Thursday, December 01, 2005

Against Lewis's Oppostion and Gopnik's

Brendan Loy says what I wanted to, but better.

Update: Shortly after posting the above link to Brendan Loy's comments a couple days ago, I read this post from Mister Snitch. One of the things he talks about a number of times in it is adding value by providing some unique analysis of or lens on the content linked, something I didn't do here and something I really ought to do. After all, why read this blog if I'm only linking to blogs you'd read without me here?

So in addition to echoing Loy's point about why today's technology renders Lewis's opposition obsolete, I want here to connect a related point John J. Miller makes in an NRO article and, after addressing the presentation of Aslan in a movie, consider the question of his being a lion in the first place.

First, if you haven't read the Loy piece, obviously I think you should. I'll excerpt here, though, the key parts wherein he conveys well the same reaction I had to C.S. Lewis's 1959 letter expressing absolute opposition to a live-action production of the Chronicles of Narnia when I first heard of it on Boing Boing.
"Anthropomorphic animals, when taken out of narrative into actual visibility, always turn into buffoonery or nightmare. At least, with photography," he wrote in 1959. "Cartoons...would be another matter. A human, pantomime, Aslan would be to me blasphemy."

...Lewis's distinction between cartoons and non-cartoons seems rather outdated in this age of CGI effects. Perhaps 10 or 20 years ago, and certainly 50 years ago, it was true that a movie Aslan would inevitably "turn into buffoonery or nightmare." But, in light of what is now possible with computer graphics, this seems an unfair statement today. Certainly, Aslan will not be "human, pantomime," nor will he be primarily an object of "photography" -- he'll basically be a very realistic-looking cartoon.
Precisely the case.

Further, Miller in his excellent NRO piece* on why it's essential to read "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" first and NOT "The Magician's Nephew" (which properly comes sixth in the series) notes "a wise expert is not the same thing as a final authority" and makes the point that, having given us the finished works, they are no longer Lewis's alone to interpret and, moreover, Lewis himself agreed with that: "An author doesn't necessarily understand the meaning of his own story better than anyone else."

Now, there's certainly a difference between interpretation of a literary work—how we choose to read and understand it—and a creator's control over whether his book is turned into a movie. But the latter is a matter of copyright, which isn't at issue. The point is simply that if the author isn't necessarily the best judge of the meaning his own book in his own era, how much less suited is he to judge whether it ought to be made a movie more than 40 years after his death? This just underscores the points Loy makes above. Lewis was absolutely opposed to the movie that could have been made of Aslan's world in 1960. He had no way at all of expecting the kind of movie that would be made in 2005.

The movie aside, C.S. Lewis crafted a series of wonderful books, which are intelligently thought out, even if he did later wrongly prefer them read out of order. As to the content, as Miller says, "Lewis of course understood the meaning of Narnia." One person who disagrees, though, is The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik.

Gopnik clearly thinks Lewis doesn't know what he's doing. He describes Aslan, the lion who is the manifestation of Christ in the world of Narnia, as "not just an un-Christian but in many ways an anti-Christian figure." The article itself was linked at Tolle, Blogge, where R. Reeves summarized it as revealing "that the New Yorker knows little of the Incarnation, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, or Narnia" and which I found via Trawlerman's Song, where John notes that Gopnik gets it so wrong it's hard to believe it's in an established, well-regarded magazine.

Reeves quotes the following paragraph, in which Gopnik develops his Aslan-as-anti-Christian thesis:
Yet a central point of the Gospel story is that Jesus is not the lion of the faith but the lamb of God, while his other symbolic animal is, specifically, the lowly and bedraggled donkey. The moral force of the Christian story is that the lions are all on the other side. If we had, say, a donkey, a seemingly uninspiring animal from an obscure corner of Narnia, raised as an uncouth and low-caste beast of burden, rallying the mice and rats and weasels and vultures and all the other unclean animals, and then being killed by the lions in as humiliating a manner as possible—a donkey who reëmerges, to the shock even of his disciples and devotees, as the king of all creation—now, that would be a Christian allegory. A powerful lion, starting life at the top of the food chain, adored by all his subjects and filled with temporal power, killed by a despised evil witch for his power and then reborn to rule, is a Mithraic, not a Christian, myth.
Wow, where to begin? Well, as simplistic as it may be, how about with Google searches for "Christ as lion" and "Christ as donkey"? The former gives us about 98 results. The latter gives (Except now, it'll probably give you this post. So that's annoying.)

Let's take a look at some of the Biblical precedent for Christ as a lion in a minute, but let's first give a couple more chances to Adam Gopnik's contention that in addition to the lamb, "his other symbolic animal is, specifically, the lowly and bedraggled donkey." A phrase in quotes, as in the previous paragraph, is pretty narrow, so to be fair, after seeing a number of references to the animal in Strong's Exhaustive Concordance but none I could tell to be representative of Christ, I tried a couple more search strings in Google:
  • donkey+represent+Christ
  • donkey+symbol+Christ
  • donkey+symbolic+Christ
That first search only returned one result that seemed relevant; it also came up with the second and third search. The second search brings up, amusingly, someone else who's quoting Gopnik. That's pretty much it. That third search string will give you results including the following two. There's this jewelry site, which says,
The [d]onkey is an animal symbolic of humility, peace and Davidic royalty (a donkey was a princely mount before the horse came into common use - the royal mount used by King David and his sons was a mule/donkey - see II Samuel 13:29). A donkey that had never been ridden was also appropriate for sacred purposes.
Well, humility, peace, and Davidic royalty are each things that have to do with Jesus Christ, but that's not to say that the donkey is symbolic of Christ himself, certainly. A page that gets into more detail about the symoblism associated with donkeys in the Bible starts off, very promisingly for Mr. Gopnik,
The lowly donkey has been used to represent Christ who, like the symbolic donkey, was both meek and mild. The donkey carried the material burdens of the poor, while Christ humbled Himself, and took on a life of poverty, in order to carry the heavy burden of man's sins. The donkey represents many of the characteristics of the self-abasing Christ: patience, courage, gentleness, peace, and humility.
However, while the author of that page draws that parallel, she doesn't cite any Biblical verses for the donkey representing Christ himself. As the page progresses, she cites specifically many Biblical references to donkeys and offers reasonable interpretation of the symbolism for each, but none of those verses shows Christ Himself to be represented by a donkey.

Is Adam Gopnik even suggesting that this there's any Biblical basis for his donkey/Jesus symbolism or only drawing a parallel himself? It very much seems to be the former to me, but I invite him to e-mail me and clarify.

As for his assertion that a lion doesn't qualify as a symbol for Jesus Christ, there are some verses and ideas he might want to consider. The key verses are Genesis 49:9,
Judah is a lion's whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?
And a later passage that draws on it, Revelation 5:5-6,
And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof. And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.
I like the succinctness with which this page explains** that the point in switching metaphors for Christ in quick succession from Lion to Lamb is that the same God who, as our King, judges us is the God who sacrificed Himself to save us from that judgment:
Though these two symbols seem to be opposites, they are in fact (to mix a metaphor) two sides of the same coin. The actions of the Lamb on our behalf provide for us the only way that we can be unafraid of the actions of the Lion.
The principal authority explaining the symbolism of Jesus as a Lion, though, is no less than Jonathan Edwards, one of the most important theologians in the history of America. [See here after 12/21/05.] He lays it all out in his sermon, "The Excellency of Christ," which can be found here. Edwards calls Christ a "Lion in majesty and a Lamb in meekness." A great many parts of his sermon are relevant in establishing this, but I'll excerpt just two paragraphs here.
He is called a Lion. Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah. He seems to be called the Lion of the tribe of Judah, in allusion to what Jacob said in his blessing of the tribe on his death-bed; who, when he came to bless Judah, compares him to a lion, Gen. 49:9. "Judah is a lion's whelp; from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?" And also to the standard of the camp of Judah in the wilderness on which was displayed a lion, according to the ancient tradition of the Jews. It is much on account of the valiant acts of David that the tribe of Judah, of which David was, is in Jacob's prophetical blessing compared to a lion; but more especially with an eye to Jesus Christ, who also was of that tribe, and was descended of David, and is in our text called "the Root of David"; and therefore Christ is here called "the Lion of the tribe of Judah."

The lion and the lamb, though very diverse kinds of creatures, yet have each their peculiar excellencies. The lion excels in strength, and in the majesty of his appearance and voice: the lamb excels in meekness and patience, besides the excellent nature of the creature as good for food, and yielding that which is fit for our clothing and being suitable to be offered in sacrifice to God. But we see that Christ is in the text compared to both, because the diverse excellencies of both wonderfully meet in him.
Really, if Adam Gopnik wants to argue seriously that the lion is an un-Christian symbol for Jesus, an anti-Christian figure, even, he may want to start citing some scripture and presenting a pretty startling theology, because it's, at the least, Jonathan Edwards he's contending with, and I, for one, am intrigued to know why he doesn't find himself in dispute with the Apostle John.

As Reeves says, it's not so much the ignorance that annoys, it's the arrogance in lecturing a classic author that he doesn't get the basic message of his own faith. You know, he could have just taken a glance at Wikipedia.

Aslan the lion is an entirely suitable Christ figure and there's every reason to hope that his appearance in the upcoming movie is such that it would please even C.S. Lewis himself. It opens December 9th.

* One minor error in Miller's piece is his reference to Douglas Gresham as Lewis's son-in-law, when in fact Gresham was his step-son. Gresham's still wrong about the book order, though, and Miller's right.

** Updated to add the missing link. (Heh. That'd be clever if this post were about evolution or something.)


Blogger Mr. Snitch said...

Thanks for noticing my post... in terms of adding value, probably that's something we should all be working towards in all aspects of our lives.

10:23 PM  
Blogger trawlerman said...

You're almost always good for carefully presented, thought-through, valuable content. I'm so guilty of throwing up a sentence and a link and leaving things at that. You put me to shame, at least.

Thanks for the content and the effort.

(and in response to your Thanksgiving post, thanks for the thanks. I've been subscribed to your blog's feed almost since "first contact" and I've been grateful for our electronic meeting).

As for this post, I appreciated your commitment to "Biblical precedent." While an extra-Biblical metaphor for Jesus Christ may or may not be valid, it seems foolish to construct one while discarding (ignoring?) or denying the Bible's own metaphors.

I laughed out loud when I read "Except now, it'll probably give you this post. So that's annoying." I need to remember to perform a Google search for "Christ as donkey" in the next few weeks.


(still waiting for the Paul Newman post)

10:27 PM  
Blogger Steve Ely said...

Well, it's symbiotic, isn't it? The stuff you're linking to is stuff I'd never come upon on my own and then, provoked by an NPR interview or New Yorker quote, I go on for absurd lengths. I think of it less as putting you to shame and more as putting you to good use.

12:21 AM  

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