In December of 2005 the release of a new Disney movie was greeted with mixed reviews. The feature based on the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis was hailed as "a Hollywood blockbuster that refuses to toe the line" and described as being "as far outside the mainstream as it is possible to get". If anyone was left wondering why a piece of children's imaginative fantasy should evoke such a response, the answer given was "... because it has, at its core, a strong Christian message". For a Hollywood blockbuster to be based on the idea of forgiveness is, apparently, inconceivable; presumably because the standard formula of a screenplay nowadays always rewards the smart-talking and ruthless.
The plot of the book, which is a Christian allegory, is faithfully reproduced in the film version and has provoked comment so inflammatory ("all this old-fashioned nonsense about Evil, and sacrifice and redemption") that, had it been written about any world religion, and not Christianity, it would probably have led to investigation for inciting religious hatred.
Only Harry Potter has outsold these well-loved books' 85 million copies, but one scathing critic (Polly Toynbee, British Guardian newspaper) consoles herself that "not many British children these days will get the message ... most of the fairy story works as well as any Norse saga, pagan legend or modern fantasy, so only the minority who are familiar with Christian iconography will see Jesus in the lion". So she maintains that most British children will be utterly clueless about any message beyond the age-old mythic battle between good and evil.
For the sake of non-aficionados, we should perhaps recap on the central theme of Lewis's allegory. The four children enter Narnia through a wardrobe and find themselves in a land frozen into "always winter, never Christmas" by the white witch. Unhappy middle child Edmund, resentful of being bossed about by his older brother, broods with meanness and misery. The devil, in the shape of the witch, tempts him. For the price of several chunks of Turkish Delight (rather than 30 pieces of silver) Edmund betrays his siblings and their Narnian friends. The sins of this "son of Adam" can only be redeemed by the supreme sacrifice of Aslan. This Christ-lion willingly lays down his life, submitting himself to be bound, thrashed and humiliated by the white witch, allowing his golden mane to be cut and himself to be slaughtered on the sacrificial stone table: it cracks in sympathetic agony and his body goes missing. The two girls lay down their heads and weep, Magdalene and Mary-like.
In the eyes of the critics the verdict is: so far, so good. The story makes sense. The lion exchanging his life for Edmund's is the sort of thing Arthurian legends are made of. Knights and heroes in prisoner-of-war camps do it all the time. But what's this? After a long, dark night of the soul and women's weeping, the lion is suddenly alive again. Toynbee says her children used to ask why? How come the lion came alive again? Toynbee says: "it is hard to say why. It does not make any more sense in C. S. Lewis's tale than in the gospels". At this point her militant atheistic agenda surfaces: "of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to?"
Indeed we did not, we have to reply. The Bible agrees when it says:
"For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly ... But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us ... For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son"(Romans 5:6-10)
Helpless, ungodly, enemy sinners certainly did not request the Son of God to come and sacrifice himself for them. However, the fact that we didn't ask doesn't mean he didn't take pity on our need, and in the sheer grace (undeserved favour) of God, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, did indeed come to die to pay for our sins.
One of Lewis's friends, fellow-author, Tolkien, while sympathetic with his views and aims, expressed his dislike for "Lewis's bully pulpit". But Lewis said he hoped the book would "make it easier for children to accept Christianity when they met it later in life". When, in the book, the children first hear someone say, mysteriously, "Aslan is on the move" , he writes:
"Now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don't understand but in the dream it feels as if it had enormous meaning ..."
So, atheistic critics object:
"Lewis weaves his dreams to invade children's minds with Christian iconography that is part fairytale wonder and joy - but heavily laden with guilt, blame, sacrifice and a suffering that is dark with emotional sadism. Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins ... [Aslan] is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. His divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come. Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves: we are obliged to settle our own disputes and do what we can. We need no holy guide books, only a very human moral compass".
The current debate over this movie invites us to respond to the critic's empty review. How desperately sad to be without God and without hope in this world! The comments reported above demonstrate that after 2,000 years, the cross of Christ is every bit as much a stumbling-block as it ever was:
"But we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Cor.1:23-25).
Whether we appreciate the Narnian Chronicles or not, the stir surrounding this adaptation is an opportunity for Christianity to affirm the all-important news that we are not alone, and most importantly, "the Son of God loved [us] and gave himself up for [us]" (see Galatians 2:20), so that all who receive him will experience the 'other place yet to come'.