If I go outside, any chance I’ll find Mr. Tumnus’ footprints in the backyard?
I watched Voyage of the Dawn Treader on DVD with my son and my niece this past weekend. It’s good, of course, though not quite as strong as the first two films. My nine-year-old son took a powerful shine to the Prince Caspian film, a great adventure tale in any era.
More importantly, Graham is also now reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in his reading group at school. A public school, no less. I’m gratified to his teacher for introducing him to the book, and for introducing him to Mr. Lewis, the author. But I will admit to being slightly surprised. Especially given that his class only recently finished the World War II-set Number the Stars, a Newberry medal winner, and yet another social justice-themed book with Christian overtones.
Which segues nicely to my tie-in with Tim Keller’s Generous Justice book (one that my church is now reading together). Today we take on popular or consumer culture, and how it often competes with purer and clearer religious ethics for our attention, time, money and influence.
There is a passage in the introduction to Generous Justice that discusses the difficulty of actually just-ifying (making more just and consistent) the day-to-day behavior of conscientious and potentially activist Christian youth and young adults in the West. Keller writes this:
“I also see many who do not let their social concern affect their personal lives. It does not influence how they spend their money on themselves, how they conduct their careers, the way they choose and live in their neighborhoods, or whom they seek as friends. Also, many lose enthusiasm for volunteering over time. From their youth culture they have imbibed not only an emotional resonance for social justice but also a consumerism that undermines self-denial and delayed gratification… While many young adults have a Christian faith, and also a desire to help people in need, these two things are not actually connected to each other in their lives.” (pg. xi)
I would go further, and say this is not just a youth culture problem, but an American problem. We are all too often prone to give in to the more adolescent angels of our nature, or our national character. Historically, and rhetorically, we Americans are still the easily-distracted raucous teenagers on the world stage.
I was struck with a particular Narnia-themed example of this problem just last week, as I spotted a billboard along a major local highway. It advertised “The Narnia Estate”.
The Narnia Estate is a private 55-acre event venue in south suburban Chicago, a “perfect setting for Weddings, Private Parties and Corporate Events”.
Though I am tempted to rant at length about the specific marketing strategy of whomever developed this business, I will try to be fair and hold my tongue a bit. Let’s just say it bothers me. It makes me want to say “Give me back my C.S. Lewis!” Not to mention “Give me back my country!”
Maybe it bugs me partly because I suspect this private business is fairly normal in its strategy — in its “give the people what they want” packaging of beauty, in its need to get the public’s attention through advertising, in its “service” orientation to give consumers a unique experience of an important life event, and in its drive to turn a profit.
Plus, as far as the opportunism and the emotions that are played upon in what our culture sells us as “the perfect wedding“, I wouldn’t be the first to say we’ve gotten way out of control. Entire cable shows (Bridezilla, anyone?) and feature films have taken that problem on, comically and seriously, better than I am able to do here.
But as a parent, a Christian, and a literature teacher myself, here is where I have to draw the line:
To bring Narnia, once one of the mainstays of Christian culture, into this capitalist realm and effectively abuse and confuse its images and values, just to make a buck, is beyond the pale.
Is this what living out our faith has come to, at least in the middle class suburban megachurch mindset? If so, count me out.
By contrast, the children’s books mentioned above do an admirable job of telling compelling stories about the true fight for justice, against fascism, and against evil in general (with the Narnia series starting in 1950, and Number the Stars published in 1990, depicting heroic Danes and their contribution to the Nazi resistance and Jewish sanctuary movement in WWII.)
The books are about personal conversion, forgiveness, courage, compassion, humility, nonviolent resistance (nonviolence in Number the Stars, anyway) and any number of other important Judeo-Christian values, values that we wish to pass along to our children. They are about what is ugly and evil in the world and in ourselves, and yet what is beautiful and dignified within humanity, which we must fight to preserve. They are also about receiving God’s help in those struggles.
Yet to reduce them, even in the fairly respectable movies, to mere adventure stories is to gut the original novels of much of their power to melt hearts and develop consciences within young readers and viewers. Unfortunately, this is usually what turning serious books into marketable pop-culture products does: it guts them. The end results, in too many cases, are such disconnected, non-Christian (if not outright un-Christian) mixed messages as can now be purchased at The Narnia Estate (all for the low, low price of your firstborn male child!). It’s becoming too easy to miss the point.
My niece, for example, when watching Dawn Treader (her second viewing), was not aware that Aslan was even an allegorical stand-in for God until I told her. She’s 11. Maybe that’s on her, maybe on the moviemakers. I can’t say definitively. And probably it is more the role of a parent or pastor, not a movie, to “instruct a child in the way (s)he should go” (Prov. 22:6).
But we live in an era when –either in the name of inclusiveness or in the name of profit– the spiritual teaching that is inherent or at least possible in these great stories is dumbed-down, or flat out removed. We’ve taken the tools for instruction out of the parents’ hands, or at least dulled them to only a limited usefulness. We have muddied the water with our unexamined consumerism, not to mention some strange, shallow, tacky ideal of “fun”. If you doubt me, take a look at what Christmas has become.
These are not your parents’ “family values”, my friend.
So what’s a dad to do? Other than write this blog, I dunno. But I can at least use my imagination and intellect to think twice about what messages I send to any kid I have the privilege of helping to grow up — hopefully to be wise, just, compassionate, and above all engaged. For what is faith for if not to bless others: “to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
[A relevant “heads up” : In attending the STORY Chicago conference this past September, I got a chance to hear actor (and active Presbyterian) Sean Astin of “Lord of the Rings” fame. In addition to his example of how he and his family acted directly when New Orleans flooded, Astin also broke the news that his production company is developing “Number the Stars” into a feature film. Sean’s daughter had read it and re-read it numerous times, suggested it to him, and now he’s out raising the funds for an indie project that hopefully won’t “dumb down” the aspects of faith too badly. You go, Samwise! ]
* * DISCUSSION AND ACTION * *
1) What can you do? I suppose that’s pretty much your call, not mine. Do you say no to your 24-year-old daughter’s request for $10K to book a pretty hall for her wedding? Drag your nine-year-old to downtown Chicago this spring to protest the G8 Summit, for their inability to treat the poor justly in their own wealthy nations? Refuse to do your family shopping at Wal-Mart despite their low prices, because their business model is inherently exploitative on both an international and local-business-killing level? Read Christian fiction with some needy children at a homeless shelter or community center?
Or as a starter exercise in considering the social implications of your faith, maybe try this:
2) Pray BIGGER: On a regular basis, maybe as a spiritual discipline, go to the CNN.com homepage or your local paper, glance quickly just at a few headlines, and offer your brief but essential prayers. Pray that the Holy Spirit would enact God’s own justice in current worldwide situations (be it Greece, Syria, the U.S. elections, or the umpteenth chance at redemption for fading starlet and probable addict Lindsay Lohan, as she completes her court-ordered probation). No cause is a lost cause, nor too small or irrelevant, to the God of Compassion and Second Chances.