While we’re talking about Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy and its role (or non-role) as a way to expose kids to the good news about atheism, I thought I’d mention another series of books that, in its own way, played a huge role in my own deconversion: CS Lewis’s famous Chronicles of Narnia.
Narnia is a series of books designed to expose impressionable children to mainstream Christian theology in the guise of a cute, heroic fairy tale complete with cuddly talking animals, dashing deeds of daring-do, and (as bad guys) a host of witches, boogeymen, and evil magicians. The true hero of the series, however, is the great Lion, Aslan. Aslan appears in all the books, and is quite transparently the Jesus character–he even dies to save the life of a traitorous brother, and then rises from the dead to destroy evil and make all the good little boys and girls into kings and queens ruling over a millennial realm for, well, not a thousand years, but until they’ve grown up and become good and wise rulers. At the end of their adventures, they go back home and turn into kids again, but some of them get to return for various sequels, and others meet new characters who tie in succeeding volumes, and so on.
So how did this lovely series of faithful, readable, Christian fantasies lead me a way from Christ? In a word: Aslan.
Don’t get me wrong. Aslan is a swell character. Apart from a certain tendency to deal with his enemies by ripping out their throats with his massive, pointy fangs, he’s just a great big pussycat. And yet regal. Impressive. The kind of authority figure you could love without fear, and fear without losing your love. From a Christian perspective, he made a wonderful, child-sized version of what Jesus was supposed to be. There was just one thing, and it was the thing I loved most about Aslan: when you needed him, he would show up.
It’s not too much to say that Aslan showing up is one of the main reasons I liked Narnia. At the time, I loved Jesus, and I wanted him to show up in my life as well. A personal appearance, a spoken (audible) word, a vision–something that would be a genuine interaction with my Savior, and not just a superstitious, autosuggestive mind trick I was playing on myself. But the closest I could come was reading fairy tales about Aslan showing up in the lives of his beloved children.
It wasn’t a direct cause-and-effect. I didn’t read Narnia and then immediately abandon my gullible adherence to the Gospel. But it added to the burden of inconsistency I was experiencing between what ought to be true to be consistent with the Gospel, and what was actually true and consistent with real life. There’s something just not right when the servants of a “loving God” have to turn to childish fairy tales in order to find any kind of vicarious satisfaction of their desire for genuine interaction with the God they love.
The other problem with Narnia is that, much as I loved it, there were certain undeniable inconsistencies in the story. For example, if Aslan loved them all as much as he claimed to, why didn’t he spend more time with them? Why did he keep sneaking away, under the excuse He’s not a tame lion? The grand climax of the series is a story in which the children all die and go to a heaven where they, and Aslan, get to be together forever. But if that’s what Aslan really wanted, why didn’t he just stay with them forever starting at book one? (Or rather, starting at The Magicians Nephew, which recounts the fairy-tale version of Genesis 1-3.)
Of course, if he had, then the stories would have been very boring, because the things that went wrong, and that required Aslan to show up in order to fix them, would never have gone wrong in the first place. The story would have been more consistent with the character and motives it ascribed to Aslan, but it would cease to have any interesting resemblance to the world we live in. A world that was under the control of a genuinely loving and genuinely omnipotent God would be a world free from the conflicts and suffering that define our existence. It would be nice to live in, but it bears no resemblance to the world we actually experience.
And that’s not just a Narnian problem. Any time you try to write a story in which God behaves consistently with His own alleged character, abilities, and motives, you end up with a story so different from what we find in real life as to be completely irrelevant, uninteresting, and even incomprehensible. The Christian God lives in a self-contradictory world of superstitions, subjective perceptions and preferences, and fantasies. He’s not meant to be a cohesive whole, he’s just an FAQ: superstitious people ask distinct questions about the world, and give themselves discrete answers that satisfy the need of the moment without necessarily agreeing with the answers to the other questions.
Our world, our needs, our desires, and our resources, all reflect the conditions that exist in the absence of a loving, all-wise, all-powerful Heavenly Father. We take it for granted that God does not show up in real life because, well, in real life, God does not show up. Never mind whether it makes sense for a loving God to fail to spend time with His beloved children. His absence is a universal and undeniable fact, and therefore it becomes part of the given, the backstory, the normal and natural conditions under which our fantasies about Him take place.
Trying to write a consistent story about a loving God necessarily requires you to be inconsistent, either with the conditions we find in real life, or with your description of God and His actions. If you take a tunnel-vision view of God, peering at Him through a peephole so small that you can only see a teensy bit of the picture at a time, then the inconsistencies may not be apparent. But they are there nonetheless. They are unavoidable.
I’ve given up on Jesus because I’ve seen the inconsistencies. The Chronicles of Narnia didn’t immediately make these inconsistencies clear to me, but from an emotional perspective, they did force me to confront the strange contradiction of the fact that a fictional Jesus would show up (in a children’s fairy tale), but the “real” Jesus, who supposedly loved me even more than Aslan, would not show up, even when I needed him. Eventually, even I had to catch on that there was something fishy about that story.