Generous Orthodoxy  

 

My daughter Elizabeth and I agreed that we did not think we would want to see The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe on film, and that we thought we did not want the young members of our family to see it. Too many movies have spoiled classic books by creating such a powerful impression on children’s minds that they can never approach the book later without “seeing” the movie. The filmed images continue to predominate in the imagination even in the infrequent cases where the book is later preferred. (Much as I love The Lord of the Rings and hugely prefer it to Peter Jackson’s movies, I cannot get the annoyingly unsatisfactory image of Hugo Weaving as Elrond out of my mind.)

 

At any rate, when several discerning friends recommended the Narnia movie, our whole family, ages 8 to 72, went to see it. We were all, without exception, bowled over.

 

For me, here is the context:

 

The central project of my life, I suppose, has been thinking about the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. If God grants me the strength and concentration, within the next year I will complete a large book on the subject—a book which is presently half finished after almost ten years of work. One of my principal themes is that there are several powerful motifs used in the New Testament to explain what the Crucifixion of Christ means. No one of these motifs should be allowed to crowd others off the stage.

 

The film’s depiction of the death and Resurrection of Aslan the lion have affected me and stayed with me in a way that no cinematic version of the life of Christ ever has. It must be said that this is largely because of C. S. Lewis himself, who so brilliantly envisioned a cosmic battle between God and Satan for the future of the human race, with God summoning children to be his agents. Unlike filmed depictions of the Crucifixion of Christ (and these days one thinks inevitably of Mel Gibson’s movie), the Narnia movie is an allegory. The message is therefore indirect; we may be thinking of Jesus, but only obliquely; primarily we are engaged in the story of Aslan, the White Witch, and the Pevensie children. As in the case of Jesus’ parables (which sometimes, though not always, have allegorical elements), the plot itself with its cast of characters holds our attention and drives toward a revelatory conclusion having nothing to do with literal-minded detail. It is not an accident that none of the four Evangelists tell us anything about the gruesome details of crucifixion. The movie is like the Passion narratives in its reticence. Because the plot is primary and the allegory secondary, it is not the details of a shameful death that absorb us, but the meaning of such a death. So also the New Testament.

 

I find, after a week of reflection, that the image of Aslan going up the stairs alone to face the Evil One amid the hooting throng stays with me. Because we know the power of a lion, we are especially amazed when he gives himself up without lifting a claw to defend himself, let alone annihilate his enemies. It is really a superb image of the Atonement—the “Great Exchange,” W. H. Auden called it—the uniquely omnipotent Son of God offering himself to be the passive victim in place of the traitor, the very worst of sinners (Dante put traitors in the bottommost circle of Hell). It is precisely, in the words of the Epistle of Peter, an exchange of “the righteous for the unrighteous.”

 

And the Resurrection scene, astonishingly, is almost perfect with its references to the Biblical settings—the grieving women, and the earthquake, and the split tomb, and the vanished body, and the reappearance of the slaughtered One endowed with transcendent powers. This is an infinitely more suggestive account of the ultimate miracle than the usual cinematic resurrection scenes of vague, hazy luminosity or, alternately, a returned Jesus looking exactly as he did before.

 

It is crucial to understand that the White Witch, the self-styled Queen of Narnia, is not a human. If she were, it would be an intolerable violation of the Spirit of our Lord to depict him leaping violently upon her as he does. Only if we understand that she is a demon can we grasp the significance of this climactic action. Jesus’ power over the demons is emphasized in all four Gospels, and Satan is clearly conceived as an entity with his own status, independent of the human race. He (she in this allegory) is a tyrant who is bent upon nothing less than the enslavement of the entire Creation. This is the apocalyptic scenario of the New Testament. There is a cosmic struggle going on, and there are three players, not two. The drama is not between God and the human being. Rather, it is a struggle between God and Satan for supremacy. Tilda Swinton in the role of the witch certainly comes close to embodying the Devil (as Roger Ebert niftily noted in his review).

 

In any case, the triumphant return of Aslan the Lion is a splendid version of the Christus Victor theme in the New Testament. This is crucial for a number of reasons. There are many motifs used by the New Testament writers to explain the death of Christ. In my forthcoming book I am identifying nine major images (blood sacrifice, ransom, Passover/Exodus, etc.) Among these there are two that especially stand out: 1) the Christus Victor theme and 2) the theme of exchange, or substitution. In Christian history there has been a lamentable tendency to favor one of these over the other and even to foment division in doing so. Nothing could be more unbiblical, because both the motifs are present in strength in the New Testament, and we are impoverished if we give one primacy over the other. Too much emphasis on Christus Victor robs us of an intensely emotional and personal response to Christ's action for us sinners, whereas an exclusive focus on substitution results in a seriously reduced picture focused solely on the redemption of single individuals with no regard for the enslaved cosmos with its rampaging principalities and powers. Liberal theologians have heaped much contempt upon the motif of exchange, or substitution, but after decades of reflecting upon this it remains a mystery to me why this should be so. The simplicity of C. S. Lewis' conception—the mighty conqueror offering himself in exchange for the wretched and incontrovertibly guilty prisoner—seems to me enough silence objections.

 

At the same time it is clear that there is a cosmic struggle to be fought and that human beings must take the field against the supernatural Enemy. Perhaps it is not obvious in the Armageddon-like final scenes that Christian disciples will fight with the armor of God, not worldly weapons. Along these lines, interpreters of the story can overdo the analogy with World War II, even though Lewis himself intended it. It is too simplistic, with its easy identification of the Allies (Aslan's followers) as the good guys and the Nazis (The White and her cohorts) as pure evil. This leads into a too-neat division of the world into Good and Evil (a tendency Lewis himself does not always avoid). My book The Battle for Middle-earth was written in part to argue against the common misconception that J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings saga is a Good vs. Evil story. A true understanding of the gospel requires us to understand that each one of us has depths of corruption lurking within our souls that can be tapped by the Enemy of God. Only God can equip us for our lifelong struggle. "Did we in our own strength confide, the striving would be losing," in the words of Martin Luther's famous hymn.

 

Inevitably, American movies with their preference for action over dialogue will miss a few things. I was perplexed that an often-quoted exchange between Mr. Beaver and Lucy early in the book was unaccountably placed late in the movie with the wording altered. Lewis' version tells how the children, learning of Aslan the lion for the first time, ask, “Is he quite safe?” “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”[1] This is such an important passage that it is hard to understand why it isn't retained. There is compensation, however, in the movie's retention of the idea that Aslan is "not tame." It is also wonderful that the final glimpse of Aslan in the film preserves the mystery and freedom of his coming and going.

 

One may pick at this or that defect. The concluding battle and coronation scenes lack grandeur, and the primary colors looked a bit cartoonish, especially compared to the lovely muted palette of the first two-thirds. Aslan's dialogue is not always as majestic as Lewis intended. I was not sure what the Andrews Sisters were doing in the hide-and-seek scene, though, granted, they're of the period. Speaking of period, I was personally disappointed that, whereas the children's clothing seemed right, they did not speak like English children of the 1940s but like those of today, which is quite a falling-off. But these are quibbles. Isn't little Lucy a beguiling child actress! And what a delight to glimpse her grown up in the person of her look-alike sister! And how grateful we can be that the filmmakers took so few liberties with the fundamental story!

 

On balance, my own opinion after one viewing and ten days' reflection is that this allegorical version of the death and Resurrection of our Lord -- disguised yet crystal-clear -- will endure longer and win more true disciples for Christ than all the rest of the Jesus movies put together. Those who have eyes to see, let them see.

 

 



[1] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York: Collier Books, 1950), pp. 75-76.