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November 29, 2005

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
How Christian Is Narnia?

by Jon M. Sweeney

As millions of us await the opening of what is said to be a remarkable film, the debate continues as to whether or not C. S. Lewis’s Narnia was written to be Christian. Did Lewis intend his series of young adult novels to be Christian allegory? The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is set to open in theaters December 9.

Seven years ago, the editors at Christianity Today offered that Lewis “has come to be the Aquinas, the Augustine, and the Aesop of contemporary Evangelicals.” An article by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker just last month explained: “Lewis is a figure who has been incised on stained glass—truly: there’s a stained-glass window with Lewis in it in a church in Monrovia, California.”

There is no doubt that Lewis was a Christian apologist. He, in fact, used the label with relish. Many of his nonfiction books written for adults, such as Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters, were designed to explain to a doubtful audience why, in fact, the Christian story was true. It is Lewis’s role as Christian defender that has confused readers for more than a half century about the meaning of Narnia.

Does Aslan, the lion hero of the Narnia novels, represent Christ? Is his death and resurrection incontrovertible proof that C.S. Lewis intended these to be stories of Christian redemption?

Both Christian advocates, as well as those who would be opposed to Christian teaching for children, seem to think that Lewis intended to teach a specific faith in Narnia.

On November 9, Court TV reported: “An advocacy group claims a Florida reading contest involving the classic novel and upcoming film violates the role of religion in the classroom.” Barry Lynn, director of Americans United—which is offering pro bono legal aid to any school that wishes to challenge the publicly-funded contest—told the Palm Beach Post that the contest is “totally inappropriate” because the book “is simply a retelling of the story of Christ.”

Though C. S. Lewis never claimed to be telling the story of Christ in Narnia, that hasn’t stopped Christians from claiming it on his behalf. Lon Allison, director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois, recently said, “We believe that God will speak the gospel of Jesus Christ through this [upcoming] film.”

Literary scholars and other experts on Lewis often explain that it was myth and fantasy that animated the great storyteller, much more than a desire to teach Christianity to children through an elaborate allegory.

In C. S. Lewis’s own words: “Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected information about child-psychology and decided what age group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way at all. Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.” (Of Other Worlds, p. 36)

A headline on the BBC online two weeks ago, read: “Cast and crew members of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe have played down the significance of Christian symbolism in their version of C.S. Lewis’s novel.” In that story, British actress Tilda Swinton, who plays the part of the White Witch Jadis in the upcoming film, said, “Faith is in the eye of the beholder. You can make a religious allegory out of anything if that’s what you're interested in.” She is probably right.

That said, the themes of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are universal. Other recent, popular films have embodied Christian ideas, such as resurrection (The Matrix), sacrifice and transformation (Shrek) and the holy family (the Star Wars saga) in order to tell epic stories and communicate moral lessons. Lewis created a great allegory, and part of its greatness was that it encompassed universal messages of sacrifice, struggle, and redemption that are at the heart of all religious faith, and what it means to be fully human.

Those Christian apologists today who would like to use the Narnia films to turn people to faith in Christ might do better by relying on the myth of Narnia to work its own magic. As Adam Gopnik concludes his November 21 story in The New Yorker about C. S. Lewis: “A handful of images is as good as an armful of arguments, as the old apostles always knew.” Lewis knew it, too.

© 2005 Jon M. Sweeney.

—Jon M. Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. He is the author of several books, including his new memoir, BORN AGAIN AND AGAIN: THE SURPRISING BENEFITS OF A FUNDAMENTALIST CHILDHOOD.

More by Jon Sweeney.

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