Family Matters: Reading Between the Lions
The much loved Narnia books introduced a unique fantasy world to generations of kids. For Jewish readers, their Christian subtext also provides insight into another religion.
“…the lion rose on its hind legs, larger than you would have believed a lion could be, and jabbed at Aravis with its right paw. Shasta could see all the terrible claws extended. Aravis screamed and reeled in the saddle. The lion was tearing at her shoulders. Shasta, half mad with horror, managed to lurch toward the brute…. Then, to his utter astonishment, the lion…turned head over heels, and rushed away.”
It is Friday night, after shul and a way too-filling dinner. I am stretched out on the couch in my living room in Jerusalem, reading from The Horse and His Boy, part of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia series (HarperCollins), yet again, by popular demand. Though my teen and ’tween kids have long since left their copies of Lewis dog-eared and gone on to J.K. Rowling and Jane Austen, they still enjoy the ancient pleasure of a story told aloud. And Narnia remains a favorite.
The narnia series might seem like strange entertainment for a Jewish family. Media reports on the recent movie version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe discussed the Christian theology that suffuses that story and the other six Narnia tales. The Walt Disney company conducted a two-track marketing campaign—one track aimed at the general audience, the other at religious Christians. For the latter, the center of the story is how Aslan, the great lion of Narnia, allows himself to be put to death to expiate someone else’s sin, and then comes back to life.
Complementing the pop-culture focus on the film, a recent biography of Lewis—Alan Jacobs’s The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis (HarperSanFrancisco)—has renewed high-brow discussion of the author’s role as a Christian polemicist. A scholar of medieval literature at Oxford and later Cambridge, Lewis was known for such works as Mere Christianity, a collection of radio talks he gave during World War II on the BBC.
I knew nothing of that, of course, as a third-grader when a librarian at a Los Angeles public library first recommended The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to me. She wasn’t out to convert me (I don’t think she was, anyway); she was just recommending a classic to an avid reader.
And I loved it. I was a youngest son who used to sit in secret hiding places and daydream. In Lewis’s book, a youngest daughter hiding in a wardrobe enters a land of talking beasts. The girl’s three older siblings doubt her, then discover she is telling the truth. Together they defeat the evil White Witch’s army and become kings and queens.
The other books, too, make daydreams real. In The Magician’s Nephew, a boy and girl exploring the crawl space that connects the attics of London row houses find themselves in the Wood between the Worlds, which connects several universes. In one, the boy falls for temptation and restores a witch to life; in another, they watch Aslan sing Narnia into existence. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, three children fall into a painting of a ship and sail to the edge of the world. Out of sight of adults, away from the everyday-is-the-same classrooms and shops of modern life, in a country of mystery and awe, children become heroes.
Actually, parts of the books struck me as strange even then. The killing and resurrection of Aslan seemed, well, offkey: The death was unnecessarily brutal, the resurrection stretched the bounds even of a magical world. I did not know that this incident worked for those who’d been raised on another story, or that the girls weeping over Aslan’s body were practically reciting lines from the Gospel of John.
And in each book, the children succeed only through Aslan. Even in The Horse and His Boy, the lion who pursues the young orphan Shasta is really his savior, who teaches him courage and protects him during his long quest. In Prince Caspian, the child heroes get lost in Narnia and only find their way when they overcome doubt and believe in Aslan. That emphasis on believing as a supreme value wasn’t part of my world.
Years later, as a graduate student in jerusalem, i was given a used set of the Narnia books—yellowing, with brittle bindings—by a friend who knew how much I liked them. By then, I had learned that Lewis was a devout Protestant. Though he denied that the books were Christian allegories, he certainly expressed his version of faith in them. Each book in its own way portrays the characters’ progress toward faith in Aslan, the son of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea, and faith is what saves them.
Nonetheless, I later read the books to my children. Lewis knew how to tell stories. One reason is the affirmation of wonder that runs through his tales. In The Magician’s Nephew, the two children—Digory and Polly—enter Narnia at its creation and are able to hear the wild singing that brings it into existence. Digory’s Uncle Andrew, accidentally brought along, only sees “the commercial possibilities” of a fresh world. Before getting to the particulars of theology, the sense of wonder that Lewis evokes is a common ground of religion.
As for the theology—it would make no more sense to avoid Lewis than to avoid Dante or Milton or much of the rest of the canon of Western literature, suffused to one degree or another with Christianity. Rather, the Narnia books are a good spot to begin appreciating a culture while respectfully disagreeing with some of its assumptions.
After all, reading a book to a child always requires commentary. The second sentence of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe says that the book’s four child heroes were “sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.” That brings explanations of World War II and the blitz all before the third sentence.
It is just as natural to comment on the story’s religious background. When the evil White Witch claims the blood of Edmund because he has betrayed his three siblings, and Aslan chooses to die in his place, my kids were stunned. In response, I could explain Lewis’s Christian belief in Jesus dying to expiate humanity’s sins. At the same time, I could suggest that in a Jewish version, Edmund’s recognition of his mistake, his own heroic change in direction, would have been the pivot of the story. Teshuva (repentance) would not have required an intercessor.
Elsewhere, we talked about how Lewis left the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea distant and unknown, with the children only able to create a relationship with flesh-and-blood Aslan. That contrasts with the Jewish view of a loving God who has no body or form. Lewis’s emphasis on faith in Aslan fits his Protestant theology, which makes belief in Jesus the ultimate religious value. Judaism, I pointed out, puts its stress on mitzvot, on the free choice to act properly. Contrast makes colors stronger; comparison with another religion can make one’s own clearer.
Perhaps it was easier to do this in Jerusalem, where Christianity is not the majority culture. Much as I like an argument for Zionism, though, I don’t think that’s the main point here. More important is that in order to discuss what they believe and we believe, the “we believe” has to be part of one’s life—not just something that other, theoretical Jews believe or do.
If Judaism is how a family lives, then the Narnia stories should not be a threat. Rather, they can provide a reminder of what religions share, and a way to discuss how they differ. And Friday evening, after Kiddush, with the Shabbat candles still burning, is a perfect time to read The Horse and His Boy aloud.