Ours is a busy home. With six children, two cats, and a dog, activity levels are high and the noise continuous. Seldom does the busyness cease; rarely can we lay claim to silence. Except, that is, for one portion of the day when rest is guaranteed. All conversation stops, everyone is still, and we achieve something akin to quiet. Sadly, I am not talking about the midnight hours. Rather, it is when we read. More specifically, it is when my wife, Laura, reads a story aloud to my children. I’m grateful for how she has determined to make this a regular feature in our home, such that most days we are engaged in some narrative, and everything else stops. In fact, Laura will often joke that all she needs to do is start reading a book and one by one the children will come, like rats to the Pied Piper. As the story begins, their curiosity is reliably provoked. The narrative summons their hearts such that they put aside all other things and listen.

This practice has certain implications. We regularly need to make room in our budget for overdue library fines. The Amazon delivery man is a frequent visitor to our home. And we are often trying to figure out where we can fit another bookshelf. More significantly, it means certain stories shape our thoughts and conversations. This has proven to be particularly true with C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. We have revisited the stories many times and enjoyed hypothetical wanderings through their imaginary lands. Which volume is your favorite? Why? Which character would you be? What would you have done in that situation? Do you like Turkish Delight? The list of questions to explore is endless, providing ready conversation for another car journey.

One question that I offered recently probed less the children’s likings, and more the philosophical underpinnings of Lewis’ magical universe. Specifically, why was Aslan a lion? Why was the central character in this imaginary world a carnivorous beast and not, for example, a duck? Why wasn’t Aslan a squirrel or a fish? To my knowledge, Lewis did not record an explanation for his choice of characters, so we must be cautious with our response. But knowing something of the man and, more importantly, of how good stories work, I believe there is an answer we can give with relative confidence.

Certainly, the answer has to do, in part, with the parallels Lewis sought to forge with the gospel. In Aslan we see something of Christ, the Lion of Judah. I will speak more of that later. For now, it is enough to note the association and to say that it forms part of the solution. But, from a more philosophical angle, we may say that Aslan’s being a lion speaks to the issue of beauty. I’m not referring here to the idea of aesthetic pleasure (though it is true that illustrations of Aslan are typically impressive to the eye). Instead, I’m speaking of that transcendental quality that is universally recognized and sounds a resonant frequency within our hearts. Aslan was a lion because in all of the animal kingdom it is there that we find the most prominent manifestation of beauty. His glory is self-evident. His majesty, difficulty to deny.

In Aslan we see something of Christ, the Lion of Judah.

Why is this important? Because beauty never stands alone. It has friends who are always close at hand. Specifically, beauty forms a triad of transcendental qualities with truth and goodness. And this idea, originally proposed by Plato, subsequently affirmed throughout the history of philosophy, is important. The complementarity of the good, the beautiful, and the true is instructive. To acknowledge one quality is to affirm all three. Thus, when we see beauty, we should anticipate verity and virtue. By contrast, when true beauty is lacking, we find deceit and corruption. This principle becomes particularly important when considering children’s stories.

Narratives written for young people will often take place in the realm of make-believe. They do not claim to depict a world that is real. The fantastic nature of the story is clear. At the same time, they do intend to educate. Having captured the mind and the heart through an imaginary sphere of existence, they commend universal truths to the child that he or she will need in the real world. For this reason, it is a weighty responsibility to assume the role of children’s author. Your task is not to entertain. Rather, you are to captivate your readers with a world that appeals to their childish ways while at the same time instructing them concerning the nature of life and the principles by which they should eventually live.

Generally, the most successful children’s stories are those where the divide between good and evil is clear. The child is not confused. He is not second-guessing the behavior of certain characters. Rather, he is confident that he has made the correct assessment of key individuals. A simple means by which the author can achieve such clarity is to ensure that the countenance of each character befits his behavior. Words and actions should be complemented by appearance. Thus, in his demeanor the hero commends himself to us. In like manner, we are disquieted by the presentation of the villain.

On this point the brilliance of Lewis is clear. Aslan is the king of Narnia. More than that, he is a savior. This message is communicated not only by what he says and does but by how he appears: as a lion. Indeed, it is not merely that in Narnia the line between form and content is consistently straight but that the king inheres a transcendental dynamic. He is good, beautiful, and true. All that he does is right, everything he says is correct, and he is a lion. While other characters in the story invert these qualities, and some must learn them, the central character exudes all three. For this reason, it should not surprise us that Lewis’ story has stood the test of time. Since the 1950s, children have been journeying to Narnia. They go for pleasure. They receive instruction, especially with respect to the transcendentals.

The immediate significance of this observation is relatively minor. Most probably you will enjoy The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe more the next time you read it. Understanding why a story works invariably leads to a greater appreciation that it works. However, there is a less direct implication that is more important: one that reaches far beyond our consideration of Narnia.

The topic of beauty has been largely eclipsed in recent times. Though previous generations gave much time and energy to the pursuit of it, today beauty is generally misunderstood or altogether overlooked. The causal factors are many, though the rise of utilitarianism has undoubtedly played a significant role. From the individual to the societal level, we have forged a tight connection between function and worth. If we can identify a level of utility, then we attribute value. Most other things fall by the wayside. Thus, as we have been trained to esteem output, we have done so at the expense of beholding beauty. We prize product, not majesty.

The problems with this approach to life are many, not least that we frequently miss out on a type of pleasure similar to what children experience when reading Narnia. Though we commend the ten-year-old to invest his time into a close reading of Lewis’ story, we willingly bypass countless, more tangible expressions of beauty because we are too busy. Somewhat related, a second problem with our utilitarian age is that when we stop pursuing beauty, we deprive ourselves of an education in truth and goodness. The three transcendental qualities are inextricably connected. Devaluing one has consequences for our perception of the others. As such, ours is an age in which we are less skilled in the perception of what is moral and just, because we have forsaken beauty.

Understanding why a story works invariably leads to a greater appreciation that it works.

An obvious example of this comes by way of the beauty industry. Ironically named, it is responsible for an endless stream of fake images. Through to hours of cosmetics before the shot and many more hours of editing after, these images show us a lie. Yet, in our ignorance we readily affirm these images as beautiful. We willfully distort the triad of transcendentals, asserting glory to that which is not true. However, because we cannot tamper with God’s economy, our mistake must be seen through to its proper end. Having ascribed beauty to a false reality, we begin to believe in it. Even though we know something of the facade it presents, we nevertheless elevate the image as the ideal to which we must aspire. Thereafter, the remaining transcendental is invoked: very little good comes from our efforts. Countless lives are damaged because we do not understand beauty.

Though there are other examples we could ponder, it is enough to say that an education in true beauty is a serious task. It is a responsibility to which children and adults alike should apply themselves. If we neglect the pursuit of beauty, we become numb to issues of justice and morality. We dampen our sensitivity to that which is good and true. The question then arises, How might we go about the task? Returning now to the Chronicles of Narnia, we can see that good literature can serve as a starting point. There is a reason why some stories never grow old. As we have already noted, narratives that have served successive generations do more than merely captivate. They educate. And often, they do so with respect to the transcendentals. As with Narnia, the author of a good book has usually submitted his story to the divinely ordained principles that govern the world. When a facet of the narrative portrays beauty, goodness and truth often follow in quick succession. By contrast, when the author writes of ugliness, he also attends to the themes of deceit and immorality.

If we are disciplined to read such books, we may train our minds in the perception of beauty. We read and we ponder. Why do I find this character compelling? Why do I dislike this one? What in the narrative is beautiful? Do I see goodness and truth close at hand? The questions to consider are endless. And the fruit of this discipline should not be underestimated. I recently heard of a Christian couple who raised their six children in a communist, atheistic society. Today, by God’s grace they all continue to profess faith in Christ. When the father was asked how he sheltered his children from the ideology around them, he replied “With literature.” He explained how he sought to fill their imaginations with the good, the beautiful, and the true.

There is, of course, another answer to the question of how we may pursue beauty. Good books will get us so far, but there is a more direct path. And here is where Narnia serves as a segue. The reason that Lewis’ story instructs so effectively is not simply because it honors the dynamic of transcendentals, but more importantly because it follows the contours of the gospel. From beginning to end, the Chronicles of Narnia is a story laden with redemptive themes. We find in its characters and the plot line echoes of a different drama: one that spans the course of human history and centers on a carpenter from Nazareth. Careful consideration of this correspondence raises the question of beauty and the gospel: Where in the story of Christ do we find this transcendental quality, and how does it instruct?

Countless lives are damaged because we do not understand beauty.

The answer is more extensive than we might imagine. For now, we can simply note three facets of the narrative that make manifest the beauty of the gospel and its didactic quality. First, the manner of Christ’s coming portrays His glory. The point seems almost paradoxical, because Isaiah the prophet tells us, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him” (Isa. 53:2). However, this speaks more of our propensity to overlook true beauty for that which is merely pleasing to our eyes. Christ came as man, lowly and humble in His demeanor, and therein lies His glory. Almighty God drew near to frail humanity, becoming like them so as to love them. In this reality we catch a glimpse of something that transcends our comprehension. Indeed, we can only imagine the quickening of the spirit that the disciples must have experienced when they looked into the eyes of Jesus: realizing that at the same moment they were beholding their Creator. The instructive power of such beauty comes by its commendation of Jesus’ teaching. If He had come by force, lacking grace, displaying no meekness, then we might be cautious of His commands. We might doubt the goodness of His teaching. But, because His demeanor was humble, we trust His words. The beauty of His coming portends the goodness of His instruction.

Second, Christ’s mission speaks of His majesty. He came to save sinners. With steadfast commitment He preached a gospel of repentance and forgiveness so that His enemies might become friends. Though we may be familiar with this message, we dare not become complacent. Certainly, the mission of Christ is one of beauty. In it we see the face of a merciful God, whose ways are not ours. He had no need of us; nor did we warrant His affections. Yet, Christ came to save sinners. A proper contemplation of this mission makes plain that the gospel story does not originate with men. It is a message of beauty. And as such, we see that it also instructs. One transcendental quality follows another. Running contrary to the pharisaical system of the day, the gospel makes plain the truth of humanity’s sin, God’s grace, and Christ’s glory. Thus, we readily put our confidence in the women’s report about the empty grave (Luke 24:10), because the beauty of the message heralds its truthfulness.

Finally, the means by which Christ accomplished His task is beautiful. After He had healed the sick, made the lame walk, and given words of life, He died on a cross. The Son of God breathed His last, outside the city, among criminals. The juxtaposition of circumstance and significance is unfathomable. How could it be? Yet according to the wisdom of God, it was the proper means by which we might be saved. And as we have already seen, it is with this apparent incongruity that we discover beauty. Our plan of salvation would never end this way. We would write a “better script.” Yet God’s gospel is the one that works. The spotless lamb dies in the place of ruined sinners. “He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). This blueprint for salvation causes us not only to marvel but to learn. Its beauty instructs: both towards goodness and truth. For in it we see the love of God and a validation of all else that He has promised. We find the center of our salvation, coupled with a guarantee that God is no liar. The good, the beautiful, and the true—all three resound at the cross.

Aslan was a lion because lions are beautiful. And beauty is a gateway through which we learn. It captivates the heart and makes ready for instruction. Specifically, beauty teaches us about goodness and truth. However, in an age that is obsessed with utility, it is a category that seldom features in our daily lives. As such, we sacrifice an education in virtue and justice. Of paramount importance is the pursuit of beauty: through song, through play, through literature. But above all, we must reacquaint ourselves with the beauty of the gospel. Therein we find the most pronounced manifestation of transcendental qualities, working in perfect unison from beginning to end. Therein we see Jesus, of whom Aslan is but a reflection. May we see His beauty, learn of His good, and believe upon His truth.

Reformation Women: Catherine d’Bourbon

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