December 15, 2005
Jewish Jury Still Out on Christian ‘Narnia’
Is this, as Yogi Berra might put it, deja vu all over again? A potential megablockbuster film, financed by an ardent Christian and bursting with Christian overtones, is being mass-marketed to guess who? Christians.
Church groups are buying up whole theater showings just like Daddy Warbucks did for Annie. Advance screenings are being held for pastors and ministers, who have given the film their blessing (literally).
Catholic publishing companies are putting out companion guides. And the Jewish community is ... well, no one knows quite what to think. That's because the film in question isn't Mel Gibson's "The Passion." It's "The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the special-effects laden adaptation of British author C.S. Lewis' classic 1950 children's book.
The $250 million film, which opened Dec. 9, was produced by the owner of the San Francisco Examiner, right-wing evangelical billionaire Philip Anschutz, who also owns Walden Media. Walt Disney Co. helped, especially on the distribution end. In fact, many of the same firms that so successfully recruited whole congregations to attend showings of "The Passion of the Christ" have been contracted again for "Lion."
The re-oiling and firing up of the machinery that pulled Christians into theaters and made "The Passion" a huge hit, as well the subtle nature of the film's Christian message, has given some Jews reservations, however.
Orthodox Rabbi Judah Dardik read "Lion" as a day-school student, along with the rest of his class, and was immediately hooked. He borrowed the entire series from his older sister and devoured it. It was only years later that he was told it was steeped in Christian allegories. He said he was "surprised and embarrassed. I hadn't realized. I felt duped."
Re-reading the series, he saw more and more allegories, and could never appreciate the books as mere fiction again. Now he sees them as theology, "but beautifully written theology."
"Should Jewish children see this movie or read the books? I'm unsure," said Dardik, the spiritual leader at Oakland's Beth Jacob Congregation. "My personal jury is still out. I read them. Clearly it didn't affect my personal theology."
"I haven't seen the movie, but I wouldn't be surprised if they fleshed out the Christianity a bit more to be satisfying to the Christian audience," he said. "That's the part that's most disconcerting to me. I also have concerns about the marketing. Hollywood has a way of being very in-your-face."
Anschutz, like Gibson, is a figure who makes many liberally minded people uncomfortable. His Walden Media in recent years began creating Christian-friendly films short on sexual content or profanity (drug abuse and philandering were trimmed from last year's Ray Charles biopic "Ray," for example). Anschutz is also an avowed and outspoken evangelical who was attracted to Lewis' "Narnia" tales for the same reason others in the business were wary -- its Christian messages.
"Lion," however, is no "Passion." Contrary to the extremely negative reaction "Passion" garnered from Jewish organizations before, during and after its release, the marketing of Christian allegory as popular entertainment in "Lion" has created hardly a ripple in comparison. Like the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy that preceded it to the silver screen in recent years, the story is one of those ubiquitous books that nearly everyone or their children has read. Characters inhabiting the magical realm of Narnia, such as Mr. Tumnus, Aslan or the White Witch, recall people's childhoods just as would a sip of Dr. Brown's Cream Soda.
Millions of readers (and, now, moviegoers) who thoroughly enjoyed a fantasy tale of four World War II-era British children tumbling into the enchanted world of Narnia via a wardrobe, and fighting medieval battles alongside talking animals and mystical creatures, would be surprised to later learn that "Lion" and the six other books in Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia are seeping with Christian allegories.
The latent nature of "Lion's" Christian message, and the fact that one can be completely oblivious yet still enjoy the story, allows the film's producers to promote "Lion" on two levels: one method for avowedly Christian audiences, and another for everyone else. While the uplifting Christian message is pitched to pastors and church groups, the theatrical trailer features a dazzling array of special effects created by Peter Jackson's WETA, the company the New Zealand-based director founded to tackle "Lord of the Rings" and huge battle scenes.
But just as Sigmund Freud might have uttered "sometimes a banana is just a banana," the message to secular audiences is, "sometimes a Divine lion with the voice of Liam Neeson who dies for man's sins and is resurrected is just a lion."
Disney, whose major task comes in marketing and distributing this film, is allocating about 5 percent of its promotional budget to wooing Christian groups. Peter Sealey, a marketing professor at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business and the former president of marketing and distribution for Columbia Pictures, describes the formula as "a very effective use of that money.... That audience does not have as many films as it wants."
Sealey, however, saw "duplicity" in the way Disney is shying away from mentioning the Christian message Lewis infused throughout the series in its general publicity materials.
In a "Narnia Educator Guide" Sealey located on the film's Web site, religion or Christianity is not mentioned once in a 16-page document.
"The issue is secular audiences," he said. "Will they appreciate seeing a religious message without knowing it? [Disney] should make a statement; they should let people know. The lion is resurrected.... It's a great piece of entertainment and you can enjoy it if you're Christian or not. However, the underpinnings of the work reflect the New Testament."
The stealth-marketing campaign may lead to nonreligious viewers feeling "duped" when they find out about "Lion's" Christian message via the Internet or any number of news outlets in today's 24-hour news world. But it wouldn't be the first time. Sealey recalled that last year's Nicolas Cage vehicle "National Treasure" was also target-marketed to Christian audiences in a manner highly different than the general ad campaign. And that worked out fine, he noted.
If, in fact, "Lion" is overtly preachy about any subject, it is the dogged and repeated warnings not to lock oneself in a wardrobe. But once it is known that Lewis was a theologian who wrote with a Christian message in mind, the parallels between the Narnia tales and the Christian Bible easily fall into place.
• Narnia is a magical kingdom created by the Divine King Aslan, but currently in a state of perpetual winter due to a curse of the evil White Witch. The four children (two "Sons of Adam," two "Daughters of Eve") stumble in via the enchanted, eponymous wardrobe, and become the disciples of Aslan. The child Edmund betrays his siblings and Aslan, Judas-style, to aid the White Witch, and is saved when Aslan allows himself to be sacrificed, not unlike Jesus.\n
• Aslan is resurrected, and the White Witch is vanquished. The four children are crowned kings and queens of Narnia. Peter -- not a coincidental choice of name -- becomes High King.
You figure it out.
But the Christian allegory doesn't worry Rabbi Harry Manhoff. Christianity has never been something that scared him, and he isn't about to start now. He read the books to his children, who are now grown. If he still had young kids going to see the film, he'd rather they didn't know about its Christian underpinnings.
He related an anecdote from when "Fiddler on the Roof" went on the road to Japan. Following the show, audience members approached the cast and said, "We don't understand why you'd put on this play anywhere else in the world. It's such a Japanese story."
The moral of that story, according to Manhoff, the spiritual leader of San Leandro's Conservative Congregation, Beth Sholom, and the holder of a Ph.D in Christian studies, "is, people take away from a movie whatever they bring to a movie. I don't think Jewish kids who go to this movie will be converted to Christianity just because a character dies and those who trust him go to a better place."
Besides, he said, Jewish moviegoers of an earlier generation watched overtly Christian films such as "Ben-Hur" or "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and didn't beat a path to the nearest baptismal pool. Why should today's filmgoers be any different?
"Could [this film] be used for a darker, sectarian purpose? Probably anything can," said the Rev. Charles Gibbs, director of San Francisco's United Religions Initiative, an interfaith institute. "But at this point I am not concerned this movie will have a detrimental impact on interfaith work or lead to a backlash against any particular groups."
And the Christian target marketing? Gibbs just sees that as a proven way to get people into theaters.
And Dardik isn't the only one to have read "Lion" in day school. At the Pressman Academy in Los Angeles, fourth-graders are hearing the book as a read-aloud. School principal Andrew Polsky sees this as a proactive move.
"It's current and it happens to be quality literature. I knew many kids would see it, and it's good to get exposed to literature before seeing a movie," he said. "Movies sometimes color the vision and imagination of kids for reading a great novel," he said.
And the Christian allegories? Polsky isn't worried about that: "You have to remember, at this time of year Christian stuff is prevalent everywhere. We can't shelter our kids from it. And in fourth grade, these kids are 9 years old. They understand things on a very simplistic level. Maybe in 10th or 12th grade they can understand allegories, but not at 9 years old."
Dardik, incidentally, will probably wait to rent the film before allowing his children to watch it. And, even then, "my son is 5, so he'd probably be scared by it."