Narnia and Lewis’ Christianity

Adam Gopnik has an excellent piece on C.S. Lewis in this week’s New Yorker: Prisoner of Narnia.

He reminds us of a few important things to keep in mind about Lewis (he’s viewed differently in Britain, for instance), and discusses his brand of religious belief, and how it kept him in a sort of internal tension between belief and myth.

Gopnik manages to articulate something that’s always bugged me about the Narnia stories as “Christian” allegory:

Yet a central point of the Gospel story is that Jesus is not the lion of the faith but the lamb of God, while his other symbolic animal is, specifically, the lowly and bedraggled donkey. The moral force of the Christian story is that the lions are all on the other side. If we had, say, a donkey, a seemingly uninspiring animal from an obscure corner of Narnia, raised as an uncouth and low-caste beast of burden, rallying the mice and rats and weasels and vultures and all the other unclean animals, and then being killed by the lions in as humiliating a manner as possible—a donkey who reëmerges, to the shock even of his disciples and devotees, as the king of all creation—now, that would be a Christian allegory. A powerful lion, starting life at the top of the food chain, adored by all his subjects and filled with temporal power, killed by a despised evil witch for his power and then reborn to rule, is a Mithraic, not a Christian, myth.

Now who’s going to write *that* story?? I’d like to see it. But, alas, I probably won’t. Instead I’ll see Lewis’ stories further glorified in film.

It’s not that I don’t like his stories. They’re fine, really. Old-fashioned, but fine, and quite inspired and beautiful in places. But I don’t think they’re very accurate or helpful as Christian allegory.

Philip Pullman, the author of the “His Dark Materials” books, has made clear his own feelings on the Narnia books. In the wake of Disney’s working so hard to publicize the new Narnia films, and evidently to capitalize on the huge evangelical Christian market for the stories, Pullman has been pretty strident. In the Guardian:

‘If the Disney Corporation wants to market this film as a great Christian story, they’ll just have to tell lies about it,’ Pullman told The Observer.
Pullman believes that Lewis’s books portray a version of Christianity that relies on martial combat, outdated fears of sexuality and women, and also portrays a religion that looks a lot like Islam in unashamedly racist terms.
‘It’s not the presence of Christian doctrine I object to so much as the absence of Christian virtue. The highest virtue, we have on the authority of the New Testament itself, is love, and yet you find not a trace of that in the books,’ he said.

Well, I think that may be a bit harsh. You do find certain kinds of love, but not precisely the mix I happen to find in the Gospels. In fact, great swaths seem to be missing.

At any rate, I think as fantasy the stories are pretty successful. I don’t hold them in holy reverence like so many do, though. But I think that until I read these articles, I was sort of afraid to admit that out loud, for some reason.

Tags: ,

  • James

    You might be interested in Misquoting Jesus, which talks about the frequency of changes to the gospel throughout history. Even the modern story of Christ isn’t entirely allegorical, ironically. In one version, he is transcendant on the cross – son of god, coming home. In another version, he’s despondent and afraid of death. The lion or the donkey, indeed.