C.S. Lewis, Narnia, & Atonement Theology ~ BitterSweetLife

Saturday, May 06, 2006

C.S. Lewis, Narnia, & Atonement Theology

Aslan & Edmund & Atonement
Due to popular demand, it seemed obvious that I had to post some more of my paper on C.S. Lewis & the Atonement. (I know that those of you have asked to see more are, of course, just a tiny representative sample of the rest of you who are silently wishing the same thing.)

The problem is, my paper is twelve pages long with dozens of footnotes. Not that twelve pages is very long as a research paper goes, but a post of that length would lobotomize the most robust of blog readers.

What I’m going to do, therefore, is put up another excerpt that will highlight my conclusion. If you wonder how I arrived there, or how C.S. Lewis’s statements in such-and-such a book coincide, feel free to ask. Undoubtedly I’ve read it (you should see my stack of references; sigh) and probably mentioned it earlier in the paper.

I’ve removed my footnotes in this post (Blogger has trouble with them—just note that I’m not taking credit for anything in quotation marks!) and, since The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a pretty well-known story these days, I’m using the Stone Table episode as a test case for Lewis’s Atonement perspective.

Here goes. Just be warned that the paragraphs are thicker and the language a little more technical than what I typically use here...this being a "research paper" and all. (Also, feel free to query my conclusion or ask for clarification.)


Appropriately, the 2005 blockbuster that spurred considerable anti-Lewis rhetoric is based on what is arguably his most vivid and decisive treatment of the Atonement. In The Way into Narnia, Peter Schakel writes that “as he constructed the episode of Aslan’s death, Lewis inevitably found himself dealing with the question, ‘Why did Aslan die?’” In every way, Aslan’s death and return to life is the climax of the story. When the great lion appears, joyous and alive, the gruesome stone table breaks in half, and Lucy and Susan ask Aslan what it all means:

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge only goes back to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”

...Underlying Lewis’s obliqueness, there is an ironic beauty and mastery to the account, in that he skillfully weaves together threads from several Atonement theories while fully endorsing none of them. At first glance, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe seems to implicitly favor Ransom theory, and Lewis’s storyteller’s mind may have adopted the dramatic Ransom metaphor readily (a copy of Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor was in Lewis’s library at the time of his death). But a closer look at Narnia reveals there are other theories at play. Remarkably, adherents to each of the main Atonement camps (Subjective, Substitutionary, Christus Victor) have attempted to adopt Lewis’s “deeper magic.”

The cover story of TIME on 12 April 2004 asked, “Why Did Jesus Die?” and went on to present the three major theories of Atonement. The writers cited Lewis as a contemporary example for the “role model” or Subjective theory: “C.S. Lewis, the Christian thinker and author of the Narnia series…was not a doctrinaire exemplarist, but the lion Aslan, who stood in for Christ, was clearly a figure to be emulated.” Schakel, responding to this assertion in The Way into Narnia, writes, “The writers of the article definitely miss the point… Aslan gives himself to the Witch as a sacrifice to make amends for Edmund’s disobedience. By focusing on that theory, Lewis takes a stronger [Substitutionary] stand than he does in Mere Christianity.” Likewise, in reference to Aslan’s death, theologian Howard Worsely readily states, “The precise interpretation of the atonement is penal substitution.” Meanwhile, authors like Charles Taliaferro (gleefully) and Matthew Hall (gloomily) state that Narnian Atonement theology lands most definitely in the Ransom, or Christus Victor, camp.

Lewis’s incorporation (or hoodwinking, depending on how one looks at it) of such a wide spectrum of theologians is most extraordinary. He accomplishes the feat, logically enough, by interweaving substitutionary language (Aslan’s blood is shed, the lion is Edmund’s substitute, the deeper magic is invoked by the Emperor-over-the-Sea) with ransom imagery (the Witch has rights over traitors, is “tricked” by the deeper magic, Aslan is Edmund’s ransom) and glowing subjective incentive to emulate the majestic Aslan. Therefore, people tend to read into Narnia whatever they wish to find. Mueller notes that “in Narnia, Lewis’s model of the Atonement is eclectic. Refusing to be bound by any one depiction of the Atonement, he takes elements from each theory as they best suit his purpose of presenting Christ.”

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe may be the sterling example of Lewis’s distinctive Atonement position. Not content to define Christianity with theories or to subscribe to any one of them, Lewis attempted to tap the “mythic” qualities he found in the true story of Christ. In order to do this, he drew freely on each of the three major Atonement perspectives, particularly the Ransom and Substitutionary Theories. His discomfort with penal substitution, as seen most clearly in Mere Christianity, stemmed in reality from his concern with a very narrow interpretation of Anselmic theory. Undoubtedly, he understood that Christ was a sacrifice for humankind, that he was a substitute in our place, and decisively bought our forgiveness with his blood.

Despite his misgivings with the forensic aspect of Substitution, Lewis’s emphasis on, and love for, the deeper magic of the cross, retained a freshness and vibrancy that few writers have matched. Thus we find various voices, each pointing to Lewis as an example or champion for their Atonement camp. Lewis himself saw “theories,” as such, as dispensable; he did not subscribe to penal substitution as it is set forth in evangelical circles today. However, if the name-calling and precipitate adoption of Lewis into various theological circles is any indication, he succeeded in his central purpose: to display a romping Aslan, a mythic dying God who really returned to life—and to make the image stick.

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Will Robison said...

Somehow you've got to make the entire thesis available. That was the most interesting beginning and ending that I've read in a long while. Thanks.

Ariel said...

Thanks, Will. If you're interested in reading the whole thing, send me a note in a couple weeks after I've turned it in. I probably won't post the whole thing online at this point, but I'd be happy to share it with friends.

Will Robison said...

I actually worked the whole subject of atonement into my novel (I needed a deep religious subject and this one was handy). I thought about having the character say, "According to Biblical Philosopher Ariel Vanderhorst..." but then I have a strict rule about using real people in my novel. So, I guess you can say you're in there in spirit.

I'll e-mail you in a while and you can send me a copy.

Matt Christenot said...

Your writing ability makes me sick. It makes me sad that we have to turn in papers to the same professors at the same time. Perhaps they'll read mine after yours and thus have no fixed point of reference for which to despense my grade. All that to say, I want a copy of this as well.

Verashni said...

Um... Ariel. I know this is probably not very rational of me, but I'm close to being very offended that Lewis uses Brown girls as an allegory for sexual sin in The Pilgrim's Regress. Why Brown girls? This incites a profusion of black feminist speak in my head... help :/

Ariel said...

Hey Verashni, you're not going to believe this, but Pilgrim's Regression is one of the few books in the Lewis canon that I haven't yet read. It IS on my shelf (of course) and I've been planning to read it this summer anyway. Now it's moved to the top of my list...

This means that all I can say at this point is that nothing I've read previously by Lewis gave me any grounds for suspecting racism... Did you read the book recently yourself?

Feel free to shoot me an email if you want to dialogue about it some more.

Adam said...

On Lewis and "brown girls"... I'll throw my interpretation into the works. First, Roger Lanclyn Green suggests that the "brown girl" is an allusion to a dream he once had wherein a girl with pinkish-brown skin was naked pushing a cart. He smiled at her and she smiled back. It is possible this is an allusion to that, or perhaps it is more rooted in a kind of fashionable lust for the exotic that English men had around that time. My interpretation, however, lies in Lewis's motif in Regress of Archtype vs. Ectype. Iin his conversation with Reason, she urges him to consider that the "fouler" things are the copies of the "fairer" thing, and not vice versa (i.e., sex is a copy of romantic love, romantic love is a copy of love for God, etc., not the other way around -- which is what Fruedians would have us believe). Placed in that context, it can relatively easily be seen that the "brown girls" and "black girls" and the "fair lady" are all a play on the "Fair vs Foul"/"Archtype vs Ectype" motif. Thus, the "fair lady" is clearly the represenation of Courtly Romantic Love (what Lewis called "Eros" in Four Loves), the "brown girl" of sexual desire (what he called "Venus") and the "black girls" would simply be a symbol of lust. In this interpretation, there would be no more racial offensiveness than one would find in the color symbolism one finds throughout the history of art and literature (i.e., white symbolizing "good" and black symbolizing "evil"). In the sensitive society we live in today, however, I would agree with Lewis scholar Kathryn Lindskoog and suggest that he would have picked a different kind of symbol to be "P.C." But he wrote this in the early 1930's before "P.C." even existed. Not that P.C. is bad, it just was not a reality then.

I have no idea if this helps at all! I probably just muddied it up worse!

Peter Marshall said...

Any way to get a look at your bibliography for this paper? I'm in the preliminary stages of research for a paper at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena. I ran across your blog post so figured I'd give it a try. Chances are slim that you get this but if you do, it sure would help with the research process.

I guess I'll check to see if you reply to this.

Ariel said...

Hey Peter, you're in luck. I still monitor comments on this blog. Here's a link to the article itself, and if you shoot me your email, I'll get you the bibliography. Always a fan of Lewis and Lewis research.


Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife