Narnian Education and the Coronavirus

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Zoom.  Google Hangouts.  Moodle.  YouTube channels.  Remote learning. 

As educators, most of us find ourselves thrust into a world unlike anything we’ve ever experienced.  A novel coronavirus rampages through our land and we fear for our health and the health of our loved ones. We struggle with social distancing and isolation from students and colleagues.  We strain to adapt our instruction to an online format.  And we wonder what the future will look like for ourselves, our families, and our schools.   Will any of us be able to return to our “bricks and mortar” schools this year?  If so, how many of us will be allowed to gather at one time? And what about next year?  For those of us in private schools, how many of our families will still be able to afford tuition?  Will our schools be able to weather the financial storm and keep their doors open?  And will all of us still be alive on this earth to discover the answers to these questions?

During his lifetime, author C.S. Lewis was acquainted with danger, having endured the trenches of World War I and the bombs of World War II.  He also knew grief, having as a boy lost his mother to the ravages of disease.  Indeed, these experiences lend extra poignancy to the Chronicles of Narnia, his tales of a wondrous world in which children receive an education in radical trust, meaningful risk, and ultimate hope.

In the book The Horse and His Boy, Lewis’s protagonist, Shasta, flees in desperation from the land of Calormen towards freedom to the North in the land of Narnia. His seemingly uncertain journey is full of twists and turns as he seeks to avoid capture, to escape wild beasts, and to traverse a dry and vast desert. Along the way, he and his companions must take numerous risks. At one point near the end of his journey, a despondent Shasta finds himself crossing a mountain pass in a cold, wet, and exceedingly dark fog. Gradually he becomes aware that he is accompanied by the great Lion, Aslan, who reveals to Shasta the ways he has been with him throughout his life’s journey, even as he protects him in that very moment from cliffs to one side that would bring certain death.

Importantly, though, Aslan’s provision for Shasta does not completely shield him from adversity, setbacks, confusion, or pain. In fact, the Narnia stories are so compelling precisely because the characters inhabit a world of real dangers that require wise and courageous action. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie children are informed that Aslan is by no means “safe.”[1] In The Silver Chair, Jill Pole learns a similar lesson when Aslan makes no promise to leave her untouched should she come to drink from his stream, saying that he has “swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms.”[2] Indeed, in the final book of the series, The Last Battle, the Narnian king Tirian and his fellow warriors envision that faithfulness within the battle into which Aslan has called them could very well result in their deaths.[3]

Though Aslan may not be “safe,” the trust these characters exhibit only makes sense if they believe that he is ultimately “good” and that nothing they experience in life or in death can ever remove them from his loving care. On occasion, I teach a high school course on Lewis’s life and works. After spending a year together reading many of his books, including the entire Chronicles of Narnia, I pray a benediction over the students as we part ways.  Its final words read: “Whether you journey through fog or in sunlit meadows, whether you experience victories or fall back in retreat, above all things may you know—truly know—that you are forever held between the paws of the great Lion. Fight the battle.”

How convinced are we that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord”?[4] David Cooper, my Head of School at Front Range Christian School in Littleton, Colorado, celebrates teachers who innovate in ways that place them—in his words—“on the precipice of epic failure.”  We can walk the heights more confidently when we know that we are loved.

Of course, risk is not valuable in and of itself. Rather, it is good only when it serves truly noble goals. In The Horse and His Boy, Shasta and his fellow travelers take risks largely out of desperation as they flee oppression in Calormen; however, they also choose to travel northward because they are captivated by a vision of freedom represented by the verdant and peaceful land of Narnia. This vision of the future is one of great hope.

As educators, we must have this vision, and help our students to see it as well. We must create educational opportunities—even online—for students to engage in meaningful risk because we believe that they can and will step into lives that testify to God’s active presence in their midst. Author Andy Crouch describes in his book Strong and Weak that when young people come to him asking for advice on their future, he advises them to embrace more risk because “in the economy of the world’s true Creator and Redeemer, meaningful risk is the most meaningful action, the life that really is life, the flourishing for which we were created.”[5] The characters of Narnia learn and grow because they face real opportunities to develop character that resembles that of Aslan himself. This flourishing is what we want for our students, for ourselves, and for our schools. Why can we willingly walk along the precipice of epic failure? Because we are convinced that we travel together toward a promised land of milk and honey, of green pastures and still waters, in the good and glorious presence of the One who makes all things new.

As finite and vulnerable creatures, it is natural for us to desire comfort, security, convenience, and normalcy.  In times like these, though, when so much is stripped away, we need supernatural strength.  We did not choose to cross this particular treacherous mountain pass, but we can choose how we respond.  We can either strive to regain our illusion of control or relinquish it and notice the One who has been with us all along, who has “waited long for us to speak.”[6]

If we allow the Lion to lift the fog about our eyes, we will see this life for what it can be—an adventure of abiding peace and deep joy.  Yes, it will include periods of grief, of loneliness, and of boredom.  Certainly, digital education amidst quarantine requires much more sitting around than it does brandishing swords or seeking hidden treasure.  Yet even as our virtual and real worlds merge into one, we can ask ourselves, “Why, after all, have we read so many stories of fearsome dragons and courageous knights to ourselves and to our children for all these years, if not to prepare for such a day as this?”[7]

In his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” Lewis states that “fairy land arouses a longing for [a child] knows not what.  It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth.  He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.”[8]

As educators and people of faith, the world of Narnia helps us to see our own world and the education we provide with different eyes.  We take the next steps of the adventure, not in order to return things to the way they were before the scourge befell us, but to embrace the next thing that Aslan has for us and our world.

Can we walk this path of radical trust, meaningful risk, and ultimate hope?  I know that we can—because we do not travel alone.

Will we stumble along the way?  Certainly, we will—but the Lion will be there to gather us up, to remind us that we are his, and to exhort us to rejoin the battle.

And rejoin the battle we will.  After all, because the King of all beasts is also the King of all worlds, our story has a happy ending.  We can count on it.

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: Scholastic, 1995), 80.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: Scholastic, 1995), 22.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: Scholastic, 1995), 49, 103, 106, 108, 111, 146.

[4] Romans 8:38-39

[5] Andy Crouch, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2016), 172.

[6] C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy (New York: Scholastic, 1995), 163.

[7] This idea is an extension of thoughts found in G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles, 1910, 129–32; C. S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002), 30–32.

[8] Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” 29-30.

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