Sunday, January 22, 2006

Narnia: Christian Triumphalism or Imaginative Pluralism?

Narnia: Christian Triumphalism or Imaginative Pluralism?

The recently released movie Narnia offers its own interpretation of a book I enjoyed as a child, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. For many, the appeal of the movie will be because it is Christian. But for me its appeal lies in the way a Christian author takes another reality seriously by asking what redemption might look like in that other context.

The book is set in post-war Britain. A cup of tea is the elixir of life. Fathers are absent because they’ve gone off to war or killed. Separation from parents is normal and brings about closer sibling relations. The movie opens with the bombing of Britain and closes with the battle between the armies of the White Witch and Aslan in which gryphon-like creatures drop large rocks on the enemy. The Pevensie children, forced to hide in the middle of the night from German bombs, will in the end fight and win against the enemy with the weapons of children: swords, bows and arrows. Both worlds center on children, particularly boys. Battling the enemy is the way Peter becomes a man. Aslan tells Peter never to forget to wipe his sword. But “Battles are ugly when women fight” says Father Christmas to Lucy. In the movie, Lucy’s friendship with the faun Tumnus is the only real relationship. C. S. Lewis lost his mother to cancer at the age of eight. Since his father was consumed by grief, he and his brother Warren (Warnie) grew up together in a world of their own.

There are some other strange features of characters in the movie and the book. Aslan is not a human. He is not a divinity who has become flesh. Thus, he has no intrinsic connection to the children. He is neither a father nor a brother; he is present to them one moment and absent from them the next. Their “conversion” from fear of him to affection and loyalty is on the level of sensation: “his voice was deep and rich and somehow took the fidgets out of them.” The White Witch, however, looks human. Ann Peacock, the movie’s screenwriter, emphasizes the White Witch’s maternal sentiments when she first meets Edmund. “I have no children of my own,” she says as she wraps her fur around him, feeding him with Turkish Delight and notions that he might succeed her. To be sure, in C. S. Lewis’ book the White Witch utters these same words, but to Edmund abject at her feet, not nestled next to her in the sledge. In the movie, sitting next to him, the White Queen caresses Edmund’s face. Next time they meet he will lie in shackles at her feet imprisoned in her castle in order to lure his siblings to her but their first encounter is all cuddles and maternal care. Father Christmas appears in a world where there is no Christmas simply to hand out presents and (in the book) a tea-tray with hot tea for the children and beavers.

It is not surprising that there are these anomalous features of the Christianity of Narnia. C. S. Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to ask “Suppose there were a world like Narnia and it needed rescuing and the Son of God (or the “Great Emperor oversea”) went to redeem it, as He came to redeem ours, what might it, in that world, have been like?” (8 June 1960, Letter to Patricia). Viewers of Narnia and readers are invited into the same imaginative exercise not just in imaginary worlds but also in our world.

Aslan’s breath re-creates Narnia and restores the dead to life. What involvement in a world does the creation of (or giving birth to) a world imply? What might the creative and redemptive roles of animals in our world or other worlds be? Lucy finds the way to Narnia first. Are there other prophetic roles children and women play in our world or other worlds? In Narnia, the betrayal and treachery of siblings is the greatest sin. However, Edmund repents and is forgiven. This is not the same thing as the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. For one thing, Edmund is a child. In other religions and other worlds there may be different and greater sins. In Narnia, the world is in thrall to winter of the White Witch. What if the world were not viewed as “enemy-occupied territory?" While Lewis might be thought to articulate the worst of Christian triumphalism and exclusivity, if one takes his explanation of what he intended to do in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe seriously, consideration of how the triumph of love might work in our world and other worlds to defeat evil in fact respects diversity and religious pluralism.

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