25 October, 2011

People who ought to know better

I am annoyed on occasion by people saying or writing something that they really ought to know better than. It happened not that long ago (in the great scheme of things) listening to BBC Radio 4, usually a source of intelligent conversation ~ except when politicians are interviewed in the morning on the Today Programme ~ but not this time. I was listening to a woman talking about books and, to aid her in talking about The Screwtape Letters, she brought in a literate vicar (i believe those were her actual words, though i could be mistaken). In the process of saying that the Letters had once been one of his favourite Christian books but now was not, he mentioned that one of the things he dislikes about C.S. Lewis is the way he condemns Susan, in the Narnia books, because she likes lipstick and make-up.

Now this is just plain false, and it annoys me to hear it. I do not know if this literate vicar is misremembering, or not as literate as the presenter apparently thought, or if he and others (including Philip Pullman) whom i have read or heard making the same point are consciously and purposely misrepresenting the facts. Certainly Pullman, if none other, is intelligent enough to know the truth. That truth is, of course, quite different from what is said, and i am annoyed because this gives an incorrect idea of Lewis and Aslan and of the God who stands behind both those two, which, certainly in Pullman’s case, suits his intentions.

The truth is, clearly, that Susan has chosen to be a grown-up, which is symbolised by the cosmetics, rather than to retain the childlike faith in and desire to be close to Aslan. Peter, when asked by Tirian, who remembers that there were four children, about his sister, says, “My sister Susan...is no longer a friend of Narnia”; their cousin Eustace adds that Susan claims the others are merely “thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children”. Clearly, if one reads the text, the grown-up interests of Susan are simply a symptom of her attention and focus, which is being in this world fully, rather than the reason she is condemned.

Two or three times during the Chronicles Lewis makes it clear that Aslan does not have the power, or has chosen to limit his power, to break through someone’s unbelief: The dwarves in The Last Battle, for example, and Andrew Ketterly in The Magician’s Nephew are permitted to block out Aslan’s voice so completely that his goodness is unable to reach them. This limitation is obviously parallel with that of Jesus, who never gave up on those who didn’t believe him, but warned them about misascribing the actions of the Holy Spirit to the Evil One (Luke 11:14ff., for example).

It is important to recognise that i am not pretending that Susan is not condemned, having chosen a poorer way; i am, though, concerned that the truth be seen, that Lewis not be condemned himself, purposely or accidentally, for something he did not do. He himself passes no judgement on Susan in the narration: All the words against her are spoken by the characters in the books and, within the series’ world it is clear that she herself is responsible for her own poor choice. The fact is, just as Susan is not condemned for liking lipstick but for refusing to continue her friendship with Aslan, Lewis’s orthodox belief is that a person is not damned for doing evil but for turning his back on God. A subtle difference, but incredibly important.

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