The Redemption of Eustace

The Chronicles of Narnia gets a new character in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: Eustace, cousin of the Pevensies. Eustace is an unpleasant, self-centered boy in the first part of the book. Worse yet, he doubts his cousins' stories about Narnia. But he unexpectedly finds himself lost in that world with Edmund and Lucy. Their first adventures sailing on the Dawn Treader with Prince Caspian only further reveal Eustace's selfishness.

Yet his depravity reveals itself most fully after he descends into a valley on a lone island and discovers a dying dragon coughing out its dark blood near a pool of water. Convinced in its death, Eustace wanders into the dragon's lair, not expecting the treasure-bed that he would find there because, as the narrator explains, Eustace had not read the right books and thus knew little to nothing about dragons. He reasons that the gold could benefit him well in Narnia and begins to collect it, starting with a large bracelet that he slides onto the upper part of his arm. But he soon grows tired and lies down to sleep on the dragon's bed of gold.

After his "cent-uous" slumber, he awakens to an eerie feeling that the dragon had returned. Dragon's legs appear to be beside his own arms. As Eustace moves his left arm, a dragon's leg moves likewise; as Eustace moves his right arm, another dragon's leg moves likewise. And Eustace's arm hurts badly -- but why? In fear he dashes out of the cave to get to the pool, but on all fours. He is shocked to see a dragon's reflection staring up at him in the water. He then realizes that the dragon's legs are his arms, and the gold bracelet was now tightly constricting one of his thick, scaly legs. "Sleeping on a dragon's hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself," the narrator remarks.

Eustace despairs. He finds himself a hideous creature, and his hideousness is accentuated by his first meal: the dead dragon. His snakelike body, his batlike wings, his crooked legs -- these outwardly reveal his twisted character. Eustace was lost on the island; and he was lost as a human being.

Eustace seeks out his cousins and their Narnian party. He flies above the island and spots the Dawn Treader. But as he approaches, Prince Caspian and the others prepare to fight, thinking that a dragon was about to attack them. Eustace appears before them in tears (crocodile tears, some say); and after some questioning, they recognize him. Eustace rejoins the party and displays a markedly different attitude. Using his new dragon abilities, he helps them get food and survey the island. But he remains a dragon.

Then one night Eustace awakens to a great lion, a lion who lights the dark world with moonlight wherever he goes. The lion tells him to follow him. Eustace is afraid, yet he obeys the lion, who leads him up a mountain with a garden and fruit trees on top -- and a large well in the middle of them. Eustace wants to descend the marble steps into the well to get relief for his constricted leg. The lion instructs Eustace to undress first, a seemingly odd request since he was not wearing any clothes. But then Eustace remembers his reptilian skin. He could shed it as a snake does. He peels off his outer skin, only to find that he had to remove the next layer. After removing the second layer, he had to remove a third. He then realizes that he could not remove enough layers on his own. The lion then offers to remove all of Eustace's layers of dragon skin, and Eustace agrees. The lion digs his claws in deeply to Eustace's heart and tears off the mangled skin. The process hurts badly, but relief immediately follows. Now Eustace can wash in the water. It was there that he was made new again, restored to human form by the work of Aslan. Eustace was saved and freed from dark enchantment.

Compare this story to Gregory of Nyssa's description of how God will remove our sin in his Great Catechism. Like a surgeon cutting out diseased tissue, so God will excise our sin from us -- and it will hurt. But we want the result: freedom from our sin.


Do We Know What Is Good for Us?

In The Magician's Nephew, the prequel to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis presents us with a moral question: Do we know what is good for us better than our Creator does? He paints the quintessential scene of temptation, a gated garden containing a tree laden with silver apples. A command at the entrance of the garden urges visitors to take the fruit for others and not for themselves; and the command comes with a warning that those who take the fruit for themselves will get what they want -- along with despair.

The boy Digory, the main character, is on a mission from Aslan to retrieve a silver apple for him. He enters the garden through its golden gates as he should (according to the sign) and sees the beautiful fruit. However, he soon realizes that he is not alone. The majestic Jadis looms nearby with something in her hand, the core of an apple. The juice stains her deathly pale face as she calls to him. She promises knowledge, happiness, and long life, if only he would eat an apple, too. They could rule as king and queen forever in Narnia, rising above all others. He refuses. So she sews seeds of doubt in his mind regarding Aslan. What is Aslan holding back from Digory? Can Aslan be trusted?

Digory withstands the temptation and accomplishes his mission. Then Aslan reveals the meaning of the sign at the garden. Indeed, Jadis got what she wanted, long life and the strength of endless youth. "But length of days with an evil heart is only length of misery and already she begins to know it. All get what they want; they do not always like it." The fruit would have fulfilled Digory's desires to his detriment if he had taken it according to his will, for his own purposes. Digory needed to trust that Aslan knew what was good. And so do we need to trust that our Creator knows what is good for us.


The Lord of the Rings (The Lord of the Rings, #1-3)The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One could spend a lifetime writing about Tolkien's themes, characters, symbolism, language -- really, the whole world that he created in this book and others. I'll just present some questions to consider when reading this book.

What can this book teach us about the struggle between good and evil?

Frodo and Sam recognize that they are playing some role in a grand narrative. What role are you playing? And what is the grand narrative in which you exist?

What does the Ring symbolize?

What does the Ring's influence on Men (i.e., the race of human beings in the book) tell us about human nature?

How is Aragorn a Christ figure? (For example, consider Isaiah 53:2-3.)

How is Gandalf a Christ figure?

How is Frodo a Christ figure? (Perhaps consider Isaiah 53:4-12.)

What does the book imply about Tolkien's view of the environment? Or, how does environmentalism permeate the book?

How does the book reflect the influence of C. S. Lewis?

I realize that one could raise plenty of questions related to the historical-political context in which Tolkien was writing. Here I have focused more on his Roman Catholic background and how that may have affected his writing.

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"The Call to Witness": a Sermon by John Calvin

"The Call to Witness" represents Calvin's exposition of 2 Timothy 1:8-9, which reads as follows in the ESV: "Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began. . . ." In his exposition, Calvin encourages and challenges Christians to preach the Gospel despite threat of persecution or discomfort. He emphasizes God's care for us, that God strengthens us and is powerful and faithful to us. Several times Calvin underscores God's goodness, particularly in His choosing to save helpless sinners; and so we are. Echoing Paul's words in the passage above (and in Ephesians 1:4ff and 2:8-9), Calvin declares that God's calling of us to salvation was merely because of His grace and purpose, not any consideration of our works or dignity. Calvin states: "God never went farther than Himself, when He chose us to salvation. For He saw that there was nothing but condemnation in us: therefore He contented Himself, by mere grace and infinite mercy, to look upon our misery, and help us; although we were not worthy." So in this sermon, we have an ironic but biblical message: God in His goodness elected us to salvation, and we ought to share the Gospel; for He will help us and take care of us, and it would be unthankfulness on our part not to share the Gospel.

I say that this is an ironic message because many have claimed that the Calvinist doctrine of election precludes evangelism. But the title and content of Calvin's sermon highlight the importance of evangelism even while he preaches that God has chosen people to salvation. He says: "If the gospel be not preached, Jesus Christ is, as it were, buried. Therefore, let us stand as witnesses, and do Him this honor, when we see all the world so far out of the way. . . ." Indeed, as Paul writes in Romans 10:14-17 (ESV), "How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!' But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, 'Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?' So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ." Calvin stands with Paul in promoting evangelism.

Revel in the grace of God, and do not be ashamed of it. Consider Calvin's words in "The Call to Witness": "It is true, God calleth us at this day, but His election goeth before; yea, and God chose us without any respect to our works, as we could have done nothing before: but we are debtors to Him for all; for He drew us out of the bottomless pit of destruction, wherein we were cast, and past all hope of recovery. Therefore, there is good reason for us to submit ourselves wholly to Him, and rely upon His goodness, and be thoroughly ravished with it."


Grenz on Postmodernism and Christianity

In A Primer on Postmodernism, Stanley J. Grenz does something that I've never seen before in Evangelical philosophical discussions: he recognizes postmodernism's value to Christianity. I'm not saying that this never happens; but usually in Evangelical critiques of postmodernism, it is simply dismissed as self-refuting (which it is). Grenz lays out where Christians can agree with postmodernism and where they must disagree. He says that Christians can agree with postmodernism that modernism espouses too optimistic a view about human reason and the progress of knowledge (especially in science) and that the modernist emphasis on the individual, neutral, objective observer of the world is problematic. Christians believe that human reason is tainted by the sinful human will, whereas postmodernists distrust reason and point to the influence of one's community (and language) on the individual. The results of recent scientific discoveries highlight the double-edged sword that is knowledge: the splitting of the atom led to nuclear waste and threats of nuclear war. Grenz observes, moreover, that the postmodern shift in focus back to one's role in the community should be welcome in Evangelical Christianity, which, through modernism, has tended to focus too much on the individual knower having right beliefs and not enough on having a loving community.

Grenz draws a sharp line in the sand between Christianity and postmodernism when it comes to views on truth and reality. He notes that the postmodernist claim that there is no overarching narrative of humankind flatly opposes Christianity's assertion that the stories of each people group fit within a larger narrative that is centered on Jesus Christ and God's plan of redemption. Grenz also says that Christians ultimately do not share postmodernism's skepticism concerning reason. He realizes how Christianity has benefited from modernism's intellectual progress, even though human use of reason has sometimes led people away from Christ. He cites Pascal in noting the limits of human use of reason in matters of faith.


God, Reason, and the Passions

"[I]n Scripture, God Himself is said to be angry without implying the least movement of passion. The word 'anger' is used because God's vengeance is effective, not because His nature is affective." -- Augustine, City of God, Book IX, Chapter 5

There has been some concern over whether God is affected by things outside Himself. If God's "emotions" are exactly like our emotions (the passions), then God changes and lacks sovereignty over all things. Our emotions toss us to and fro and affect our mental state. We can learn to control them with reason, but doing so is a struggle of the will. Considering God's eternal and infinite nature, it seems contradictory to say that God struggles to keep His passions under control, because this would imply that God is limited in His reason and His sovereignty by His passions. It would be saying that God is eternally conflicted.

Augustine points out a fundamental difference between God's "emotions" and our emotions. God's "emotions" are proactive, not reactive. God acts by reason in accordance with His own nature. So when we read that the Holy Spirit can be grieved over our sin (Isaiah 63:10; Ephesians 4:30), we must keep in mind that God is holy and always hates sin, as sin is opposed to His nature. God is being (eternally) consistent.


Bonhoeffer on Confession

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides a treatise on the virtues of confessing our sins to one another. The practice, he argues, is vital to the Christian life and adds tremendously to the fellowship of believers; for in confession, Christians admit to one another that they are sinners in need of grace, and they shine light on their sin, which desperately desires to stay hidden (or at least we seek to keep it so).

Confession benefits the Christian in many ways, according to Bonhoeffer. First, it reveals sin in order to sanctify the sinner. Second, it enhances the fellowship of believers because it highlights the fact that no Christian is the only one struggling with sin; we are all in a fierce spiritual battle, and we can encourage each other in the fight. Third, it uplifts the sinner, for the one hearing the confession is a sinner himself, and can deeply sympathize with the one confessing. (Of course, Christ, too, can sympathize with us, as He took on humanity in the Incarnation and thus experienced for Himself human weaknesses and lusts. See Hebrews 4:14-15. I am surprised that Bonhoeffer did not mention this.)

Bonhoeffer goes on to address some misconceptions and malpractices concerning confession. He starts with the point that confession to fellow sinners should be easier than confession to God, who is holy and pure and the just judge of all evil. Fellow sinners saved by grace are a blessing of God to Christians for help in the midst of sin, as co-strugglers. We can boldly approach God, who loves us as we are and forgives us by His grace; but we can approach fellow Christians even more boldly, as they have experienced temptation and sin themselves. Next, he warns against mere self-absolution in the private confession of our sins to God. (Are we just clearing the record for our own satisfaction?) Also, Bonhoeffer stresses that the one who hears confession ought to practice it himself -- because he may otherwise become overburdened or even power-struck with his knowledge. The one who hears confession must humble herself and commiserate with the fellow sinner. Last, those who confess must keep in mind the gravity of what they are doing; confession is a striving toward sanctification, not an empty act of piety or a mindless duty.

"Therefore, confess your sins to one another. . . ." -- James 5:16a