Disneyland, Narnia, and the Gospel

By Jeff Mallinson

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Sophisticates sometimes roll their eyes when evangelicals mention C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. I think they do this for the same reason I used to roll my eyes when folks gleefully said they were going to Disneyland.  Having spent formative years in Southern California, in the shadow of a synthetic Matterhorn, I had mixed feelings about the Magic Kingdom. Mere mention of the place used to stir up uncomfortable memories. First off, there was the old problem of coaxing my family out the door at a reasonable hour. Early on, I couldn’t sleep the night before our excursion. Then, I’d wake up at the crack of dawn and try to rally my seven brothers and sisters, a father who wasn’t in a hurry to stand around in the sun, and one lovable but chronically tardy mother.  When we finally did reach the park, we typically spent the first twenty minutes taking pictures at the entrance.  Then, there was the hour-long wait to get on a ride. Thus, I might wake up at 5AM but not get on my first ride until 2PM.

What’s this got to do with high-brow dismissals of Narnia?  Here’s my suspicion: I suspect that I never really hated Disneyland. Rather, as I grew older, I used high-brow value judgments to mask the real issue: I was afraid of being let down. You see, it was emotionally easier to abandon my hope of riding Space Mountain than it was to hope for Space Mountain, but risk disappointment.  Likewise, I suspect that the sophisticates who denigrate Narnia do so because they can’t let their adult selves hope in a cosmic “Happily ever after.”  They’ve cast off childish things, including fairy stories and amusement parks.

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On the Virtue in the Wasteland podcast, I with co-host The Man About Town, had the chance to chat with Rev. Dr. Steven Mueller. He is Dean of Christ College, Concordia University, Irvine, and author of a theological reflection on Narnia entitled Not a Tame GodWhen I asked Mueller why Lewis wrote the Narnia books, he turned to the following passage from Lewis’ essay, entitled “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said:”

I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm.  The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical.  But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.

“You can’t guilt someone into feelings,” Mueller explained.  But, for Lewis, narrative, myths and fairy tales could become opportunities for readers to become surprised and delighted by feelings: like hope and joy.

The conversation then turned to a memorable encounter Mueller had, while serving his first parish.  It was Good Friday, and the church was reenacting the drama of Jesus’ betrayal and death. “We’re imagining Jesus has just died,” Mueller explains, “We leave in silence, don’t greet people, we don’t have coffee.  We just leave in a somber, pious mood.  And what’s everyone doing when they leave? You know, I don’t want to question piety but there are at least some people … saying, ‘Now remember, tomorrow morning, 8:00; we start setting things up, we start preparing for the special breakfast.  Don’t forget to get the flowers, that’s your job. And it’s kind of like, Jesus has died—nudge nudge—Easter’s coming.  And of course we know the whole story.  But it never hits us with the same impact.”

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Nevertheless, that night Mueller met at least one person for whom this whole drama was deeply moving. “A little girl came with her mom to the vestry door.  She was probably about four years old, and she wouldn’t leave.  She was bawling her eyes out because she thought I was dead, and there were soldiers in the parking lot!”  Mueller consoled the child, explaining:  “‘Pastor’s not Jesus. We both belong to Jesus, and tonight we talked about when Jesus died.  And in a couple days we’ll celebrate Easter; and you know what happens? She said, ‘Jesus come to life again.’  And we calmed her down and sent her on her way.  On Easter, she was in church and she was beaming, because Jesus had come alive again.  What had happened?  She experienced that story for the first time, and it had its full impact on her.  And I’ve been so jealous of her, every Easter season that goes by. I wonder, how might we sneak past those watchful dragons or hear something with the wonder of it? Fiction lets us do that if it’s well constructed.  It takes us out of this world and into an imaginary one where we can consider things that might be based in truth, or might parallel it, or reflect on it, and it gives us the chance to experience the wonder, the heartbreak, the tragedy of what happened: the injustice of the death of Aslan.  And then he’s alive again, and he brings life to other people. And how many children, and even adults, read that for the first time and they don’t get it.  They don’t get it all, until the light comes on and it’s, ‘Wait a second!’”

This takes us back to Disneyland and the Gospel.  We too often worry that affirming affection for Aslan, Mickey Mouse, or Jesus is all part of the same naiveté.  But perhaps it’s not so much that we got smarter. Perhaps it’s that we’ve been embittered, let down, and had our hopes dashed.  Perhaps this caused us to insulate ourselves from imagination, fun, and joy.  Perhaps the solution to this emotional and spiritual rut we’re in is to enlist some children, and watch as their fresh eyes gaze on the wonders of this world.  So, why not try taking a young person in your life to Disneyland, read them a chapter of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or bring them to a special church service?  With their new eyes, maybe they’ll help you experience the magic all over again.  As Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:3)

The Wayfaring Stranger

Written while sipping an A&W Root Beer, between chapters of Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, American Promethius: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

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