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Monday, December 12, 2005

The "Narnia" Wars?

We've been hearing about the "Christmas wars" . . . now here come the "Narnia wars."  Recently, in the Guardian, Polly Toynbee wrote ("Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion"):

Most British children will be utterly clueless about any message beyond the age-old mythic battle between good and evil. Most of the fairy story works as well as any Norse saga, pagan legend or modern fantasy, so only the minority who are familiar with Christian iconography will see Jesus in the lion. After all, 43% of people in Britain in a recent poll couldn't say what Easter celebrated. Among the young - apart from those in faith schools - that number must be considerably higher. Ask art galleries: they now have to write the story of every religious painting on the label as people no longer know what "agony in the garden", "deposition", "transfiguration" or "ascension" mean. This may be regrettable cultural ignorance, but it means Aslan will stay just a lion to most movie-goers.

Can it really be true that "43% of people in Britain . . . couldn't say what Easter celebrated"?  Or, am I off-base in being so surprised?  In any event, after re-capping the story of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Toynbee says (among other . . . bracing things):

Over the years, [many] have had uneasy doubts about the Narnian brand of Christianity. Christ should surely be no lion (let alone with the orotund voice of Liam Neeson). He was the lamb, representing the meek of the earth, weak, poor and refusing to fight. Philip Pullman - he of the marvellously secular trilogy His Dark Materials - has called Narnia "one of the most ugly, poisonous things I have ever read".

Hmm.  I wonder why Ms. Toynbee is so confident that Christ should "surely" be no lion.  (In any event -- and she might not know this -- there is "lamb" imagery in the third Narnia book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).  By the way, there is (I think) a "law point" here:  As we see time and again, one challenge in enforcing a constitutional prohibition on "endorsements" or "establishments" of religion is identifying precisely what it is that certain symbols or symbolic acts mean, and to whom?  But back to Toynbee:

[H]ere in Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America - that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right. . . .  The godly will reap earthly reward because God is on the side of the strong. This appears to be CS Lewis's view, too. In the battle at the end of the film, visually a great epic treat, the child crusaders are crowned kings and queens for no particular reason. Intellectually, the poor do not inherit Lewis's earth.

Does any of this matter? Not really. Most children will never notice. But adults who wince at the worst elements of Christian belief may need a sickbag handy for the most religiose scenes. The Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw gives the film five stars and says, "There is no need for anyone to get into a PC huff about its Christian allegory." Well, here's my huff.

Lewis said he hoped the book would soften-up religious reflexes and "make it easier for children to accept Christianity when they met it later in life". Holiness drenches the Chronicles. When, in the book, the children first hear someone say, mysteriously, "Aslan is on the move", he writes: "Now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don't understand but in the dream it feels as if it had enormous meaning ..." So Lewis weaves his dreams to invade children's minds with Christian iconography that is part fairytale wonder and joy - but heavily laden with guilt, blame, sacrifice and a suffering that is dark with emotional sadism.

Children are supposed to fall in love with the hypnotic Aslan, though he is not a character: he is pure, raw, awesome power. He is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. His divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come. Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves: we are obliged to settle our own disputes and do what we can. We need no holy guide books, only a very human moral compass. Everyone needs ghosts, spirits, marvels and poetic imaginings, but we can do well without an Aslan.

I suppose it is always good to encounter and engage views that seem so alien (and, to me, mean-spirited).  I'm one of those who loved (and loves) the Narnia stories.  (And, I prefer -- I admit -- Aslan to the cheesy "Jesus as my baseball teammate" pictures that some kids had when I was growing up).  But, it is clear that I read very different books -- beautiful, evocative, mysterious, romantic, life-affirming, humanist books -- than did Ms. Toynbee.

For a different take, by the way, check out Michael Nelson's piece in The Chronicle Review ("For the Love of Narnia"), which responds to Pullman and other Narnia-critics.

Posted by Rick Garnett on December 12, 2005 at 10:50 AM in Film | Permalink


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20) Rick Garnett has a piece on the issues that seem to be swirling about the Narnia movie. He writes about an article in the Guardian titled, "Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion". Seems like people are really getting work... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 12, 2005 5:29:47 PM


"His divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come."

Huh? I haven't been a practicing Christian for about 20 years, but something about that statement doesn't make sense to me. First, isn't the whole concept of heaven and hell an indication that Christians think people should take responsibility for their actions on Earth? Second, if no one is judging and there is no greater power or purpose to answer to, then how does that provide incentive for people to take responsibility? Surely an atheist can come to the conclusion that religion must have been invented (for they think it a human invention) in part for the purpose of civilizing people; i.e., forcing people to act responsibly to each other or else face the wrath of an eternity in hell. (Sure, there's more to it than that.)

There's a point where the cult of atheism - the cult being atheistic fundamentalists, as opposed to the people who themselves simply don't believe and don't care what others believe - loses me, and it always comes around the time when they pretend that atheism is somehow inherently more moral than any other belief system.

Posted by: Chi | Dec 15, 2005 5:34:58 PM

An op-ed in the Dec 13 NY Times by Jessica Silber has one of the best takes on the Narnia movie I've seen yet. She basically says that if you want to read into the story, go ahead; and if you don't, don't. She also includes some quotes from CS Lewis's books on writing for children, in which he says that you should let the story speak for itself and not try to find hidden meanings. Narnia, he said, simply reflected to some extent parts of his faith but wasn't meant to moralize to children. A refreshingly moderate view amidst all the general (and, I think, overblown) paranoia about the movie/book.

Posted by: nycstudent | Dec 13, 2005 12:40:23 AM

Anyone who is familiar with Ms. Toynbee's ouvre will not be surprised by these remarks (although the sheer ferocity, perhaps, is a new touch). I find her comment - that the most offensive part of Christianity is the premise that Jesus died for the sins of the world - somewhere between shocking and moronic, and I say that as someone who is not a Christian.

Posted by: Simon | Dec 12, 2005 5:19:20 PM

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