The buzz about Christian propaganda couched in Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe seems to have subsided. With the film’s premiere, the suspense about ideology has largely been replaced by universal commendations of its “enchanting animations” and portrayal of “family values.”
Secular reviewers find the Christian motifs even less intrusive than in C. S. Lewis’s original novel, which many enjoyed in childhood as simply a well-told adventure story. About Christ-figure Aslan the lion’s sacrifice, Stephany Zacharek of Salon writes, “I think… it speaks to our capacity for compassion, and if that’s not nondenominational, I don’t know what is.” Ty Burr of the Boston Globe advises: “Take a deep breath and relax. Aslan doesn’t spout blood from his paws or perform the miracle of the loaves and… fishes.”
Accordingly, many Christian reviewers qualify their praise of the movie, bemoaning the diluted treatment of Lewis’ Christian message. A reviewer for Spirituality and Health laments that it “slights the forgiveness theme in favor of a big battle scene led by a not-very-Christlike Aslan….” Jeffrey Overstreet of Christianity Today admits that Aslan does not command the same reverence as Lewis’s great lion: “…the [screenwriters] consistently skirt the issue of Aslan’s authority…. Aslan’s father, the Emperor-beyond-the-sea [symbolic of God in the books], is never mentioned.”
Of course, no one denies that there is some Christian allegory. There can be no mistaking the symbolism of a story that features the seduction of a sinner (youngest brother Edmund) by the satanic White Witch, followed by his redemption through Aslan’s sacrifice. The scene in which Aslan forfeits his life has been described as an “anthropomorphic PG version of the Passion of the Christ” (Slant Magazine). This characterization of the movie as a kid-friendly Passion has cropped up in multiple commentaries (from USA Today to Christianity Answers). And it was no accident: the movie’s creators indicated their intent to attract Christian audiences when they appointed Outreach, an evangelical publisher, to promote the movie’s message in churches.
In fearing that the film’s watered-down religious elements will dampen its promotion of Christianity, Christians fail to realize one thing: the watering-down works to their advantage. In truth, nothing is more effective at spreading the Christian gospel than this “dilution” of its other-worldly message with enticing, this-worldly values. No parents would take their 7-year-old to see Passion of the Christ in hopes of convincing him of his corruption and his lifelong indebtedness to the blood-drenched Christ. Aslan and the Pevensie kids, however, are far more palatable role models. Narnia, after all, is a sweeping adventure, decked with presents and swords and chuckling beavers and a picturesque wonderland–not the typical setting for a crucifixion.
The film will not necessarily instill a Christian ethic in every child who sees it. But it does make Christlike sacrifice look so friendly and unassuming as to elude controversy. Rather than dying for wicked sinners, Aslan “dies” to save Narnia and its adorable inhabitants from imminent destruction–and is promptly reincarnated to slaughter the Witch in a fierce, heroic, and most un-Christlike fashion.
Children who stumble into the fictional world of Narnia at the urging of their Christian elders do not always know how to uncouple its lustrous, worldly delights from Christianity’s message of self-abnegation. And the story subtly discourages the kind of questioning that would assist them: after all, the “deep magic” overrides the rules of logic, even to the point (as Aslan explains) of defying death. Within Narnia’s universe, the Professor’s injunction to the stuffy and logical Susan “proves” correct: it is easiest not to question, but, like the naive and wide-eyed Lucy, to believe. Not only will the sacrifice of your body ensure its safe return–but the sacrifice of your mind, too, will be duly rewarded.
Christianity has wielded this deceptively sugarcoated account of its values for centuries. Heaven, that enchanting fantasy land filled with harps and angels, has been dangled before potential adherents in exchange for a renunciation of real rewards here on earth. The “virtue” of sacrifice has been packaged with compassion and benevolence–even though genuine good will is impossible among men who regard each other as sacrificial animals. Faith–the act of believing blindly–has been equated with the kind of trust one bestows on friends and family (as the Pevensies learn to trust Lucy)–though in reality such trust, far from blind, must be earned.
It is telling that Christianity has always relied on such a method to attract converts. It cannot brandish its true, unadulterated message of faith and self-sacrifice–because the naked essence of that doctrine is vicious. Followed sincerely, Christian morality demands not kindness towards those we trust, but “love” for our enemies; it demands not that we fight for justice, but that we “turn the other cheek” out of mercy; it demands not an appreciation of worldly delights, but a renunciation of wealth and sexual pleasure. In practice, it means surrendering all one selfishly loves–one’s job, one’s time, one’s choices, one’s mind, one’s very life–out of sheer senseless duty. To any honest human being (especially a child), this doctrine is unthinkable.
That is why Christianity’s advocates must wrap it in a lie: sacrifice now, and you shall be rewarded for it “later.”
The trouble is, the real world does not work that way. Those who stuff themselves with Turkish Delights do not get saved from the consequences of excess sugar afterward; and those who die as martyrs do not get restored to full health the next day. The Passion of the Christ is honest at least in this regard; it presents sacrifice in its true form: as ugly, unabated suffering. But suffering does not sell; battles, Christmas presents, and cute smiles, do. In such a form has Christianity sold its doctrine for ages.
No, Chronicles of Narnia is not as openly Christian as the mainstream critics feared. That is what makes it dangerous to the uncritical and unsuspecting. In fact, the film is a perfect marketing tool–just Christian enough to hoodwink naive viewers into developing an interest in Christianity, yet coated with false promises. Later, they will nurse their rising guilt and frustration by watching Jesus suffer for them in Passion of the Christ.
A movie like Narnia can easily blind current and future Christians to the fact that no amount of sacrifice is good; that it is our human birthright to seek delicious treats, festive holidays, heroic victories, and earthly happiness–and that, if we want to be regaled with such values, we must earn them ourselves.
Gena Gorlin is a sophomore attending Tufts University and the New England Conservatory.