Sunday, December 11, 2005

In the Bleak Midwinter

It was in 1991 that I took a fantastic course on "Theologies of Liberation." For a whole semester we looked at different ways to understand that God loves us as equals, and demands that we love each other as equals. Further, that this respect is not a reward waiting for some in the next world, but a reality we should both expect and grant to all in this one. And further still, that to support, or even ignore, an oppressive system is to participate in its sin.

Powerful words for a boy brought up on songs of Irish revolution and workers' rights. For a while, this was the only way I saw my Catholicism; no big surprise, I suppose. Time, maturity, and another fabulous religion course (Fr. Frank Gignac's line-by-line instruction on appreciating the historical and literary aspects of the Gospel of John) eventually led me to a more complete, if less stridently revolutionary, understanding of my faith.

So this is the background I bring to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the resulting blog kerfluffle.

(Capsule review of the movie: well paced, faithfully told. Excellent child actors. The animation work on the animals was just stunning, especially compared to my memories of old animatronic or cartoon TV versions. I'm discovering I prefer my fantasy with a more personal and less epic scale, like this. 4 stars.)

(Capsule review of the kerfluffle: for the radical side, we have Polly Toynbee hates Christianity (and makes at least one important factual error in recalling the plot of the movie), and Shane thinks she's an idiot (although he makes a great point about free speech at the end). Meanwhile, over in Moderateland, CPF says sometimes an allegory is just an allegory. and Neil Gaiman points out Adam Gopnik's rather balanced New Yorker article about C.S. Lewis, wrestling with the tension between imagination and dogma.)

It seems that Aslan is a stumbling block for some people. Without a doubt, he's a symbol of the power of God, and of the rule of clearly defined goodness over obvious evil. If you see that and think that "might makes right," I can see why. On the other hand, what I saw was a shadowy resistance leader, whose secret movements were only whispered about... appropriate for a movie where the first shots are the Luftwaffe's view of the Blitz. So where others saw the English Lion, I saw the Lion of Zion.

On one level, this is a debate between authorial intent and reader response. But on another, we've walked into the great challenge of Christianity: if we believe in a God who is the Alpha and the Omega, both the tower of fire and the whispering breeze, we don't get to choose. We can't pick the lion or the lamb. Both are right, and we have to find a way to reconcile them and keep both in mind.

It's merely facile of Disney to take a religious allegory, set in a world that is "always Winter, never Christmas" and featuring a cameo by Father Christmas, and release it in December. However, it's good to have this debate while Christians concentrate on the meek baby in the manger. Now, while we think about gifts and kindness, is also the time to remember hard work and the struggle.

This I Believe: deep faith is when the hum of your own cognitive dissonance actually resolves into a chord.


Blogger tommyspoon said...

A few things:

1. The last line of this post is the most beautiful thing I've read in six months. Keep it up, Joe.

2. As someone who has read this series of books at least 20 times from childhood on, I can tell you that I don't care that Aslan is a christ figure. Lord knows (pardon me) that he wasn't the first christ figure in literature and he won't be the last. This is such a non-issue for me; almost rivaling my "War on Christmas". (Am I winning, Bill?)

3. I'm still not going to see the movie because I have a very specific image of how Narnia looks and smells and sounds like in my head. I have no desire to see someone else's interpretation. Maybe that position will change in a few years, but I don't think it will.

9:57 AM, December 12, 2005  
Blogger Joe said...


1) Thanks. Glad you liked that turn of phrase.

2) Herself made an observation which I'll paraphrase as "the sign of a good allegory is that it works just as a story itself." Much as I enjoy debating symbolism, if you can't get past it and enjoy the ride sometimes, you miss a lot of good stories.

3) That's always the risk when you see a movie based on a beloved book. Both versions of Hitchhiker's were good, but neither, IMO, were right. Kudos to you for sparing yourself the heartache. ;-)

5:59 PM, December 12, 2005  
Blogger John B. said...

I saw the movie this weekend with the kids, and outside of it being my first opportunity to harrass my son at work (he just took a job at the theater in October), the movie was quite enjoyable.

I read the book 20 years ago in high school, we dissected every line of the book (along with about a dozen others) and basically ruined my enjoyment for this book and for literature in general for a few years. Let that be a lesson to english teachers everywhere.

Anyhow, the movie is quite good, fairly faithful to the book, at least as I remember it. The allegory was brought home through the movie well enough that when I asked my 9 year old who the characters represented, he named most of them off right away with little prodding or cluing in. He even got the Edmund / Adam comparision.

Like Tommyspoon, movies are rarely as good as books, and I too had a preconceived 'Narnia' in my head. For a change, the movie didn't ruin it, it enhanced it.

4:22 PM, December 13, 2005  

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