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Back through the wardrobe: A Review Essay

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis.  New York: HarperTrophy, 2000. ISBN 0064409422. Pb., 208 pp., $8.99.

C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children, edited by Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985.

 

This season's opening of the film "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" has taken many of us back through the wardrobe into Narnia. My hope is that the new travelers have not only the film trip, but also the wonderfully imaginative one through the book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which was the first of the seven books in the Narnia chronicles by C. S. Lewis.

Some wonder at the staying power of Lewis. He was a scholar, a medievalist, and professor of literature at both Oxford and Cambridge, and for some years an agnostic. His path to faith sets him as a premier example of one who reasoned his way to the brink of faith. One cannot reason all the way. He said the final step was like diving off the high diving board for the first time.

Lewis' writings ranged beyond excellent works in his professional field to the publication of his World War II radio talks -- now available as Mere Christianity. Countless Christians found their first doorway into faith through that book. Beyond these moving apologetic pieces (never out of print), he published novels and science fiction.

Of prime importance to us is the series of the Narnia Chronicles. Here the children wander through a wonderful wardrobe into the land of Narnia, where it is always winter but never Christmas. The White Witch rules and her kingdom is defeated only by the quite remarkable lion, Aslan (pronounced by Lewis Ass-lan).  Many have seen in Aslan a Christ figure. He suffers ("velveting his paws," emptying himself of his power) and lays down his life for others. He comes bouncing back to life and breathes life into countless elves, dwarves, and animals that have been turned to stone by the White Witch. One of the children (Edmund) is a Judas figure, a sneak and a traitor. The fearful children (like the disciples) join the risen Aslan to do battle against evil.

Some ask whether we have "read in" our Christian theology here. Did Lewis intend to tell the Jesus story? In this essay I share Lewis' own words in the revealing book C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children. We do not have the children's letters, but to our great pleasure we have C. S. Lewis responding to them.

A child asked in 1953 about Aslan's other name (is he Jesus?). Lewis responds: "Has there never been anyone in this world who (1.) Arrived at the same time as Father Christmas. (2.) Said he was the son of the Great Emperor. (3.) Gave himself up for someone else's fault to be jeered at and killed by wicked people. (4.) Came to life again. (5.) Is sometimes spoken of as a Lamb (see the end of the Dawn Treader). Don't you really know His name in this world?" (p. 32)

Recent books on spirituality and devotional reading

A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, by Parker J. Palmer. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004. ISBN 0-7879-7100-6. Hb., 192 pp. $22.95.

Drawing attention to the divided nature of our lives (the "blizzard" that assaults us without and within), Palmer seeks a means by which we might live as more whole persons, "undivided" in the relationships in which we seek to live and serve. Palmer offers no quick fixes, but calls for his readers to create safe spaces to nurture the soul in community; his hope is that such undivided lives will enable us to live non-violently in the world.

 

A Table of Delight: Feasting with God in the Wilderness, by Elizabeth J. Canham. Nashville: Upper Room Books. 2005. ISBN 0-8358-9804-0. Pb., 132 pp. $12.

Canham invites readers to find God at work in wilderness experiences--both the chosen wildernesses of retreat, and the un-chosen wildernesses of barren times of life. She shares with the reader ways that the wilderness can be a place of prayer where God is at work.

God Was in the Laughter: The Autobiography of David Haxton Carswell Read

by David H. C. Read. New York: Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, 2005; available by order from The Hood Library at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church (921 Madison Avenue, New York, NY, 10021; $20 plus $3 shipping and handling).

 

During a scheduled "free" afternoon of a continuing education event at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, David H. C. Read spent his "free" time reading the sermons of, and offering instruction and encouragement to, a pair of young pastors. Each chapter of his autobiography God Was in the Laughter radiates that same grace and generosity.

David Haxton Carswell Read was for thirty-three years pastor of Madison Avenue Church in New York City and perennially listed among the best preachers in the United States. His voice was heard regularly on the National Radio Pulpit. In 1973 he was the Lyman Beecher lecturer at Yale Divinity School. He published about a dozen books of sermons and a half dozen other volumes on preaching, evangelism, and as well an introduction to Christian faith. His sermons are bright and witty, theologically rich, wonderfully insightful to the human need for God, and though they were preached decades ago, they may still be profitably read as models of homiletical discipline and vessels of God's grace.

A More Profound Alleluia: Theology and Worship in Harmony

edited by Leanne Van Dyke. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005.  ISBN 0-8028-2854-X. Pb., 155 pp.  $15. 

 

Leanne Van Dyke, at the end of her contribution to this book of essays on theology and worship reminds us that if one pulls on a single thread of worship practices, "theological implications begin to spill out," and if one pulls on a single thread of theology, "worship practices begin to spill out." Accordingly, the "thoughtful pastor, church leader, and lay person will wish to think through these mutual integrations so that worship and theology can fit together and be a fragrant offering to God." (p.78)

Van Dyke's own effort to trace the mutual relations between what we believe and how we worship centers on the church's task of proclamation, pairing our understanding of the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ with the word that engages us in Scripture, sacrament, preaching, and other liturgical moments. She is joined in this integrative effort by five other contributors: John Witvliet, whose initial essay deals with the opening of worship and its Trinitarian shape; William Dryness, who traces the mutual connections between the church's act of confession and the doctrines of sin and grace; Ron Byars, whose essay shows how the church's practice of confessing the faith in creedal form (and in the prayers of the liturgy) implies a certain doctrine of the church that in turn sheds light on the meaning of our confessing; Martha Moore-Keish, who writes on the deep connections between the church's practice of celebrating the Eucharist and its eschatological hope; and David Stubbs, who helps us see the end of worship as the calling to live in such a way that our lives do not mock our worship but rather reflect its truth and reality.

Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion

by Bruce Feiler. New York: William Morrow, 2005. ISBN 0-06-057487-9. Hb., 416 pp., $26.95.

For many of us the settings of the stories of Scripture never leave the black and white page; or they are confined to the imagination of our minds re-creating biblical scenes, or recalling the interpretation of countless Christmas pageants, Sunday School dramas, and Vacation Bible School reenactments. The sand of the desert never sifts into our shoes, because we've never been there. Even for those who have journeyed to the Middle East, the sites of many stories remain unidentified by imprecise texts, undetected due to the shifting sands of time, or inaccessible due to modern conflicts. In Where God Was Born Bruce Feiler chronicles his travels to Israel, Iraq, and Iran to seek out some of those places, and to explore the way faith was shaped there among Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Journeys of Courage: Remarkable Stories of the Healing Power of Community

Journeys of Courage:  Remarkable Stories of the Healing Power of Community, by Joy Carol.  Notre Dame:  Sorin Books, 2004.  ISBN 1-893732-79-7.  Pb., 256 pp.  $14.95.


If you have ever put the newspaper down after reading an account of some recent horror, and said aloud or to yourself, "How will these people carry on after this?  What will they do with all the anger and pain from this atrocity?" then here is a book for you.

If you ever despair for this sin-saturated world and wonder if, in fact, evil does not often have the last word, then here is a book for you.

Or, more practically speaking, you face the weekly task of mounting the steps to the pulpit and you need some fresh material to illustrate your sermon, then here is book for you.

Joy Carol, spiritual director, author and counselor, gathers story after story from world communities that have endured the traumatic impact of "man's inhumanity to man."  These communities "responded to their dilemmas by courageously facing them or changing their reactions to them." Through these "journeys of courage" the communities "underwent some kind of transformation, some kind of healing power."

This is storytelling, pure and simple. Carol does not reach for extended theological reflection; she does not seek to offer biblical connections. In fact, she does not profess that this is a Christian book, per se, though many of the stories come from Christian communities of faith.

Carol gathers these stories because she knows that "telling and hearing stories can be powerful medicine." The stories of moral, spiritual, emotional courage are mined and shared to en-courage others. And they do.

The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Revelation to John

by Barbara R. Rossing. Basic Books, 2004. ISBN 0-8133-4314-3. Pb, 222 pp. $15.00

When the Left Behind series (by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins) began to come out in 1995, many of us wondered "Who would read such stuff?" Now after twelve volumes and a thirteenth, The Rising, which serves as a prequel, we know the answer. A lot more people read them than we would have guessed--enough to keep the books on the best-seller list year after year. They include a sizable percentage of every congregation I know of. The disturbing thing is that while those reading the books know they are fiction, many are nevertheless convinced that what they present is indeed the "biblical view" of God's plan and purpose for the world. We who read Scripture quite differently cannot allow such an assumption to go unchallenged. The use of the Bible and the underlying theology found in the Left Behind series is in many ways antithetical to what many of us are convinced is a more faithful reading of Scripture.

In The Rapture Exposed, Barbara Rossing offers a clear, engaging, and theologically insightful critique of the use of Scripture in the Left Behind series and the dispensationalist theology that lies behind the story line. Rossing, who teaches at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, has written extensively on the Revelation to John and Christian eschatology. She skillfully exposes the theological fiction on which the whole concept of the Rapture is based, the ethic of despair and escapism it fosters, and the extreme political agenda espoused by its main proponents.

Ending Hunger Now: A Challenge to Persons of Faith

by George McGovern, Bob Dole, and Donald Messer, with a forward by Bill Clinton. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8006-3782-8.  Pb.,114 pp. $12.00

 

These are the facts: More than enough food is produced to feed every man, woman and child on the planet. We have technology sufficient to deliver that food to all those people. Given some tweaking of priorities, there is global capital available to pay for this food and its delivery. Alleviating hunger will contribute toward inhibiting the spread of AIDS, reducing poverty, and diminishing the discontent that creates an environment conducive to war and terrorism. Every major world religion places a significant emphasis on feeding the hungry. More than 850 million people worldwide are malnourished, among them approximately 300 million school-aged children, another 100 million young mothers, infants, and pre-school children, and 7 million citizens in the United States of America; 210,000 persons die each week of starvation and malnutrition. 

These empirically verifiable pieces of data lead to a set of profoundly disturbing questions: How can we allow this to be? Why are there so many hungry people today? How can there be so much apathy in the lives of the well fed? Why aren't people of faith obsessed with ending hunger? 

These questions, once asked, demand our attention and a response. This book is a response.

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