C.S. Lewis, Catholicism, and the Narnian Code: An Interview with Michael Ward

Michael Ward

Some people might be excited to receive an email from the President or their favorite entertainer, but for a C.S. Lewis fan like myself, few thrills match opening your inbox and finding an unexpected email from Dr. Michael Ward. Described by N.T. Wright as “the foremost living Lewis scholar” (Times Literary Supplement, 2009), Michael is the author of the groundbreaking study of Lewis’ writings, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford University Press, 2008). He has also co-edited The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Planet NarniaFrom 1996 to 1999, Michael was resident warden and curator of The Kilns, Lewis’ Oxford home. More recently, he was responsible for securing a memorial to C.S. Lewis in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, which involved organizing a two-day conference last November celebrating the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death.

Michael is a senior research fellow at Blackfriars Hall (University of Oxford) and holds a doctorate in divinity from the University of St. Andrews. He lectures internationally on Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Christian apologetics.

After serving as an Anglican priest for many years, including a chaplaincy to St. Peter’s College at Oxford, he converted to Catholicism in 2012.

After receiving Michael’s delightful email and corresponding back and forth, he graciously agreed to discuss his conversion to the Catholic Church, the secret symbolism Lewis hid within his Chronicles of Narnia, and whether Lewis would become Catholic as well had he been alive today.

BRANDON: You recently converted to Catholicism after serving as an Anglican priest for many years. What drew you to the Catholic Church?

MICHAEL WARD: It was a long process—at least twenty years in the making. I view the change not as a turning of my back on my Anglican and Evangelical past, but rather as a continuation, a confirmation, even a completion of all that was best in that experience. Obviously, I can’t go into any fine detail here about all the causes and reasons, but for me the change involved, among many other things, the following seven items, which I list in no particular order:

First, a concern about Biblical interpretation. I came to realize that it’s not enough just to say, “Scripture is my final authority” and quote a text to prove a point, because the devil can quote scripture! One must have an authoritative interpretative community and tradition within which one approaches the Bible. Sacred scripture and sacred tradition are actually co-ordinate sources of authority: you can’t have one without the other, and can only find your balance with them both together. I’ve been helped a good deal on this by a little book by Mark Shea, By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition.

Second, sexual ethics. I had to write an essay on that subject when I was training to be an Anglican priest and, for the first time in my life, I read the relevant papal encyclicals (like Humanae Vitae). These caused me to sit up and take notice, because they actually made sense to me as did no other tradition of sexual ethical teaching that I was (or am) aware of. I began to see that the contemporary Protestant confusions on sexual ethics were in large part traceable to decisions made in the 1930s, on the seemingly unimportant matter of contraception. But from that apparently small change in doctrine, all the other developments have unfolded, with an iron inevitability. It’s all of a piece. Our current controversies about what constitutes marriage, for example, are part of the same moral earthquake that began rumbling so quietly in the ‘30s but is now rocking almost everyone and everything. Catholic sexual ethics contains many hard teachings, to be sure, but it makes sense, it holds together, and it also comes hand-in-hand with the graces of the sacraments that help us to live by those teachings—especially the sacrament of reconciliation, without which we’d all be permanently adrift!

Third, Peter. The more I looked at the Biblical teaching about Peter, the more I was convinced that he was commissioned into a very special office by Christ when he gave him “the keys” and said “on this rock I will build my Church”. But Christ also says to him, “I have prayed for you that your faith fail not.” Is it likely that Christ’s prayer would not be answered? And if Christ is with the apostles “to the end of the age” (as per the close of Matthew’s Gospel), does this not mean that the Petrine office would continue indefinitely, in the successors of Peter, the bishops of Rome, as, indeed, we see beginning to happen even before the death of the last apostle (according to Clement’s Letter to Corinth)? To be sure, many popes have been wicked, and the papacy has gone through tumultuous periods, but the tradition of Christian faith and morals has still been securely handed on, even to the present day. This is surely what one would expect, if the office has been properly constituted. The office-holder may be better or worse depending on the particular person, but the office never loses its constitutionality or authority.

Fourth, Mary. I began to be aware that Mary was a real blind-spot for me, and that my ignorance of her role in salvation history had a seriously detrimental impact upon my understanding of Christ. It was only when I edited a book on heresies (Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why it Matters What Christians Believe) that I was brought face to face with my own tendencies towards a Nestorian view of Mary. (Read chapter 3 of that book to discover what Nestorianism is, if you don’t already know!) Since becoming a Catholic, I have found that Marian devotions have been a tremendously rooting and enriching part of my spiritual life. She is the archetypal disciple, in whose very body God chose to dwell, in the unfathomable mystery of the Incarnation. And the place given to Mary in Catholicism helps explain also, at least in part, why Catholics have kept their head on sexual ethics, despite the modernist ethical earthquake. The femininity of the Church, and of all human beings vis-a-vis God, is constantly brought home to one by Mary’s example. The dignity of womanhood is affirmed, and all of us, men and women together, are reminded of the importance of contemplation and receptivity, of the need to say, with Mary, “Be it unto me according to Thy word”—and to let that affect our very bodies, as she did.

Fifth, that bodily, organic dimension of Christian life leads naturally enough to the Eucharist. “For my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed.” As I began to attend Catholic services in the year or so before I was received, I had two or three powerful experiences of the holiness of the Blessed Sacrament, even though I was not, of course, taking Communion. But just being in its presence gave me extraordinary sensations. I had somewhat similar experiences in my dealings with one particular priest (the one who eventually received me, Fr. John Saward), through whom I felt I was being connected to saints and angels and the whole invisible Church in a new and paradigm-shiftingly meaningful way.

Sixth, the Church of England and the English Reformation. I had always known, of course, that the birth of the Church of England was deeply inglorious. Henry VIII’s reasons for breaking with Rome were not the most honorable, to put it mildly, and his nationalizing of the English Church pitched the realm into an Erastianism that it’s still not fully recovered from. I began to see that the last five hundred years or so of English history have been largely written by the victors in that “tragic farce” (as Lewis calls the Reformation), and that I needed to re-educate myself and consider how things looked from the losing side, to go down into the English equivalent of the Roman catacombs and pay attention to recusant history. In this connection, I was greatly helped by an anthology of Catholic literature which gave that alternative heritage. I’ve written a brief review of that anthology here.

I think it’s marvelous, by the way, that the bones of the Catholic King Richard III have recently been discovered; they remind me that I needn’t stop being a patriotic Englishman in order to become a Catholic. On the contrary, I now see that Henry VIII (son of the man who defeated Richard III) did a terrible thing to England when he broke with Rome. Christian faith had come to these shores from the Church based in Rome and had been strengthened by the mission of St. Augustine of Canterbury under Pope Gregory the Great. And so I was very pleased that when I was finally received (on Michaelmas Day 2012), the ceremony took place in the church of St. Gregory and St. Augustine here in Oxford. It felt like a home-coming.

Seventh, and finally, the practice of going to daily Mass, which I began even before I was reconciled with the Church, has been tremendously helpful for my prayer life. It’s so difficult to pray alone—or at any rate, it is for me. But if one assigns at least half an hour each day to actually being in a public assembly where the whole purpose is to pray, then one might as well actually, you know, pray! And of course, the Mass is a prayer in itself, not just a time during which one prays. So that was another reason for my plunging into the Tiber and making the crossing.

There are a number of other things that I could mention, but I mustn’t go on any longer. All I would say, in summary, is that becoming a Catholic is the best thing that I’ve ever done or that has ever happened to me—and I say that even though for me it entailed giving up a very pleasant position (as Anglican Chaplain of St. Peter’s College, Oxford), which I expect I could have kept for my whole career, and a most delightful room that came with it in the very centre of Oxford. But, as Newman rather similarly had to conclude about the snapdragon outside his window at Trinity College, it may be lovely, but there are other, more important considerations.
BRANDON: You’ve long been respected as an expert on C.S. Lewis, and a few years back you wrote a groundbreaking book that rocked the Lewis community. Titled Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford University Press, 2010), it claimed to reveal a secret code, hidden within Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, which brings new coherence to the seven stories. What’s this hidden Narnian code?

Planet NarniaMICHAEL WARD: Lewis, so I discovered in the course of my doctoral research, constructed the seven Chronicles out of the imagery of the seven heavens of the medieval cosmos. Each Chronicle is designed according to the symbolism of one of these seven heavens (or planets) that Lewis described as “spiritual symbols of permanent value” and “especially worthwhile in our own generation”. We take the names of the days of the week from these seven planets (Saturday from Saturn, Sunday from the Sun, Monday from the Moon, etc.)

Lewis loved the seven heavens and wrote extensively about them in his academic works, his poetry, and in his trilogy of interplanetary adventures. In Narnia, he uses the planets implicitly and pervasively so that in each book the plot-line, the ornamental details, and most importantly the portrayal of Aslan, all serve to communicate this underlying spiritual symbolism. It’s Lewis’s very ingenious way of conveying—not to our intellects but to our imaginations—the divine logos which runs through all things, and in which we live and move and have our being. This discovery shows that the artistry of the Chronicles is much more sophisticated, and much more thoroughly Christian, than we had previously perceived.

In addition to writing up the detailed argument in Planet Narnia, I wrote a popular and accessible treatment called The Narnia Code, and I also presented a BBC television documentary on the subject. Further details are available at our website, PlanetNarnia.com.
BRANDON: One perennial controversy among C.S. Lewis fans concerns the proper order in which to read The Chronicles of Narnia. What’s your recommendation?

MICHAEL WARD: There’s no doubt about it! If you’re reading Narnia for the first time, you should start with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, not with The Magician’s Nephew. That’s the most important thing to get straight, and I wish that publishers would stop putting a Number 1 on the spine of The Magician’s Nephew, even though it occurs first chronologically.

Chronicles of NarniaIn The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis takes special pains to introduce the character of Aslan. When Aslan is first mentioned, the narrator says, “None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do.” Now, if you’ve already read The Magician’s Nephew, of course you do know who Aslan is, so that line is robbed of its effect. The Magician’s Nephew is best read as a kind of flash-back, a prequel, a filling-in of early Narnian history. It doesn’t work as an opener and wasn’t intended as such. When Aslan is first encountered in The Magician’s Nephew, there is no special introductory passage.

Also, at the end of The Magician’s Nephew we’re told of a tree that gets cut down and made into a wardrobe by Digory Kirke. Lewis writes: “though [Digory] himself did not discover the magic properties of that wardrobe, someone else did”—a sentence which makes no sense if you’ve not yet read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. But if you have read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, this revelation about the origins of the wardrobe is a lovely little explanation of something hitherto unaccounted for.

So I think it’s much better to read the Chronicles in the original publication order, rather than in chronological order. In fact, if you were trying to read them in strict chronological order you would have to interrupt your reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and insert The Horse and His Boy into its last chapter, because The Horse and His Boy actually takes place during the time-period covered by The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

The original publication order, which I recommend, is this:

1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950)
2. Prince Caspian (1951)
3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
4. The Silver Chair (1953)
5. The Horse and His Boy (1954)
6. The Magician’s Nephew (1955)
7. The Last Battle (1956)
BRANDON: Lewis was a vast and prolific writer who published books in many genres. What are your favorite Lewis books?

MICHAEL WARD: Among his academic books, I would say Selected Literary Essays, which was compiled by Walter Hooper after Lewis’ death and contains many of his finest examples of literary criticism, including pieces on Shakespeare, Jane Austen, John Bunyan, the King James Bible, and even four-letter words.

Among his apologetic works, I would say his sermon, The Weight of Glory, or, being a bit more specific, the second half of his book Miracles or the final chapter of The Four Loves. All of these are superbly rich and stirring.

Among his fiction, it’s a three-way split between That Hideous Strength, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and Till We Have Faces. If I were forced at the point of the gun to break the tie, I would plump for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. If you want to know some of the reasons why I value it so highly, read Planet Narnia!
BRANDON: Since Lewis’ death in 1963, an entire industry of secondary Lewis literature has sprouted up, with dozens of new titles released each year. What are some of your favorite books on his life and work?

MICHAEL WARD: On his life, I would say the Green and Hooper biography, simply titled C.S. Lewis, which was first published in 1974 but revised and expanded by Hooper in 2002. Also George Sayer’s biography, Jack. And thirdly, the reminiscences collected in C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, edited by James Como.

On his work, I rate very highly Critical Essays on C.S. Lewis, edited by Lewis’s sometime colleague, George Watson. I also like very much Word and Story in C.S. Lewis, edited by Schakel and Huttar. And if I may be allowed a plug for a book I co-edited, The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis contains a host of good stuff!
BRANDON: Although Lewis remained an Anglican until his death, many believe he would have followed your own footsteps had he lived today, crossing the Tiber into the Catholic Church. If was Lewis was still alive, do you think he’d become a Catholic?

MICHAEL WARD: Of course, I don’t know and it’s presumptuous to hypothesize about what anyone might do, let alone a person as capable of unexpected actions as C.S. Lewis. A man who, in his late fifties, could marry a divorced, ex-Communist, Jewish-Christian, American mother-of-two is not a man whose behavior is easily susceptible of confident prediction!

C.S. LewisHowever, I suspect that if he were alive today, he would by now very probably have become a Catholic. I guess that he would have approved of the outward-looking impulse behind the Second Vatican Council (which had just began at the time of his death). I guess that he would have been challenged to reconsider some of his views about the papacy if he had lived through the pontificate of St. John Paul II (a transformative figure for so many non-Catholics), and would have especially admired John Paul’s “theology of the body” and his penetrating analysis of “the culture of death”. It’s worth remembering that abortion had not been legalized at the time of Lewis’s death, and so he never witnessed the way in which Catholics have led the opposition to that epoch-making piece of legislation.

But the main reason for my suspicion is Lewis’s firm opposition to the ordination of women as priests. I find it hard to imagine that Lewis would have been able to accept the 1992 vote in the General Synod of the Church of England permitting this development in orders. In his 1948 article, “Priestesses in the Church?” Lewis considers the arguments for and against women’s ordination, and comes down decisively against it, saying, “To take such a revolutionary step at the present moment, to cut ourselves off from the Christian past and to widen divisions between ourselves and other Churches by establishing an order of priestesses in our midst, would be an almost wanton degree of imprudence. And the Church of England would be torn to shreds in the process.”

Later in the article he writes:

“We have no authority to take the living and seminal figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures. . . The Church claims to be the bearer of a revelation. If that claim is false then we want not to make priestesses but to abolish priests. If it is true, then we would expect to find in the Church an element which unbelievers will call irrational and which believers will call suprarational. There ought to be something in it opaque to our reason though not contrary to it—as the facts of sex and sense on the natural level are opaque. And that is the real issue. The Church of England can remain a church only if she retains this opaque element. If we abandon that, if we retain only what can be justified by standards of prudence and convenience at the bar of enlightened common sense, then we exchange revelation for that old wraith Natural Religion.”


Check out Michael’s website, MichaelWard.net, and if you’re interested in more formal Lewis studies, you might consider enrolling in Houston Baptist University’s MA in Apologetics program, where Michael teaches courses on C.S. Lewis.

And be sure to pick up your copy of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis. You’ll find more information about the book at its official website, PlanetNarnia.com, or through the hour-long documentary titled The Narnia Code.

If you liked this discussion you’ll find several more on my Interviews page. Subscribe free via feed reader or email and ensure sure you don’t miss future interviews.