Is the Movie Aslan Christ?

In a December 12 U.S. News sidebar, Jay Tolson comments on the soon-to-be-released movie’s portrayal of Aslan:

When approached in 1954 about a possible animated film of The Chronicles of Narnia , C. S. Lewis replied, “I am sure you understand that Aslan is a divine figure, and anything remotely approaching the comic (above all anything in the Disney line) would be to me simple blasphemy.”

. . .

And what about the crucial figure of Aslan? Suffice it to say that neither the digitalized image nor the voice of Liam Neeson allows the character to veer toward the comic. Indeed, the awesome clarity of his redemptive role makes the efforts of Disney, working with a Christian marketing firm, to recruit evangelicals to see the film seem unnecessary. Lewis would probably have agreed with the prophet Isaiah: “And the eyes of them that see shall not be dim, and the ears of them that hear shall hearken.”

Meanwhile, C.S. Lewis’s stepson and the movie’s actors don’t seem to see the “awesome clarity”:

Douglas Gresham, stepson of the late C.S. Lewis — the Oxford professor who authored the top-rated children’s book — called the religious emphasis “an American disease.”

“The Brits don’t give two figs about that aspect,” Mr. Gresham said in an interview from his home near Dublin.

. . .

Lead actress Tilda Swinton, who plays the White Witch, archenemy of the Christlike lion, Aslan, said of the film’s overtly Christian symbolism: “Faith is in the eye of the beholder.”

“You can make a religious allegory out of anything if that’s what you’re interested in,” she said.

Then again, Guardian reviewer Polly Toynbee finds enough religious imagery in the movie to make her puke:

[H]ere in Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America – that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right. I once heard the famous preacher Norman Vincent Peel in New York expound a sermon that reassured his wealthy congregation that they were made rich by God because they deserved it. The godly will reap earthly reward because God is on the side of the strong. This appears to be CS Lewis’s view, too. In the battle at the end of the film, visually a great epic treat, the child crusaders are crowned kings and queens for no particular reason. Intellectually, the poor do not inherit Lewis’s earth.

Does any of this matter? Not really. Most children will never notice. But adults who wince at the worst elements of Christian belief may need a sickbag handy for the most religiose scenes. The Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw gives the film five stars and says, “There is no need for anyone to get into a PC huff about its Christian allegory.” Well, here’s my huff.

Lewis said he hoped the book would soften-up religious reflexes and “make it easier for children to accept Christianity when they met it later in life”. Holiness drenches the Chronicles. 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 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.

Children are supposed to fall in love with the hypnotic Aslan, though he is not a character: he is pure, raw, awesome power. He 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. Everyone needs ghosts, spirits, marvels and poetic imaginings, but we can do well without an Aslan.

Any movie that elicits two-bit denunciations of Christianity must be doing something right.

3 Comments

  1. Wow!
    These are some really fascinating takes on the film. This whole hubbub reminds me of a making-of documentary that was included on the Prince of Egypt DVD when it came out. Jeff Goldblum (who voice-acted Aaron), in a moment of profundity, turns to the camera and says, “There’s a spiritual quality to this film.” Oooo-keh.
    Polly’s response reminds me that there was another significant aspect of Aslan that Lewis pointed out — people had different responses to him based on what kinds of people they were. For instance, at the first mention of Aslan’s name,
    each one of the children felt something jump in his inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious terror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer. (65)
    So, maybe Lewis’s book is better written than she thinks, and it’s actually acted as a touchstone, revealing poor ol’ Polly as an Edmund!

    I’m looking forward to being able to see it in THX this weekend. Goody.

  2. Good observation, Will.
    What jumped inside Toynbee seems to be her stomach. As Kevin Bauder might say, she’s got too much koilia and not enough splangchna. :)

  3. quite interesting. i bought a newspaper here last thursday (the film started in theaters then) just so that i could read the reviews. i guess i shouldn’t have been surprised that the germans were pretty negative. one reviewer gave the movie one 1 out of 5 (5 being the best, of course) and said that parents might as well take their kids to any sort of church than to the film. the other two reviews weren’t really much better. at least 2 (and perhaps all 3) emphasized the fact that father christmas gave the children WEAPONS as presents. one even commented that president bush must have devoured that idea. and then there was all this blah blah about christianity vs. islam.

    please.

    needless to say, i was a bit annoyed. however, i also thought to myself, “well, it must be great movie!” :o )

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