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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Williams for the Defence, 23 Aug. 2012
This review is from: The Lion's World - A journey into the heart of Narnia (Paperback)
In Rowan Williams we have perhaps one of the most erudite, spiritual and theologically literate Archbishops since Michael Ramsey, his departure to Cambridge to be Master of Magdalene College will therefore be a loss not just to the Church, but more widely to society. In this second to last book to be published before his departure Rowan seeks to explore the Narnia series and defend it and its legacy (along with C S Lewis) against its atheist and post-atheist detractors such as A N Wilson and Philip Pullman.

Whilst I am a practising Anglican, I am no fan of Lewis, his fiction or his theological method and (unlike Rowan) find myself much more persuaded by the likes of Wilson and Pullman over the flaws within the Narnia books than I do by those who defend them - in many ways the books are deeply flawed when taken at their most literal level. Like all authors, Lewis places his own concern and foibles at the centre of his books (thus the polemic against Eustace's parents' in `Dawn Treader' reflects Lewis' own dislikes, this places Eustace on the back foot from which he is eventually redeemed - talk of being set up for a fall). Of course the redemption of Eustace is important (and spiritual), but he has been cast so low by Lewis (as have his parents) that his redemption must be both spiritual and cultural.

However, Williams sees Lewis' theological and authorial method as being not merely bad allegory, but a subtle rejuvenation and retelling of the Christian story for those who have heard it (or more likely, believe that they have heard it) - Lewis described it as being like "mouthwash" in that it washes away the staleness and bad taste, leaving one feeling refreshed. Whilst I have no problem with this understanding of Narnia, as such, Lewis' writing is ham-fisted, even if it is retelling and refreshing the Christian narrative and no amount of theological or literary wishing away can change this fact. One would also have to ask as to how many people who had approached the Narnia novels as non-Christians came away as Christians, or found this refreshing helpful. (Indeed, there is at least one published author who has felt betrayal at Lewis' use of Narnia as a retelling of the Christian story!)

It has to be said that Lewis was a good (popularist) communicator, his books for me lack depth, coherence (in particular his `mad, bad or God' argument over the divinity of Jesus) and are very dated. (JK Rowling does a far better job of communicating the Christian faith in her Harry Potter books than Lewis does in Narnia - the ending of the `Philosopher's Stone' is a good development of Marian theology! Furthermore, the theme of salvation is a constant one within the text, the character trajectories of Snape, Draco Malfoy and Dudley are all fine examples, yet the books do not in themselves descend into allegory.) I am in agreement with Tolkien in that Narnia is a mix (perhaps more a mess) of different influences and is inconsistent even within its own text. I also (like Tolkien) dislike allegory something that Lewis appears to use in Narnia, which although Lewis and Rowan try to distance Narnia from this literary form, though what else can Narnia be reasonably read as other than as allegory?!

This is perhaps one of Rowan's most accessible books (alongside his two books of meditation on Ikons). Unlike Professor N T (aka. Tom) Wright, there are not two sides to Rowan's writing, an accessible side (Tom Wright) and the academic theologian (N T Wright) - in this Wright is a theological Iain (M) Banks - rather Rowan writes with the same care and depth of learning whether he is writing dense academic theological prose aimed at fellow theologians (e.g. his book on Arius or `Wrestling with Angels') or writing for a more general audience. Yet in doing so he does not patronise or dumb down what he is saying to fit the expectations of his audience, rather he is able to speak at all levels. (One of the main problems the media have had with Rowan is that he does not speak in sound bites, but requires his listeners to think and respond - he is therefore not easily quoted.) I do not, however, agree with his arguments in defence of Lewis and of Narnia, for me it is too defensive, too willing to forgive the flaws in the story. However, one has to recognise the enduring legacy of Narnia and that it continues to attract new readers.

Despite my not sharing Rowan's love of Narnia I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Narnia or C S Lewis - one does not have to agree with Rowan (with Lewis or love Narnia) to appreciate what he (Rowan) saying (and to enjoy the way in which it is said). He is by far the best Archbishop and theological author we have had in the past-40 years. Ultimately this is a humane book, which exploring the legacy of Lewis and Narnia and is, as such an enjoyable, challenging (if too short a) read.
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