It would be possible, and it might be edifying, to write a Christian cookery book. Such a book would exclude dishes whose preparation involves un-necessary human labour or animal suffering, and dishes excessively luxurious. That is to say, its choice of dishes would be Christian. But there could be nothing specifically Christian about the actual cooking of the dishes included. Boiling an egg is the same process whether you are a Christian or a pagan. -- Lewis 'Christianity and Literature'
On December 4th, The Sunday Times revealed the contents of a "previously unpublished" letter from C.S Lewis which "emerged ahead of this week's release of the Chronicles of Narnia movie" and "provided conclusive proof of the Christian message in the Narnia books."
Things are always "emerging" in newspapers. I think it means "We just noticed" or "There is no actual story here, but we decided to report it anyway." The headline, too, was a classic example of the sub-editors art: Narnia's Lion is really Jesus. It has to say "Narnia's lion", because we might be too ignorant to know who "Aslan" is.
The article contains a few short quotes from the letter, a reply by Lewis to one of the many children who wrote to him:
"The whole Narnia story is about Christ"....
"Supposing there really was a world like Narnia.and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it (as He did ours) what might have happened?"
Now, Lewis wrote an awful lot of letters. One could wish he had written fewer. Indeed, one could willingly murder all those Yanks who sent him food parcels during the shortages after the war. Instead of writing each one a personal thank-you letter, why couldn't he have hired a secretary and written some more book! We've had two thousand-page volumes of 'Collected Letters' so far and he still hasn't met Joy Davidman or started to written a children's book. This letter comes from vol 3, due out next year. The 'Collected Letters' are published by Harper Collins, which, like the Sunday Times, is part of Rupert Murdoch's empire. So perhaps in this case "emerged" means "The proofs of volume 3 were lying on someone's desk, and we had a look at them"?
So it is literally true that this letter is as yet "unpublished". However, it is complete nonsense to say that it sheds any fresh light on the religious content of the Narnia books. A much smaller selection of Lewis's letters was edited by his brother and published in 1966. In it, we find the following:
"But it is not, as some people think, an allegory. That is, I don't say, "Let us represent Christ as Aslan" I say "Suppose there was a world like Narnia, and supposing like ours, it needed redemption, let us imagine what sort of Incarnation and Passion and Resurrection Christ would have there." See?"
And in another short volume called 'Letters to Children', we find him saying the same thing in the same words:
'I did not say to myself 'Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia'; I said 'Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as he became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen'.
'The Times' wants us to imagine some kind of controversy between people who think that they have found a religious sub-text in Narnia and people who deny it's there. There is no controversy or debate: Lewis's intentions are easy to find out from any standard work.
This would not be especially interesting but for the fact that, in the run-up to the movie, a lot of people have been saying a lot of very silly things about "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
For example, Tilda Swinton, who has possibly been getting a bit too deeply into her role as the White Witch tells the BBC:
"Faith is in the eye of the beholder... the original book was more "spiritual" than religious...You can make a religious allegory out of anything if that's what you're interested in."
Well, yes, indeed, you can, although it must be said that it is rather easier to do it to "The Pilgrim's Progress" than, say "Tellytubbies" or "Pulp Fiction". I have to say that I have never understood what people are talking about when they use the word "spirituality", and the idea of the spiritual as opposed to the religious baffles me even further.
More worryingly, the producer of the film asserts:
"When I first read it, it never occurred to me Aslan was anything more than a great lion. Christian themes were very important to CS Lewis and imbued everything he did, but he himself denied any religious implications."
Got that? Lewis denied any religious implications in the Narnia stories. This lie crops up again in an allegedly humorous "A - Z of Narnia" printed in Sunday's "Observer" magazine
"C is for Christian allegory --Is it or isn't it? CS Lewis said it wasn't really, which seems a bit disingenuous."
The Australian magazine "The Age" prints the following astonishing excerpt from an interview with no lessor person than Douglas Gresham: "Won't it at least impart a subliminal Christian message to young audiences, I ask? ""I sincerely hope not," he snorts. "Because - and this is what people always get wrong - it's not a Christian film and the Narnia books aren't Christian novels...."
A couple of years back, Harper Collins were exploring the possibility of commissioning new stories using the Narnia setting, a silly idea of which very little came. An internal memo was leaked to the press saying that these books would play down any Christian symbolism; the usual process of Chinese whispers occurred, and before long, it was being widely reported as fact that Harper Collins was planning to censor all religious references from the text of the the existing books. (*) Douglas succinctly denounced this as a "wicked lie". To hear Douglas saying that "the Narnia books aren't Christian novels" makes me think that either
a: He has been murdered and replaced by a Slitheen or b: He was quoted out of context.
The interesting question is not "Are the Chronicles of Narnia Christian books" – of course they are. The question is "How does the Christian element in them work?" Lewis, as we have seen, said that they were not "allegory": Aslan doesn't "stand for" Jesus; and the other characters certainly don't "stand for" anyone from the Bible or anywhere else. (Edmund is not given thirty pieces of silver; Peter doesn't deny Aslan three times; Lucy certainly doesn't anoint Aslan's paws with her tears, wipe them away with her hair or have seven demons cast out of her.) This is the point which the "Observer" writer misses: when Lewis said that the books were "Not a Christian allegory", he was denying that they were allegorical, not denying that they were Christian. "The Sunday Times" headline-writer managed to miss the point even with the text in front of him. Lewis did not say that "Narnian Lion is Really Jesus." What he said was that "In Narnia, the Word of God was incarnate in the body of a Lion named Aslan; analogous to the way in which, in our world, the Word of God was incarnate in the body of a human being named Jesus." Which, I grant you, would not have made such a snappy headline.
When talking about the Narnia books, Lewis distinguished between his intentions as "an author" and his intentions as "a man". As an author, he had some images -- the Faun, the Witch riding a sledge -- which he wanted to use in a story; along with an inkling that he'd like to have a go at writing a fairy tale. This was the starting point. But "as a man" he developed the idea that such a story could be put to an edifying use.
Christianity is embodied in a collection of stories, and one central story. Christ himself "never spoke without using a parable". Tolkien famously broke through Lewis's resistance to Christianity by telling him that it made sense as a story. But the central narrative of Christianity has become so familiar to us that we can't experience it as a story: we don't feel horrified when Jesus is killed, or afraid when his tomb is empty or amazed when he comes back to life. By presenting something very like the Christ-story in the context of an imaginary world Lewis thought that he could defamiliarise it and allow us to hear it for the first time.
Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associate with lowered voices, almost as it it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained glass and Sunday school association, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency.? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.
So the people who say "I read the books as a child without realising that there was anything religious about them" are reacting very much as Lewis wanted them to. And the people who feel that they have been tricked by the books have also got a point. If you're moved by Aslan's death and resurrection, then at some level, you've experienced a religious emotion. Maybe even done some kind of devotion to a being you don't believe in. It's harder for you to say "I don't understand what it is these funny Christian types think they're doing on Easter Sunday and Good Friday" – because at some level, you do. I can see why the books make the Polly Toynbee's and Phillip Pullman's of this world spit blood. They know that Christianity is hateful religion; they know that the-Christ-of-the-church is a monstrous figure; but when the Christ-of-the-church is presented to children, and even to many adults, disguised as a lion in a story, then a lot of them have the audacity to fall in love with him! Interestingly, Lewis never tries to press the point as an argument. He doesn't say "So, then, if you love my Narnia books, you are already, at some level, a Christian" or "Since this is a beautiful story, it must at some level be true".
When Lewis wrote "Voyage of the Dawn Treader", he was "quite sure" that it would be the last Narnia book, and it does read like the last volume of a trilogy. At the end of the book, Lucy and Edmund come to the edge of the world (Narnia appears to be a discworld) and encounter a Lamb. They ask the Lamb to show them the way to Aslan's country; the Lamb turns into Aslan, and tells them that for them, the way to his country is through their own world. In case this isn't clear enough, the Lamb offers them food:
Come and have breakfast" said the Lamb...Then they noticed for the first time that there was a fire lit on the grass and fish roasting on it.
("As soon as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid theron, and bread... Jesus saith unto them Come and dine."- John 21:9)
Aslan tells Lucy and Edmund that this will be their last trip to Narnia:
"And is Eustace never to come back here either? said Lucy "Child" said Aslan "Do you really need to know that?"
("Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved, following...Peter seeing him saith to Jesus "Lord, and what shall that man do?" Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry trill I come, what is that to thee?"- John 21:22)
Finally, Lewis puts his theological cards very firmly on the table: "It isn't Narnia you know" sobbed Lucy "It's you. We shan't meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?"
"But you shall meet me, dear on," said Aslan
"Are--are you there too, Sir?" said Edmund.
"I am," said Aslan, "But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there."
To use a rather Lewisian extended metaphor. Imagine two people looking at a religious artwork: say, a painting of Jesus on the cross. One of them is a Christian, there other isn't. The Christian regards the painting as a devotional aid; he meditates on it, looks at it while he prays, and generally feels inspired by it. The non-Christian also admires the painting. He doesn't just admire the brushwork, but responds to the whole scene: he's horrified by the realistic way the painter has depicted a man being tortured and moved by the dramatic way he is conveyed a mother's grief at seeing her son hurt. But these are exactly the same emotions which the Christian feels when he looks at the picture. The only difference is that the Christian art-lover thinks that these emotions bring him closer to God, where the non-religious art-lover does not. (He might possibly call them "spiritual", but I still wouldn't know what he meant.) It is possible to imagine two other visitors to the gallery having more extreme reactions. One visitor might be so hostile to the whole idea of Christianity that they can't respond to the painting as a painting. They probably can't even see it. They're so overwhelmed by their conviction that the Atonement is an immoral doctrine that they couldn't even start to admit that they were looking at a very pretty picture. At the other extreme, someone might be so overwhelmingly moved by the picture that they decided to become a Christian on the spot. The hostile critic would have plenty of interesting things to say about his objections to Christianity, but would not be have anything useful to say about the picture. (He'd think that the image of Mary was an instrument of patriarchal oppression regardless of whether this one was well painted or badly painted.) But you probably couldn't blame the painting or the artist for manipulating or brainwashing the convert: he wasn't responding to the painting but the thing which he thought that it was a painting of. And winning converts probably wasn't in the artists head; he just wanted to paint a very truthful picture of what he imagined the crucifixion to have been like.
"By knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there." I don't think Lewis is really proselytising or writing propaganda. I don't even think he's writing one of those teaching aids which uses stories to explain the difficult bits of a religious idea. I think he's trying to provide something a lot like a devotional tool that different people will use in different ways.
Francis Spufford (**) says that even as a child he could see that
"Aslan was both a talking lion and something else at the same time: I already knew that the story of him being sacrificed and coming back to life was a kind of cousin of the story of Jesus."
And really, it shouldn't be necessary to say any more than that. Aslan is like Jesus, but not exactly like Jesus. I may have spent several pages "stating and re-stating the terribly, terribly obvious."
But when people closely associated with the forthcoming movie are being quoted or misquoted as saying that the "Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is "not a Christian story", "spiritual rather than religious" and that Lewis repudiated the story's specifically Christian significance the obvious is probably worth stating quite loudly.
(*)It is said that fledgling political journalists are asked to prove their skill by taking a speech by John Prescott and editing it into English without changing its meaning. I suggest that "Re-write Narnia with the religious element removed, but without changing anything else in the story" could be a similarly challenging party game for wannabee editors.
(**) Chapter III of "The Child That Books Built" is the best thing which anyone has ever written about the Chronicles. "Some people" he says "feel got at by the Narnia books."
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