The online journal of Luke Dockery

Category: Theology (Page 1 of 47)

Learning from the Apostolic Fathers: Clement

I have long been interested in church history, and especially the history of the early church, but despite this, I have not done a good job of immersing myself in early Christian writings outside of the New Testament. To work towards remedying this deficiency, I began reading The Apostolic Fathers in English late last year as part of my daily devotional reading. Generally speaking, the term “Apostolic Fathers” refers to early Christian theologians from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, some of whom would have known some of the apostles personally and sought to pass on their teachings. More specifically, “Apostolic Fathers” is frequently used in reference to Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna.

While these writings are not part of the Christian canon, I have still found them to be interesting and insightful, and I wanted to share some reflections from a few of them in a short series of posts. Today, I want to focus on 1 Clement.



Clement of Rome and 1 Clement

The letter known as 1 Clement is written on behalf of the church at Rome to their fellow believers in Corinth.[1] It is believed to have been written at roughly the same time that John wrote the Book of Revelation, but while the latter has a very negative portrayal of the Roman government, the perspective of 1 Clement is more positive. As Michael Holmes states:

“…The elements of peace, harmony, and order that are so important to the author (or authors) of this letter reflect some of the fundamental values of Roman society. Thus it provides important evidence of the diverse and creative ways in which Christians sought to come to terms with the Greco-Roman culture and society within which the church was so rapidly expanding.”[2]

Clement of Rome

First Clement is unified in style rather than disjointed, which suggests one author rather than a composite work, and well-attested ancient tradition identifies this author as Clement (despite Clement not being named in the text itself). The exact identify of “Clement” is harder to discern, however. Catholic Church tradition identifies him as the third bishop of Rome after Peter, but the “office of monarchical bishop, in the sense intended by this later tradition, does not appear to have existed in Rome at this time.”[3] More likely, church leadership consisted of a group of presbyters or bishops, of whom Clement was likely a leading figure. It was probably written during the last two decades of the first century.

The intended recipient of the letter is the church at Corinth. This group of Christians had received repeated correspondence from Paul in previous decades, and the spiritual problems of that church (and divisiveness in particular) clearly persisted after his death. In the days of Clement, some of the younger men in the church at Corinth had apparently deposed the leadership of the congregation, and the church at Rome was so distressed by this turn of events that they produced this letter and dispatched mediators in an effort to restore unity and order to this fractured church.[4]

Themes and Insights from 1 Clement

Close Dependence on ScriptureAs I read 1 Clement, I was struck by the degree to which the author relied on Scripture, and the Hebrew Bible in particular, to make his argument. Clement gives ancient examples of both jealousy and good behavior from the Book of Genesis, and warns the Corinthians about the former while admonishing them to follow the latter. Although he references New Testament texts less, Clement is still closely connected to the apostolic era, and invokes Jesus, Peter, and Paul as examples to follow.

Orthodox TheologyI was also interested to see 1 Clement’s affirmation of key Christian doctrines that, although taught in the New Testament, are sometimes dismissed by critical scholars as later theological developments that early Christians wouldn’t have recognized. Clement is an early, extrabiblical witness to the doctrine of resurrection:

“Let us consider, dear friends, how the Master continually points out to us the coming resurrection of which he made the Lord Jesus Christ the first fruit when he raised him from the dead.”

(1 Clement 24.1)

He also reflects Trinitarian language and thinking:

“Do we not have one God and one Christ and one Spirit of grace that was poured out upon us?”

(1 Clement 46.6)

Finally, although this is a less controversial idea in the history of Christian theology and interpretation, Clement heavily emphasizes the doctrine of unity. Indeed, the whole letter represents an urging for the Corinthian Christians to give up their schisms, submit to their rightly established leadership, and be united in Christ.

A Marvelous PrayerI was struck by a beautiful prayer near the end of 1 Clement, and wanted to share a section of it:

“You alone are the benefactor of spirits and the God of all flesh, looking into the depths, scanning the works of humans; the helper of those who are in peril, the savior of those who are in despair; the creator and guardian of every spirit. You multiply the nations upon the earth, and from among all of them you have chosen those who love you through Jesus Christ your beloved servant, through whom you instructed us, sanctified us, honored us.

We ask you, Master, to be our helper and protector. Save those among us who are in distress; have mercy on the humble; raise up the fallen; show yourself to those in need; heal the sick turn back those of your people who wander; feed the hungry; ransom our prisoners; raise up the weak; comfort the discouraged. Let all the nations know that you are the only God, that Jesus Christ is your servant, and that we are your people and the sheep of your pasture.

For you through your works have revealed the everlasting structure of the world. You, Lord, created the earth. You are faithful throughout all generations, righteous in your judgments, marvelous in strength and majesty, wise in creating and prudent in establishing what exists, good in all that is observed and faithful to those who trust in you, merciful and copassionate: forgive us our sins and our injustices, our transgressions and our shortcomings.”

(1 Clement 59.3-60.1)

Concluding Thoughts

To compare it to New Testament writings, 1 Clement is a very long letter (about 50% longer than Paul’s longest letter, 1 Corinthians), and Clement is painstakingly deliberate about the way in which he constructs his argument and structures his plea to the Corinthian Christians. Perhaps this is because, unlike Paul, he cannot rely upon apostolic authority and instead has to build the weight of authority from lengthy biblical examples.

This means that 1 Clement not a fast-paced read, but it is absolutely worthwhile. The extended use of Scripture as the foundation for Christian behavior and practice is exemplary, and the drumbeat emphasis on the importance of love and unity within the Christian community is need in every time and place. First Clement is an edifying early-Christian writing that all Christians would do well to read, reflect upon, and appreciate.


[1] Michael W. Holmes, ed., The Apostolic Fathers in English (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006): 36-38, is the source of the background information that follows.

[2] Holmes, 36.

[3] Ibid., 37.

[4] Ibid.

Reading in 2020

Regular readers of The Doc File know that I keep track of what I read each year, and that I enjoy chronicling that here on the blog and offering some reflections about my favorite reads from the previous year. As we all know, 2020 was a strange and challenging year, and I was reminded of what a blessing books are! Reading brought a lot of peace to my life in a hectic time.

Without further ado, here is my list from 2020:

  1. North Boulevard Church of Christ 2020 Vision: Final Reflections, by David Young
  2. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell
  3. Swallowed Up, by J.L. Gerhardt
  4. Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  5. Under Occupation, by Alan Furst
  6. Who Moved My Pulpit? Leading Change In The Church, by Thom Ranier
  7. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth
  8. The Sticky Faith Guide For Your Family, by Kara Powell
  9. 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B. Peterson
  10. Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis
  11. The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss
  12. A Third Testament, by Malcolm Muggeridge
  13. Silence, by Shūsaku Endō
  14. Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don’t Know, by Malcolm Gladwell
  15. A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion, by Gary M. Burge
  16. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis
  17. Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proved Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, by James Clear
  18. Prince Caspian, by C.S. Lewis
  19. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis
  20. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling
  21. The Silver Chair, by C.S. Lewis
  22. Images of America: Searcy, by Carolyn Boyles and Patsy Pipkin
  23. T.R.I.A.L.S. A Journey from Anxiety to Peace, by Chase Turner
  24. Alexander Hamilton: Revolutionary, by Martha Brockenbrough
  25. The Horse and His Boy, by C.S. Lewis
  26. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
  27. The Magician’s Nephew, by C.S. Lewis
  28. Star Wars Aftermath, by Chuck Wendig
  29. The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis
  30. Star Wars: Bloodline, by Claudia Gray
  31. Star Wars Aftermath: Life Debt, by Chuck Wendig
  32. Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News, by Brian Zahnd
  33. Star Wars Aftermath: Empire’s End, by Chuck Wendig
  34. The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah
  35. Jackaby, by William Ritter
  36. A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeline L’Engle
  37. So You Want to Talk about Race, by Ijeoma Oluo
  38. Lament For A Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff
  39. Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture, by Mark A. Yarhouse
  40. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein
  41. The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, by Jemar Tisby
  42. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, by John H. Walton
  43. Beyond The Verse: What I Discovered Reading the Bible One Book at a Time, by Wes McAdams
  44. Star Wars: Thrawn, by Timothy Zahn
  45. The End of Youth Ministry?, by Andrew Root
  46. Thrawn: Alliances, by Timothy Zahn
  47. Thrawn: Treason, by Timothy Zahn
  48. Searching For Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, by Rachel Held Evans
  49. God And The Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and its Aftermath, by N.T. Wright
  50. Seeing Jesus from the East: A Fresh Look at History’s Most Influential Figure, by Ravi Zacharias and Abdu Murray
  51. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt
  52. Adoptive Youth Ministry: Integrating Emerging Generations into the Family of Faith, edited by Chap Clark
  53. The Family Upstairs, by Lisa Jewell
  54. How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, by Alan Jacobs
  55. Race & Justice, by Tim Keller
  56. Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era, by Jerry Mitchell
  57. Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, by Tom Holland
  58. The Ragged Edge of Night, by Olivia Hawker
  59. Where The Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
  60. Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton
  61. King Jesus and the Beauty of Obedience-Based Discipleship, by David Young
  62. The Risen Spear, by Scott Biddle
  63. Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, by Ariel Sabar
  64. McCord’s New Testament Translation of the Everlasting Gospel
  65. On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts, by James K. A. Smith

A few observations before I talk about my favorite books of the year:

  • My reading total increased from 52 books in 2019 to 65 in 2020. My 2020 total represents a personal record for books read in a year. This is largely related to the life rhythms brought about by COVID-19: especially during the early days of lockdown (but extending beyond), I did a lot of walking around my neighborhood, and frequently listened to audiobooks while doing that. My reading decreased somewhat as the year went on.
  • I read a lot of fiction this year. This is partially because there were more fiction audiobooks available at my local library than, say, theology books, and partially because 2020 was a year where I was seeking distraction from circumstances and looking to “travel” through reading.
  • In addition to reading more this year, I read so many really good books. It was a great year of reading.
  • I fully expect my reading totals to decrease significantly next year. In addition to circumstances related to COVID hopefully improving over time, I am planning to start working through some long and dense books on theology and biblical studies (I am really excited about this, in case you were curious about how much of a nerd I am).

I normally share my Top 10 books for the year, but I was having a hard time narrowing it down to just 10 this year. This was stressing me out until I remembered that I make the rules around here, so I just decided to do a Top 15 list instead. Before I do so, I wanted to offer some brief thoughts on a few books that didn’t make my Top 15, but I still wanted to comment on.

  • Two great books that didn’t make my Top 15 because they had previously been Top 10 choices from previous years were The Sticky Faith Guide For Your Family, by Kara Powell (2017) and 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B. Peterson (2019).
  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt: This is a good book that is a really important read for our times, I believe. It is not one of my top books of the year because it delves heavily into evolutionary biology and moral psychology, which are not areas of great interest for me, and I frequently got bogged down in those parts. But I found some really good ideas to take away from this book.
  • The Risen Spear, by Scott Biddle: Scott is one of my youth group dads, and I was delighted to learn that he has authored a series of fantasy books for children. The Risen Spear was a short read with a compact, exciting story, and vaguely reminded me of the Narnia books in some ways (which is high praise from me!). I look forward to reading the next books in the series.

I want to take a moment to highlight Race & Justice by Tim Keller. Technically, this is a series of articles rather than a book, but they are so long that combined they essentially represent a book-length treatment on the subject. I read and listened to a lot about race in 2020 (books, articles, podcasts, etc.), and this is, without question, the best biblical theology I have read related to race, racism, and justice.

I decided that Keller’s Race & Justice series was bookish enough to include in my list above, but since it wasn’t technically a book, I left it out of my Top 15. But that is in no way to diminish how good the material is (I bet it comes out as a book sometime in the future).


Regarding my Top 15 books for the year, here are some brief thoughts on those (presented in order of when I read them, not ranked 1-15):

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseveranceby Angela Duckworth: I read this book back in February, which now seems about eight years ago, so I confess that I don’t remember it as well as I’d like to. Duckworth shares a lot of research and examples to flesh out her thesis, which is basically given by the title of the book. In short, the characteristic that best predicts success is not intelligence or personality or a host of other things, but grit, which Duckworth defines as a combination of passion and perseverance. In other words, a major part of being successful in life is finding something you really care about and sticking with it, regardless of setbacks or obstacles. I read this as an audiobook, but it is one that I will probably pick up at some point so I can keep coming back to it.

Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis: I read Lewis’s classic a dozen years ago, but I have never featured it as one of my top books of the year, so it makes its appearance on this list after I re-read it this year. I appreciated it even more this time; Lewis is such a penetrating thinker, and has an excellent way of getting at the heart of what Christianity is about.

Silence, by Shūsaku Endō: This novel is the poignant tale of Jesuit missionaries suffering persecution in 17th-century Japan. The story itself is gripping, but also raises important questions about the nature of cross-cultural missions, the place of martyrdom in Christian faith, and the plight of the believer when God is silent.

A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion, by Gary M. Burge: This is the second book I’ve read from the “Week in the Life” series, and I continue to be a big fan. Basically, these are short historical novels set in the first century that seek to inform the reader about the world of the New Testament by plausibly expanding the stories of minor New Testament characters. Burge’s volume focuses on a Roman centurion whose life was changed by a meeting with King Jesus. The story is compelling, and the historical background is helpful for readers of the New Testament who are interested in a better understanding of the world of Jesus and the apostles.

The Chronicles of Narniaby C.S. Lewis: Okay, so I am cheating here by listing a series of books as one book, and this certainly wasn’t my first time to read the Narnia books, but collectively, this was definitely one of my favorite reads of 2020. Because I also blogged about the series at length, Lewis’s classic series was on my mind a lot this year. It was perfect pandemic reading for me.

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, by James Clear: This was another entry in the category of books that I “read” as an audiobook but enjoyed so much that I was tempted to go back and purchase a physical copy so I would have it for reference. I reviewed this book after I read it, so you can get a fuller overview there, but I will repeat my basic summary: Atoms are very small things. They are the building blocks of the world around us, but they are invisible to the naked eye. They are also very powerful—the power of the atom can provide electricity to an entire region in the form of a power plant, or untold devastation in the form of a nuclear bomb. This is the premise of Atomic Habits: habits are little, sometimes nearly invisible things that can bring about powerful change—for good or ill—in our lives.

Lament For A Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff: This is a series of short essays written after the author’s 25 year-old son was tragically killed in a climbing accident; I was so moved by this book that I wrote a series of posts on it. As a Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Wolterstorff certainly writes from a theological perspective, but overwhelmingly, he is writing as a grief-stricken dad. It is possibly the best book on suffering that I have read, and I think that, perhaps, is because Wolterstorff’s disjointed essays are the perfect way to reflect on grief and suffering. Well-organized books on theodicy that seek to explain the problem of evil and suffering have their place, but those are the sorts of books you need to read when the sun is shining and the world makes sense. On the other hand, when grief has come unexpectedly rushing into your life with the force of a tsunami, Lament For A Son—with its chaos and raw emotion and grasping faith—is the sort of book you need.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein: in many ways, I felt this was The New Jim Crow applied to the housing industry in the United States. It talks about all sorts of creative ways in which government officials—at the federal, state, and local levels—orchestrated the largely-segregated society that still exists today in our country (zoning ordinances, neighborhood covenants, blockbusting, white flight, the establishment of ghettos, construction of interstates, and more). The Color of Law shares tons of data and statistics, but is written in a narrative style that is easy to follow and understand.

The Color of Compromise: the Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, by Jemar Tisby: this book specifically addresses the American Church, and confronts the reader with the uncomfortable reality that throughout American history, white Christians have largely (though not entirely) turned a blind eye toward racism, and many times have actively supported and furthered racist agendas. Tisby does not shy away from hard truths, but he writes with clear affection for the church, and offers helpful suggestions moving forward.

The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debateby John H. Walton: Genesis 1 is a famously controversial text, and takes a prominent position in discussions about the seeming tension between faith and science. Walton, a conservative Old Testament scholar, removes some of the fuel from the fires of controversy by suggesting that we should receive Genesis 1 the way that ancient Israelites would have received it: as ancient cosmology, it is function oriented rather than being concerned about material origins. If you are someone who has ever been bothered by Genesis 1 and how that fits with scientific claims (and especially if this has been a barrier to faith for you), The Lost World of Genesis One is an excellent read.

Beyond The Verse: What I Discovered Reading the Bible One Book at a Timeby Wes McAdams: Wes is one of my favorite bloggers and I think he is such a helpful voice in the church right now. A couple of  years ago, he completed reading through the entire Bible, but rather than doing it by reading a few chapters each day, he read entire books of the Bible in one sitting each day. This enabled him to get a much clearer picture of the broad story the Bible tells, and it is a story that we are often guilty of distorting significantly. I absolutely loved this book. I recommended it to several people after I read it, and I intend to incorporate it into my ministry moving forward.

Star Wars: Thrawnby Timothy Zahn: In many ways, 2020 was the year that I rediscovered Star Wars novels. I used to read Star Wars novels a lot, but back when Disney took over the franchise, they decanonized all the books I had read and I lost interest. Out of the loop, I discovered that a bunch of new Star Wars novels had been authorized by Disney and written in recent years, and I read several in 2020. Some of them were hot garbage, but Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy was good: my favorite Star Wars author reintroducing one of my favorite decanonized characters back into the canon. Thrawn is the first book in the trilogy, and was, in my opinion, the best.

Cry, the Beloved Countryby Alan Paton: I read this book back in 2009 and loved it, but had not read it since then, and it was even better than I remembered. This book touches on so many heavy themes—racism, theology, politics, the breakdown of the native village, crime, poverty, environmental concerns, and more—and tells the story of the shared tragedy of two older men in 1940s South Africa: a poor, black Anglican priest, and a wealthy, white farmer. This is such a beautiful book, and it was even more poignant to me reading it in 2020, a year of significant racial tension in my own country. Simply put, this is among the best books I have ever read.

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wifeby Ariel Sabar: The subtitle of this book summarizes the plot well. In 2012, Harvard Divinity School professor Dr. Karen King published the discovery of a papyrus fragment from a supposed early Christian text that she sensationally dubbed, “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” that would later turn out to be a forgery. This book is an impressive chronicle of investigative journalism, and also serves as a warning of the problems of confirmation bias and the murky places to which extreme forms of postmodern thinking can deliver us.

On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts, by James K. A. Smith: Saint Augustine of Hippo is likely the single most influential Christian thinker since the Apostle Paul, and as Smith points out in this superb book, his story is quite likely very much like your own. Based significantly on Augustine’s Confessions, Smith looks at the journey of his life and the issues and questions that drove it—issues and questions that continue to drive our lives today. This makes Augustine a wonderful travel companion as we journey through life: someone who has already made a similar journey, asked similar questions, and, if we have ears to hear, has helpful directions for the road. Bonus: the cover design for this book is outstanding. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case…

That was my reading for 2020. For comparison’s sake if you are interested, you can see my reading lists from previous years:

What are some of the best books you read this past year?

Incarnation & Human Involvement In God’s Transformative Work

Several weeks back, I finished my series on The Chronicles of Narnia, and now I am thoroughly enjoying reading through Paul Ford’s Companion To Narnia: Revised and ExpandedIt is basically a reference work that discusses the process of C.S. Lewis writing the Chronicles, analyzes how they relate to the rest of his works, and provides encyclopedic entries for everything imaginable in the world of Narnia. I am just now in the Es, so I have a long way to go, but it has been a lot of fun to read.

A while back I read through the entry for Aslan, which, as you might expect, is incredibly lengthy, with the Great Lion being the central character of the Narnia series and Lewis’s imagined Christ Figure in the world of Narnia. In that entry, Ford makes an insightful comment on Lewis’s effort to point his readers to the implications of the incarnation:

[Aslan’s] encouragement of the now-revived lion with the phrase “us-lions” and his employment of the giant to break down the castle walls and the sheepdog to organize the creatures into a force that will be helpful in what will later be called the First Battle of Beruna are all instances of Lewis’s profound belief that one of the consequences of the incarnation (God’s desire to identify with us by becoming one of us) is that he wants our help in the process of transforming the world.[1]

In the Incarnation, God identifies Himself with humanity through Jesus of Nazareth entering the world stage in the form of a baby. In so doing, God affirms the goodness of creation and also His intention to partner with humanity in bringing about His purposes for that creation.



This is, in large part, what it means to be created in God’s Image; we are God’s representatives, bearing His authority to carry out the task He has given us. This is the picture we have of Adam and Eve in the garden: God giving them the task to steward and cultivate His creation, partnering with Him, under His authority, to take care of it and develop it.

Tragically, Adam and Eve fail to live up to their vocation. In the bitterest of ironies, they clutch after the forbidden fruit hoping to become like God, failing to realize that they already were! And humans have similarly failed ever since then.

In the Incarnation, Jesus comes to show us a different way. He perfectly reflects the divine image, obeying the Father’s will in all things. Rather than seeking after power or God-likeness, He willingly lays it down and lives as a servant, even to the point of dying on the cross.

Those of us who would follow Jesus are called to imitate His example. The vocation that God bestowed upon humanity in the garden has not changed: still, we are encouraged to take up our crosses and join in God’s mission. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the resurrected Aslan could have defeated all evil, established his reign and rule, and brought about the transformation of the world all on his own, but he chose not to. And this, as Ford points out, is no accident: Lewis was simply reflecting the biblical teaching that the all-powerful God chooses to bring about the redemption of all things in collaboration with human agents of new creation.

One of the great truths of the incarnation is that God wants our help in the process of transforming the world.


[1]  Paul Ford, Companion to Narnia: Revised Edition (San Franciso: HarperCollins, 2005): 60.

Ranking The Chronicles of Narnia, Part 8: Concluding Thoughts

Way back in April, I mentioned that I had begun reading The Chronicles of Narnia during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was a great choice for several reasons. The familiar stories provided comfort in a time of anxiety, the imaginative world of Narnia provided helpful distraction from reality, and the series’s central focus on Aslan helped to re-orient me from fear to trust.

As I read through the books, I enjoyed them so much that I decided to write about them. I had actually wanted to do so for years, and I thought it would be a lot of fun to rank the different books and write a post or two to summarize my thoughts.

It turned into a much larger project than I first intended.

The first post was about 1,500 words, but each subsequent post grew longer and longer, like the books in the Harry Potter series. The post reviewing The Last Battle was over 4,000 words long, and the entire series is some 22,000 words. The posts got longer because I began to focus more on details of the books, and especially on the theology presented in each one. That also meant that to took me much longer to write the different posts: while there was a gap of about a week between Part 1 and Part 2, Part 7 came about six weeks after Part 6 (which was ridiculous).

Summarizing all of those posts, my rankings basically break the Narnia books down into four tiers:

The Masterpieces

For my money, LWWVDTand HHB represent the top three Narnia books, in that order. But, they are so close that I have a hard time being dogmatic about that. The next time I read through the series, they could easily shuffle places.

LWW is so good, and has no real weaknesses; it had the highest or tied-for-highest sub-score in three of the four rubric categories (Story, Characters, Theology). VDT didn’t peak as highly, but similarly had no weaknesses. HHB was the best book in the series for the first three categories (Story, Characters, Worldcraft), but was a notch below in Theology, which moved it from first to third.

Solidly Great

LB is really good as well. It doesn’t have any real weak points, but its highs are not quite as high as the top tier, and the lows are a little lower. I would disagree with anyone who argued that it is the best book of the series, but still, it represents a fitting and satisfying end to the Narnia chronicles.

Good But Flawed

According to my rubric, PC and SC scored very similarly, with only a half-point separating the two. Both books have good elements, but are also flawed. The stories are somewhat slow, the theology is not as good as several of the other books, and neither book is truly excellent in any category.

But again, these books suffer from being compared unfavorably to some truly brilliant books; they are still worth reading.

The Unnecessary Prequel

There’s no way around it: I am not a big fan of MNThe story really drags, the characters aren’t very compelling, and even though the creation account prompts some good theological reflection, overall, this book is a big step below all others in the series.

It’s not a terrible book, but as I said in the review for MN:

It is a classic prequel in the negative sense: you care about the story because you are already invested in the world in which it exists; if you actually read the prequel first, you wouldn’t understand what was so great about the series and may not even be inclined to continue.”

Thankfully, Lewis didn’t write this one first.

Here are the scores for all the books; highest scores in a given category are in yellow.


This concludes our Ranking Narnia series; I hope you have enjoyed it! Although I had not originally planned to review the books at this level, this series turned out to be a lot of fun to write, and the theological reflection it prompted for me was meaningful and encouraging.

These reviews have helped me develop an even deeper fondness for the Narnia series; I expect that I will be reading them again!


Check out the full series of posts:

Ranking The Chronicles of Narnia, Part 7: The Last Battle

For a few months now, I have been ranking the different volumes of C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece, The Chronicles of Narnia. So far, I have covered The Magician’s NephewThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Horse and His Boy, Prince CaspianThe Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Silver Chair.

To evaluate each book, I am using a rubric with four different categories: story, characters, worldcraft, and theology. For each category, I will provide a subscore of 1-10, yielding a cumulative maximum score of 40 points.

I have been following the chronological order of the books (even though I don’t consider that to be the best order in which to read the books), which means that this week, I will be ranking the final Narnia book, The Last Battle (LB). I plan to write one additional post to conclude the series.

The Last Battle

This is from a series of brilliant Narnia cover designs by Jeffrey Nguyen

Story

LB is the story of a coup d’état against Tirian, the last king of Narnia. Shift, a clever but wicked ape, comes across a lion skin floating in the water, and has his well-intentioned-but-dim-witted donkey companion Puzzle wear it and pretend to be Aslan, the Great Lion. “Aslan” is kept hidden away in a stable, Shift serves as his mouthpiece, and, in league with the Calormene warlord Rishda Tarkaan and the Talking Cat Ginger, deceives many of the Narnians into serving the Calormenes and cutting down Talking Trees for lumber.

Tirian and his friend Jewel, a unicorn, learn of the death of the Talking Trees and rush to intervene, ending up captured in the process. Shift and his compadres are now proclaiming the false message that Aslan and the Calormene god Tash are really one and the same (they begin referring to this syncretistic deity as “Tashlan”), and Tirian, seeing through the plot, calls out to Aslan for help. In response, Eustace and Jill (from VDT and SC) arrive in Narnia and, in quick succession, free the king and Jewel, and also find the hapless Aslan-impersonator Puzzle in the stable and allow him to join their company.

Things get worse for Tirian and his allies, as he learns that the Narnian army has been destroyed by invading Calormene troops and Cair Paravel has been taken. Worse still, they see the Calormene god Tash traveling north toward the stable, summoned unintentionally by Shift and Rishda. Driven by desperation, Tirian takes his small band of loyal followers to the stable to confront Shift and his associates and expose their deception. This sets up the climactic battle that gives LB its title: Narnians vs. Calormenes, the rightful king vs. the usurpers, Aslan vs. Tash.

To me, the primary weakness of LB’s storyline is that it just seems unthinkable that Shift’s simplistic plot could deceive so many Narnians and achieve such great success without Tirian having any clue what was going on until it was too late to do something about it. Lewis clearly needed a plot device to bring Narnia to its end, and although this particular one was somewhat unsatisfying, if you look beyond that, what remains is that LB is a poignant story of tragedy, beauty, and finally seeing the true nature of reality.

Story: 8/10

Characters

It seemed to me that there was a greater number of characters with significant roles in LB, and rather than try  to describe them all in detail, I will provide brief sketches of the different characters especially in the context of the groups in which they appear.

Tirian is the last king of Narnia, descendent of Caspian and Rilian. He is loyal to Aslan and loves his country, and although he is somewhat rash and hotheaded in his actions, he is also an excellent leader who shows courage, tactical skill, and concern for his allies. Of course, it should probably be mentioned that virtually the entirety of his subjects were fooled into supporting a coup d’état without his even being aware that it was happening, but there doesn’t seem to be any suggestion that this is due to a character fault on Tirian’s part (which, as pointed out above, is a weakness in the plot). Tirian’s best friend is Jewel the unicorn, a brave and loyal ally and fearsome warrior, who, like Tirian, is faithful to Aslan and willing to fight to the death for Narnia. Farsight the eagle is another member of Tirian’s small band of followers, and provides vital intelligence in the book as a scout as well as useful air support during the climactic battle.

Shift the Ape, Rishda Tarkaan, and Ginger the Talking Cat form a sort of unholy trinity that collaborates to oppress the Narnian population, make possible the Calormene conquest of Narnia, and, as a result, usher in the end of the world. Shift appears first, a clever and ancient ape who, motivated by his greed and lust for power, maneuvers his simple-minded “friend” Puzzle the donkey into impersonating Aslan and then, with the authority gained as “Aslan’s” spokesman, manipulates the talking animals of Narnia into serving himself and the battalion of disguided Calormene troops who have snuck into Narnia. As the farce continues, Shift begins to drink and increasingly becomes less in charge, as he himself is manipulated by Rishda Tarkaan, the captain of the Calormene contingent, and Ginger, the cunning cat. Really, though, it is hard to distinguish between the three characters: all seem to be motivated by greed and self-interest, and have no devotion to speak of, either toward Aslan or Tash. In fact, it is their religious pragmatism that leads to the construction of “Tashlan”, a blasphemous abomination that ultimately brings negative consequences for all three.

It seems worthwhile to also mention the Dwarfs, who play an important role in the story and also illustrate a theme that has been woven throughout the Narnia books: they represent extreme self-interest. When the climactic battle between Tirian and his forces and the Calormene invaders ensues, the Dwarfs don’t take sides (with the notable exception of Poggin, who joins Tirian), and instead attack both parties, saying that “the Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs”. Tirian is disappointed by their lack of support, but again, this is a thread that has been woven throughout the chronicles: in LWWDwarfs aided the White Witch in exchange for power, and in PCNikabrik was willing to ally himself with anyone who would bring about the end the Dwarfs desired. The Dwarfs are not devoted to Aslan, but to their own self-interests.

“Friends of Narnia” is the description given to the humans who entered Narnia as children and rendered great aid to it in times past: Professor Digory Kirke, Polly Plummer, Peter Pevensie, Edmund Pevensie, Eustace Scrubb, and Jill Pole (sadly, Susan Pevensie is no longer a “friend of Narnia” and thus, is not present[1]). These friends appear to Tirian in a vision when he calls out to Aslan for assistance, and then later, Jill and Eustace appear to free Tirian and Jewel and join them in the last battle for Narnia. Ultimately, Tirian gets to meet all of the Friends after he enters the Stable.

As in the other Narnia books, Aslan’s role in LB is limited in page count but of immense significance for the story.  When Aslan does appear late in the narrative, it is to bring about the death of the old Narnia, the birth of the new, and the judgment of all creatures.

The characterization in LB is solid. Because of the sheer number of characters, we do not get to know them in as much depth as some of the characters from the other stories, but viewing them as groups with various responses to Aslan as I have tried to do above is, I think, a helpful way to reflect on their roles in the narrative.

Characters: 8.5/10

Worldcraft

In one respect, LB does not significantly expand the map of Narnia at all. The majority of the story takes place in the Northwest of Narnia, and while this is a new area, we are told so little about it that it is somewhat disappointing.

But the strength of LB is its depiction of the end of Narnia as it currently exists, and the transition to the fuller and realer Narnia. Repeatedly the characters are urged to go “further up and further in!” and as they do so, they find an exponentially increasing level of depth and beauty:

“Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden at all, but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the Stable door! I see…world within world, Narnia within Narnia…”

“Yes,” said Mr. Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you go in and in, each cirlce is larger than the last.” (765)[2]

Really, the last five chapters of LB are an account of this great process of uncreation and recreation, and in terms of worldcraft, this is the high point of the book.

Worldcraft: 9/10

Theology

Fundamentally, LB is a book about eschatology; Lewis once summarized it as being about “the coming of the Antichrist (the Ape), the end of the world and the Last Judgement,”[3] and we will use those categories to reflect on the theology of LB.

Antichrist(s)

A great amount of ink has been spilt over the centuries seeking to interpret the Book of Revelation, and one particular interpretive method has been to suggest that a literal battle between the forces of good and evil  will precede the return of Jesus and the judgment of the world, and heading up the forces of evil will be the Antichrist. Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t actually teach this in Revelation at all, and the use of the word antichrist (always in 1-2 John) is probably better understood in a lowercase sense: those who deny the Father and the Son or who refuse to confess that Jesus came in the flesh are antichrists. 

I am not certain what Lewis believed about the Antichrist and futuristic cosmic battles, but I still think that LB captures an element of biblical truth when he portrays Shift’s plot to have Puzzle impersonate Aslan and deceive his followers. In the apocalyptic Matthew 24, Jesus warns of “false Christs” who will perform great signs and wonders and claim to be the Christ, and in Revelation 13, John warns of a beast that looked like Jesus (“he had two horns like a lamb”), but spoke like a dragon (Satan). Here is the message, clear to both LB and biblical witness: there is great danger when forces of evil speak for Jesus and His followers cannot tell the difference.

Late in LB, Jill reflects to herself:

“And then she understood the devilish cunning of the enemies’ plan. By mixing a little truth with it they had made their lie far stronger.” (723)

This is devilish because, indeed, it is how the Devil operates: a mixture of truth with falsehood to make the lie more believable and more dangerous. Earlier in the story, when Tirian and Jewel learn of the horrible things that Shift is commanding in the name of Aslan, they are torn: surely this is not what they would expect from Aslan, but haven’t they always heard that He is “not a tame lion” (677, 679, 682)? Does that not mean that he is unpredictable and may do things they don’t understand? Shift seizes upon this same language to force compliance from the Narnians who feel that “Aslan’s” demands are harsh and who wish that they could see him for themselves rather than always having to take Shift’s word for it:

“But why can’t we see Aslan properly and talk to him?” it said. “When he used to appear in Narnia in the old days everyone could talk to him face to face.”

“Don’t you believe it,” said the Ape. “And even if it was true, times have changed. Aslan says he’s been far too soft with you before, do you see? Well, he isn’t going to be soft any more. He’s going to lick you into shape this time. He’ll teach you to think he’s a tame lion!” (684)

To say that Aslan is “not tame” is to say that he is powerful, he is sovereign, and, ultimately, that he is free—free to act in keeping with his own will and character. It does not mean, as Shift suggests and as Tirian and Jewel fear, that he is wildly unpredictable and free to act in ways that are inconsistent with his character. But when truth is mixed in, the lie is made far stronger.

The End of the World(?)

As LB reaches its climax, Tirian and his followers lament what they see as the ending of Narnia and also dread what awaits them through the door of the Stable. What they discover, however, is that the ending of the old Narnia was necessary, and that it has ushered in Aslan’s judgment and, ultimately, their own entrance into the new Narnia, which is in some ways like the Narnia they previously knew, but is richer and fuller in every way:

“And yet they’re not like,” said Lucy. “They’re different. They have more colours on them and they look further away than I remembered and they’re more…more…oh, I don’t know…”

More like the real thing,” said the Lord Digory softly. (759)

“But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as in our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as the real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.” (759)

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Come further up, come further in!” (760)

To be clear, this is not some sort of eastern philosophy that suggests that the present world in which we live and operate is all an illusion; rather, it is that this present world is temporary, but is made to point us to that which is eternal. In describing that world, John describes it as “a new heaven and a new earth,” a world where God is “making all things new” (Revelation 21.1-5a). When all things are made new, it may signify the end of this world as it presently is, but it is truly just the beginning of the life that God intends for the faithful:

“There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.  (767)

The Last Judgement: Was C.S. Lewis a Universalist?

Based on his characterization of the end of the world and the last judgement in LB, C.S. Lewis is sometimes accused of being a universalist, someone who holds that all people will ultimately be saved.

Specifically, this point is argued because of the character of Emeth, the loyal Calormene servant of Tash who finds himself in the real Narnia. Emeth recounts his meeting with Aslan, whose very name had always been hateful to him:

“Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, “Son, thou art welcome.” But I said, “Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash.” He answered, “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.” Then by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, “Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?”

The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, “It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites—I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and no which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Does thou understand, Child?” I said, “Lord, thou knowest how much I understand.” But I also (for the truth constrained me), “Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.” “Beloved,” said the Glorious One, “unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.” (756-57)

In other words, the service that the good and virtuous Emeth had rendered for (he thought) Tash, was actually service to Aslan and, as a result, he was rewarded as if it had been Aslan that he had been seeking all his life.

This perspective is not actually universalist, however; it is inclusivist. Inclusivists believe that salvation is found only in Jesus (or in Aslan!), but:

“Those who die before they learn of Jesus or who are faithful to “God” as they understand him will be saved by Jesus in the end…[t]he Muslim who dies a Muslim will not be surprised to find Jesus at the gates of Heaven; the Qur’an teaches that Jesus will be there. They will be surprised to learn that he is, in fact, the Son of God and not merely a prophet. But Jesus will welcome them in based on their faithfulness to what they thought they knew.”[4]

Indeed, there is ample evidence in LB that Lewis believes that not all will be saved. Shift is devoured by Tash, and Rishda is carried away by him. Ginger is terrified in his presence, and loses the ability to speak, which is very similar to the Talking Beasts who approach Aslan in the judgment, and look at him with fear and hatred for just a moment. Then, something happens to them:

“You could see that they suddenly ceased to be Talking Beasts. They were just ordinary animals. And all the creatures who looked at Aslan in that way swerved to their right, his left, and disappeared into his huge black shadow, which (as you have heard) streamed away to the left of the doorway. The children never saw them again. I don’t know what became of them.” (751)

This is hardly a picture of salvation.

There are also the Dwarfs, who find themselves inside the Stable in the same glorious location as Tirian and the Friends of Narnia but who are totally blind to their surroundings and just see a dark and smelly stable. They certainly don’t appear to be saved and, indeed, Aslan says that he can do nothing for them:

“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” (748)

Lewis shares a similar idea in his classic, The Great Divorce:

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.”[5]

The Dwarfs are emblematic of those to whom Aslan sadly says, “Thy will be done.”

Lewis’s inclusivism may be unacceptable to some Christians, but he clearly is not a universalist. At least from the perspective of LB, there are some who will be saved who may not actually know Christ, but there are many who, tragically, will not be saved at all.

Theology: 9/10

With a score of 34.5/40, LB holds the median position for me of the seven Narnia books. It is a notch below the top-tier books (LWWHHB, and VDT) but solidly above PC and SC, and way above MNOn Amazon, it would garner a 4 or 5-star rating.


Check out the full series of posts:


[1]  We probably have to mention here that Lewis receives a lot of criticism for his portrayal of Susan in LB, which is, supposedly, sexist. Jill says of Susan: “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” That Susan is described as embracing womanhood in this way and that Lewis writes her out of the “friends of Narnia” as a result is considered to be damning evidence.

It is beyond the purview of what I am doing in this series to address that criticism in detail, but I would suggest that, similar to the allegations of racism in HHBthis is off-base. In addition to the fact that Lewis repeatedly portrays female characters positively (Lucy is arguably the most admirable of all the human characters, Aravis is awesome, Polly and Jill are both likable, etc.), the clear emphasis of the criticism against Susan in the surrounding context is not on her sex but on her grown-upness. This has always been a problem for Susan, and in the world of Narnia, being “old” or “grown-up” is presented as a barrier to having faith in Aslan, as we discussed in the post on PCIn other words, Susan’s problem is not that she is now a woman; it is that she has decided that being a woman means chasing after shallow and frivolous things and distancing herself from the childlike faith that Aslan requires.

[2]  I did not have my regular edition of The Last Battle as I wrote this post, and so the page numbers come from the Barnes & Noble edition. I apologize for the inconsistency with the other posts in the series.

[3]  Paul Ford, Companion to Narnia: Revised Edition (San Franciso: HarperCollins, 2005): 6.

[4] Monte Cox, Significant Others: Understanding Our Non-Christian Neighbors (Abilene, TX: Leafwood, 2017): 24. Cox, himself an exclusivist, provides a helpful discussion on “Exclusivists, Inclusivists, and Pluralists” on pages 22-28.

[5] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperCollins, 2001): 75.

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