LAST WEEK’S long-anticipated opening of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the first film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia,” has brought a torrent of anti-Lewis commentary from the left. Narnia is sexist (threatened by evil witches who are always women), racist and religiously intolerant (its enemies are swarthy, turban-wearing idol worshipers) and offensively Christian (the magical land is ruled by a Christ-like lion deity named Aslan).
These criticisms seem nonsensical and deeply unfair. Lewis, an Oxford don whose theological writing for adults made him one of the 20th century’s great Christian apologists, has always struck me as a nonsecular humanist. He has long been a hero of the right -- thus the renewed antipathy, in the wake of the movie, from the left.
I was surprised to discover recently, though, that Narnia also has enemies on the right -- and their complaints are even wackier than those from the left. Recently, I was wondering what the religious fanatics who dislike the “evil” magic in the Harry Potter books think of Lewis, considering that Narnia also features magic, even though it is clearly Christian. So a reader pointed me to an astonishing website run by a Tennessee piano tuner named Steve Van Natten and his daughter, Mary.
Unlike typical anti-Harry Potter fundamentalists, who often haven’t even read the books that so infuriate them, the Van Nattens have studied Lewis very, very closely, and their site is loaded with citations and footnotes. They think, among other things, that Lewis was actually a pagan sun god worshipper and occultist, not a Christian, although they suspect that the famous Anglican was also a secret Catholic, which in their view is just as bad as being a pagan. I’ve never been able to understand that whole anti-Catholic thing -- nor how you swear allegiance to the sun as well as to Rome.
But I did learn an interesting new term meandering around Van Natten-land: “King James Only-ist.” This is a person who thinks anyone who reads a version of the Bible other than the King James one is a heretic headed straight for hell. The Van Nattens, apparently, are King James Only-ists. They think people such as Pat Robertson are dangerously progressive.
And the Van Nattens are, I’m sorry to say, very far from alone in their opinions. Reportedly, there are more than 500 websites devoted to attacking Lewis for exposing children to dangerous “occult” ideas through Narnia, as well as for being too accepting of other religions.
“Lewis cannot accurately be called an evangelical and may be called a Christian only in a historical or nominal sense,” writes John W. Robbins, of the evangelical think tank the Trinity Foundation, in an essay titled “Did C.S. Lewis Go to Heaven?” (The answer, according to Robbins, is no.)
Narnia offers “the salvation message of an occult, New Age lion,” writes Jeff Zakula of Keepers of the Faith, a business that sells children’s books to home-schoolers. “Lewis, like Disney, was a New Ager. He built entire surrealistic worlds for our children to escape into -- escape from reality and from real life. These worlds invariably contain creatures of every sort endearing to our children, performing heroic feats and displaying often greater powers than our savior.”
My shock at this bizarre anti-C.S. Lewis campaign eventually became a kind of amazed appreciation. The screeds from Robbins and Zakula are actually quite well written -- disturbingly so, in fact. And the Van Nattens offer up a strangely compelling American folk art that can’t be faked. They also complain, for instance, that Lewis smoked and drank and that he used the word “ass” four times in books written for children.
OK, he was writing about a donkey in these instances, Mary Van Natten admits, and “being British, it probably did not mean the same to him as it does to Americans (as a swear word), but he could have left it out, especially since he only used it four times and did use ‘donkey’ in other places. However, considering the filthy state of his mind, it is possible that he thought this cute.”
As it happens, the name of the Van Natten website is Balaam’s Ass, not Balaam’s Donkey. But apparently that particular use of the word “ass” is allowed, since it’s directly from the King James Bible, and the website warns that no one under 18 should enter.
However, I noticed that its name did get them listed on a couple of porn aggregators emphasizing anal sex. And I’d say they kind of deserved it.