When I was eight years old, my teacher, Mrs. Green, read to our class C.S. Lewis’s classic tale of adventure, love, faith, and redemption, The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. I was enthralled and immediately went on to read the entire seven-book series. It was only in the final book, The Last Battle, however, that I found a theological truth (not that I knew what that was at the time) so important it has become my touchstone all these many years.
Here’s the introduction from the publisher:
Many Narnians think they have seen the great Aslan [a stand-in for the Christ], but he doesn’t behave the way they expected. The Ape who guards him says that the Lion commands all Narnians to work for the cruel Calormenes.
Many believe it is the real Aslan, and while some aren’t so sure, all are afraid to disobey. Only King Tirian and his small band of friends have faith that Aslan would never treat his beloved Narnians in this shameful way. They can only hope that their true hero will once again appear in time to save them all.
The last battle is the great of all battles, and the final ending, the most magnificent of all endings, in this, the last book of C.S. Lewis’s timeless series.
One can’t ignore that this is a fable about the rise of fascism and authoritarianism. I see that. However, there’s something, I think, more important and that happens in the final chapter. Here, the true Aslan – strong, and kind and just and well, just true love incarnate — along with his army (not a fan of all the armies and battle stuff, frankly but it is what it is), has vanquished the imposter Aslan and set the world to order.
It’s important to know that in the first book of the series, The Magician’s Nephew, the world of Narnia is created. It’s a phenomenal book! Thus, it should come as no surprise that in the final book, the world comes to an end. Aslan creates a doorway of rowan branches, rowan having a long history as a protection against evil. This doorway leads to heaven, which is depicted as a place very much like where we are now. All are invited through the doorway.
I’ll repeat that. All are invited through the doorway.
However, there is a group of Dwarfs (the mythological creatures, not dwarfs or people of short stature) who fought with the Calormenes. They sit in a fetid barn, surrounded by manure, in the dark, pinching each other and arguing. Others try to tell them to come out, that everything is all right, but they refuse. Someone asks Aslan if he can help them. He replies, “Dearest, I will show you both what I can, and what I cannot, do.” He then makes a glorious feast appear in front of the Dwarfs and they dig right in, but all they can taste is rubbish and dirty water. They begin fighting over bits of this and that and black each other’s eyes and bloody their noses. Aslan then says, “You see, they will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”
I’m sure we’ve all known folks like that.
So they must remain in their prison. It’s a tragic moment.
Then, everyone goes through the rowan door where all is verdant and peaceful and full of joy. So, you can imagine how surprised they are to find that not only those who fought on Aslan’s side, or those who fought on the other side but ‘saw the light’ so to speak, have found their way through, but look, there… a very confused young Calormene “sitting under a chestnut tree beside a clear stream of water.” Huh. How did he slip through?
Turns out he walked through easily. And, after being there a while he came across the Lion. He says to him, “I am no son of thine, but the servant of Tash [a nasty god thought up by the king of the Calormenes].”
Here’s the thing. Aslan answers him and says, “…all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.” The young man is stunned. Can it be that Tash and Aslan are the same things? After a bit of dramatic growling, Aslan says absolutely not. “It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites. I take to me the services which thou had done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he services and by Tash his deed is accepted.”
In other words, it doesn’t matter after which ”god” you name your tribe. It matters what you do. It matters what’s in your heart. In other words, there are not, in fact, two kinds of people in the world, rather there is just us, and almost all of us do what we do because we think it’s the right thing to do, and that it’s in the service of the greater good. Okay, sure, there are a few of us who insist on sitting in a smelly old barn, drinking donkey pee, but there’s little I can do about that, except perhaps occasionally toss in a delicious loaf of bread, and hope someone in there catches a true whiff of it.
And also, if there is an afterlife (and I believe there is, although not the heaven of Judeo-Christian-Islamic lore), we may all be a bit surprised to see our neighbor, whom we were sure was about as misguided and downright evil as is possible, sitting next to us, just as baffled to see us as we are to see them.
I wonder what the world would look like, what wonderful things we could accomplish, if we viewed each other like that right now, right here? If we didn’t let the hollering politicians (of any party) and the media whip us up into a tribal frenzy, but rather if we greeted everyone with some humility (since as I said, they didn’t expect to see us here), and some delight that we’re seeing them here, and enough curiosity to listen to their story. It might erase a lot of fear. It might just do away with resentment. It might just let us build a world where children aren’t gunned down in their classrooms, women who discover they’re pregnant aren’t terrified about what happens next, and old women and children don’t have to huddle in the basement of factories while bombs rain down and young people die by bullet and bomb, where starving children in war-torn lands aren’t ignored because of the color of their skin, and refugee families (weren’t Joseph and Mary refugees?) aren’t turned away at borders or imprisoned.
I wonder. I wonder.