Monday, February 6, 2012

Wrestling With Emeth, Part 1: On Three Ways of Reading Lewis

Dedicated to Paul, Bonnie and anyone else who has wrestled with Emeth as I have. May the truth of Judah's Lion be found in spite of ourselves.

Following a radio interview on Issues Etc. (click here to listen) about an article I wrote for Higher Things Magazine (Joy: The Serious Business of Narnia), I received several emails inquiring about a particular scene at the end of The Last Battle. In the course of 2-3 posts (at most I hope), I will attempt to give a lengthier and more insightful answer to the question of Emeth the Calormene and his place in the Chronicles of Narnia and what implications this has for our reading and understanding of Aslan, Narnia and C.S. Lewis.

Any Christian who has read The Chronicles of Narnia probably knows the exact sequence I am referring to. Emeth, the Calormene comes into the stable door at the end of Narnia and the conversation ensues as to how he, a Calormene and follower of the false god, Tash, got into the stable door in the first place. There is far too much to quote at length, but here's some of the context in direct quotation:

...Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honor) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him...But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son thou art welcome. But I said, alas, Lord, I am no son of of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I also said (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek...

Perhaps, like many others (myself included), when you stumbled upon reading this section you thought: "What is Lewis saying here? I'm confused." So, you read it and re-read it again and again. Still it makes no sense. Who is Emeth serving? Aslan or Tash? And the questions tailspin from there: "Is Lewis a universalist? Is he saying Jesus isn't the only way to heaven? But isn't Jesus the way, truth and the life? Isn't Aslan Jesus? How do I reconcile this with Scripture? Can I even read this as a Christian? Was Lewis a Christian?" And so forth and so on.

I've been pondering this section since high school when I first read it. And never, until recently, have I begun to find a satisfying answer. I say, "begun," because there are some questions surrounding this portion of narrative that we will never have answered to our satisfaction. One of the biggest questions I have, by the way is, why didn't Lewis simply write this portion of the story another way? What would it be like if it had been re-written (an endeavor I hope to attempt shortly)? What if it had been left out? What would Lewis say in response to this and our questions about this portion of narrative?

While we may not be able to find satisfying answers to all our questions about Emeth, this last question we can answer: what has Lewis said elsewhere that may shed light on our wrestling with Emeth?

But before getting ahead of ourselves and moving on to Lewis' other writings and exploring precisely what is being said here in Aslan's conversation with Emeth, I offer my response from some of the Issues Etc. emails I received. It seems a fitting place to begin this series as it shapes the discussion and inquiry in proper perspective.

Dear sir,

Thank you for your thoughtful comments and questions.  I know precisely the passage in The Last Battle to which you refer. I too have struggled with how to understand this portion of an otherwise excellently written book (and series I might add) – one that is overwhelmingly comforting and conforming to the Christian faith, with the exception of this conversation reported by Emeth between Aslan and himself. In part I have struggled to reconcile this rather confusing error with Lewis’s other clearly orthodox teachings on Scripture. Many have tried to reconcile these words apart from what Lewis meant and thereby vindicate this conversation, or at least cleverly ignore it or massage it to say something it doesn't. Reconciling Lewis’ words into something that they are not does us no better than the original grievance. Round pegs don’t fit into square holes no matter how many other round peg-holes there may be on the table. And yet many have also laid false claims upon Lewis which do not fit into this work or his others, such as the charge of universalism.

We should be careful to avoid both conclusions: on the one hand to ignore clear error and on the other hand to make the wrong accusation concerning this error. And perhaps thirdly, upon seeing error simply to ignore the rest of the man's faithful teaching of Scripture. Knowing what is being said and comparing this section to others, it is quite easy to see, not only where Lewis is wrong (he is but a man and can err). But also allowing us to see, in rather startling contrast, the many great insights and profound clarity in his proclamation and defense of the Christian Gospel that Lewis otherwise provides. In other words, I’m neither suggesting you ignore Emeth nor that you ignore the rest of Lewis on account of this error. We simply wouldn’t be able to read any theologian if we threw the orthodox baby out with the erroneous bath water.
That being said, I think there are three ways of reading C.S. Lewis (no matter what the book is). And, I think this also happens to apply to any theologian we might read: 
1) Put Lewis on a pedestal; in other words he can do no wrong and all the man says is good, right and salutary.
2) Brand Lewis a heretic and read nothing whatsoever of his writings etc. no matter how true and helpful a great deal of his writing may be; this example is clear false teaching which means the rest of his writing is rubbish too.
3) Read Lewis discerningly. In other words, read Lewis like any human theologian - know his strengths and weaknesses, know what he gets right (and there are a lot of things he does get right) and what he gets wrong. There are many things Lewis gets right, many insights he has into the Christian faith, but he is not Scripture and his works are not part of the Canon of the OT/NT. Like any theologian, we must test what he says in light of the clear Word of God. Was he perfect? By no means. But did he write many useful things? Absolutely.
In the end, I submit to you that this third and final way is the way we should read Lewis. After all, in spite of his errors (as we pray is true for ourselves) he proclaimed Christ Crucified for a world in need of that message and did a brilliant job defending the Gospel along the way.

It's no coincidence that Emeth, the name of the Calormene character in The Last Battle, comes from the Hebrew word for "truth" or "veracity". The question of truth and what is true is at the heart of this whole scenario. In part two, I'll take a more precise look at the nature of the conversation and where Lewis goes wrong and where he goes right. In addition to that, we'll address a bit about where his readers have gone wrong trying to understand Aslan's conversation with Emeth as we sort out the "what does this mean?" question. Stay tuned for part two.

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