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Walking in Newness
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December 4, 2013

Margaret M. Horwitz

  At a nearby regional park there are now hints of winter. Though ducks and other water birds paddle in the lake and call out to each other, most of the geese, numerous a few months ago, have left. I see a squirrel scampering up a tree; it stops occasionally to look down—at me, I imagine—from different vantage points, rustling in the branches, perhaps storing food for the winter. His reddish color reminds me of the title character of Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, a book I fondly recall reading.

  My thoughts turn to C.S. Lewis, the author of one of my favorite childhood books, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lewis loved the Beatrix Potter books, and especially Squirrel Nutkin, mentioning it as an early experience of "joy," in his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Ultimately, he came to view "joy," not as an end in itself, but as a “signpost” directing him toward God. Elsewhere in the same book, he would write that he felt his imagination "was, in a certain sense, baptized” through reading Phantastes, the work of the great 19th-century Scottish writer, George MacDonald. Lewis came across this novel in the bookstall of a railway station when he was seventeen. At that time, he was an atheist, becoming a believer in Jesus Christ at the age of thirty-two, in part through his friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien. Later on, Lewis used the figure of George MacDonald (an allusion to the roles of Virgil and Beatrice in Dante's Divine Comedy) in his own work, The Great Divorce, an imaginative reflection on the afterlife.

  I can picture the moment when, at the age of ten, I pulled The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe off of the shelf in a school library. Knowing nothing of C. S. Lewis, and little about the Bible, I was delighted with a story of four children and their adventures in Narnia. I saw no connection between Aslan’s forgiveness of Edmund for betraying his brother and sisters, and Christ's forgiveness of those who repent for wrongdoing. I had no notion of a deeper possible reading of Aslan's death in place of Edmund, and the lion's joyous and triumphant return to life. Twenty years later as a new believer, I saw a parallel with Christ's sacrificial death and life-giving Resurrection, while continuing to enjoy the novel as an entertaining and insightful narrative on its own.

  In retrospect, I can see that reading Lewis’s novel may have been something of a “baptism of the imagination” in my life. But there were other memorable books that preceded and followed it. The first book I can remember hearing read to me as a child was another work by George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin. The story, with the compelling illustrations by Jesse Willcox Smith that accompanied it in the copy my family owned, remains in my mind a powerful depiction of good and evil. Through the seasons of my life, especially in the "winter" of my soul before I believed in God, some works of literature stand out, David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, and the novels of Jane Austen, as examples. After becoming a person of faith, reading and film-viewing took on an entirely new meaning to me: I became aware of a spiritual dimension in ethical choices portrayed, and in the influence which works of imagination exert beyond well-written stories, intriguing characters, or evocative imagery. As Visiting Professor of Christianity and Literature for New College Berkeley, I have been given the opportunity to teach on the works of C. S. Lewis, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Charlotte Brontë—all highly respected authors whose Christian faith breathes life into and gives a foundation for their novels.

  Even in wintertime, perhaps especially in this dormant season, we can know that by the birth of Christ, born of Mary, God entered into our human history in a unique manner. Indeed, our world can seem solely in thrall to evil, “always winter and never Christmas,” as in Narnia before Aslan's arrival. At such moments, we can be reminded that Our Lord is continually "on the move," and that spring is coming, with its promise of new life.

  “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NKJ)

Margaret McBride Horwitz(Ph.D.) is an independent scholar with a doctorate in Film Studies from UCLA and visiting professor of Christianity and Literature at NewCollegeBerkeley. (December 2013)

Posted on December 4, 2013 at 12:33 PM
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