Is Narnia Christian? Do lions roar in the woods?

Almost from the moment it became known that a serious effort was under way to bring Narnia to the big screen, people have been debating whether Disney would trash the Christian message, or transmit it faithfully. We bring good tidings. This is indeed the Lion of Judah. The question of how the film handled, mishandled or dropped the specifically Christian elements in the book is clouded by the other debate prior to the film’s release, about whether Narnia was necessarily Christian. This debate was mysterious because the Christian message of Narnia was not something awkwardly tacked on and therefore easy to remove.

The book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is “subtle” in the sense that there are no crosses, no one says, “Hey, guys, Aslan’s Jesus, I just realized” and there are no virgin births. You don’t get a communion cup dashed in your face. But the whole structure of the story, and the world it depicts, is fundamentally Christian.

It’s not the brave children and talking animals; those are a dime a dozen in children’s books and movies. Nor is it the presence of magic per se. It too appears in countless fantasies, some non-religious and some expressly anti-Christian. It’s that the Deep Magic from the dawn of time (the Old Testament and the covenant of law with Israel) is replaced by magic deeper still from before the dawn of time (the New Testament and the covenant of mercy with all mankind) through the agonizing, humiliating, willing death of a victim without sin, of God made flesh.

How any adult alerted to the possibility that this is the key metaphor could doubt it, I do not know. When Aslan and the Witch discuss the fate of traitors it is easy for a small child to think only of Edmund’s betrayal of his siblings. But it is impossible for adults not to grasp that the real topic is sin. And the willing sacrifice of a victim without sin can only be a reference to Jesus; it has never been suggested in any other context.

As the pivot of both the theology and the plot, it is the most obvious and important place where the filmmakers could have messed up.

As Lucy and Susan sit weeping by the Stone Table, Lucy reaches for her magic cordial capable of healing any wound. Had she so much as attempted to give some to Aslan, introducing the slightest doubt about whether he had been revived by mere sorcery, it would have destroyed the integrity of the movie. But she does not. Aslan is clearly dead and beyond any mortal or medical help. Instead, the Stone Table cracks (that would be the Decalogue, for the symbolically challenged) and, as in the book, Aslan reappears to tell the girls that while the deep magic condemns traitors to death, the deeper magic says the willing sacrifice of a blameless victim will cause death itself to run backwards. Here, critically, the movie was exactly faithful.

Even so, the rewriting necessary to compress the book into available on-screen time must have offered tempting opportunities to remove rather than rephrase key concepts to avoid controversy. Instead, where it mattered, the film was neither heavy-handed nor light-fingered.

When the Witch reminds Aslan of the Deep Magic, he cuts her off with, “I was there when it was written.” No such line exists in the book, but it conveys the theology unflinchingly. And the important dialogue about Aslan not being tame, but being good, was rearranged to furnish a strong ending, but included fundamentally intact.

I only noticed two semi-significant theological omissions. First, the book’s brief references to the Emperor-over-the-Sea (God the Father) could have been equally briefly included in the film, and should have been. Less jarringly, the movie leaves out Susan and Lucy asking the risen Aslan if he is a ghost, in deliberate parallel with doubting Thomas. But on screen Aslan was so clearly not a ghost that it didn’t matter. We could see who He was.

The film carries the usual disclaimer that no animals were harmed in its production. Nor were any doctrines.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson