Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Gospel According to Puddleglum

Anyone who knows me well, knows I am a reader. That's a bit like saying Michael Jordan could play a little basketball, or Imelda Marcos liked to shop for shoes. I read pretty much constantly. My wife is the same way, and our kids have inherited the disease to varying extents. We live in a library that grows like a jungle, slowly enveloping all the horizontal surfaces in our home. Every once in a while we chop it back, but I think the jungle is winning.

More specifically, I love to read stories. I'm not immune to the virtues of good non-fiction, and I always try to keep a non-fiction book going. But fiction really speaks to me. In fact, I am convinced that the Holy Spirit speaks to me through the stories I read. Not all of them, certainly, but many, many times I have learned Biblical truths when reading a fictional story. I can remember one such incident several years ago when I was reading one of the books in Stephen Lawhead's Arthurian cycle. There was an incident in the book of demon possession and spiritual warfare that was more real to me than anything I had ever read in another book or seen in any film. It struck something deep within me, and gave me a fuller appreciation of spiritual warfare than I ever had before. Suddenly it was undeniably real.

That happened again, recently, although not in quite so dramatic a fashion. Considering what I was reading, it really shouldn't have been that surprising. I was reading C. S. Lewis's The Silver Chair, part of The Chronicles of Narnia. Those books were an attempt to put the truths of the gospel into a children's fantasy setting, and Lewis succeeded admirably, in my opinion. They are very approachable books for children, yet continue to delight adults (such as myself). In addition, they do present God's truths in a novel way.

The Silver Chair is the story of Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole, two children from our world, who travel with Puddleglum, a Narnian Marsh Wiggle, on a quest to find and rescue Prince Rillian. Puddleglum, for me, is the most memorable character, and the hero of the story. He is a dour, pessimistic grumbler who sticks tirelessly to his duty, and manages somehow to find good in every bad situation, all the while supposing that things will get much, much worse. When it rains, Puddleglum is certain it will soon turn to sleet, but thinks how much more grateful they'll be then for the rain. He muses that the wood will probably be too wet to make a fire, and is pleasantly surprised when it burns quite well. To Puddleglum, no silver lining is without its dark cloud. The children call him a "wet blanket", and they wish he'd stop grumbling and looking for the worst all the time. In the end, they come to realize that he really is a happy person, and one of the bravest they have ever met.

But what really struck me from the story was how God uses the good and the bad to make things work out. Aslan, the great lion who is a stand-in for Jesus in The Chronicles of Narnia, gives the children four signs that will help them on their mission to rescue Rillian. The first is that Eustace will meet an old friend in Narnia, and must speak to him to get help. They muff that one almost immediately, and they must go forward in secrecy and without help they would otherwise have had. Consequently, as they set out on their difficult journey, they devote themselves to remembering and repeating the signs nightly.

But as their journey becomes long and difficult, they cease remembering the signs, caught up as they are in fighting the elements and their own weariness. At one point Jill says, "Oh, bother the signs!" In that moment she is more interested in finding warmth and comfort than in remembering the purpose for which they have come. Consequently they miss the ancient city of the giants, though they are actually struggling through its ruins at the time. That, in turn, causes them to miss the third sign, and after that they find themselves in a very tight place, indeed, where they must struggle for their own survival, not just to complete their quest.

And yet . . . in spite of missing the first three of the four signs, they find a way to get back on track, and move toward the goal. It is hard, and dangerous, and looks as if they will fail and likely die in the attempt. But their way becomes clear.

Then it struck me. How like us, and how like God! God put Adam and Eve in the Garden, and told them to guard it. But it’s not long before Adam and Eve are in a relationship with the serpent, close enough that he is able to convince them God is holding out on them. And so enters death. The first sign muffed. But even before he drives them from the Garden, God announces the way things will be made right, through the sacrifice of his own son, indeed of himself.

And we continue that pattern today. Who of us could honestly say we have done everything right, and have always chosen God over ourselves, over our own pleasure, over our fears? Not a one. And yet . . . in spite of muffing sign after sign after sign, he still makes a way. We get another chance to get back on track, to continue on the quest, to do the right thing.

And then, in The Silver Chair, Puddleglum and the children hear the last sign. The madman is tied into the Silver Chair, where he comes to his senses and begs them to free him in the name of Aslan. All prudence, all good sense, all care for their own safety tell them to ignore his pleas. But Puddleglum says it best:

“But then, supposing this was the real Sign? . . . They had muffed three already; they daren’t muff the fourth.

“Oh, if only we knew!” said Jill.

“I think we do know,” said Puddleglum.

“Do you mean you think everything will come right if we do untie him?” said Scrubb.

“I don’t know about that,” said Puddleglum. “You see, Aslan didn’t tell Pole what would happen. He only told her what to do. That fellow will be the death of us once he’s up, I shouldn’t wonder. But that doesn’t let us off following the Sign.”

Here Puddleglum shows us our only course. We cannot change the past. We cannot make a future where our sins did not happen. We’ve muffed a lot of signs. But when God makes a new way, when we see the next sign, when we come to the next choice, nothing must stop us from choosing right.

There is such freedom in that! No matter what kind of mess I’ve made of my life, I can still choose right. I can still declare my allegiance. I can still fight on God’s side. It’s not up to me to determine what the cost will be. It is only up to me to obey.

That’s good news, the Gospel according to Puddleglum. Thanks, Puddleglum. And thank you, God, for giving us stories that point us back to you. Wherever they may be found.

No comments:

Post a Comment