Spiritual Saturdays: The Power of Myth

On the rare occasions when I’m asked about my elementary school years, I reply that I was homeschooled all the way through. The reality is a bit more complicated than that. I really was never homeschooled in the sense that my parents were my teachers. But homeschooling is the closest comparison most would understand to the experiences of which my 1-12 school years were composed. (Somewhat necessary explanation: I didn’t go to kindergarten, thus “1-12” as opposed to “K-12”.) 

The one-room schoolhouses to which our grandparents purportedly slogged were, in fact, more comparable to the miniscule Christian day schools I attended. The one where I spent my 1st through 3rd grades contained a grand total of 8 kids each year, including myself. We might have evolved to 9 by the time I got to 3rd grade.

My family moved from sleepy Newton Falls, Ohio to Key West, Florida for a year when I was in 4th grade. Accordingly, my younger brothers and I were enrolled in a new Christian school that seemed massive, since the student body probably numbered closer to 20. The new school was not only larger; they also utilized a different curriculum than that to which I had previously been exposed: Accelerated Christian Education (ACE).

Literature was one of the mandated subjects of ACE. Not to put too fine a point on it: ACE had its strengths as an educational format, but the Literature course did not fit the “Quality Learning Experience” category. I was assigned, in 4th grade, such fluffy gems as The Sugar Creek Gang and the Killer Bear, A Reward for Jerry and The Mystery of the Smudged Postmark. There were more such noble titles, but for some odd reason, I can’t call them to mind.

About midway through that year, a new volume was placed on my desk. I can still visualize the cover to this day: four children (two boys and two girls) in winter coats, gazing over snowy mountains, with an open wardrobe door behind them. I picked up The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and began to read…and was spellbound within 20 pages. I was 9 years old and was already a bookworm, but I had never encountered anything like this. Not only could I not put it down; I didn’t want it to end!

I delighted with Lucy at her discovery of a mysterious, snow-covered land. My mouth watered for Edmund’s Turkish delight, even as I shuddered at his betrayal of his brother and sisters. I imagined being equipped with Peter’s sword and just KNEW I would fight as bravely as he did. I feared and loathed the White Witch and all her lackeyed minions. And Aslan! Where to begin??? My heart sunk as Aslan was bound to the Stone Table, as that luxuriant mane was shaved and as his life was forfeited so that the price for Edmund’s freedom could be paid. And exuberance rose within me…I hardly dared hope it could be so…as Susan’s and Lucy’s tears were dried and victory rose from the ashes of defeat. Aslan had risen again!

I was later informed, once I had completed it, that there had been a mixup and nothing by C.S. Lewis was actually part of the designated course reading. (Figures.) I couldn’t have cared less. I was ecstatic when I discovered that Lewis hadn’t stopped with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but had penned six more followup volumes. I hurried to the library and checked them all out and read about Narnia all summer.

Now a father to a little girl who is but a few years younger than I was when I (coincidentally? I don’t think so!) discovered Narnia, I take great delight in introducing Carli to the stories from which I derived so much excitement. We aren’t reading the books yet, but we did watch the movie this morning. She was hooked by the end and was yelling at the White Witch during the Stone Table scene. I have a feeling the books will be meaningful to her when the time comes.

C. S. Lewis, the famed Christian apologist who authored the Chronicles of Narnia and so many other incomparable works (The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain, among others) understood the power of myth to illustrate great truth. In fact, it was while reading a work of fantasy by George MacDonald (Phantastes) that the hardened atheist Lewis’ conscience was first convicted of the truth of the existence of God.

In a later introduction to an anthology of MacDonald’s works, Lewis offered the following thoughts on myths and their divine usefulness:

It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt. It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and ‘possessed joys not promised to our birth!’ It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are reopened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives.

The efficacy of myth, however, must be wedded to cosmic truth in order to bear the impact that only the Holy Spirit can harness. The Chronicles of Narnia are far from the only mythical constructions that meet this test, though they do so abundantly. As I moved into my teen years, I was introduced by a dear aunt and uncle to Lewis’ close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien and all of the high drama found in The Lord of the Rings. I understand now that there was a core reality that characterized both of these achingly beautiful sagas: the timeless struggle of good and evil. And the ending, while seeming at times in doubt and beyond reach as the stories unfolded, was always blazing with clarity in the consummation of the narrative. GOOD WON. RESOUNDINGLY.

Towards the end of the Gospel of Luke, we are told of two followers of a passionate leader and crusader for righteousness and mercy. That leader had been mercilessly killed and a few days later, these two disciples were, with heavy hearts, journeying by foot to another town a few miles distant. As they trudged along, they were accompanied, out of nowhere, by a new Friend who “[began] with Moses and all the Prophets [and] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” In other words, this Friend told them stories they knew very well in a fashion that cast a whole new light on their meaning.

This Friend’s explanations were so comforting that once they reached their destination, the two formerly mournful men begged Him to stay a little longer and join them for a meal. He consented and as He blessed their meal, we are told, “Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And He vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?'”

This is one of my favorite New Testament stories. I can’t read it without emotion. But long before the Emmaus passage held any resonance for me, I felt a yearning to one day know and follow a Lion like Aslan. And when I met Him, the fire of recognition blazed gloriously within me because C.S. Lewis had paved the way.


One thought on “Spiritual Saturdays: The Power of Myth

  1. I read The Chronicles for the first time in 4th grade as well! We read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in class and even discussed the symbolism in the book (such as Aslan being a Jesus character). This, in a public school! God bless Mrs. Luttrell. About 5 years later I found a copy of The Problem of Pain in my parents bookshelf. While the death of my father had occurred some 3 years earlier, the emotion accompanying the event was still springing up in new and painfully unexpected ways. After having trapped in, deep inside, a lot of pain and heartache, reading The Problem of Pain was one of the few outpourings of all my feelings in quite a long while. It was the first time I realized I wasn’t crazy or odd for thinking or feeling the way I had. Lewis put into words, so eloquently, what I had only been able to feel in my stomach and chest. Not only did I gain a sense of sanity from reading the book, I gained a comfort in knowing I didn’t need to reason or sort anything out. All I needed to do was trust God would lead me out of the cavern I inhabited in due time. God most certainly has done so (and continues to do so) and has managed to even use my experience as a way to glorify Him in other people’s lives. While I’m sure the placement of the book and time I found it were God’s doing, I am so thankful Lewis “paved the way” for my experiences with God via his books.

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