Christians are getting excited about the release this week of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” a movie based on C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” fantastical allegory. Newsweek reports that “preachers are reportedly urged to give ‘Narnia’-themed sermons and invite non-Christians to see the movie with the congregation.”
Well, when my daughter, Celeste, was young I read “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” to her. I don’t remember thinking, “Ah, how Christ-like is Aslan the lion.” Of course, maybe if I had been a Christian the allegory would, let’s say, have leapt out at me.
A few weeks ago The New Yorker published a marvelous overview of C.S. Lewis’ life and works. Written by Adam Gopnik, “Prisoner of Narnia” will be regarded by the Christian faithful as more proof of the liberal media’s anti-religion bias.
But it has the ring of truth to me. Gopnik presents us with a picture of Lewis that isn’t painted in the blacks and whites favored by fundamentalists.
As one reads the enormous literature on Lewis’ life and thought—there are at least five biographies, and now a complete, three-volume set of his letters—the picture that emerges is of a very odd kind of fantasist and a very odd kind of Christian. The hidden truth that his faith was really of a fable-first kind kept his writing forever in tension between his desire to imagine and his responsibility to dogmatize.
His works are a record of a restless, intelligent man, pacing a cell of his own invention and staring through the barred windows at the stars beyond. That the door was open all the time, and that he held the key in his pocket, was something he discovered only at the end.
Lewis’ conversion to Christianity was sparked by a famous walk with J.R.R. Tolkien, author of another not-too-shabby fantasy series about some hobbits searching for a ring. Tolkien convinced Lewis that (as Lewis later wrote) “The story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”
Well, I doubt it. In my opinion there’s no evidence that the story of Christ as related in the Bible is actually true. The contradictions between the various gospels argue more for myth than fact, as does the almost complete absence of any independent corroboration of Jesus’ life and death.
So to me and many other skeptics “The Chronicles of Narnia” is a myth about a myth, a fantasy about a fantasy. This shouldn’t diminish anyone’s enjoyment of the movie, which enthusiastic fans are giving rave reviews.
Let’s just remember that the stories in the New Testament are far removed from the actuality of whoever Jesus might have been. And C.S. Lewis’ imaginative allegorical treatment of those stories is another big step away from whatever spiritual reality Jesus may have represented—not a step toward it.
Just as with “The Passion of the Christ,” the enthusiasm toward this new Christian-themed movie points out how religious belief is a hunger that demands constant feeding, because it isn’t intrinsically satisfying. Adam Gopnik puts the matter neatly:
A startling thing in Lewis’ letters to other believers is how much energy and practical advice is dispensed about how to keep your belief going: they are constantly writing to each other about the state of their beliefs, as chronic sinus sufferers might write to each other about the state of their noses. Keep your belief going, no matter what it takes—the thought not occurring that a belief that needs this much work to believe in isn’t really a belief but a very strong desire to believe.
After Lewis’ wife died (she was an older passionate woman who rescued him from priggishness), he wrote “A Grief Observed.” It tells of how he came to question the goodness of God and, for a time, lost his Christian faith.
As Gopnik says, you have to wonder how believable Christianity is if a true believer’s belief in it is so fragile.
Lastly, I loved this excerpt from The New Yorker article. Lewis not only converted generally to Christianity, but also specifically to the Anglican creed. Gopnik’s pointing out of Lewis’ theological absurdity is right on the money.
Lewis insists that the Anglican creed isn’t one spiritual path among others but the single cosmic truth that extends from the farthest reach of the universe to the house next door. He is never troubled by the funny coincidence that this one staggering cosmic truth also happens to be the established religion of his own tribe, supported by every institution of the state, and reinforced by the university he works in, the “God-fearing and God-sustaining University of Oxford,” as Gladstone called it.
Yes, how amazing, that a man on a planet circling one of several hundred billion stars in one of the universe’s several hundred billion galaxies just happens to be living smack dab in the middle of a provincial culture that possesses the absolute truth about this whole shebang.
And what is even more amazing? That there are so many other men and women on this planet who believe the same thing.