The Wardrobe in the Classroom
Even though it's a Christian allegory, the Chronicles of Narnia are taught in U.S. public schools without controversy--mostly.
BY: Juli Cragg Hilliard
The story has barely-veiled religious themes, its author is a renowned Christian theologian, and many Christians see it as an eloquent tool for evangelism. In other words, not the usual formula for public-school reading lists. But "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" is not the usual children's book. It, like the rest of the Chronicles of Narnia series, is beloved by readers of all ages, and read as much, if not more, for its thrilling fantasy, universal moral lessons, and magical creatures as it is for its retelling, in the saga of Aslan the lion and his faithful followers, of Christ's death and resurrection. That could be why the story's religious aspects have mostly not stopped public schools from using Narnia in the classroom, and now that "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" is being released as a highly anticipated Disney movie, teachers are sure to seize the chance to promote reading.
But how to handle the Christian elements of the story? Should these be discussed in the classroom? What about the role Christianity played in the life and work of Narnia's creator, C.S. Lewis? Lewis, an Oxford don and Anglican, was--even before writing the Narnia series--a celebrated and prominent writer of Christian apologetics. His theological works--including the "The Screwtape Letters," a satirical conversation among demons about winning humans' souls, and "Mere Christianity," a call to faith--remain, like Narnia, well read and much loved.
These questions have come to the surface in at least one high-profile instance recently. In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush's administration is running a statewide school competition tied to the Dec. 9 release of the Narnia movie. His "Just Read, Florida!" contest calls for public, private, and home-schooled students in third through 12th grades to submit essays, illustrations, and short videos exploring their reactions "The Lion, the Witch..." The prizes awarded to the three winners will include a private screening of the movie at Disney-MGM Studios and a weekend stay at a Disney resort. The rules say nothing about Lewis's Christian view, or his purpose in the book's themes.
The contest has drawn criticism from at least one group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which objects to a state-sponsored contest focusing on 'a religious book.' The group complained in a news release that the book is 'a Christian allegory that many religious leaders use to introduce children to Christianity.' The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director, called for Bush to allow students to submit entries based on an alternative, non-religious book. (Americans United, however, does not object to the book being read in public schools, as long as it is part of a voluntary reading program, and students have other options.)
Bush's office responded to criticism of the contest with a statement that said: "'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' is a timeless and much lauded novel that has entertained children and families for more than 50 years. It is a classic story of good versus evil that transcends generations."
The Palm Beach Post quoted Mary Laura Openshaw, director of "Just Read, Florida!" as saying "The Lion, The Witch" could be read without allusion to Christianity, and that she wanted children 'to read the book and decide for themselves.'
At the Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian, nonprofit organization headquartered in Orlando, President Mat Staver says that's as it should be: The contest shouldn't mention the religious aspects. But, he says, teachers should.
'I think if public school teachers have children read the book but do not address the perspective of C.S. Lewis, they have a safe of knowledge but don't have the key to it,' says Staver, author of "Eternal Vigilance: Knowing and Protecting Your Religious Freedom."
Kevin Seamus Hasson, founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public-interest law firm that advocates for the free expression of religion shares that view. "The basic principle is simple: We don't want the government telling us who God is,' Hasson says.
"The Lion, the Witch" is 'a classic of modern literature, and I think it should be taught as freely and as openly as classics of earlier times. No one would dare say 'Paradise Lost' didn't belong in a public school curriculum,' says Hasson, author of "The Right To Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America." 'It goes without saying that religion is a natural part of our arts, because religion is a natural part of our lives.'