C.S. Lewis--Uniter, Not Divider

Perhaps C.S. Lewis will be a uniter, not a divider after all. Salom.com has a lovely review of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Stephanie Zacharek compares the film to a comfy old sweater, and urges readers to 'forget the scary hype."
Here's her lead:

| There's something a little ragged around the edges of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe": It has a vaguely faded, not-quite-new feel to it, like a hand-me-down book from a past generation, with cover wear and smudged pages and a wiggly spine -- all the things used-book dealers sniff at but which, to readers, are simply a book's way of wearing the love that's been lavished on it.

And that's exactly what makes this adaptation of C.S. Lewis' much-loved 1950 novel so wonderful. There's nothing too clean or too overbright about it. It's magic, but not the loud, shiny kind: It has the texture of worn velvet, or a painstakingly hand-knit sweater stored away for years in tissue paper.

A couple other highlights:

  • There are obviously many reasons why C.S. Lewis' Narnia series -- of which "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is the first installment -- have been captivating readers for so long. But I think one reason people respond to the Lewis books -- a reason that's ably served by this adaptation -- is that even though they take place in a fanciful universe, they show respect for kids' integrity and intelligence, instead of just treating children as charming but woefully undereducated beings.

  • But it's Lucy who's the soul of the movie, not because, as the youngest child, she's the most innocent character, but because she's the most heart-wrenchingly open.

  • the most "Jesusy" section of "Narnia" is one that's played so powerfully -- it's moving and staggering at once -- that it can be read on any number of levels. I think, more than anything else, it speaks to our capacity for compassion, and if that's not nondenominational, I don't know what is. If certain religious groups want to lay claim to compassion as a brand, that's their business. But it shouldn't interfere with anyone's pleasure in "Narnia," or, for that matter, in C.S. Lewis' books.

Sound like we've got a winner. My favorite line is this: "there's so much pleasure to be had in the look of "Narnia" that the experience feels somewhat decadent, anyway."

If you want to know what makes C.S. Lewis a genius consider this--in about 150 pages, he created an entire world--one as captivating today as it was 50 years ago. A world that Christians and non Christians, left winger and rightwingers (and us remainng few moderates) can all call our own.

That's a miracle, if you ask me.


Return of Super Jesus ?

Since I'm stuck in the office, waiting out a snow storm, I took another look at the new Superman trailer, and can't help but thinking that there's an awful lot of Jesus in Superman. (Wonder what Polly Toynbee would think about that--yikes.)

Check out this voice over (from Brando--I think) on the trailer:

"They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason, above all—their capacity for good--I have sent them you, my only son."

H. Michael Brewer compares Superman and Jesus in his book, "Who Needs a Superhero" (an excellent book), and made some intriguing points in an interview for a piece I did on comic and spirituality. (It's here and in a slightly different format here

Here's a few thoughts from Brewer:

  • Comics are about finding meaning in suffering: "Batman has a choice when his parents are killed. He can be crippled for life or deal with tragedy in a way that makes the world a better place. Superman loses everything - his world, his family, his home. Instead of remaining a stranger, he decides to adopt Earthlings as his own."

  • Comic showcase Christian virtues as humility and being a servant. In one of Brewer's favorite storylines, super villain Lex Luthor programs a computer to discover the connection between Superman and Clark Kent. When the computer concludes that Kent is Superman, Luther cannot believe it - how would a being with Superman's powers be content as a lowly newspaper reporter?

    According to Brewer, Superman is content as Clark Kent because he is genuinely good. He has superhuman power and he has chosen to use it responsibly and not for his own benefit. That's not a far cry from Jesus, who could have summoned legions of angels to save himself from the cross and didn't."

  • Comics follow the basic pattern of the Christian life--sin, salvation, service. "Christians are saved from sin and given the power of the Holy Spirit — not for their own benefit — but in order to serve humanity. A great many Christians remain stunted in their faith because they accept Jesus and then stop, as if that completed things. There is a world out there that needs saving, that needs Christians to act as God’s hands and feet.”

    In comic, heroes—unlike some Christians—find joy by embracing their calling. "Christians have a sense that God’s will is a grim and foreboding thing—that we are afraid of what God will do to us or where God will send us if we follow his call. But when when we follow God call, we discover that God’s will brings us joy."

Hopefully the snow will let up before the Superman flick comes out.


Closed on Christmas

Scot McKnight has some thought-provoking comments on the closing on Christmas controversy. I think Scot's got a better handle on the context of this story than some other bloggers— Ben Witherington and the Internet Monk

Manya Brachear at the Chicago Tribune did a nuanced piece on the controversy, which was better than most of the mainstream coverage--making the point that Willow Creek, for example, has extensive Christmas Eve services planned.

It's not that the church does not value Christmas, the day set aside to commemorate the incarnation of God on Earth. Willow Creek is organizing almost a week of worship ending Christmas Eve, and total attendance at the services is expected to top 50,000. The church has also produced a short DVD designed to reinforce the theme of the Christmas services and help viewers process spiritual questions that may cross their minds during the holidays.

A few thought to add to Scot's:

This whole Christmas closing controversy illustrates how differently megachurches organize their worship life. (Todd Johnson pointed this out several year ago). Sunday services at churches like Willow are more like revival/evangelistic tent meetings-- focused on outreach. Most of the traditional "church" functions--like worship, sacraments, prayer—have been moved to mid-week services or to house church like small groups. Their church life doesn't revolve around Sunday worship--whether that's good or bad, I'm not sure. But you can't understand this story without understanding the way megachurches operate.

The other thing is this. There are a lot of people out there who have stopped going to church, as Martin Marty noted a few months back. While Barna and Gallup polls show up to 45 percent of Americans claiming to go to church on Sunday, researchers who study actual church attendance paint a much different picture--showing that closer to 18 percent of Americans actually show up each week.

What does that mean? Well, if the percentage is 45 percent, then about 120 million Americans would be in church each Sunday. If it's 18 percent, more like 50 million people are in church -- a difference of about 70 million people. Churches like Willow Creek are trying to get some of those 70 million back into the pew--and that's not a bad thing. So when they hold outreach events, their goal is to woo people back to the regular practice of coming to church. We can argue about whether their methods are appropriate--and whether they are calling people to the kind of committed discipleship that Jesus asked for. But we've got to acknowledge the context as well.


The Washington Post

About four years ago, the very first piece I did for Religion News Service made it to the pages of the Washington Post (no byline, but a mention), and I've been hooked on freelance religion writing ever since. The Post has run my byline twice since then, and today, they've taken it a step further by commenting on the C.S. Lewis Superstar piece -- thought I can't be sure if the writing liked my Lewis and Elvis comparison or not.

The Post also mentions an eye opening piece column from the Guardian, entitled "Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion" by Polly Toynbee.

Two of Toynbee's points:

  • Over the years, others have had uneasy doubts about the Narnian brand of Christianity. Christ should surely be no lion (let alone with the orotund voice of Liam Neeson). He was the lamb, representing the meek of the earth, weak, poor and refusing to fight. Philip Pullman - he of the marvellously secular trilogy His Dark Materials - has called Narnia "one of the most ugly, poisonous things I have ever read".

    Why? Because here in Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America - that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right

  • 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? Poor child Edmund, to blame for everything, must bear the full weight of a guilt only Christians know how to inflict, with a twisted knife to the heart. Every one of those thorns, the nuns used to tell my mother, is hammered into Jesus's holy head every day that you don't eat your greens or say your prayers when you are told. So the resurrected Aslan gives Edmund a long, life-changing talking-to high up on the rocks out of our earshot. When the poor boy comes back down with the sacred lion's breath upon him he is transformed unrecognisably into a Stepford brother, well and truly purged.

In the Scriptures, Jesus is a paradox--both the lamb of God who was slain, and the Lion of Judah. Toybee praises Jesus as a lamb, as being meek, but denigrates the power that sacrificial love has to defeat even the most powerful evil. That's the great irony of Narnia--that in killing Aslan, the witch sows her own doom. Toynbee seems upset that Aslan refuses to stay dead. Would she prefer a story when the Witch, after killing Aslan, did everyone else in as well, and the story should end with in her castle, with the Witch looking over her new collection of statues?

She is right that the idea of God dying for us, and the idea that we need someone to save us is offensive. It may be true, but it is offensive. Narnia lives out Jesus's world--that those who try and save their lives will lose them, and those who give up their lives will save themselves in the end.


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