Thursday, December 08, 2005

Narnia under assault

Browsing yesterday's Presbyweb, I came across the startling headline "Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion." The link took me across the pond to the British Guardian Newspaper and their columnist Polly Toynbee (photo at right, click here to read the wikipedia article about her).

Toynbee zeroes in on Disney's marketing strategy for the film, raising innuendo about less than appropriate involvement with right wing politicians. She then reminds us that the Christian imagery and subtext of the film will likely be lost on most of the British children who see it (given the decline of church attendance in the UK). She recaps the story quite nicely, lingering on the resurrection of Aslan "It does not make any more sense in CS Lewis' tale than in the gospels," she writes. Teetering upon this precarious statement (for the resurrection makes sense to millions of people) she dives headlong into harsh invective:

"Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to? Poor child Edmund, to blame for everything, must bear the full weight of a guilt only Christians know how to inflict, with a twisted knife to the heart. Every one of those thorns, the nuns used to tell my mother, is hammered into Jesus's holy head every day that you don't eat your greens or say your prayers when you are told. So the resurrected Aslan gives Edmund a long, life-changing talking-to high up on the rocks out of our earshot. When the poor boy comes back down with the sacred lion's breath upon him he is transformed unrecognisably into a Stepford brother, well and truly purged."

Wow -- can we be a little more clear here? The idea of the substitutionary atonement is repugnant. Well, Paul does tell us the gospel is foolishness and a scandal (I Corinthians 1 -- "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." continue reading the whole passage for greater context). Toynbee lingers on the sour taste of shrewish nuns ladling guilt -- and truth be told, evangelical Christians are quite good at ladling guilt (though that is not a province exclusive to Christianity -- pick your cause and you'll find people pouring out guilt like bathtub gin. Check out PETA's protests for a fine example of guilt mongering.)

Toynbee is an atheist, and in our open and free democracy she's allowed her opinion, though it is an opinion that saddens me. But then she steps onto my turf -- the turf of defining orthodox 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'." I'll discount the Pullman comment as another angry atheist spewing his opinion (Thank God there are actually some irenic atheists) -- again, he's entitled to it, but it hardly makes him authoritiative.

However, we remember that the Lion is a Biblical image of Christ -- from the Old Testament (Genesis 49:9 "You are a lion's cub, O Judah; you return to the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness -- who dares to rouse him? The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet...") where we see the lion used as a figure for a messianic king. And from the New Testament (Revelation 5:5 "Then one of hte elders said to me, 'Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed.... Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne.") where the image of lion and lamb are combined to represent the triumphant Christ.

Indeed the image of the lamb conveys the very concept of the substitutionary atonement. The very concept that disgusts Toynbee lies at the root of the image she identifies with. Christ does identify with the meek and the poor and the weak -- but he also fills the role of a righteous and conquering king. We do injustice to the Biblical portrait if we leave one or the other out. Toynbee has every right in to say she dislikes the biblical picture, but she practices intellectual dishonesty in re-defining it.

Then she reveals her biases with this absurd claim: "Because here in Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America - that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right. I once heard the famous preacher Norman Vincent Peel in New York expound a sermon that reassured his wealthy congregation that they were made rich by God because they deserved it. 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."

Did she read the same book I did? The "distorted neo-fascist strain" that she describes is the methodology of the White Witch, not that of Aslan! The Witch uses force to bend all minions to her will. Aslan frees the creatures to be what they were made to be (of course, Toynbee might counter with saying that this is emotional manipulation and the real subtext is that of power games). The picture of four school age children defeating an adult witch of enormous power does not seem to me teach that the strong will be rewarded. Lewis prefers to honor the meek rather than the great and powerful (see his work The Great Divorce where a prominent artist is forgotten in heaven but a humble no-name housewife is one of the great ones there). Meanwhile, quoting Norman Vincent Peale as a spokesman for orthodox Christianity is like quoting James Doohan as an expert on particle physics (hey, he did play Mr. Scott -- he made physics look really cool and attractive).

Then she ends with a flourish: "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 hate to argue, but Aslan is a character -- one may find Lewis' characterizaiton of him flawed, one may find his dialogue stilted or his motivations feeling artificial -- but these are all very subjective. Yet Aslan is a character -- not some abstract moral compass that in the end we define for ourselves. I suppose that's why atheists (or at least this particular atheist) object so violently -- for who wants to be in the unenviable position of objecting to a person who others find so very compelling. Mired in a worldview that refuses to recognize a living God, it is no wonder Toynbee spits so much poison toward Narnia and Aslan. And yet, it is so incredibly sad.

Soli Deo Gloria

PS -- the Blogosphere's been hopping about this one -- lots of people who think Toynbee's gone way overboard. Including one very thoughtful and articulate atheist -- indeed, he gives some of the best commentary I've read on the article.