01 January 2006

Lewis’ theology was concerned with myth, which is why he cannot be fully appropriated by the kind of evangelicalism that is buying up copies of Mere Christianity.

By S. Brent Plate

Several newspaper reporters phoned me in the weeks leading up to the opening of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, the big-budget, semi-CGI adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s much loved children’s story. Since I published a book on Mel Gibson’sThe Passion of the Christ, reporters wanted an expert quote on the marketing of the Narnia film, and whether this would be a “Passion for kids.” They were responding to some buzz about the marketing techniques, that the folks at Disney were working with Motive Entertainment to hit some of the same evangelical Christian markets that helped promote Gibson’s film to controversial big returns at the box office. Disney, careful not to alienate anyone, downplayed these so-called “grassroots” marketing techniques and said that only 5% of the marketing budget was directed toward specific Christian groups (churches, parachurch organizations). With a marketing budget estimated at $120 million…well, you do the math. That’s a lot of posters, postcards, CDs, and workbooks to serve as “resource guides” (read, “tools for evangelism,” “bible study spinoffs”) for church leaders. (Much of this is available through the website, narniaresources.com.)

Disney’s reluctance to make much of these alternative targets was based on a fear that non-Christians, and even many Christians, would be turned off by the idea that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was nothing but a veiled Christian story. But I think what people really react against is the highjacking of mythology through marketing, the attempt by some Christian groups to straightjacket a multi-faceted story into a single interpretation. This is not to say that a multi-faceted story can’t be interpreted in a variety of ways, including the Christian allegorical one, but it is the mode of doing this that is abrasive. The single interpretation comes not through thoughtful, engaged dialogue, but through flashy four-color brochures, quick-paced “teaching” videos, and Christian-themed merchandising.

Motive Marketing often outsources the physical production and distribution of marketing products to a company called Outreach, which specializes in “church communication and outreach tools” (see outreach.com). In the current climate of movie promotion, and church growth, one company sources to another, which sources to another, which sources to another. Big business this. Alongside a monthly magazine publication, a training division (including seminars and training), and events programs (including comedians, motivational and “Narnia speakers”), Outreach provides bundles of promotional items for churches. As if shopping for wedding ideas or family reunions, Outreach’s “church communications products” provide the church growth customer with theme packages such as the “seasonal” (including Christmas, Easter, or the 4th of July), “design themes” (including The Passion, patriotic, or Da Vinci Code), and “ethnic” (including Asian, Hispanic, Caucasian, multi-ethnic, or “MLK products”). As they state on their website, “The Marketing Products division provides start-to-finish church marketing and communication tools. Services include concepting, layout and design, personalization, printing, demographic analysis, address list acquisition, addressing, sorting, mailing and customer service follow-up.” When a church buys a product from a third party that includes services such as “personalization,” or “concepting,” one quickly begins to see why this marketing of mythology might grow tiresome. Buying personalization?

Many have noted that C.S. Lewis would not have approved of a filmic adaptation of his books since he realized the literary imagination was distinct from a visual rendering. Creatures and scenarios originally described with words simply aren’t meant to appear as visual images — which is why so many films attempting to depict the biblical book of Revelation are doomed to visual failure: apocalypse is a literary genre. Yet, if Lewis would have balked at the film, he would have done so even more at the flashy marketing of his story, as given through Motive and Outreach. He also would not have been happy with the singular interpretation, the Christian message, being foisted on Narnia through these techniques.

Lewis was a first rate literary theorist, a second rate fantasy writer, and a third rate theologian. His critical writings covering medieval and renaissance literature were widely read through the twentieth century in standard English courses. His fantasy writing did well, though he never matched the sheer creativity of his literary forerunners G.K. Chesterton and George MacDonald, or even his colleague J.R.R. Tolkein. His theology, while not altogether poor — after all he did think about big topics like the nature of Christ, God, Salvation, etc. — he simply arrived too late on the scene to keep up with the extraordinary work that contemporary theologians like Karl BarthPaul Tillich, and Reinhold Niebuhr were doing, particularly in response to the crisis of European culture and Christianity in the wake of a couple world wars.

What Lewis did understand as a theologian was what he already knew as a literary critic and fantasy writer: that the imagination was a crucial human apparatus. Thus his response, histheodicy perhaps, to the terrors of the second war, and its effects on the childhood psyche was to create an alternative world, a land only accessible via the banality of a wardrobe and the richness of a child’s imagination. Lewis’ greatest theological contribution was to posit imagination in the face of evil. Lewis’ theology was therefore naturally concerned with myth. And here is where he cannot be fully appropriated by the kind of evangelicalism that is buying up copies of Mere Christianity.

In his 1944 essay “Myth Became Fact,” Lewis argues that the Christian story is a fact, and not only a myth. Nonetheless, rather than making the conservative theological move and claiming “my story” is true and all the others are just myth he argues the both/and option: Christianity is “Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact,” a statement that echoes the orthodox Christological doctrine: “Perfect God and Perfect Man.” Lewis claims, “To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other.” He continues in a manner that would indeed be upsetting to many contemporary evangelicals: “A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than the one who assented and did not think much about it.” Such statements show the high value Lewis placed on both the imagination, and the power of myth.

To understand The Chronicles of Narnia is to understand the faith of the child. This is no blind faith, but one of curiosity, of seeking and asking questions, of holding open the possibilities of the “truth” of many myths — of fauns and minotaurs, of witches and ogres, of Father Christmas and magic. The spiritual person is the one with imagination, who quests and questions. Along the way, we just might stumble into a world where many myths are true.

S. Brent Plate is assistant professor of religion and the visual arts at Texas Christian University. Dr Plate is the author/editor of several books, including Re-Viewing the Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its CriticsHis last essay for The Revealer was “In Rocky’s Shoes.”