Saturday, September 6, 2014

Why Non-Christians Shouldn't Reject The Chronicles of Narnia

Lewis's readers tend to divide into two camps: the Christian and the non-Christian. Though to most, Lewis is primarily known as the writer of The Chronicles of Narnia, his works of Christian apologetics, especially Mere Christianity, are certainly the most famous theological works of the modern era and could easily be considered the most influential across the spectrum of denominations. Lewis's identity as Christian apologist has colored reactions to his fiction, particularly the Chronicles, and has led to a fairly common crisis. Laura Miller writes in The Magician's Book (a wonderfully reflective and thoughtful book about her complicated relationship to the Narnian stories), "I was horrified to discover that the Chronicles of Narnia, the joy of my childhood and the cornerstone of my imaginative life, were really just the doctrines of the Church in disguise. I looked back at my favorite book and found it appallingly transfigured." However, although it's widely accepted that The Chronicles of Narnia can (and perhaps should) be read as Christian allegories, Lewis did not intend any such thing.

Lewis felt that one's personal spiritual convictions inevitably saturated one's writing, but he felt equally strongly that one ought not to insert a moral inorganically into a story. Rather, "the moral inherent in [the story] will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life." Indeed, this has certainly proved the case with many fantasy writers. Philip Pullman's atheist beliefs saturate his novels and form his stronghold in the rather overly combative dialectical battle he fights against Lewis in particular, as well as Christian fantasy writers in general. Like The Chronicles of Narnia, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels have strong Christological parallels and can easily be read as Christian allegory. Rowling herself is a Christian and a church-goer, her characters celebrate Christmas and Easter and clearly live in a Christian context, and she has said in interviews that Harry Potter's ultimate fate could be easily guessed if one knew of her religious beliefs. In one interview, she went so far as to say, "I believe in God, not magic." But Rowling has not written any works of theology, as Lewis did.

I'm not arguing for or against any particular religious beliefs - such an argument would be entirely outside the scope of this blog. But I am arguing, as vociferously as I may, against the rejection of great literary works on the basis of opposing religious beliefs. Yes, Aslan is a Christ figure, and, yes, the magical adventures in each of the books are more significantly spiritual journeys, and for those who reject Christianity, the presence of Christological allegory may not be enticing. But should such parallels constitute grounds to reject an otherwise brilliant, delightful, enchanting work of literature? To my mind, such an idea not merely silly, but parlous.

In order to understand what is in most cases a deeply emotional reaction of betrayal and anger, a feeling of being duped into embracing a rejected belief, one must disentangle the various components that lead to that feeling. Since many, if not most, fans of The Chronicles of Narnia are children when they first read them, many of the Christological parallels are less obvious at first reading, especially if the reader grows up in a non-religious or only casually religious household. Laura Miller writes that reading about Narnia was like "securing a portal." In her experience, as in mine, Narnia was not a mere fiction, but a very real place, a deeply visceral, if imagined, world that one could access through Lewis's extraordinary stories. This intense relationship to a fictional world is not unique to Narnia - many beloved children's books provide similar places to which one longs to go, like L. M. Montgomery's Avonlea, Rowling's parallel Wizarding world, Kenneth Grahame's riverbank on the Thames. But this strong emotional attachment and the feeling of Joy (Lewis's translation of the German word Sehnsucht, which translates as a nostalgic, bittersweet longing, but is a deeply complex word) make the realization or, one could say, revelation of Christological parallels fraught and emotionally complex.

For those who reject Christianity, the realization that The Chronicles of Narnia are works with a profoundly Christian heritage can be extraordinarily painful. But need one be a Christian in order to appreciate literature with a basis in Christianity? I think not. In fact, most Western literature has a strong basis in either a monotheistic religion or in a schismatic reaction against a monotheistic religion. The question then becomes whether or not one should reject literature on the grounds of religious belief with which one disagrees. It is at this point that we enter into dangerous territory. If we close ourselves off to all but completely or mostly shared points of view, we set everything else in opposition to what we believe. This is the root of intolerance. Literature offers a means of developing empathy and tolerance with the minimum of pain and the maximum of thoughtfulness and reflection. Further, the spiritual journeys undertaken by Lewis's characters have significance both within a specifically Christian context and within a looser Western moral paradigm. Eustace Scrubb's transformation into a dragon does not only teach him faith; it teaches him humility, the value of friendship, industry, and cooperation (as a start) - all qualities that have value whether one is Christian or not.

There are several reasons why Lewis, unlike other writers who have created similarly complex fictional worlds in which stories with Christian parallels are set (among fantasy writers, one thinks of Rowling, Tolkien - in his own words, "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously at first, but consciously so in the revision" - and George MacDonald), has suffered such a severe backlash. First of all, he was prominently and vocally Christian and one of the best-known theologians of the modern era. Second of all, his literary reputation is splintered due to the prominence of his works across different genres, unlike, say, Tolkien, who is known almost exclusively for his fantasy writing, while his work in linguistics remains exclusively restricted to a readership of specialists. Third of all, Narnia matters too much to too many to fail to provoke profound emotional reaction. It is a testament to Lewis's luxuriant imagination and almost feral creativity that Narnia should matter so much that for non-Christian readers, the recognition of Christological parallels and allegorical interpretation constitutes a genuine emotional trauma.

In the end, the interpretation of The Chronicles of Narnia as Christian allegory is only one of many. As Laura Miller elegantly writes, "Lewis was cognizant of reading, the moment when the words of the writer mingle with the mind of the reader, as a kind of duet, with the reader bringing as much, in her own way, to the union as the writer." While one certainly can read The Chronicles of Narnia as a distillation of Christian ideas and beliefs, one doesn't need to do so. (And really, why must the most obvious interpretation be taken for, pardon the perhaps poor analogy, gospel truth?) To reject The Chronicles of Narnia because one is not Christian is to deny one's own agency as a reader. Agree with Lewis, disagree, argue with him in your own mind, compare, critique - but don't outright reject.

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