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Bad Faith in the Land of Narnia

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Posted on Dec 14, 2005

By Sheerly Avni

Walden Media, the production company behind last year’s hit Oscar winner “Ray,” as well as the recent flop “Sahara,” has another hit with its latest release, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Co-produced by Disney Co., the film has opened big, garnering good reviews and bumping “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” out of the No. 1 position at the box office.

The initial success of the film, taken from one in a series of books by C.S. Lewis, shouldn’t be a surprise given the weeks of discussion, debate, and wide press coverage that preceded its opening. Much of the attention has focused on the story’s strong New Testament subtexts, and the marketing of the film to both secular and conservative Christian audiences.

Lewis was an eloquent Christian apologist, and “Shrek” veteran Andrew Adamson has proven a sensitive director. But Walden is run by Philip Anschutz, a wealthy Presbyterian with an avowed conservative agenda. And that prompts a troubling question: Who is the author of “The Chronicles of Narnia” on-screen?

First, since religion is the order of the day, a couple of confessions:

  • I am an ardent fan of the Narnia books. The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the Pullman books, none ever came close. I was seduced by the series’ pageantry, wit, adventure and, yes, uncompromising view of good and evil. But mostly I was taken with the idea that magic always hovered nearby—on paintings, in trains and behind doors. I never really trusted anyone who had not, at least once in his life, rapped hard against the back wall of a closet. My parents were highly principled people, but their version of religion reflected a particularly Jewish pessimism: God doesn’t exist, and He’s out to get us anyway. Lewis’ morality, with all his glorious stories of betrayal, faith, lapses great and small, and redemptive bravery and forgiveness, was much more seductive. And every time I came to my mother with yet another pearl gleaned from the worn, seven-book set I took with me everywhere, she would sigh, “Oh, boy, I hope you don’t turn into a Christian.”
  • I didn’t. I also never turned to atheism, which seemed an unhelpful philosophical position, perhaps because of the essential arrogance and ultimately human-centered views of the world it advanced. If God was good enough for Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, St. Augustine and John Milton, then he was good enough for me. The greatest evils in history have been committed by the people who believed that the Holy Light shined on them and no other—a concept, it should be remembered, that Jesus himself would have frowned upon. The Holy Light can be God, Allah, Eliyahu or, of course, Reason. (This is why I respectfully disagree with Sam Harris’ atheist manifesto elsewhere on this website: Atheism as a response to fundamentalism pits dogma against dogma. We don’t need to prove that churchgoers are stupid, thank you. We just need to hold them accountable to their own teachings.)

What does this have to do with “The Chronicles of Narnia,” the hit movie? A good deal, in part because of its huge success, and in part because the real question we need to ask about it is not how Christian is this film, but whether or not it operates in good or bad faith.

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As children’s entertainment goes, the film is quite lovely—exciting, well acted and mostly faithful to the spirit of the books, though there is a preponderance of soaring violins accompanied by much too much of that open-mouthed gaping that adults call “childish wonder” but children call “looking stupid.” In my reading of the books, the four Pevensie children were far too busy working through their new roles as Narnia’s prophesied saviors to waste time on awe or orchestral appreciation. They were in a foreign land, they were cold, they were hungry, and they were on the run. Peter, Susan and Lucy had to decide whether or not to answer the call of destiny, and Edmund, well, Edmund was a traitor.

In Lewis’ hands, Edmund’s betrayal is a fierce and ugly thing. Lewis calls his actions “spiteful” and “nasty,” and paints the boy’s first encounter with the White Witch’s addicting Turkish Delight in the grisly hues of a first-time heroin injection. In the movie, Edmund is just troubled. It’s a small quibble, I suppose, but it takes away from the human agency in the books, and shifts the focus from the human to the holy. As Edmund’s moral comeuppance takes second stage, Aslan’s martyrdom (which the movie calls “Sacrifice” even though Lewis himself used the much more pagan term “deeper magic”) moves to the fore.

Not that the books are unimpeachable. Like the Torah, the New Testament and the Koran, Narnia is a text full of wisdom and moral value, but one with troubling footnotes that ought to be scrutinized and rejected. The citizens of Narnia are divided into species that look particularly like castes. Gender roles are sharply defined (Narnia’s director actually took several sexist statements out of the script). Still, both the series and the movie encourage a morally driven and ethically governed universe in which our actions and decisions have concrete meanings.

Even more important, however, is the fact that Narnian Christianity operates on a symbolic, imaginative level. Religious fundamentalists of all creeds insist on literal interpretations of ancient texts. But creative readings of those same texts offer us a moral blueprint for making our way in the world, and that alone should make the film’s content an antidote to the ugly anti-intellectualism of fundamentalist Christianity.

So does this mean that we can sleep well, knowing that a movie like this one might contribute to our moral edification, our ability to think non-literally and, eventually, more critically about the meaning behind our religious leanings? Can we pony up for popcorn with our consciences clear, knowing that taking our kids to see the film will not turn them into Bush-loving, moralizing, hypocritically dogmatic Christians, or socially conservative devils?

Not so fast. Like “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Chronicles of Narnia’s” blockbuster status is due in large part to Disney and Walden Media’s savvy, two-pronged media campaign targeted at both secular and religious audiences. (I saw the film at 11:30 a.m. in a theater full of Catholic school kids. A girl behind me whispered, “Too bad this is the last time we ever get to see a movie on a field trip.”) Yet, my concern isn’t so much with the people who will pay to see the movie, but rather to whom their dollars are going.

Frankly, I think the chairman of Walden Media, billionaire Philip Anschutz, is a Bush-loving, moralizing, hypocritically dogmatic Christian—a socially conservative devil. His business entities bankrolled the group that put Colorado’s notorious anti-gay constitutional amendment on the ballot in 1992. (Voters approved the measure but it was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.) He’s been investigated for allegedly cheating his employees and shareholders (many of his charitable contributions are part of a settlement deal made after a scandal at Qwest, one of his companies), and in 2002 Fortune magazine put him atop its list of greediest corporate executives. He’s an empire-building businessman with an agenda, whose companies have donated more than $700,000 to Republican causes. [ See Bill Berkowitz’s excellent article. ]

When we buy a ticket to “The Chronicles of Narnia,” we not only put money in Anschutz’s pocket, we feed the right’s insidious assault on popular entertainment—a church-state conflation just as threatening to American democracy as religion’s incursions on the White House, if not more so.

Does this mean he deserves to be called a devil?  Well, according to what Narnia has taught me about hypocrisy and usurpers, yes. The author of “The Chronicles of Narnia” was a questioning thinker, and a troubled but believing Christian. His books stemmed from a search for moral purpose combined with a lively imagination. Philip Anschutz is a different animal entirely, governed by a particularly venal blend of greed and self-righteousness. He and the White Witch would have understood each other well.



Sheerly Avni is a San Francisco based film and culture writer.


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By .odnamrA, December 28, 2005 at 8:58 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I wish Sheerly Avni would have left her personal fear of atheism out of this article.

However, I completely agree with her vision on how Philip F. Anschutz (and other shameless right-wing propagandists billionaires) are turning the entertainment business into their personal bitch and using family films and newscasts to expand their political/religious agendas.

Here’s a link to the transcript of a conference Anschutz gave about “how to handle the film business.”  Phrases like “Another lesson I’ve learned is to keep firm control of the creative process” shows the cynical pimp-mindset he has of it.

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By Dave Trowbridge, December 20, 2005 at 3:29 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think it might be useful to distinguish between two different kinds of atheists: those who don’t believe in God, and those who believe there is no God. The second are merely fundamentalists in materialist clothing.

I am conflicted about seeing Narnia. I love the books, and have found Lewis incredibly helpful in my own faith journey, although I disagree with him on many points. But putting money in the pockets of someone like Anschutz is something I’d rather avoid. As John Woolman said back in 1763:

“May we look upon our treasures, and the furniture of our houses, and the garments in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions…”

The same goes for anything we spend money on: are we nourishing oppression and violence by our choice? It can be a hard call to make.

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By David Emanuel, December 20, 2005 at 1:33 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you Scott Morris for making my first point for me by setting the Einstein-and-atheism record straight.

Einstein’s “god” was the universe itself, not a personal god. Same holds true for the likes of Stephen Hawking.

I have no intention of going to see “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” even though I was a childhood fan of the series. The series didn’t hold up for me through adulthood (although I too find it hard to trust a person who “had not, at least once in his life, rapped hard against the back wall of a closet”) and I rarely support Hollyfraud by way of the movie house shakedown. But I doubt I need to see the film to agree with Sheerly Avni’s assertion, “When we buy a ticket to ‘The Chronicles of Narnia,’ we not only put money in Anschutz’s pocket, we feed the right’s insidious assault on popular entertainment—a church-state conflation just as threatening to American democracy as religion’s incursions on the White House, if not more so.” (regardless of the fact we don’t live in a democracy).

Avni’s essay alludes to a theme perhaps best expressed in Robert Jensen’s recent article titled, “Monkey See, Monkey Do: Reason, Evolution and Intelligent Design” as follows:

Jim Rigby—pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX, and a progressive theologian—puts it this way:

“‘Religion and science conflict only when one or both forget their proper bounds. When religion makes competing claims with science it is like a retina moving to the front of the eye; it cannot help but stand in its own light. The proper concern of religion is not declarations of truth, but the search for meaning.

At their best, religion and science recognize mystery and reject magic. Both accept the limited scope of their inquiry and encourage other forms of understanding.

On the origins of life, evolutionary theory appears to be a compelling framework. It is folly to disregard it out of a need to believe in religious magic. But it also is folly to believe evolutionary theory is the last word on the subject and all that remains is to work out the details.

A more sensible path is to acknowledge that we live in a material world and also are part of creation.

We can look at a material world and be grateful for how some scientists have helped us understand, in limited ways, its workings. And we can be disappointed in the way some science has contributed to the degradation of the world’s ecosystems, in large part through arrogance and an underdeveloped sense of our intellectual limits.

We can look at creation and be grateful for the ways that some religious people have helped us understand, in limited ways, its meaning. And we can be disappointed in the way some religion has encouraged people to narrow the scope of inquiry into the meaning of human existence, in large part because of that same arrogance and problems with comprehending limits.

As we struggle with the timeless questions about the meaning of creation, we face the urgent problem of creating sustainable systems in the material world. This is the task of our moment in history, and to succeed we will need the best of both these traditions.
~ http://counterpunch.org/jensen12162005.html

Sadly, born-again religious-folks and born-again atheists are unable to see such forests for the dogma trees.

Peace in struggle,

David Emanuel

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By Bob Zimmerman, December 17, 2005 at 6:30 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“We don’t need to prove that churchgoers are stupid, thank you. We just need to hold them accountable to their own teachings.”

Criminy. I don’t recall Sam calling churchgoers stupid. “Hold them accountable to their own teachings.” That would be one thing, if the churchgoers could AGREE on their own teachings, which is one of Sam’s problems with faith, phrased somewhat differently. I haven’t read Sam’s book, but I saw his appearance on BookTV. He does NOTHING to denigrate churchgoers. What he does do, and what nobody should hesitate to do, is to challenge faith as an epistemology. If that is viewed as an attack by those who would be eternal victims, for example victims of the “War on Christmas”, so be it. Atheists won’t be cowed by those who construe challenges to outlandish ideas as personal attacks - Bush, DeLay, or Billy Graham. Trample my atheism all you like, and I will not be offended in the least.

The Old Testament instructs the faithful to beat their children if they talk back. That’s an ethic that neither I nor many professed Chrisians would want to be held accountable to. The Koran explicitly instructs the faithful to kill the infidels. “The Holy Light can be God, Allah, Eliyahu or, of course, Reason.” What’s the truth of what god expects of us? Give me one version that all the faithful will agree upon, and I’ll go live in the large intestine of a whale.

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By BlueUU, December 16, 2005 at 2:16 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Um, these comments are off the point and quite a bit of hot air. Avni makes one little comment about “respectfully” disagreeing with Harris’ article and that’s what everyone goes off on? The woman’s entitled to her opinion and her beliefs. What in the world is the point of blathering a bunch of “atheists vs. fundies” stuff? Why not actually engage the article—which is about the Narnia film (which I haven’t seen, nor have I read the books, though my kids have) and the conservative rich guy who is responsible for making it. That’s a worthwhile subject for discussion. You really can’t argue faith, going either way. People either believe or they don’t.

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By Alan Wall, December 16, 2005 at 8:50 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Avni rejects Atheism because of “the essential arrogance and ultimately human-centered views of the world it advanced”? This is precisely why I reject religion - the idea that an omnipotent creator of the universe would make a single species on a tiny planet at the edge of a rather ordinary galaxy, his ultimate creation.

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By Dan Lewis, December 16, 2005 at 4:53 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

(This is why I respectfully disagree with Sam Harris’ atheist manifesto; it pits dogma against dogma.

“Nonsense.

“It pits science against religion.If you think science is dogma, and do not know the difference, you hardly are qualified to discuss them.”

There’s a difference between science and polemic, just as there’s a difference between science and the philosophies that have accreted around science. The Harris article is polemic.

Science is an epistemological mode reasoning from observational data to proximate causes, and ultimately to physical theories. Philosophy is an epistemological mode defining the slippery terms and framework through which we view the world. The last time I checked, the grand unified theory of the crap that is beyond you and the crap that is all in your head had not been completed.

Claiming some special privilege for materialist thought because it is sciency misses the point of science. Science has no foothold in the world of philosophy, in somewhat the same way that numbers don’t exist.

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By Scott Morris, December 15, 2005 at 9:13 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“If God was good enough for Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, St. Augustine and John Milton, then he was good enough for me.”

Slavery was good enough for Augustine too, read it for yourself in the City of God.

Einstein was an atheist, or at best an agnostic.

Mankind needs to leave all this ancestor worship behind and start thinking for ourselves.

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By Cups, December 15, 2005 at 6:41 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Well done ‘funknjunk’ and Terry.  You just proved the author’s point about the “essential arrogance” of atheism.  In your short comments, you both relegated yourselves to nothing short of schoolyard namecalling.  If you make a bold statement such as calling a person an “imbecile” or saying that a person’s statement is “nonsense” you have to show why.  You know very well that you must provide evidence when making claims…isn’t that your argument for why God doesn’t exist…lack of evidence? 

The only reason you posted your thoughts on this board is so others could read them.  Therefore, you want to influence what others are thinking.
You’ve insulted someone’s work and intelligence in order to influence how other readers view the article, while providing no justification for your attack.  Sounds like a pretty good definition of “arrogance”.

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By Trevor, December 15, 2005 at 3:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Very similar to the comment made by funknjunk, I to had to force myself to read beyond the second bullet point. So many things to comment on in that one little paragraph so I will focus on just one.

Here is a little excerpt from Wikipedia:

From a letter written in English, dated March 24, 1954, Einstein wrote, “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_einstein#Religious_views

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By Mitch, December 15, 2005 at 3:38 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

((It pits science against religion.If you think science is dogma, and do not know the difference, you hardly are qualified to discuss them. ))

I see no conflict between science and religion, two different fields of study.  The world is full of people who “have the answer”, it is absurd.  Atheist and fundies like yourself need to get a life, or perhaps build up your self esteem…. that way you may be able to stop with the compulsion to have to pull others down so that you can feel more rational, superior or holy….depend which perspective you are coming from. 

All fundies and atheists like yourself do is preach to the choir, a lot of wasted effort, but hey it is your life, do what ya want.

Also “discuss” what?  It is the same old arguments over and over again, from both sides.  The internet has beaten this discussion to death, there is really nothing more to be said….oh yes except for the insults and puts downs, they are always a lot of fun and so intelligent.

From my experience there is no difference between atheist, and believer, in the way they lead their lives.  Hard atheist and fundies are the same, moderates get along and let others be since they know that people cannot be changed. 

peace
mitch

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By Erik, December 15, 2005 at 12:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you for pointing out the hypocrisy of the promoters of the Narnia movie.  It needed to be said.

Frankly, the problem with any of these kinds of cultural things is that they promote acceptance of rules without thinking.  CS Lewis may have claimed to be a questioning thinker, but in the end he just swallowed it hook, line and sinker, and without much rational justification.  The acceptance of rules of behavior supposedly from a supreme being is fraught with danger, which a moment’s reflection will reveal: what happens when the basis for the original rule changes?  Unless you bring reason to bear on the subject, you end up with the wrong result.

Finally, a comment on atheism and the writer’s rejection of it.  Christianity and Judaism both posit a god who created the universe with man at the center, having dominion over all other life. Judaism goes on to claim that that god is so interested in the well-being of a specific group of humans that he gave them a special place to live.  Christianity posits that the god made himself flesh to live and die for human salvation, so that they will live forever with god in heaven.  And those who don’t believe are consigned to eternal punishment.  But it’s atheism that is arrogant and self-centered?  Please.

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By Terry Gulliver, December 15, 2005 at 12:05 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

(This is why I respectfully disagree with Sam Harris’ atheist manifesto; it pits dogma against dogma.

Nonsense.

It pits science against religion.If you think science is dogma, and do not know the difference, you hardly are qualified to discuss them.

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By funknjunk, December 15, 2005 at 10:29 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

while i found the article interesting, and i do wonder where my Narnia dollars will go…. i had to force myself beyond this phrase: “Atheism as a response to fundamentalism pits dogma against dogma” ... this shows a glaring misunderstanding of terms and/or philosophies that usually stops me reading in mid-sentence as i assume the writer is a complete imbecile…

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By mitch, December 15, 2005 at 4:33 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Good Article.  I too am a fan of Narnia and just saw the movie yesterday, enjoyed it very much.  I also love C.S. Lewis’s SF Trilogy, “the Hidious Strength” being my favorite; have read it about 29 times I guess.  Also the “Great Divorce”, have read it 31 times. 

peace
mitch

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