Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Understanding Through Perspective

There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there.
The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place . . .
--G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
That seeing they may see, and not perceive . . .
--Gospel of Mark, 4:12

There are many reasons for going upwards, and one of them is to gain perspective. Frequently when we travel, we seek out high places with good vantage points that enable a comprehension of just how big something is, or to get a grasp on the exact make-up of some city or place. Years ago, I prepared for a weeklong stay in Portland, Oregon. Many folks whom I knew offered their input on what my itinerary ought to consist of, in a place bordered by so many natural features. Some insisted on the beaches of the Pacific, others on the southern Cascades east of the city, and a guidance counselor told me that a visit to the Columbia River would be worth my time. One person even recommended staying in Portland itself; the city is alive and vibrant, she said, and you could do worse than to get the most of it.
Of course, of my time in Portland, it was the advice of a local that made the most impact on my trip. Waiting in line for coffee, we struck up a conversation, and she told me that the Japanese Rose Garden in the hills above Portland would show me everything. She was exactly right. From the rose garden—beautiful in its own right—I could see the city of Portland below, Mount Hood and Mount Adams in the distance, the Columbia River just north of the city. The right weather would allow for views far enough west to make out the Pacific. I strained my eyes in that direction, and maybe I did see the ocean. With elevation on my side, I was able to get a fuller understanding of how Portland relates to the natural features that surround it, and a better perspective of what makes Portland such a unique city. When traveling, perspective matters. 

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis, provides perspective to a very different sort of travel. The nature of the journey is one of the spirit, and not of body. The destination is not any particular point on the globe, but rather it is God. Through allusion, Lewis creates a parallel to the soul’s journey to God through the travels of the wayfaring crew on the ship, Dawn Treader. For the reader and select characters, the destination is the same. And so the reader enjoys a reflexive relationship with the text:  as one reads of these adventures, so too is a person pushing forward on his or her own journey to God. 

From the biographical details we know of Lewis, God was a fundamental concept within most of his writings. I’d like to get at what Lewis’s real aims are for this story about humans traveling through Narnia by making brief appeals to the quotes above. In chapter four of the Gospel of Mark, Christ begins his parable of the sower and his seeds. He lists the numerous ways by which many seeds will perish, and the only way that seeds will flourish. After concluding the parable, he tells his confused disciples that those persons who see the merits of His message, but do not understand, will not be saved. Moreover, they cannot be saved. There is a sharp distinction, then, between the sense of sight and the intellectual act of perception. This is a passage of the Bible that Lewis appeals to directly. Aslan tells the children:

But there [earth] I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there. p. 247.

Aslan addresses the children just as Christ spoke to His disciples. Chesterton, a British Christian apologist from the generation just before Lewis’, argues for the importance of perspective if one is to understand Christianity. If you want to understand Christianity, you’re best to be wholly within it, or wholly outside of it. Anywhere in-between and you simply lack the perception needed for understanding. 

These are the two ideas that came to mind while I read the last pages of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader for the first time since my childhood. Lewis, I think, through the world of Narnia, attempts two things: firstly, to help a person get past the point of simple sight and move on to deeper understanding of God, and secondly, to aid understanding by providing a perspective of Christianity that exists completely outside of the earthen contexts of its various religions. If you can understand the character motivations and the reasons for action that occur in the world of Narnia, then I think Lewis would argue that you are capable of at least understanding the concepts involved in Christian belief.

The style of the book is what I find most interesting, especially at its conclusion. This is a story that ends quickly. After over two-hundred pages of fairly detailed descriptions of characters and events, it is a little jarring how quickly the novel draws to a close. And what fascinates the most is that Lewis never endeavors to justify or explain the blatant Christian overtones of his final words. I am not sure if I have ever read a work full of so much allusion and allegory conclude with such a total abandonment of pretense and method. I think that makes the conclusion of the novel very affective. The near brute force of the implications resonates long after you have finished reading. 

It was not until earlier today that I got around to reminding myself that Lewis’ Narnia series is intended for children. Though I thought that much of the book was simple and maybe a bit silly, in the last few chapters provide I found plenty of ideas worth chewing on for some time. But now I am thinking about a child who really invests him- or herself in the novels at a young age. For that child, all the talk of God and lessons from scripture likely gets old. It is probably viewed as the boring ruminations of adults, and for a child the world of Narnia might just seem more real than the world of God that grown-ups talk about. Then I thought that maybe if the stories from Narnia really stayed with a child after reading, the day might come in a religion class when the mention of the temple curtain renting in two after the crucifixion might trigger a memory. And as the now older child’s mind recalled the means by which Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace left Narnia, a fuller understanding of the Christian message might be found. And by viewing the Christian world from the outside, a better perspective might be found, just as I found a better one in Portland.

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