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Saturday, January 14, 2006

Narnia in the Spotlight, Part 1

It's been a long while since I've blogged, as happens from time to time. I keep intending to blog more regularly, but it's probably best not to make promises!

I have been meaning to post a review of the Narnia movie for a while. By now most folks have said their say, and there' s little to add. There were certainly things one could object to, but the main effect the movie had on me was to remind me just how central Narnia has been to my life and to the way I view the world. The Chronicles of Narnia have done a lot to keep me a Christian. My concept of God is shaped in large measure by Aslan. And my uneasiness with most conventional political positions in contemporary society derives in part from my intuition that a really healthy culture would look a lot like Narnia. In the absence of an Old Narnian Party, I generally find myself saying "a pox on all your houses."

One of the most amusing (though also irritating) aspects of the attention Narnia has been getting in the media is the response from secularist critics, mostly British, who are clearly outraged by the fact that anyone still takes Lewis seriously. What these critics lack in numbers they make up for in shrillness--and, it must be said, in the ability to articulate their views in a pungent manner. Probably the most notorious of these reviews is the one by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian. The vitriol of British secularism often baffles me. Secular Americans express paranoia about the "Christian right," but generally seem to have less sheer hatred of religion itself. I can't think of an American to match Richard Dawkins, Philip Pullman, or Christopher Hitchens (though Hitchens comes closest since he's lived in the U.S. for years). British secularists wax eloquent about the historical evils of Christianity, and certainly there's plenty in European history to cause them to do so. But after all, this stuff happened hundreds of years ago, and much that is nasty has occurred since for which Christianity is not (at least not primarily) responsible. The atrocities of the 20th century were driven for the most part by secular ideologies (though there are people who try to tell the story differently). The real villain of modern European history has been the secular state, not the Church. Yet somehow British public opinion seems to have become convinced that religion is responsible for everything bad in Western culture from Constantine to Margaret Thatcher. And since British intellectuals are, on the whole, less restricted by canons of courtesy and political correctness than their American counterparts, they pull no punches in saying this. I find the outspokenness of British secularists admirable. But the cogency of what they have to say doesn't match the vigor and (I believe) honesty with which they say it.

Toynbee is sickened by the idea of sacrifice. Well not really. It's OK for Arthurian heroes and people in prisoner-of-war camps to give up their lives for others. But not for Jesus. We didn't ask him to. What that really means is that, in Toynbee's view, we don't need salvation. Jesus performed an unwanted service. The Church has been dinning into our heads that we should be frightfully grateful for being saved, when there is nothing to be saved from. She doesn't say this, but this appears to be the gist of her remarks about the evil nuns who tormented her mother by saying that not eating greens drove nails into Jesus' body. Edmund, she says, is made "to blame for everything."

I think here we see the reason why British secular intellectuals are so obsessed with the evils of Christianity, even though (as they proudly proclaim) the influence of Christianity seems to be diminishing rapidly in Britain. If the evils of past and present can be blamed on a sinister, unnatural institution that has warped people's minds, then we don't need to look within. Making Christianity a scapegoat for social evils is a brilliantly self-affirming practice. We are bad because we have been warped by Christianity (and other, related institutions of the Bad Old Days, such as the monarchy), which means that we are not inherently bad, and so don't need Christianity.

It would be easy to speculate about the historical roots of this attitude--the Tudor monarchy's brilliant move in blaming the Catholic Church (especially the religious orders) for the injustices of early modern society, creating in the process a more docile national church that would do what it wanted; Lockean empiricism with its fantasy of the "tabula rasa" morphing into the Enlightenment dream of the naturally virtuous human being corrupted by culture and tradition (given vivid and heart-warming life by 19th-century writers such as Dickens); or simply the strong cultural and political tradition in Britain of freedom as the art of being left alone. The British may be deferential to authority, but in my experience (I'm technically British myself but have lived in the U.S. since I was six, so my experience doesn't amount to a great deal) they don't trust it much. (This attitude was, in fact, shared by Lewis. One of the most grotesquely false notes of Toynbee's criticism of Narnia is her characterization of it as a "neo-fascist" society where authority is worshiped for its own sake. But more on that in a later post.) As Pullman shows so dramatically in His Dark Materials, Christianity is, or can be seen as, ultimate Authority. Toynbee is, it seems, angry with Christianity because it won't leave her alone. It tells her she needs a salvation for which she feels no need. It lays unwanted claim upon her life.

I don't mean this as a dismissive ad hominem. Toynbee presumably thinks she has good reasons for supposing Christianity false. That being the case, she's quite justified in being angry with its claims. But what's interesting is the way Toynbee and other opponents of Christianity make the claims themselves seem self-refuting. Toynbee objects that the notion of Christ taking on our sins is "repugnant." Presumably she thinks this because she doesn't accept the idea of sin, or because she thinks there is a better way of dealing with it. But she doesn't say that. (Nor does she have to, I hasten to add. I find her comments distasteful, but not unfair. Her review doesn't claim to be an argument against Christianity.) Apparently, in her world, the non-existence of sin can be taken for granted. But for those of us who find the concept of sin convincing as a description of the evil that we find (to our horror) existing within as well as around us, the idea of being saved from sin is anything but "repugnant."

My Christian name is Edwin, one of those wonderful Anglo-Saxon names revived by the Victorians but not particularly in fashion these days (I inherited it from my grandfather, who was named after his uncle). People have frequently called me "Edmund" by mistake. So I have a tendency to identify myself with Edmund. (I'm somewhat like him in personality too--if I were a great king I'd be a lot more likely to be called "the Just" than "the Magnificent.") And this, of course, is what Lewis wanted us to do (something the secular critics find brazenly manipulative). The treachery and cowardice and snivelling hunger for power that characterizes the "unconverted" Edmund is within us all. How we respond to Narnia depends, in large measure, on whether we are able to believe that.


Isaac said...

Great comments and welcome back to blogging, Edmund (Edwin ;)).

And I agree with your last line. CoN works on a sub-rational level of developing an emotional context into which rational arguments can find a receptive environment. All good art does something like this (I just happened to be thinking about this recently after hearing a CD recently).

thoughtspot said...

Good comments. I think that, in a way, it comforts me to know that some reviewers who reject Christianity also find Narnia objectionable. It contradicts the pernicious notion that we are all more or less on the same page in terms of our moral imagination, and that then--on top of this basic reasonable sense of right and wrong--some of us are Christian and some are not. St. Paul uses much stronger language to speak of the culpably deadened nonChristian moral sense. Surely there are many reasons (some bad) to be Christian, and many reasons (some good) to reject Christianity--but it's interesting to know that at least some rejecters of Christ are so blind to the good that they also reject Aslan.