Though C. S. Lewis died many decades before the rise of the New Atheists, he taught and wrote in an academic world where naturalism, scientism, and secular humanism were ascendant and the Christian worldview was either dismissed or relegated to the personal, emotional realm. In the refined Oxbridge atmosphere in which Lewis lived and moved and had his being, most professors took for granted that miracles did not happen, that Jesus was just a good, moral teacher, and that evolution was a sufficient theory to explain everything we see around us and experience within us.
In response to this reigning materialist paradigm, one he had vehemently embraced throughout his teens and 20s, Lewis wrote three works of apologetics that have not lost any of their power. In Mere Christianity, he first argued for the existence of God on moral grounds and then clarified the essential teachings of the gospel, biblical morality, and Christian theology. In The Problem of Pain, he reconciled the ubiquity of pain and suffering in the world with the all-good and all-powerful God of the Scriptures. In Miracles, he argued that miracles do not break the laws of nature but are consistent with the God revealed in Christ and the Bible.
While vigorously but genially defending the Christian worldview, he also defended, in such academic works as The Allegory of Love and The Discarded Image, the Christian Middle Ages from fashionable—but mostly false—charges of ignorance, superstition, and authoritarianism. Meanwhile, in The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, he countered the Freudians and Marxists by analyzing the theological and psychological dimensions of sin and temptation, and upholding, if slightly repackaging, traditional Christian teachings on heaven and hell, salvation and damnation, angels and devils.
Were that all that Lewis did and wrote, he would deserve the title of greatest Christian apologist of the 20th century. But he went a step further. He took his best logical arguments for the full depth and breadth of the Christian worldview and incarnated them in 10 novels that make the case for Christianity in an imaginative and immersive manner that lingers in the heart as well as the mind. While his Space (or Ransom) Trilogy and Till We Have Faces gain deservedly more and more readers with each passing year, his seven Chronicles of Narnia remain milestones in the history of apologetics: works that empower us to see Christianity afresh by allowing it to play out in a controlled world.
In The Case for Aslan: Evidence for Jesus in the Land of Narnia, David Marshall goes so far as to describe the Narnia books as a sort of literary petri dish. Just as scientists use petri dishes to initiate and then observe the growth of bacteria, so writers like Lewis “create worlds of thought, isolate characters within them, lend them an environment, then watch (often in surprise) how they react.” That does not mean Lewis manipulates or infantilizes his readers, as some have accused him of doing, but that he offers them an imaginative window into the way our world, and we ourselves, work.
An experimental world
Narnia, Marshall argues, “is no retreat into childhood. It is a virtual reality, a medium in which Lewis creates an experimental world and discovers truth with deep implications for our lives. Narnia is a controlled environment in which ideas about faith and reason, life and death, miracles and sin, are isolated, nurtured, observed, and tested under critical conditions.”
Puddleglum, for instance, is a fictional and fantastical character. But when, in The Silver Chair, he employs Pascal’s wager against a witch who tries to convince him and his companions that their world is only an illusion, he becomes a serious and accessible philosopher of the human condition. He teaches modern readers of all ages by showing them that faith, in Marshall’s words, “does not mean believing without evidence, but in the face of confusion, temptation, fear, and our personal or collective smokescreens.”
Marshall, an author, apologist, former missionary in China, and founder-director of the Kuai Mu Institute for Christianity and World Cultures, has been debating the New Atheists for two decades. In his new book, he carries that debate into Narnia, where he encourages Lewis’s fans and critics alike to be like Trumpkin, the grouchy, naysaying, unbelieving dwarf who, in Prince Caspian, comes to believe in Aslan and the miracles and moral standards that come with him. “Lewis drops clues in Narnia to help even Trumpkins who study the New Testament skeptically for a living find the real Aslan, whom no one could invent,” writes Marshall. “‘Aslan’ invites us to play the role of Trumpkin, to look hard, reach out our hands, and ask tough questions, too.”
Over the course of The Case for Aslan, Marshall explores such central Narnian (and Christian) themes as creation ex nihilo (from nothing), the nature of good and evil, the uniqueness of Aslan (Jesus), and the historicity of the Resurrection, borrowing insights from Plato, philosopher Alvin Plantinga, psychologist M. Scott Peck, and intelligent design theorists as he goes. He is at his best, however, when he takes up one of the most controversial topics in all the Chronicles: the fate of Susan.
Near the end of The Last Battle, the seven friends of Narnia (Peter, Edmund, Lucy, Eustace, Jill, Digory, and Polly) awake from a train wreck to find themselves in Aslan’s Country (heaven). Tirian, the last king of Narnia, is excited to meet these mythical heroes but is surprised to discover that Susan is not with them. Susan, as it turns out, is no longer a friend of Narnia, having traded in her love for Aslan for the petty vanities of lipstick, nylons, and invitations. Jill complains that Susan has made the mistake of growing up, but the wiser Polly corrects her, explaining that Susan’s real problem is that she has not grown up at all.
According to J. K. Rowling, creator of Harry Potter, Lewis essentially writes off Susan for becoming interested in sex. For Philip Pullman, author of the self-proclaimed anti-Narnia, anti-God trilogy His Dark Materials, the incident with Susan offers further proof that the Chronicles are misogynistic and anti-life. But the passage says nothing about boys or sex, and the fact that Lucy is the most spiritually mature of the children, with Jill and Polly exhibiting great courage and wisdom, neutralizes any simplistic charges of sexism.
“Rowling and Pullman,” Marshall explains, “completely misread the story of Susan. Her problem wasn’t sex or growing up: she had beaus in Narnia, as did Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, for that matter. And her ‘judgment’ was not hell, it was that she missed out (for now) on what she purposely rejected: she was granted the grownup right to avoid a party she didn’t wish to attend!” Lewis shows his respect for Susan by allowing her the autonomy to choose and to live with the consequences of her choices.
Marshall circles back several times to the problem of Susan, for he knows that Rowling and Pullman’s critique disguises their wider critique of orthodox Christianity. Indeed, near the end of his book, Marshall constructs an entertaining but convicting dialogue in which Rowling and Pullman, together with critical race theorists Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi, attempt to “cancel” the Narnia books for their supposed racism and sexism. To defend Lewis and his creative petri dish, Marshall appoints professor Digory Kirke.
For Pullman, the main issue that justifies cancelling Narnia—and Aslan, its messianic lion king—“is the trauma your man inflicts on young women by making them feel guilty for exploring their sexual nature! You want to turn this discussion into anything but what it is: a needed rebuke to the cruelty of the man [Lewis] you neglect to defend!”
“Susan,” Kirke explains, “grew fearful of love. And that, I fear, as Aslan put it, is a warning to your world.” Unflustered and unconvicted, Pullman responds: “I may not believe in God, but I know that a woman’s right to choose is sacred.” Pullman’s answer provokes the applause he expects from the crowd, but it also causes him to fall right into Kirke’s hands:
If choice is free, how can some choices not be wrong? [Jane] Austen, [George] Eliot, and the Bronte sisters created worlds in which a woman’s choice meant something: an affair, a grudge, a spiteful visit to your nephew’s lover, a wrong choice in lovers, all bore consequences. But “celebrating choice” without considering whether those choices lead to heaven or hell, infantilizes women, in the name of liberating them.
The Case for Aslan is littered with such insights, but it is not a book for all tastes. Those lacking a good working knowledge of the Chronicles of Narnia and Lewis’s apologetical works will likely feel lost, as Marshall makes frequent, scattershot references to Lewis’s many books—often as many as four in a single sentence. He also has a penchant for chasing down rabbit holes, including personal reminiscences, that disrupt the flow of the argument.
Still, readers who, like myself, enjoy being assaulted with rapid-fire Lewis trivia and are willing to follow Marshall’s creative tangents will find themselves transported to a magic world where every sign points to the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Louis Markos is professor in English and scholar in residence at Houston Christian University, where he holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His books include Lewis Agonistes: How C.S. Lewis Can Train Us to Wrestle with the Modern and Postmodern World and Restoring Beauty: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C.S. Lewis.