Sunday, January 16, 2011

Faith in Fantasy

I saw the most recent Narnia film today with my daughter. (She's a big fan.) On the whole, I'd have to rate it a failure, certainly inferior to the first and best, and even a hair below the second. Though it had plenty of promising material--a high seas adventure in search of enchanted swords and missing lords, a boy who turns into a dragon, a pool that transforms all it touches to gold--for me, all of these elements fell flat. And the reason is simple: the film had no faith in its own fantasy.

That's the problem with allegory, and the Narnia films, though they've been softened somewhat from the overtly allegorical books, are nonetheless allegories. (At one point in the film Aslan tells Lucy, "I am known by a different name in your world, and you must come to know me there." Yawn.) Allegory, by its very nature, empties fantasy of its mystery and appeal and turns it into a mere facade or excuse for something else, something supposedly deeper and presumably more important. Allegory won't let fantasy simply be; it insists that fantasy has to mean, and what it means cancels out the very vessel that holds the meaning. So instead of a thrilling adventure, you get a dull lesson in temptation and sin. Instead of true imagination, you get a sermon. Instead of a talking lion, you get talking points about the Son of God.

I say all this, remember, having nothing against the Son of God. As Martin Luther King Jr. Day approaches, I think we would all do well to remember what the Son of God said, and try to live our lives, as King did, a bit more in his example.

But King was no allegory. Neither was Christ. They were living models of the spiritual life, and when they told us to follow them, they didn't need a talking lion to make their case.

So let's have both faith and fantasy, and keep the two separate. Let's allow life to be mysterious and unknowable for its own sake (that's fantasy) as well as mysterious and unknowable for some higher purpose (that's faith). Let's not demean faith by calling it a fantasy. But let's not demean fantasy either by insisting it has to be the handmaiden of faith.

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