Real Religion Is Like Literature

Baynes, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe"

Baynes, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”

Spiritual Sunday

In my British Fantasy Lit course I’ve been teaching C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in conjunction with Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book. Miller, staff writer for Slate, has written the book as a bibliomemoir that traces her up and down relationship with the Chronicles of Narnia over the course of her life. She is particularly interested in how we should respond to literature that has an explicit religious agenda.

In any event, that’s how she at one time saw The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. As she notes, the book can be read as the Christian story, with Edmund standing in for sinning humanity. He can only be redeemed, so Lewis indicates, if Aslan/Christ takes the sin upon Himself and gives himself up for sacrifice. Then Aslan is resurrected (“deeper magic”), the world is freed from the icy grip of the White Witch, and all live in a land of new hope.

Miller was raised Catholic but did not realize for several years that Lewis’ novel had a version of the story she encountered in church. Indeed, she saw religion as a cold and forbidding institution that fetishized suffering, and she turned to Narnia to escape from this world. Therefore, when someone pointed out to her Lewis’ Christian symbolism, she felt that the author had suckered and betrayed her. The Magician’s Book is largely her attempt to reconnect with her early love of the Narnia books.

Along the way, she raises several interesting questions. She talks to other readers about whether they noticed the Christian themes and discovers they had a wide range of responses, often very different from her own. She ponders whether the Narnia series is religious allegory and explores the nature of allegory. She looks at what happens to works when teachers (say, church school teachers assigning Lewis’ novels) emphasize a story’s symbols over its story. She wonders whether a coded religious message can actually convert readers. She finds holes in Lewis’s theological thinking and she notes that Lewis has a number of non-Christian elements, including a fair number of Celtic pagan elements like tree spirits. (Certain fundamentalist Christians who praise Lewis then castigate the Harry Potter books for having such aspects.) She points out that the glorious scene of Lucy and Susan rolling with Aslan in the grass could not occur if Aslan were literally Jesus. Here’s the scene:

That ride was perhaps the most wonderful thing that happened to them in Narnia. Have you ever had a gallop on a horse? Think of that; and then take away the jingle of the bits and imagine instead the almost noiseless padding of the great paws. Then imagine instead of the black or gray or chestnut back of the horse the soft roughness of golden fur, and the mane flying back in the wind. And then imagine you are going about twice as fast as the fastest racehorse. But this is a mount that doesn’t need to be guided and never grows tired. He rushes on and on, never missing his footing, never hesitating, threading his way with perfect skill between tree trunks, jumping over bush and briar and the smaller streams, wading the larger, swimming the largest of all. And you are riding not on a road nor in a park nor even on the downs, but right across Narnia, in spring, down solemn avenues of beech and across sunny glades of oak, through wild orchards of snow-white cherry trees, past roaring waterfalls and mossy rocks and echoing caverns, up windy slopes alight with gorse bushes, and across the shoulders of heathery mountains and along giddy ridges and down, down, down again into wild valleys and out into acres of blue flowers.

Miller’s book is not always entirely coherent so I won’t try to sum her up. I’ll just note that she arrives at a position somewhat close to my own, which is that religion is at its best when it is like literature: it should open up the spirit within us, not channel us into narrow and dogmatic interpretation. Just as bad social realism reads like political propaganda rather than literature, so does doctrinaire religious fiction reach like church propaganda. Likewise, when teachers narrow down literary interpretation to a specific set of equations, whether “Aslan equals Jesus” or “the scarlet letter equals sexual guilt,” they kill the spirit of the work.

So The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is bigger than the narrow Christianity that Miller remembers from her childhood, just as Christianity itself is bigger than the Christianity of fundamentalist literalists. When Lewis dreamt of entering magical portals, he was a poet moving into deep spiritual realms. It was when he became pinched and narrowly allegorical—say, in The Last Battle, everyone’s least favorite Narnia book—that his fiction became doctrinaire as well.

In short, don’t think of the Narnia series as religious propaganda.  It is not as narrow as propaganda, it doesn’t convert anyone, and it’s a lot more fun.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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