Idol Chatter

Peter Steinfels, in this week’s New York Times “Beliefs” column, writes of the latest Hollywood-induced skirmish in the culture wars: “Narnia, it seems, is in danger of becoming a red state.” That’s because evangelicals nationwide are seeing the film as an amazing opportunity for evangelism, not to mention the best film in a while for their own kids to see and enjoy.

Steinfels writes about “pre-emptive strikes” against the evangelical world coopting the film, focusing in particular on Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker essay, which, in part, decries the impetus to see the Chronicles of Narnia as merely a faith allegory, something with which C.S. Lewis himself would have vehemently disagreed. Gopnik makes the provocative argument that, if the Chronicles were truly to be a retelling of the Gospels, Aslan–the lion who stands in for Jesus–should have been a lowly lamb or a donkey, rather than from the King of Beasts. Gopnik goes so far as to say–absurdly, in Steinfels’ view and my own–that the more explicitly Christian parts of the Narnia series are less captivating than those segments which steer clearest of theological meaning, such as “The Magician’s Nephew.”

The debate, fascinating to me, also underscores the (admittedly banal) fact that there is something for everyone to love in Narnia. I, like so many non-Christians–and even many Christians–read the books as a kid, loved them, and remained oblivious to any Christian messages in them. At the same time, I can understand why a Christian parent or Sunday school teacher would relish the day their kids or students became old enough to read the Chronicles and discuss their theological lessons.

But this is what makes me skeptical of those evangelicals who see the film as an opportunity to win souls for Christ. Unlike “The Passion of the Christ,” where it was impossible, obviously, to see the movie without engaging with the death and resurrection of Christ–and love it or hate it, the film forced discussion of that core Christian narrative–I suspect Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, and other non-Christians will have the same reaction to the “Narnia” film that they had to the books. They’ll find their own spiritual, moral, and magical meanings in the film that are not in opposition to the Christian messages, and which don’t explicitly reject the biblical and Christological readings of the story, but which exist parallel to them; in other words, we’ll all be watching the same movie but will come away having had entirely different experiences of it, which may make for fascinating and illuminating cross-cultural and interfaith discussions but would not lead too many, if any, non-Christians to muse on–or be moved by–Jesus’ sacrifice or the mystery of his resurrection.

Maybe Steinfels is onto something; in the past two elections, it often seemed as if Red Staters and Blue Staters were not part of the same national conversation. So maybe Narnia is both a Red State and a Blue State. Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.

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