C.S. Lewis, Narnia, and the Scourge of Gossip
Those who have read C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe will remember well the book’s closing sequence — a battle between the White Witch and Aslan, who, accompanied by scores of animals from all throughout Narnia, eventually defeated her and brought peace to Narnia. Organizing his troops for battle, Aslan says:
And now! Those who can’t keep up — that is, children, dwarfs, and small animals — must ride on the backs of those who can — that is, lions, centaurs, unicorns, horses, giants, and eagles. Those who are good with their noses must come in the front with us lions to smell out where the battle is. Look lively and sort yourselves.
In battle, if an attack on the enemy’s line is to be successful, two things have to happen: the charge must be ordered in the minutest detail, and every soldier must know the role he has to play in it. If either of those things are missing, failure will follow.
Life is no different. If we believe that God is real, and that He loves us, then we know that each of us is willed into existence with a divinely given purpose. This is exactly what C.S. Lewis referred to in his battle sequence. God is the General, the Organizing Force. We are the soldiers, each unique in our own right, each with a different responsibility, each with the capacity to accomplish it. Our “battle plan” is, in essence, our vocation. It’s that particular calling each of us has, but also more generally the duty of striving for friendship with God: happiness in this life and heaven in the next.
What is perhaps the most intriguing from Aslan’s rallying cry, however, is the line: “Look lively and sort yourselves.”
Here, Lewis is alluding especially to each person’s need to mind themselves through both action and awareness. And yet, this is somehow difficult and almost foreign for us modern types. In a world where seeing the imperfections of others is so easy — through tabloids, social media, reality TV and the like — it’s often the furthest thing from our minds to instead look inward, examine our own imperfection, and take action to change it.
This sad phenomenon rears its head most through gossip — the sin of carelessly reporting the lives of others in conversation, almost always without the subject being present and more often than not about details that are private or otherwise sensational, spoken typically by people who have no business speaking them.
Gossip, innocent though it may seem, always divides, and never unites. Gossip by its nature accomplishes the opposite of Christ’s call for us to sow peace and unity by bringing down another person
Plus, our words matter. If we trust what Jesus said (even one little bit), then we should keep Matthew 12:36-37 in mind:
“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak. By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Jesus is indicating to us, once again, that our actions — good or bad — will always carry consequences along with them.
Lewis was keenly aware of the utter importance of understanding that each person’s story is between him and God alone. It’s a theme he emphasized many times in his writing, but most prominently in Book Six of the Narnia series, The Horse and His Boy:
[Shasta] “Then it was you who wounded Aravis?” [Aslan] “It was I.” [Shasta] “But what for?] [Aslan] “Child, I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no-one any story but his own. (p. 159)
And again, later:
[Aslan] “The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother’s slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You needed to know what it felt like.” [Aravis] “Yes, sir. Please–” [Aslan] “Ask on, my dear.” [Aravis] “Will any more harm come to her by what I did?” [Aslan] “Child, I am telling you your story, not hers. No-one is told any story but their own.” (p. 194)
See, though Shasta and Aravis were allowed to know details about others insofar as they related to their own relationship with Aslan. Details beyond that would only satisfy curiosity and thus be frivolous. Frivolity would only detract from the attention Shasta and Aravis should pay to themselves and the love they should show those around them. With God, there’s no room for frivolity, because time is not unlimited.
So it is with us. Gossip is nothing more than frivolous speech, wasting precious time better spent reflecting on ourselves and building relationships.
Pope Francis has made gossip a point of focus in various homilies over the past three years, equating the “tactics of a terrorist to the tactics of a gossip”, and connecting it to the 5th commandment (Thou Shalt Not Kill) in its tendency to “kill” a reputation or the subject’s self-esteem.
I think his inclination is worth listening to, not just because gossip kills others, but because, in some small way, it kills a part of us, the gossiper. As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.”
After all, no matter how much we point out others’ faults and ignore our own, we keep sinning nonetheless. In fact, because our actions, no matter how small, always affect the person we’re becoming, we only sin more the longer we let something like gossiping run unchecked.
But, as the story will always go in the Christian life, there will be hope for us to our dying day. At any moment we can choose to change our behavior. Any time we choose, we can opt instead to ask forgiveness, to better ourselves, and to love others radically. Because as long as we’re willing to ask for mercy, God will be there to grant it.
So go do something crazy. The next time you catch yourself talking about another person’s life, stop yourself and direct that scrutiny upon yourself. Doing so will only lead to a better you, and a better you can only ever lead to a better everything else around you.
In the end, if we wish to be better we must be aware and we must be active. We must look lively and sort ourselves.