As someone who writes about religion and culture, am I obligated to talk about Narnia? I haven’t read the C.S. Lewis books and have no idea if I’ll ever feel inspired to pick them up. I am familiar with the plot of the books, and it sounds like children’s stuff to me. By all accounts, Lewis is no Tolkien. I’ll see the movie with low expectations and will be satisfied if I enjoy it half as much as the last Harry Potter movie.
Here’s an articleby Paula Toynbee that got lots of play on the religious right weblogs last week. They obviously hate what she has to say. One prominent Catholic blogger repeatedly called her “evil.”
Here’s the most-quoted line from Toynbee’s piece:
Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to?
Reminds me of the line of a Unitarian Universalist minister I dated many years ago. He told me that the story of the Father sacrificing the Son on a cross was a horrific tale of “divine child abuse.” There are many perspectives on the crucifixion story, not just the orthodox view celebrated for so long by so many that the orthodox forget that there are other, marginalized, perfectly valid ways of looking at the same stories.
Personally, I don’t find the notion of Christ as Redeemer repugnant, at least not as the story is usually told. But to the shock of the religious right, many people hear the tale of Christ’s redemption and think about divine child abuse… or the worst attributes of every Christian moral failure in the past 2,000 years. To the religious right, Christ’s redemption is a tale of Divine Love and the value of self-sacrifice; to many others, it is a tale of scapegoating that locks Christians into a “victim” mentality in which they are perpetually looking outside themselves for salvation.
The lesson to be gained by the fierce attack on Toynbee is clear. To the religious right, anyone who fails to view Christ as they do is questionable; but if they view the orthodox Christ as something negative, then they are evil. (An example: “…the “most hateful” thing about religion, say Polly Toynbee is Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the Cross for sinners. It’s stuff like that which persuades me of the reality of a spiritual bondage so deep and so impervious to rational explanation that only the existence of Satan can account for it…”) And of course we know from the history of religion that calling your opponents evil is very often the first step in their dehumanization and ultimate destruction.
What Toynbee and the defenders of Narnia on the religious right both have in common is a sort of literalism about the Christian myths and certainty that their moralistic view of those myths is the only correct one. Neither have transcended that literalism into a more complex, multi-perspectival view that recognizes the value of having multiple interpretations of a mythic story. Truth is not locked into one fixed interpretation of a myth, as both the religious right and Toynbee insist; openness and flexibility of interpretation are virtues, prerequisites even to the discovery of Truth.