Treading the Dawn
Part 1: C.S. Lewis and the Journey of Faith
This December, the third movie in the Chronicles of Narnia series will be released. Many of us are looking forward to the appearance of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (VDT hereafter) but right now, I’ve got a novel suggestion for you: read the book this summer.
Possibly the most moving of all the Narnia stories, VDT works its magic on us in a number of ways: as a grand tale of discovery and adventure, and an encounter with delightful, unforgettable characters. The story can also ignite our imagination with a rich tapestry of Christian symbolism. This series of articles will explore that dimension, uncovering some of the depth of symbolism Lewis builds into this journey.
VDT – or any of the Narnia stories – are not mere allegory. You don’t need to know the symbolism to “get” the story. But Lewis also knew that words (and images) have histories – a word or image used in a certain way over time captures the imagination and becomes remarkably potent. It becomes a symbol, and communicates truths larger than the words themselves.
And so, while we can enjoy Lewis’s great storytelling skills as simply that, we can also discover whole new realms of resonant meaning, echoes of truth hidden from direct view. Like the fabled wardrobe, like Aslan’s Country, the story is larger on the inside than on the outside.
Open the pages of VDT, and almost immediately we feel the briny, bracing wind in our face, smell the tang of sea air. The first and chief image Lewis develops is that of the voyage at sea. Voyage has captured our cultural imagination from the earliest days of Western civilization. Think Homer (not Simpson!): the Odyssey, Iliad. Ever since, the sailing tale has been a staple of storytellers. Even now, our techno-culture has simply reframed outer space as the new ocean – the final frontier with its starships and spaceships.
Christianity also builds on this traditional imagery. The ship is a classic Christian symbol for the church: the community on the journey of faith (note the main section in traditional church architecture is the nave, i.e. “ship”).
Some of this is probably due to Jesus himself. Think how much of the Gospels is set in the environment of the Sea of Galilee: “James and John were in a boat, mending their nets, when Jesus called them”; “He came to them in the midst of the storm, walking on the water”; “He was asleep in the bottom of the boat.” The church is that group of Jesus-followers, fellow sailors, with whom we hear Jesus’ call, sense his power, find peace in the midst of chaos – and sometimes cry out because it seems he’s just not listening. We wait for him to wake up, even if only to rebuke us for our small faith.
The Dawn Treader offers a fertile image for thinking about the church. While it begins as a majestic and regal vessel, it endures storms, sometimes to the point of destruction and rebuilding. It’s crowded with people who don’t always get along. But it has a clear purpose, without a precise destination; it’s properly oriented (notice the root meaning: “facing east”) – toward the sun, the “Utter East.”
This orientation builds on the symbolic meaning of east: sunrise is a resurrection symbol, connected to both Christ’s first coming (the Bethlehem star, Matthew 2:2) and his return (Matthew 24:27). The church’s purpose is to “tread the dawn” – to live with a determined orientation to Christ and his resurrection life that allows the crew to navigate the shoals and storms of our lives.
A final insight comes in the opening chapters of VDT. Lewis gives a compelling portrait of how the church can mirror the ministry of Jesus. In the story’s first real adventure, the chief characters (Narnian King Caspian, Reepicheep the mouse, Lucy and Edmund, and their obnoxious cousin Eustace) are captured by slave-trading pirates. Eventually, they’re not only freed, but they aggressively put an end to the slave trade.
The church, as it embarks on its journey, incarnates the return of the King. Jesus proclaimed, at the beginning of his public ministry, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (see Luke 4:14–30).
If this is the beginning of our Lord’s journey, surely it is to be a part of ours also.