If all I knew about The Voyage of the DawnTreader came from the general press conference I attended after theRoyal Premiere in London last week,I would come to a pretty startling conclusion: Aslan is like Christ, but couldjust as easily be like Buddha or Mohammed.
Some outlets – from London’sThe Daily Mail to The Catholic NewsAgency – report that Christians are upset and angry about commentsmade by Liam Neeson, who is a professional actor and not a theologian. But theproper response to such misguided statements is compassion and education. Theknowledge that someone so close to the characters can so fully misunderstandtheir power only emphasizes the need for Christians to go to the film withfriends (or, as Douglas Gresham -- C.S.Lewis’ stepson -- aptly noted, “take your enemies; you’re supposed to lovethem, too”). That way, we can talk about the film, exploring its themes, and,if necessary, about Neeson’s statements to the press.
Before you go, ask yourself: What can we, as Christians --fans of the fictional world of Narnia, and witnesses to the factual power ofJesus Christ – do to help those filmgoers who are attracted to Aslan (butaren’t sure why) to know him better?
A Post-Modern Aslan
Liam Neeson sparked no little controversy when he respondedto a question about Aslan, the character he voices in The Voyage ofthe Dawn Treader. He replied: “Yes, he [Aslan] symbolizes aChrist-like figure, but he also symbolizes for me Mohammed, Buddha, and all thegreat prophets and spiritual leaders over the centuries, that's what I thinkAslan stands for as well as a mentor figure for kids - a voice of reason, that’swhat he is for me.”
But anyone remotely familiar with C.S. Lewis’ masterpieceseries for children knows that The Chronicles of Narnia area “supposal” – a story written from a “what if” proposition. In a letter to aMrs. Hook in 1958, Lewis explained, “What might Christ become like, if therereally were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and riseagain in that world as He actually has done in ours?”
It is hard to know whether the studios, desiring to cast aswide a box office net as possible, prepare the actors to respond to questionsconcerning the religious aspects of the film. Given the tremendous financialcommitment required to launch a blockbuster these days, one can understand whythey would not wish to alienate any potential ticket-buyer. Georgie Henley, thefifteen-year-old actress who portrays Lucy in the film, admitted in anexclusive interview, “For me, personally, I always think that Aslan can beinterpreted in lots of ways, it depends on how you interpret the story. It’svery important that we appeal to a wide audience of people – not just religiouspeople, or non-religious people.” But Lewis’ well-known background, and hisundeniable explanations about what Narnia is and who Aslan represents, makessquishy, postmodern claims like Neeson’s ridiculous.
Liam and the Lord, Liar, Lunatic Dilemma
Neeson claims to have read a number of Lewis’ other books.But before the next press conference, perhaps he should read Lewis’ argument inMere Christianity:
"A man who was merely a man and said the sort of thingsJesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic -on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg - or he would be the devilof hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, orelse a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you canfall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with anypatronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not leftthat open to us."
In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe,Aslan allows himself to be the substitutionary sacrifice for the traitor,Edmund. His blood is shed on the Great Stone Table by the White Witch, whobelieves that Aslan’s death seals her victory over Narnia. But Aslan rises fromthe dead, routs the Witch, restores Narnia, and then disappears to return at anunspecified later date. He is not merely “a mentor for kids,” or “a prophet,”or “a great spiritual leader.” And, most assuredly he is not merely “a voice ofreason.” He is the Son of the Emperor Over the Sea – who is the origin of theDeep Magic under which the Narnian universe operates. In TheMagician’s Nephew readers discover that Aslan created Narnia out of nothingby singing it into existence. And in The Last Battle,Aslan brings the history of Narnia to a close, and leads the characters to hisown country, which is remarkably like heaven.
These are not the actions of a mentor, or a moral leader, oreven a founder of a human religion – such as Buddha or Mohammed. Buddha neverdied for another’s sins, and Mohammed did not rise from the dead. These are theactions, described in the Bible, of Jesus, the Son of God.
Answers for the Curious
The reason The Chronicles of Narniapossess such power is because they provide a space where literature opens ourimagination to knowledge about God. Michael Apted, the director ofVoyage of the Dawn Treader, explained to me that in additionto the narrative story line, “There isanother aspect that I like, the spiritual aspect, I know how important that isto you, and it is important to me, but in a more general way. I want the filmto be accessible to everyone, everywhere. But it is important to say to childrenthese days that there is spiritual life, that there is moral purpose, becauseso much of what we hear and see, and look at, and read, is so vicious and vile.It’s a tough world these kids have been brought up in. So it’s the emotional,the otherworldly feeling that there is another place. I think that’s what Iwant to bring to it.” Apted was happy to create that in the midst of what hecalled “a fine landscape.”
Lewis himself, in his atheist days, admitted that he lovedto encounter Christ anywhere other than in the Gospels. He was unsettled by thefact that the authors who most moved him, such as George MacDonald, wereChristians. Their works fired his imagination – called out to him in ways thatleft him longing for more. Ultimately, it was two of those authors: J.R.R.Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, who, on a walk in the woods near Magdalen College at Oxford,started the conversations which would lead to Lewis’ conversion.
Narnia is a place where people can meet Jesus in thecharacter of Aslan. Through fantasy, people are able to do an end-run aroundtheir preconceptions about religion – Lewis called it sneaking past the“watchful dragons” of our own self-consciousness. And as their affection forthe Great Lion grows, readers and viewers discover that by knowing him for alittle in The Chronicles of Narnia, they can know him better in their ownworld, where He goes by another name.
Those who know Jesus understand the draw of films such asVoyage of the Dawn Treader. Like Reepicheep, we are alllooking for “a better country” (Hebrews 11:16).And like the heroes chronicled in Hebrews 11, we recognize the difficulties wemay have to overcome, and the wonders we may see, along the way. As thesorcerer on the Dufflepuds’ island notes, we know we will be tested, and thatthese tests mean something regarding the formation of our character. And as werun our course, when we inevitably lose our way, God is there, listening forour cry, redeeming us from our sins, and guiding us – as long as we are willing– to safe harbor in His lands.
Such truths are gripping in drama, but they are no less soin real life. Eventually the book closes, the curtain rises, and we come backto our world. But if we have gained eyes to see past the mundane surfaces, werecognize that all of the perils there are perils here, and, thankfully, thatall of the promises there, are promises here. If we know whose Name to call, Hewill show us the way. That is the message of real hope that we have for thosewho delight in Narnia, but have yet to discover that what they long for is nota fantasy. We have good news.
Marc T. Newman, Ph.D., is the president ofMovieMinistry.com, an organization that provides sermon and teachingillustrations, Bible studies and discussion cards, drawn from popular film, andhelps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people. Dr.Newman is an associate professor in the School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for mediainterviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org