Thursday, December 01, 2005

I've read only a little of C.S. Lewis and none of Philip Pullman. I like and respect Lewis, I contemn Pullman's relentlessly foul and hateful attacks on Lewis's Narnia books -- but I'm hardly qualified to do much more than gripe.

Michael Lewis, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, knows both well and nails Pullman to the wall.

The whole article is great reading, but here's a healthy excerpt:

Lewis's motives for writing The Chronicles were more complex. Did he, as Pullman charges, intend them to be "propaganda for the religion he believed in"?

In a sense, he did. Lewis had converted from atheism to Christianity in the early 1930s and, like Paul, Augustine, and other famous converts before him, became an outspoken defender of the faith. What made Lewis different from his sainted predecessors was the variety of literary forms in which he advanced his views. In the decade beginning in 1938, Lewis published several works of Christian apologetics, three science-fiction novels with Christian themes, an imagined account of a journey into the Christian afterlife, and a tongue-in-cheek book of letters from a devil named Screwtape to his agent on earth. He undertook Lion in 1948, partly as a way of posing and answering for children the question, "Supposing that there really was a world like Narnia, and supposing it had (like our world) gone wrong, and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it (as He did ours), what might have happened?"

Lewis's approach in The Chronicles was deeply rooted in his own experience. A crucial element in his conversion was a long conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien in which Lewis became persuaded that the many and, to him, deeply moving ancient myths in which a god dies and is reborn to save his people had "really happened" when Jesus was crucified and resurrected, placing Christianity squarely at the intersection of myth and history. Lewis had an enormous regard for pagan myths, both for their marvelous stories and for the truths about origins, aspirations, and purpose he found embedded in them. In writing The Chronicles, in which the divine lion Aslan is slain to save a treacherous child and then triumphantly resurrected, Lewis was trying to write a myth of his own that had all the excitement and truth of other myths, including the Christian one.

Many children seem to have read The Chronicles as Laura Winner, in Slate, remembers herself and her friends doing, as simply "a riveting tale." Some children — the books have sold more than 95 million copies, after all — presumably have experienced, in Lewis's phrase, the "pre-baptism of the child's imagination" that Lewis hoped and Pullman fears would someday open their ears to the Christian story. But where's the offense in that? For Pullman, it seems, Lewis's offense was merely to love what Pullman hates.

Certainly there is nothing remotely as tendentious in The Chronicles as Pullman's attacks in His Dark Materials against Christianity. "For all its history," a benevolent witch tells Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry, the young protagonists of the series, the Church "has tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. ... That's what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling." As for God, a rebellious angel later tells the children, "God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty ... was never the creator. He was an angel like ourselves ... [who] told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie." In one of the last scenes of the trilogy, the children watch God die. "Demented and powerless," Pullman writes, "the aged being could only weep and mumble in fear and pain and misery." Every Christian character in the series is rotten to the core, and none of them bothers to pretend otherwise. "The Christian religion," one of Pullman's main characters blandly explains, "is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all." Oh.

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