United Methodists find spiritual riches, tools in 'Narnia'


By Josh Tinley (UMNS)

When C.S. Lewis published his first children's book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in 1950, friends and critics alike feared that the popular theologian had made a poor career move. More than 50 years later, Lion and the six other novels known collectively as "The Chronicles of Narnia" are Lewis' best-known and most widely read works.

With the Dec. 9 theatrical release of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" from Walt Disney and Walden Media, United Methodists are turning to the classic Christian fantasy for inspiration and as a tool for spiritual formation.

"We need to support movies like this," says Mike Quimby, youth minister at Bemus Point United Methodist Church in western New York. Bemus Point is stuffing bulletins with official promotional fliers to encourage members to see the movie and to take their friends.

"Lewis has touched so many people throughout the years with his many works but most importantly his fiction," says Gavin Finefield, a Presbyterian pastor in Iowa who is studying Lewis and Narnia with the youth in his congregation, using resources produced by the United Methodist Publishing House. "The kids understand it."

"Understanding it" may be what separates "The Chronicles of Narnia" from J.R.R. Tolkien's more literary and critically embraced "The Lord of the Rings" (adapted for the screen by director Peter Jackson), to which Narnia is often compared. Both are fantasy epics by openly Christian authors that have been turned into popular films. But while the Christian themes in "The Lord of the Rings" are cryptic at best, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe clearly parallels the story of Christ. The other six books in the series also echo major Christian narratives and doctrines.

"I think one important difference between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien is how obvious the Christian allusions are," says Jodie P. Boyer, who is leading a study on Lion through the Wesley Foundation at the University of Illinois. "Personally, I found Narnia a little 'beat you over the head' with Christianity, whereas Tolkien's books are much less obvious with the allusion. Of course, this is to be expected, since the audience is very different."

The church's response to the big-screen version of Lion is reminiscent of the response to Mel Gibson's 2004 film, "The Passion of the Christ." Many consider the prospect of a Christian blockbuster movie an excellent opportunity for evangelism and Christian education. And unlike the controversial and R-rated "Passion," The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is less of a hot-button among critics, clergy, and scholars and is easier for the average churchgoer to digest.

Six United Methodist churches around the country, including Bemus Point in New York, have hosted official "sneak peek" events. These events give people in the community a chance to see clips from the film, to learn about the making of the movie and to get their hands on promotional materials.

"The clips from the movie were wonderful, just wonderful," says LeaAnne Montel, director of children's ministries at Petoskey (Mich.) United Methodist Church. The sneak peak "was very worthwhile."

Petoskey, Mich., is also home to the annual C.S. Lewis Festival, an event that has become popular in the build-up to the movie. The festival was spearheaded in part by Petoskey Church, and the church continues to be intimately involved in the event. This year, Lewis scholar David Neuhouser from Taylor University in Upland, Ind., is leading workshops for children and adults and preaching at Petoskey Church the weekend the movie hits theaters.

Several other United Methodist congregations are planning Narnia-themed Bible studies, Sunday school classes and sermon series. The Rev. Greg Hazelrig, a United Methodist pastor in Mississippi, is doing a short, seasonal sermon series on Lion titled, "Christmas in Narnia," in which he will imagine life without Christmas.

"In the book, there is no Christmas until Aslan defeats the witch," Hazelrig says, referring to the curse of the White Witch that makes it always winter in Narnia but never Christmas. "I'm hoping to take that as a beginning and lead with it throughout the rest of the series."

Visiting Narnia
The fact that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a children's story makes it well suited for age-level Sunday school classes. Edmonds United Methodist Church, just outside Seattle, recently did a monthlong Sunday school rotation where the children of the congregation experienced Narnia firsthand.

As in Lion, the children at Edmonds Church walked through a wooden door and into a forest surrounding a lamppost where they met and had tea with the faun, Mr. Tumnus. During a lesson on temptation, they learned how to make Turkish Delight, the sweet treat the White Witch used to entice Edmund in Narnia.

Marta Schellburg, associate pastor and director of children's ministries at Edmonds, put together the ambitious Sunday school rotation. In the spirit of Lewis himself, Schellburg made sure not to treat the story like an allegory, in which each character and event has some greater significance for Christians.

"They picked (the symbolism) up themselves, and that was their gift back to us," she says. "It was amazing what they were picking up in Narnia: 'You know, Pastor Marta, Aslan died like Jesus - Aslan died to save Edmund.'"

Though "The Chronicles" were written for children, many United Methodist youth and adults also have found meaning in Lewis' fairy tale. The United Methodist Publishing House has published two electronic curriculum resources based on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for youth. One gives youth tools for exploring the story's Christian themes after seeing the movie together as a group. The other is a four-week book study of the book that looks closely at the themes of temptation, perseverance, hope, and salvation.

Sarah Arthur, a United Methodist layperson and author of Walking Through the Wardrobe, a devotional for youth and young adults based on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, says narratives such as the Narnia stories are good ways to re-introduce the Gospel to adolescents.

"A lot of young people we work with in the church are battling apathy," Arthur says. "They've heard the basics of the gospel so many times that it no longer has any meaning for them personally, if it ever did. (Lion) is the kind of story that demands a kind of 'suspension of disbelief' in which a young person's usual defenses are down just long enough for his or her imagination to be touched anew."

Arthur also hopes that her devotional will challenge adolescents to explore Lewis' other, more mature, works.

Childlike faith
Boyer, who is leading a study with college students, finds that adults are excited to rediscover stories from their childhood.

"Many of the people in my study have noted that when they read the books as children, they didn't see the allegory," she says. Though Boyer agrees with critics who say that Lewis was not a great fantasy writer, she thinks that the Narnia books are fun and can help adults to have "faith like a child."

"I first read (Lion) in grade school," says Heather Futrell, a University of Illinois aerospace engineering student, commenting on Narnia at the campus Wesley Foundation. "I had no idea that so many Christian metaphors were throughout the book, and when I started looking for them, they jump out at you. These books are a great way to expose kids to a significant portion of the Christian belief, and also inspire excellent discussions when in a group setting."

"I suppose one could teach a child about God's love and Christ's sacrifice through 'The Chronicles,' (but) we college and graduate students picked this book apart and still discovered questions we couldn't answer," said Kristen Ehrenberger, a graduate student of history at the university.

Of course, many adults are taking a second look at The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe only because it is now a big-time movie. "Personally," Boyer says, "I really like the recent trend in turning books into movies because they are actually encouraging people to read. I hadn't read 'Lord of the Rings' or 'Narnia' until I found out they were making movies, and I don't regret the kick to get me reading books that I should I have read a long time ago."

Churches that miss out on the initial frenzy will have more chances to bring C.S. Lewis' mythical world into the life of their congregation: There are plans for big-screen versions of the other six Narnia stories.

*Tinley is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn., staff member at the United Methodist Publishing House, where he was development editor for two Narnia-related products.

Related reading
Bishop Ward's E-pistle "The Advent of Aslan"