Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Lewis, Tolkein and the MSM

It is inevitable that with CS Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe coming to theatres very shortly that we will see an accompanying barrage of commentary on it. Some of this will come from the Christian community, as it prepares to use the film as a teaching resource. There is nothing wrong with this so long as there is no lying or distortion involved. What will be less noticed but no less evident is that there are others who will try to milk the movie's publicity and share in the spotlight as well. By this I mean certain academics and talking heads who will find the movie threatening; who will see in it more meat being thrown to the red state barbarians. There is nothing wrong with them speaking to the film, of course. But they too must be held to standards of scholarship and honesty. The problem is that fewer people will even look for bias in this sort of coverage. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik on C.S. Lewis' position in the culture today. Gopnik's review is full of little snides that let us know that he is no Lewis fan-boy and to that I say, fine. In his article he rightly observes that if you "praise a good writer too single-mindedly for too obviously ideological reasons for too long, pretty soon you have him all to yourself." Gopnik falls prey to the corollary that if you do nothing but damn someone you will be ignored for the bigoted partisan that you are imitating splendidly. Don't be fooled by Gopnik's observations that Lewis was a "fine mind" and the like. Denying that is too obvious to be credible. Gopnik opts for the back door, endlessly telling us that Lewis was "weird." A "weird man," a "weird Christian." The problem is that these are silly frat boy charges and no matter how he dresses them up in well written prose in the end they simply are what they are. When Gopnik tries to provide us with examples intended to back up his antipathy all he really does is demonstrate that Christianity is much bigger than he is and that he, Gopnik, is ignorant of that fact. Take, for example, Gopnik's observation that
Aslan the lion, the Christ symbol... has exasperated generations of freethinking parents and delighted generations of worried Anglicans... [He] is, after all, a very weird symbol for that famous carpenter's son - not just an un-Christian but in many ways an anti-Christian figure.
What can this weird statement mean if if does not mean Gopnik's understanding of the Trinity is really weak? Consider: Alsan is large, strong lion who lays down his life for others. How is this "anti-Christian"? Gopnik makes the fatal error of thinking that laying down for others is weak but this paradox is at the very heart of Christianity. We become truly great and truly God like by living (and dying) for others. The Father and the Son, the Lion and the Lamb, are, after all, simply different aspects of One thing. A lamb is a perfectly fine symbol for God but in the context of Narnia it simply would not work. "A central point of the Gospel story," says Gopnik, "is that Jesus is not the lion of the faith but the lamb of God." Yes, yes, but it is not the Gospel we are talking about. There is nothing to say that Lewis can't, as an artist, choose a symbol that focuses on Jesus' unity with the Father. He was writing for children, after all. Perhaps Gopnik thinks the lion is too much a figure of English nationalism? That Lewis chose the lion in an effort to suggest that God is an Englishman? Do I really need to point out to Mr. Gopnik that Lewis was Irish? That he grew up in Belfast? Gopnik makes another blunder - there's simply no other word for it - when he compares Lewis' famous work with that of his contemporary, J.R.R. Tolkien:
Tolkien hated the Narnia books, despite Lewis's avid sponsorship of Tolkien's own mythology, because he hated to see an imagination constrained by the allegorical impulse. Though Tolkien was certainly a devout Catholic, there is no way in which "The Lord of the Rings" is a Christian book, much less a Catholic allegory. The Blessed Land across the sea is a retreat for the already immortal, not, except for Frodo, a reward for the afflicted; dead is dead. The pathos of Aragorn and Arwen's marriage is that, after Aragorn's death, they will never meet again, in Valinor or elsewhere. It is the modernity of the existential arrangement, in tension with the archaicism of the material culture, that makes Tolkien's myth haunting. In the final Narnia book, "The Last Battle," the effort to key the fantasy to the Biblical themes of the Apocalypse is genuinely creepy, with an Aslan Antichrist. The best of the books are the ones, like "The Horse and His Boy," where the allegory is at a minimum and the images just flow.
This is utterly wrong headed. What are we to make of Tolkien's statement that The Lord of the Rings is a "fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously at first, but consciously in the revision. (Joseph Pearce, Tolkien: Man and Myth, p. 100)? What of the elvish bread and the Eucharist? Of Frodo's carrying the ring and the carrying of the cross? Of Gandalf's resurrection as Gandalf the White? I've written on the Catholicity of LOTR before, here and here. In the example that Gopnik cites, his reading of the text is very poor and would be chastised by any competent Graduate student teaching an English 101 class. Gopnik plainly confuses the thoughts of the characters in the book - Arwen, Aragorn primarily - with those of Tolkien! In doing so he fatally misunderstands Tolkien's work. The world of Tolkien's imagination is a world in which God has not yet made himself known. It is a world in which not only has Christ not yet been, it is a world in which Moses and Abraham have not yet been. The characters ingorance of the providence that guides them at every step is a very large part of the poignancy of the story. When you know this, the despair that many characters exhibit is all the more tragic. Arwen and Aragorn's story is absolutely not one of existential angst. It is one of Christian self sacrifice. Then there's this:
Lewis didn't embrace Christianity because he had eaten too much cake; he embraced it because he thought that it would keep the cake coming...
Erm, it IS called the GOOD NEWS for a reason, isn't it? And so it goes. Gopnik displays ignorance of his subject and petty spite throughout, ultimately falling prey to his own observation that when
the enthusiasts are so busy chortling and snickering as their man throws another right hook... they don't notice that the [purported antagonist] isn't actually down on the canvas; he and his friends have long since left the building.
Indeed. Be on the lookout for more of this kind of garbage in the coming months.

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