Written by: D.L. Mayfield
The Last Battle was written in 1950’s England, but I read it 1990’s rural America, where my only reference for reality was the white, non-denominational evangelicalism that I grew up in. The way that I read this story about the end of the world was fully informed by my own religious upbringing. I read it when the Left Behind series was beginning to hit bestseller lists, bringing to life a theology in which true Christians were raptured to heaven, just as the earth began to descend into chaos and intense suffering from supernatural beings. I read The Last Battle with bated breath, hoping it might hold the keys to understanding what exactly might happen at the end of the world. I finished this children’s novel on the lookout for a leader who would be on the war path to extinguish Christianity, because this was the narrative I was told. The antichrist, hidden in plain sight, a part of the global one world order conspiracy–ushered in by the liberals. This was my framework when I read C. S. Lewis’ last book in his Chronicles of Narnia series.
The book The Last Battle follows what happens when a clever monkey named Shift, and his not-so-clever donkey friend, Puzzle, decide to impersonate the Great Lion Aslan, King above All High Kings, who has not been seen in Narnia for centuries. Shift the Ape becomes the mouthpiece for “Aslan,” played by the sweet Puzzle who is wearing the dead skin of a lion around his shoulders. Puzzle is kept in a stable and only comes out so the Narnians who have heard rumors of Aslan returning can get a glimpse of him. Shift tells the creatures what Aslan orders, and they do it with fear and trembling.
The dread of these scenes is palpable–from the dead lion’s skin hanging on the donkey, to the dark and musty stable to the rising dread of the creatures of Narnia who long to meet this Aslan they have heard so much about–only to find out that he is angry and cruel and distant with them.
Everyone–from the smallest of Narnian talking beasts to the king of Narnia himself, Tirian, experiences a crisis of faith. This, this is the Aslan they have heard about and striven to follow all their lives? This Aslan has been selling Narnians as slaves to the Calormenes and cutting down the majestic Narnian forests to sell lumber to neighboring nations. Everyone seems confused by the decrees of Aslan, but they keep repeating a phrase that has been said by Narnians for generation after generation: “he’s not a tame lion.” The Narnians repeat this phrase, to quell their own anxieties about Aslan’s unsettling inconsistencies. He’s not a tame lion, they tell themselves sadly, as they watch their world crumble around them, miserably obedient even as their neighbors and creation itself is desecrated in order to procure wealth for the leaders. “He’s not a tame lion” they say, even as the false Aslan destroys everything they hold dear. What they are saying is true, but it has been twisted beyond understanding by one smart Ape who understands how a distant God and a faithful following can be twisted into building an unholy empire.
In recent months, my Facebook feed has been spotted posts from evangelical Christians who believe that Trump was chosen by God to be president–not just once, but twice. Paintings of Trump standing alone with his hands folded in prayer, while nearby democrats stand on the US flag. There are allusions to Daniel in the lion’s den, where he is waiting to be vindicated — just as Trump will soon be, they suppose. These are posts from family members, friends, former Sunday school teachers, all the people who brought me up in my faith.
Yet, many actions of this Chosen One don’t quite make sense. He champions policies that fail to support those Jesus prioritized: the poor, the sick, prisoners and the oppressed. Yet, like the Narnians who remind themselves, “he’s not a tame lion,” evangelicals have their mantras. Most obvious is support of “the protector of the unborn,” but also the claims that Trump is the only one standing between them and communism and Marxism, or that he is a bastion of protection for the religious liberty for Christian churches. He tells the truth, he tells it like it is, he’s a strong man who will defend us from a world we feel increasingly at odds with. In these phrases I hear the echoes of the Narnians.
Trump, whatever else you can say about him, is not a tame lion.
That phrase–He’s not a tame lion–was originally said in the first book in the Narnia chronicles, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Both Mr. Beaver and Mr. Tummnus say a variation on this phrase, pointing out to their British visitors that while Aslan isn’t safe, he is good. In the Last Battle hundreds of years removed from the stories, Lewis shows how such statements can be exploited when removed from relationship with the Divine. He isn’t safe, but he’s good, He’s not a tame lion you know–these phrases opened up the Narnians to embracing and obeying all sorts of inconsistencies and cruelties in the name of their God.
I grew up in religion that attributed all sorts of evil to a loving God. In my Christian history textbooks, in churches and theology courses, I’ve learned that God predestined the US to be discovered by white European protestants. That Africans needed to be enslaved in order to save their souls and to ensure the US was a prosperous country. That God uses unsavory characters like Trump to accomplish his good will, to make American great again. After all, as mere humans, we can’t decide how God works or what is good. All that matters is that we understand it is God sanctioning the genocide of Indigenous peoples, chattel slavery and a racialized hierarchy, and a rising swell of white nationalist nativism.
Over the past two millennia, so much oppression and harm has been perpetuated in Jesus’ name, and continues to today, which is the very definition of anti-christ behavior. And perhaps today more than ever we need stories that point out how primed so many of us are to accept a cruel leader because of how little we understand God. In the Last Battle, Lewis’ anti-Christ figure didn’t persecute followers of Aslan–he exploited them. And ever worse, he exploited their neighbors and the very earth they stood on in the name of progress, good business sense, and in the name of Aslan. He wasn’t a world leader who sought to create a new religion, he cleverly used the old religion for violence and greed, an ancient story.
When I was a child, I was scared of the end times. I was scared of a new day dawning full of suffering for me and my people. But instead, The Last Battle is a story of our past and present, with a few glimpses of hope for our future.
One of those glimpses is the idea that when antichrists are in charge, we need people to be bold in their heretical faith. Several characters in the last battle, including King Tirian and his best friend, a unicorn named Jewel, can’t believe their ears when they hear these stories of Aslan ripping up forests and selling talking beasts into slavery. They don’t doubt that they have heard “in all the old stories” that he is not a tame lion, yet, they refuse to believe the worst about Aslan. “Would it not be better to be dead,” Tirian says, “than to have this terrible fear that Aslan has come and is not like the Aslan we have believed in and longed for?” He would rather die than find out that Aslan is not actually good. It would be “as if the sun rose one day and were a black sun” he says. Jewel the unicorn agrees, saying it would be “as if you drank water and it were dry water.” They have faith to disbelieve the narrative that everyone else has been sold, because they stubbornly cling to the idea of the goodness of Aslan–not just for them, but for everyone.
In a world that justifies the harm of others as a necessary step in the will of God, it takes faith to believe that God is actually good news for the poor, the sick, the sad, and the oppressed. It takes faith to believe that God cares not just about the religious freedom of the Christian church, but for everyone in society including those outside our borders. It takes faith to believe that God would not choose a man who only looks out – supposedly – for the good for the church, but that God desires the flourishing of all people.
Lewis did not have a scared and rather isolated young woman in mind when he wrote The Last Battle. He did not have in mind the apocalyptic language of evangelical bestsellers like The Late Great Planet Earth or The Left Behind series. The Last Battle, in fact, was not really about the end times at all. It was a creative way of playing with how religion can be twisted to oppress others, and a call to resist the temptation to cling to echos of God’s character which no longer serve us and our communities.
Today, as I write this, Trump has slinked back to his mansion in Mar-A-Lago, his lion skin slipping off his shoulders as we speak. But tomorrow there will be someone else, claiming to know the ways of God, claiming that the suffering they inflict on others is a sign of the untamable nature of the divine. Tomorrow there will be another antichrist, reminding us that the ways of a God of power are never tame, never safe, and ultimately never ever good.
May we have eyes to see.
May we be able to learn from the unveiling, the apocalypse happening in front of us right now.