Warm glow of tall iron lamp on stage. Circular theatre full of people young and old, sitting, some fidgeting, in eager anticipation. This was the scene last Saturday night at the West Yorkshire Playhouse as we awaited the start of a magical and innovative performance of the CS Lewis classic ‘The Lion the Witch & the Wardrobe’ (on till 27th). It didn’t disappoint. The ingredients were all there: a refreshingly diverse young cast, panto villain white witch, deep-timbre voiced Aslan, and a suitably menacingly ‘chief of police’ wolf Maugrim, all slavering growls and sinuosity as he stalked the stage.
After young Lucy’s first foray into the magical world of Narnia, the professor who resides at the mysterious old house where the four Pevensie children are staying (as war-time evacuees), queries the other children’s reluctance to believe the report of her adventure. As she’s plainly neither mad nor a liar, he points out, then despite the strangeness of what she describes, keeping an open mind about it is the wisest way. And so – though Narnia’s spiritual symbolism may have somewhat faded from the consciousness of contemporary audiences – we’re imaginatively introduced to the enticing idea that there may at least be more to reality than meets the eye.
The creation of Narnia has powerful imaginative properties that captivate us in childhood and remain resonant in our adult lives. Silently falling flakes in a snowy wood, trees that may be friends or spies, a warm glowing lamp, a faun, a far off castle between two distant peaks… the sense of depth, mystery and unknown, beckoning potentialities hold us in thrall. Snow itself is ambiguous: here where it’s ‘always winter, never Christmas’, it’s an intrinsic part of an oppressive, evil realm… but it can also represent innocence and purity, as in the bible’s promise of our sins being washed ‘white as snow’ (see this blog for further reflection). It’s this rich, multifaceted quality of Narnia that makes it such an apt metaphor for spiritual reality and the gospel of grace. I’m invited to an adventure in a landscape of both beauty and danger, and will meet a lion who ‘isn’t safe – but is good’.
To change tack a moment… this week I also watched an episode of ‘Extremely British Muslims’ from spring last year. It was about Muslim dating… fascinating insights, but also reminded me of aspects of ‘religion’ precisely which the gospel is designed to free us from: rules, lack of freedom and joy. Now such aspects can be present in all manner of religious creeds and practices. But the contrast with the kind of spiritual promise imaginatively represented by Narnia could hardly be starker: here, we’re called to be utterly sold out – not to a burdensome system or rule list but to a relationship and an adventure, with a wild, even ‘dangerous’ God – who’s also incomparably good – in a wild, free landscape and atmosphere. I know which option I prefer.
It’s a veiled and at times hidden offer and promise. The route through the wardrobe to Narnia is not open ‘on demand’, and it’s when they least expect it that the children are liable to stumble into this enchanted world. Aslan is ‘on the move’ – he doesn’t stand still. There can be no reconciliation between the divine way of surprises, subtleties and overtures, and a carnal insistence that God should ‘demonstrate’ himself as I see fit – making myself into a little deity that He should kowtow to and whose whims He should serve. Neither Aslan nor the Lion of Judah operate that way. But if I refuse to surrender to the marvel and mystery that is proffered, who can tell what delights I may miss out on?
But, you may ask, isn’t this all just a flight of fancy? It’s January, the bleakest month. What relevance does any of this have to the grim realities of post-Christmas diet plans, bulging bills, tax returns and the relentless winter gloom? Well, is it just possible this enticing, hidden spiritual realm might also offer inner resources – of peace, joy, hope and many more besides – that might enable me better to handle the tough stuff? Not as mere self-help, but in the context of a deepening relationship and union with the beating divine Heart of the universe? That’s a possibility I’d travel to Narnia and back to discover.