Saturday, December 10, 2005

Allegorical Aslan

I have not seen the new Narnia movie, nor will I: I'm one of those freaks for whom the reading of books is too special to ruin by going to see how some other putz has imagined what I've already determined looks like this. I did make an exception for The Lord of the Rings, which luckily for me turned out pretty much as I had imagined it, but I've decided that I was tempting fate on that occasion, and I'm not going to push my luck.

I have been very intrigued, however, by the kerfuffle a-brewin' over the thing among Christian bloggers. I can't really imagine getting my knickers into a twist about how "Christian" the film is, or whether it's all that faithful to the original, etc., but I was struck by something posted by my friend Tom Kreitzberg at Disputations. He claims that the Narnia books can't count as allegories because Aslan is not a "Christ figure" but rather he is Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity. Hence the books are not allegorical, they are full-blown theology.

The claim that interests me the most is not the claim that the books are theological rather than allegorical, but rather the claim that because they are not allegorical they fail more than they otherwise would. Tom puts it this way:
It also follows that certain defenses of Aslan, Narnia, and Lewis are non-starters. You can't defend it by saying Lewis was trying to write literature, not theology; that's a false dilemma, and including a character who is supposed to be God is doing theology.

You can't fully defend it by saying Narnia's theology is speculative. Speculative theology must still be consistent with fundamental theology; the fact Lewis is making stuff up doesn't mean what he makes up can't be wrong. Pointing out that it's a speculative work defends it against charges that what happens did not or isn't going to happen; it doesn't defend against charges that what happens couldn't or wouldn't happen.
In typical Kreitzbergian fashion that is both well-thought and well-said. What I am having trouble getting my mind around, though, is this idea that the thing must somehow be a theological treatise because it has the Second Person of the Trinity in it. If that is the case, then every Christian blogger, including Tom Kreitzberg, is doing theology every time s/he sits down to say something about Jesus; and I would be willing to bet that nine times out of ten it would be true to say that however badly Lewis did theology, most of the "theology" that gets done in the blogosphere is probably done much more badly.

I'm willing to grant that the "theology" of Narnia, if that's really what one wants to call it, is pretty bad theology, as Christian theology goes. And Lewis himself insisted that the Narnia stories were not intended as allegory. I'm not sure I understand, though, why the Narnia stories can't be thought of as nothing more than stories or, to put it into more typically Lewisian terms, as muthos. Tom writes
And of course you can't defend the theology of Narnia by pointing out it's intended to be, and succeeds at being, an entertaining story of imagination and wonder. That's a defense of Narnia, saving the work by sacrificing the theology. I'm quite happy to join in that defense, but it doesn't change the fact that a lot of people are still giving ill-thought defenses of the theology.
I think this collapses all of the categories much too quickly. The suggestion appears to be that the Narnia stories are both bad theology and great fiction, but I just don't see why we mustn't say that the Chronicles of Narnia are an attempt to create something that tells, not a children's story or, at any rate, not a story that is just for children, but a story that is much more complex and universal than any children's story--a mythic representation of some of the themes from "the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before."

Clearly Narnia is not Gospel; but we know from our experience of the Gospels that different communities experience the Good News in different ways, and the manner of expressing that encounter with Goodness Itself can range from simple stories about humble fishermen to extraordinary poetry about the Divine Logos coming to dwell among us. Tom has pointed out some of the worries he has about the "theology" of Narnia--the most important, I think, being those having to do with the business about the Stone Table. If Lewis was writing theology, he was writing heretical theology. But that may be beside the point. In the Gospels the sacrifice of Calvary is the climax of the whole story, the end-point towards which all previous plot devices had been aimed; but in Narnia the sacrifice at the Stone Table is just one element among many that seems designed to put us in mind of something else, namely, the Christian themes being expressed throughout the work. This becomes much clearer as one reads other installments in the Chronicles: once we are beyond The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe we find very little that could be intgerpreted as direct allusion to Gospel texts. Instead we find very typical Christian themes expressed in very typical ways--ways explored in some detail, of course, by Lewis himself in his magisterial English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Oxford, 1954).

So I agree with Lewis that his works are not allegory; but I cannot agree with Tom that they are theology. They are, rather, muthopoiêsis--not on a par, obviously, with what Tolkien was able to accomplish in The Lord of the Rings, but ripping good yarns nonetheless, and worth skipping the movie version in order to enjoy the full impact of Lewis' own craft.

2 comments:

Tom said...

We distinguish between "doing theology" -- which I do think we do every time we try to say something about Jesus -- and "full-blown theology."

No one, least of all myself, is saying the Chronicles of Narnia are theological treatises. But people are saying that, since Aslan is Christ, it is important that the new movie include all the bits in the book that demonstrate Aslan is Christ.

My position is that all the bits in the book that demonstrate Aslan is Christ do a poor job of demonstrating it.

Scott Carson said...

I see--well that seems like a much more reasonable view than the one that I thought you held. I suppose any one of us could be accused of not being all that good at saying what Christ is, or even what he is like. Each of us, I guess, says what s/he imagines Christ to be like, and I, for one, am happy to admit that there are plenty of people out there with better imaginations than mine.

I don't think my imagination is as good as Lewis', even though I certainly agree with you that certain elements of LWW a bit off. What he was able to do, though, is still something far beyond anything that I could do, and for me at least that's kind of impressive. I would say that as muthopoiêsis it works pretty well.