those days.  McCheyne’s oldest brother, David, died at 26, when Robert was 18; his brother was a godly man who had prayed for Robert, who up until that time had been worldly, interested only in the social life of a teenager.  David’s death had a profound impact on Robert, and was used of God to bring the younger McCheyne to salvation.

As Bonar relates, his friend was ill frequently throughout those short years that Bonar knew him.  McCheyne himself sometimes even expressed the thought, that he would not live as long as others.  The missionary trip to Palestine in 1839, which included McCheyne, Andrew Bonar and a few others, was done in part because of McCheyne’s health; and though he had one serious illness and almost died during that trip, overall the trip did restore McCheyne to better health, for a while at least.  When McCheyne took ill with the typhoid from which he died in the spring of 1843, Bonar again noted that McCheyne had often been ill before – and thus it surprised him and all his friends, they did not realize the danger and his soon death, until the last few days.

Along with biographical material, much of the biography is devotional, with many great quotes from McCheyne, such as the following excerpts from his journals and letters:

I am tempted to think that I am now an established Christian,–that I have overcome this or that lust so long,–that I have got into the habit of the opposite grace,–so that there is no fear; I may venture very near the temptation—nearer than other men. This is a lie of Satan. I might as well speak of gunpowder getting by habit a power of resisting fire, so as not to catch the spark. As long as powder is wet, it resists the spark; but when it becomes dry, it is ready to explode at the first touch. As long as the Spirit dwells in my heart He deadens me to sin, so that, if lawfully called through temptation, I may reckon upon God carrying me through. But when the Spirit leaves me, I am like dry gunpowder. Oh for a sense of this!”

and

One thing we may learn from these men of science, namely, to be as careful in marking the changes and progress of our own spirit, as they are in marking the changes of the weather. An hour should never pass without our looking up to God for forgiveness and peace. This is the noblest science, to know how to live in hourly communion with God in Christ.

McCheyne was ever focused outwardly on evangelism and doing the Lord’s work, while inwardly growing and studying in personal holiness.   The section on the trip to Palestine was especially interesting, for the descriptions of the Holy Land at that time as well as the simple background of how people traveled over 150 years ago – how long the journey actually took, and the physical hardships contrasted with the ease of traveling in our modern world:  extreme heat unknown in Scotland (and no air-conditioning), travel by camel (including an interesting description of how to mount and ride camels) and the ever-present fear of disease and death.  I had heard about this missionary trip, and after reading  about it in McCheyne’s biography, I am interested to read the actual published work about it (available online here  ), which Bonar also later mentions – the time that he and McCheyne set aside from their busy schedule, to complete the book for publication.  From McCheyne’s letters during the trip, here is one interesting description:

A foreign land draws us nearer God. He is the only one whom we know here. We go to Him as to one we know; all else is strange. Every step I take, and every new country I see, makes me feel more that there is nothing real, nothing true, but what is everlasting. The whole world lieth in wickedness! Its judgments are fast hastening. The marble palaces, among which I have been wandering to-night, shall soon sink like a millstone in the waters of God’s righteous anger; but he doeth the will of God abideth forever.” — Robert Murray McCheyne, 1839 — trip to Palestine.

Another topic presented in this book is a revival that began during their absence, and continued after their return at the end of 1839.  What little I had previously read about actual revivals was more historical observation, that evangelical Christianity up until about 1860 had a different view or mindset in reference to revival; revivals were more frequent, and more expected, but that the general trend changed starting in the 1860s—and Charles Spurgeon lived during this transition time, when modernism and liberalism began to take hold in the Christian church.  The presentation in McCheyne’s biography reflects this earlier time, and Bonar provided good insights into the actual revival and its impact, and the ending results afterward:

That many, who promised fair, drew back and walked no more with Jesus, is true. Out of about 800 souls who, during the months of the Revival, conversed with different ministers in apparent anxiety, no wonder surely if many proved to have been impressed only for a time…. The proportion of real conversions might resemble the proportion of blossoms in spring and fruit in autumn. Nor can anything be more unreasonable than to doubt the truth of all, because of the deceit of some. The world itself does not so act in judging of its own. The world reckons upon the possibility of being mistaken in many cases, and yet does not cease to believe that there is honesty and truth to be found.

McCheyne had a tremendously positive impact on the people around him – the many people who loved him, both at his own church as well as others who continually wanted him to come and speak at their churches, and his friends including Andrew Bonar.  This book provides a great introduction to this great young Christian man and his impact within the Christian church, and now his continued impact throughout history since his time.