Monday, December 12, 2005

Fighting the Culture Wars in the Cinemas

This battle over The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is silly. The Chronicles of Narnia have a broad appeal based on the fact that they are good stories, all this nonsense about their Christian message is rediculous, and as Jessica Seigel put it in todays New York Times, destroys the movie for everyone else.
The 7-year-old who sat next to me during a recent showing said, "This is really scary." It was scary when the White Witch kills the lion Aslan, who dies to save the loathsome Edmund before rising to help him and his siblings vanquish evil. But adults reducing the story to one note - their own - are even scarier. One side dismisses the hidden Jesus figure as silly or trivial, while the other insists the lion is Jesus in a story meant to proselytize. They're both wrong.

As a child, I never knew that Aslan was "Jesus." And that's a good thing. My mother recently remarked that if she'd known the stories were Christian, she wouldn't have given me the books - which are among my dearest childhood memories.
Yes, it's allegory land, a place that strings symbols together to create levels of meaning, which a determined scholar has actually quantified as ranging from two to seven layers. (No word on why not eight.) Allegory, the oldest narrative technique, often involves talking animals, from Aesop's fox with the grapes to Dr. Seuss's Yertle the Turtle, supposedly a Hitler figure.

Does that twist the Seuss tale into a political treatise on fascism? No, it adds another level for adults, it teaches morals (even the meekest can unseat the powerful, etc.), and it's fun - when plain little Mack burps, he shakes the bad king Yertle from his throne built on turtles.

But which layer is more important - the surface or beneath? Deep thinkers specialize in hidden meanings (building demand, of course, for their interpretive expertise). An Oxford English professor, Lewis himself explored the depths in his scholarly books. But he also defended the literal, lamenting in his essay "On Stories" how modern criticism denigrates the pleasures of a good yarn - and that was 50 years ago.

While critics today call it "fallacy" to interpret a work by citing the author's intentions, Lewis left a road map for us marked with special instructions for not annoying children. In his essay "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's to Be Said," he denounced as "moonshine" the idea that he wrote the Narnia chronicles to proselytize the young. The lion Aslan, he wrote, bounded into his imagination from his experience as a Christian, coming to him naturally as should all good writing.

"Let the pictures tell you their own moral," he advised in "On Three Ways of Writing for Children." "If they don't show you a moral, don't put one in."

In keeping with that advice, the Narnia chronicles don't beat you on the head - nor does the faithful movie adaptation. If everyone stays on his own level - the surface for adventurers, and the depths for believers - we can all enjoy, so long as the advertisers stay out of the way.

Absolutely right, the political drumbeat over christian interpretations of Narnia simply put, "ruins a good yarn." This post is directed as much as anyone else at my parents who anounced that they would boycott the movie because the Christian right has made it their "movie of the year." Now I'm not telling anyone whether or not to see the movie, but make that decision based on something better than who endorses it, if the movie looks like it will be good then see it, if it doesn't then don't see it.

As long as I'm talking about movies I will tell you something you should see if you haven't already Lord of War is truly excellent, its not yet out on DVD, but when it is if you haven't seen it, rent it. A sleeper, but truly excellent.

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