Content warning: This article discusses manipulation, emotional, and spiritual abuse.
Shift was already a manipulator and an abuser when they found the lion skin. But it was the lion skin that opened up a new and more powerful tool for his abuse: the devotion of the Narnians to Aslan.
In the book’s first paragraph we get a good idea of the abuse that Shift is piling on his “friend” Puzzle the donkey. They were neighbors, we’re told, but Puzzle was treated more like a servant than a friend. Puzzle did all the work, at Shift’s direction. When Puzzle brought home food, Shift took his pick of all the best things first. If Puzzle objected Shift would tell him it was “only fair” that Shift should get the first pick, since (poor Shift!) he couldn’t eat all the same things that Puzzle could. If Puzzle persisted, Shift would shame or humiliate or insult Puzzle, and remind him that he “wasn’t clever” which Puzzle would eventually agree to, sigh, and then do what Shift said.
It doesn’t take long for us to see that Shift is adept at turning the tables on Puzzle. While the poor donkey is being manipulated and abused, Shift makes himself out to be the victim every time Puzzle speaks up for himself. Puzzle is a “good fellow” if he does what Shift suggests, but as soon as Puzzle shows some reluctance to get in the water to fish out the lion skin—rightfully pointing out that the ape has hands—Shift talks all about how he has a cold and he’ll probably catch his death. Puzzle feels bad for offending the ape and insists that he be allowed to do what Shift wanted him to do anyway.
Shift sends Puzzle off on an errand (to bring Shift food) and sets out to make the skin into a costume for Puzzle. Which the donkey does not want, because he knows better, and because he’s concerned that it’s disrespectful to Aslan. Then Shift says something important, something at the heart of spiritual abuse of all kinds. He says to Puzzle, if you wore this people would think you are Aslan and wouldn’t that be wonderful? Puzzle is horrified. That would be awful, not wonderful. And Shift says, “Everyone would do whatever you told them.”
This is, at the heart, what spiritual abuse is about. Using the power and influence of God or a higher power, or religious belief, to get people to do what the abuser wants. It’s a tool of manipulation and deceit, and Shift goes on to do a variety of things that are distressingly common in religious communities where spiritual abuse has become a part of the culture or is enacted by a leader in that community.
Lewis paints a compelling and accurate picture of spiritual abuse in The Last Battle. Here are ten things that resonated with me as I considered abuse I’ve seen in religious spaces:
- Shift disguises spiritual abuse as something noble and beautiful. “Think of the good we could do!” Shift explains. “We could set everything right in Narnia.” Puzzle says maybe things are fine in Narnia and Shift points out that he’s having a hard time getting everything he wants… like bananas and oranges. Puzzle says no one really wants those other than the ape, so Shift finds some small things Puzzle might like… what about sugar? In all of this, Shifts argument is, “What if we took the place of Aslan to get what we want?” Spiritual abusers place themselves in the position of God. Spiritual abusers make it seem like they’re doing some sort of service by abusing people.
- Shift calls evil good and good evil. When Puzzle’s conscience rebels at the thought of pretending to be Aslan, Shift helps him soothe his conscience and assures him that the evil thing they are doing is morally right. In fact, he says, Aslan would be “very pleased” to see what they were doing. This is common in spiritual abuse, the assurance that the evil things being done to or by someone are, in fact, approved of by God. Abusers and manipulators will often wear their victims down, teaching them never to go against the word of the abuser. This can be as small as calling a red sock blue, and forcing the victim to agree… or face the consequences. The abuser becomes the arbiter of reality, the only one who can discern what is good and what is evil.
- Shift equates his own desires with Aslan’s. Spiritual abusers will often conflate their own desires with God’s. “To please Shift is to please Aslan.” Once Shift is all set up with his false Aslan hidden away, the ape starts giving commands to all the Talking Animals. Sometimes we see the mask slip, like when Shift demands more nuts to eat (note that many of his commands have to do with his appetite.) “I want—I mean, Aslan wants—some more nuts,” he says. God seems to always want what the abuser wants. In time the victims come to realize that if they really want to be good people then they need to cave to the abuser… no matter the cost to themselves.
- Shift sets himself up as the only trustworthy “translator” of Aslan’s words and desires. He becomes the mediator between God and others, the spokesperson. Others ask to speak to Aslan themselves, and he keeps telling them that they can’t. He threatens them, shouts at them, makes plans to destroy anyone who forces their way into the stable. Because one thing is sure, the abuser needs to be the voice that others listen to, not just one among many. If you’ve ever been in a religious community where the minister or pastor or priest or rabbi or imam has the final word in everything, beware. If they can’t be questioned, are never wrong, are protected by the people around them, be careful. If there’s a gatekeeper preventing access to God, remember the ape outside the stable door.
- The abuser is set on a pedestal, idolized. Shift may look ridiculous once he gets all his fancy clothes on, but he’s quick to tell everyone he’s something more than he is. In Narnia being human has always been something special (after all, only the Children of Adam and Eve can hold a throne), so Shift makes sure that everyone knows that he’s not an ape at all, he’s just a very old, very wise Man. With spiritual abuse it’s common that the abuser sets themselves up to be not just the voice of God, but a sort of exceptional person you should feel honored to be in relationship with. They’re not like you and I. Because they’re exceptional, well, there should be some exceptions. The abuser is someone special, world class, an amazing person… and if they hurt us occasionally along the way, well, I’m sure they didn’t mean to do that, and “if you speak up no one will believe you” (or so they say).
- Those who oppose Shift’s message are dismissed with public cruelty. There are many great examples of this as Shift’s influence grows and the Talking Animals ask more questions. But Lewis definitely sets us up to feel particularly upset about the way Shift treats one dissenting voice. An innocent little lamb “so young that everyone was surprised he dared to speak at all.” Shift doesn’t even try to answer the lamb’s question, which is a good one (in fact the narrator tells us it’s the best so far). His question was how Aslan could even be friends with Tash, who did horrible things like allowing humans to be sacrificed in worship? And Shift doesn’t even answer the question, he just calls the lamb names: “Baby! Silly little bleater! Go home to your mother and drink milk. What do you understand of such things?” It’s a classic manipulation technique. Why answer a question when a forceful, haughty, dismissive attack will change the topic?
- Unquestioning obedience becomes the hallmark of religious devotion. Following Aslan is no longer enough. We’ve seen the previous six Narnia books that people sometimes make mistakes when following Aslan. They ask questions. They make bad decisions. They fail to listen, or forget what they’ve been told, or maybe they just like Turkish Delight enough to sell out their siblings. But Shift brings us a new test of religious devotion. When he tells the animals they will all be sold into slavery, a bear pushes back. Shift assures him he won’t be a true slave, he’ll get money and so many other things. The bear says they don’t want those things, they just “want to be free.” And Shift tells him, “true freedom means doing what I tell you.” It’s not about what anyone wants except Shift. Where Jesus said he had come to set the captives free, or that those who he sets free will be “free indeed,” Shift says true freedom comes from embracing the slavery he has demanded. Obedience is the highest virtue, and it has best be done without questions.
- Shift makes others his accomplices in abuse. This is an important point that gets overlooked sometimes, and I’m really glad Lewis included it. Strong manipulators and experienced abusers will often build a team of unwitting or unaware accomplices. In this story it’s poor Puzzle, who has some vague awareness he’s doing something wrong, and he’s a victim of Shift’s abuse himself. Puzzle never meant to hurt anyone, and finds himself in the new Narnia at the end of the book. But that doesn’t change the fact that he brought real harm to the animals around him. Often when an abuser is revealed there are people who discover that they were victims of abuse and then normalized that same behavior to the people around them. There are people who were never abused themselves who functioned as a sort of safety valve for the abuser, because when someone came to them they would say, “Oh no, he could never be an abuser because he’s never been that way with me.” And sometimes there are even people, like Puzzle, who have been bullied into participation in abuse, told it wasn’t that, and left feeling a sort of dirty guilt that they could never go against the abuser, who knows what they have done. It’s a horrible mess, and you’ll notice that Lewis doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to unravel it: Shift is simply eaten by Tash, and receives his just punishment.
- He twists theology to mean something opposite of what it means. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we’re told for the first time that Aslan is “not a tame lion.” He’s not safe, but he’s good. He’s wild, not tame. He can’t be controlled. You can’t crack a whip and make him appear, or open his mouth so you can put your head between his jaws. He’s powerful, and he’s the sovereign ruler and creator of Narnia. And while we the readers may have some questions about Aslan’s behavior during this or that book, the clear theology of Lewis is that Aslan is not looking to harm his people. He wants what is good for them. On the rare occasions when he does something like swipe someone with his claws, it’s designed to make them better people (again, this is the theology of Lewis and Narnia, it’s okay if we as readers have questions about this). In The Last Battle, that theology has been twisted into something else. “Not a tame lion” has become an excuse for evil being done in the name of Aslan. In fact, it’s Jewel and Tirian who often say it. Once upon a time it meant, “Aslan is not safe, but he’s good” but now it just means “Aslan isn’t safe.” Aslan is powerful and does what he wants. Note that emphasis on power. It’s what abusers want. Power. Control. It’s not surprising that this is what they find most compelling about God.
- God is made in the image of the abuser. “Aslan is not Aslan, he is Tash.” We will likely explore the Aslan/Tash relationship in more detail in a later post, as Lewis’s theology here is pretty fascinating. But what we see in abusers is that they find themselves, eventually, unable or unwilling to fit into the mold of the good follower of the Deity, and so they need to change our conception of God to match their behavior. God becomes distant, or cold, or demanding, or judgmental, or angry, or difficult to please, because that is who our abuser is, and the abuser requires us to see the abuser as God or at least god-like. Lewis, of course, will completely subvert this later when he tells us that not only is Aslan Aslan and Tash Tash, but that evil deeds cannot be done for Aslan, just as good deeds can’t be done for Tash. Say “Aslan” all you want, but if you are bringing slavery, chains, pain, or hurt, this is not service to Aslan and never could be.
I debated at some length whether to put in references to real world examples of spiritual abuse in this article—and there is no shortage of examples—and finally decided against it. There are too many permutations it can take, and too many ways it shows up in religious contexts of all kinds—not just Christianity, which is where the examples I’m most familiar with come from.
There’s a sad moment—in a book full of them—while King Tirian and Jewel listen to the ape. They thought it was no use to interrupt the ape, but when Tirian sees the Narnians starting to believe Shift’s lies he can’t take it anymore and he shouts, “You lie. You lie damnably.”
He meant to go on, to refute the Ape point by point, and “If he’d been allowed to speak,” we’re told, “the rule of the Ape might have ended that day.” But instead he’s beaten and taken away to face the Ape’s justice.
The first step in destroying abusers is always to speak up. To tell the truth. To point out their lies. Sometimes that will be enough to topple the abuser from power, to protect the vulnerable, to restore community.
Other times the only solution is the one that Aslan, in the end, adopts. If a community has come to the place that they are so warped by the lies of an abuser that it no longer resembles what it had been created to be… if captivity is considered freedom, if Aslan is Tash, if those who speak truth are the ones who are punished… then it may be that the best course of action is to start again.
Maybe that means speaking up and leaving.
Maybe it means calling for help wherever it can be found—whether in Narnia or outside of it.
Maybe that means a fight at the edge of the stable, against all odds.
Maybe it means stepping back and waiting for the justice that only Aslan, at last, can bring.
I can tell you this, though, friend. Whatever comes, you needn’t be alone.
If there’s one message that The Last Battle hammers in over and over… even in the darkest night, we need not ever be alone.
END NOTE: There are a lot of places out there where you can get help if you or someone you care about are experiencing spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse is very much like abuse in other contexts, it’s just that, like Shift, someone found a lion skin somewhere. Someone discovered that faith and a desire to serve God can be taken advantage of. This article at WebMD is a good place to start if you need a diagnostic.
Likewise, if you need help, don’t worry if you can’t find places specifically focused on spiritual abuse. While there are some unique things specific to spiritual abuse, any professional who specializes in abuse should be able to help.
If you or someone you love is experiencing spiritual abuse (or thinks they might be) in the context of your home or family relationships, the folks at the National Domestic Violence Hotline can help you figure things out. You are not alone. You do not deserve to be treated this way. There are people willing to help.