The Gospel According to Lewis. (Fantasia)

By Nelson, Michael | The American Prospect, February 25, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Gospel According to Lewis. (Fantasia)


Nelson, Michael, The American Prospect


LAST JUNE, BEFORE HOBBITS and Harry Potter began crowding out all other arts coverage, The New York Times ran a front-page story about The Chronicles of Narnia, the seven-volume series of children's fantasy books written by the English novelist C.S. Lewis in the 1950s. The article was called "Marketing `Narnia' without a Christian Lion"--and apparently the headline was as far as either Andrew Greeley or Charles Colson got before throwing down their newspapers in disgust. Greeley (who is a gadfly sociologist, priest, and romance novelist) and Colson (the famously born-again Watergate-era adviser to Richard Nixon) are widely published Christian commentators. Both took the Times headline to mean that, as Greeley huffed in a syndicated column, Lewis's publisher HarperCollins "intends to censor out of C.S. Lewis's masterpiece that which is most essential to it--its Christian imagery--because that imagery would be offensive to secularists." Readers who experience the bowdlerized versions of the stories, Colson complained in a radio commentary, "won't ... really be experiencing Lewis at all." Moreover, "it won't do them any good," he asserted, as though literature were like vitamins or brussels sprouts. Urging his readers to boycott HarperCollins, Colson commended Zondervan Books for its plan "to continue publishing the Narnia books in their original form."

In truth, the dudgeon of Colson and Greeley was somewhat misdirected. HarperCollins is already republishing the Narnia series in its original format, both under its own imprint and under the Zondervan imprint, which is actually a HarperCollins subsidiary. And the Times story--which neither Colson nor Greeley took the time to read carefully--was not about publishing a new version of the Chronicles with the Christian elements excised but rather about the new strategy HarperCollins had launched to market Narnia.

Still, the publisher's new, three-part marketing scheme did raise hackles, particularly among Christian conservatives. The first element of the new strategy raised no objections: to publish several editions of the complete Chronicles, ranging from cheap to deluxe and from one volume to seven volumes, along with an audio edition read by famous actors. A second element--to create a line of Narnia toys--provoked alarums of tackiness, but not much more.

The final element of HarperCollins's campaign, however, aroused real concern: a new series of wholly secular Narnia novels and picture books that the publisher plans to commission for younger readers. Online Lewis discussion groups like MereLewis and alt.books.cs-lewis were flooded with angry and fearful comments about HarperCollins, mostly from Christian fans of Lewis. As Beliefnet.com columnist Frederica Mathewes-Green summarized their laments, "to many [conservative Christians], downplaying Lewis's faith seems like one more in a string of insults."

BUT WHOSE AGENDA ARE C.S. Lewis's defenders pursuing? Not Lewis's. As Douglas Gresham, Lewis's adopted stepson and a nondenominational Christian preacher in Ireland, argues, "the surest way to prevent secularists and their children from reading [the Chronicles] is to keep it in the `Christian' or `Religious' section of the bookstores." After all, the Narnia books have rarely been marketed as "Christian" literature; nor, surely, have they been read that way, especially by children. As Laura Winner recollected in Slate, when she and her non-Christian friends read the Chronicles in grammar school, "we just thought we were reading a riveting tale, one in which, as in so much children's literature, good triumphs over evil and a hero brings on a utopian reign of peace." That's the experience most young readers have, and it's the experience Lewis wanted them to have: "a pre-baptism of the child's imagination" that, years later, may draw them into faith.

This was the experience that Lewis himself had. Growing up in Belfast in the early 1900s, he felt that Christianity was boring; mythology, on the other hand, was interesting. …

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