Monday, July 5, 2010

Christ Figures and Aslan

In response to my article On Fantasy Christ Figures, I was asked what I thought about Aslan, the great Lion in C S Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia series. It is a good question. In answer, let me begin by a statement from the original article,

“Everything that Christ did was revelatory of the Father. His body language, facial expressions, speech, choice of words, etc. was all revelatory.”

I believe that postulation to be true. Even as Christ walked amongst us before his resurrection and subsequent session at the right hand of the Father, Christ was The Revelation of God – the final revelation, as Hebrews 1:1,2 implies. His followers, in particular, the Twelve, not only witnessed what he did, but they bore witness to him.

I may observe what one does from a distance, even on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. It could be a co-worker, a celebrity, my pastor, a teacher. In a case like one of these, I may achieve some sense of what the person is like, inwardly, but it would be negligible; I have little intimate understanding of his character. I haven’t seen him close up; I haven’t been witness to how he reacts in a particularly bad, or good, set of circumstances. I am not his close, intimate friend that would permit to witness him under such conditions. Hence, in those situations, I see neither his facial expressions nor body language, nor hear the words that come out of his mouth, nor their inflection and tone, all of which convey information about the person. This information is not merely about what he is capable or incapable of being from a purely physical or intellectual perspective. More importantly, it reveals something about the character and heart. Certainly, we cannot know a man as he knows himself, but that man cannot help but reveal something about himself when we see him as he interacts with this world and its situations, and especially as he interacts with us.

That is what Christ did. He did not stand aloof from his disciples. He was in their midst such that John reminded his readers that he (and the other disciples) not only saw him, but they touched him. They witnessed not only what Christ did and what he said to the multitudes, but what he said and did within their little circle. In that intimate circle, Christ, in every aspect of his humanness, revealed the Father to them. He never spoke, facially expressed, postured, or intoned in such a manner that gave a false witness to the Father. Whether he wept or laughed, spoke softly or cried out, touched gently or gripped harshly, ignored or paid the closest of attention, whatever he did, he was revealing something about the Father. And only because it was he who behaved and spoke in that manner was there assurance of no falsehood – Christ was the Truth, the Word, and as such he declared (John 1:18) the Father with complete accuracy. He who saw Christ, saw the Father (John 14:9).

My contention is that if there is one who portrays Christ in our fantasy story, there is the danger that we may make the figure say something or behave in a certain manner, whose bearing may communicate to the reader something about God that is not completely accurate, possibly even blasphemous.

The danger of this happening increases the more the Christ figure coincides in identity with the Christ of the New Testament. Notable examples in film are Ben Hur and Passion of the Christ. In the former, Christ is on the fringe and never seen face to face. In fact, he is quite mute. In the latter, one virtually stands (and sits) next to the Messiah where, to me, his troubled, frustrated countenance appears as moody and depressing as my mean-spirited uncle’s, even at the best of times.

This is where I think there is a difference between Lewis’s Aslan and the Christ figure of some other novels. In stories in which the Christ figure is a human being, we have a figure who is an image-bearer of God and therefore capable of saying something accurately about God. The danger, his image-bearing provides the potential to say something false about God.

Animals were not made in God’s image, and as such, are not able to reflect God’s attributes. They reveal his existence and deity in much the same way all of creation does by its very existence, design, and purpose (Romans 1:20).

I am not contending that because Aslan was an animal, he was incapable of faulty revelation. In our world, a lion does not have the equipment to do so, but in the world of Narnia, the animals themselves take on some of the image-bearing attributes of men. In fact, there is often, if not always, no difference. Because of that, Aslan carries the risk that all Christ-figures bear. On the other hand, the fact that Aslan is animal, the reader is less likely to see in Aslan a parallel identity with Christ. The words that he speaks, his growling that signals anger, or a low purring growl that indicates approval or contentment are not viewed in the same way as the speech and mood of a human figure. Nevertheless, there is still the danger.

I want to digress slightly to address something that is not wholly related to the discussion, but does lead to a point that allows us to draw some conclusions.

The single event in The Chronicles of Narnia that is most tell-tale of Aslan as a Christ figure, is his ignominious sacrificial death for the despicable Edmund, and his subsequent resurrection. The scene at the Table is distanced from the close-up, intimate details of a face-to-face encounter. But the event and Aslan’s behavior through it, does make a statement about the kind of love that gives itself up in a supreme sacrifice for one who does not deserve it. In that, we have an illustration of the meaning of “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” I see little, if anything in the Table scene, which fails to communicate that well and accurately. But then we get to the resurrection, and there, I think, is a problem. Aslan explains the meaning of why he was able to come back to life:

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know... if she could have looked a littler further back... she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.” (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, page 163, Scholastic, 1995)

Here, we have the words of Aslan himself (we can say we have Aslanic revelation), explaining his resurrection in terms of a deeper magic which worked on the principle that only a willing victim who had committed no treachery, qualified to be raised from the dead. The reference to magic does not bother me as I take it to refer to a profound entity above and beyond what is found in the natural world - whose existence, in fact, is from Aslan’s father, the Emperor Over the Sea. The deep and deeper magic in the world of Narnia, is what supernatural (the biblical concept) is in our world. What does bother me is that the principle on which Aslan’s resurrection was based; “a willing victim who has committed no treachery” is not completely accurate. Granted, in that principle one may see parallels to the sinlessness of Christ and as such, his perfect, spotless (sinless) sacrifice. But Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient not merely because he was sinless. If an angel became incarnate and died as a sacrifice (as the Jehovah’s Witness believes) he would have satisfied that criteria as well. But the sacrifice of an incarnate angel would not meet the demand of justice from an infinitely holy God, against whom disobedience is an infinite offense. Such requires one who is capable of paying an infinite debt, and only God himself can pay such a debt. If Christ had not satisfied the justice of God for the sins of his people, he would not have risen from the dead; and he could not have satisfied the just demands of God unless he was God himself. This point does not come out in Aslan’s explanation of his resurrection, and only by remembering that Aslan is the son of the Emperor Over the Seas, the creator of the Deep and Deeper magic, could such a point be implicitly made.

To get back to our discussion, the explanation of Aslan’s resurrection and its flaws does show for us that Aslan is not the perfect Christ figure, that is, he is not, in every aspect of his character an identity with the New Testament Christ. This fact, and the question of image-bearing, probably makes Aslan a safe figure, one whose likelihood to persuasively say something false about God is rather small.

In my estimation, the problem with a fantasy Christ figure turns on whether or not the figure is a human being. Presently, I would be loathe to include a Christ figure in any of my stories portrayed by a man. In fact, I would be very hesitant to include anything, man or animal, whose role is by design such a figure. The risk is too great that my character might be unchrist-like, not intentionally, but inadvertently.

I read almost half of the novel, The Shack, by William Paul Young, a bestseller. I once sat in a hospital waiting room across from one who was avidly devouring its pages. I could not finish it. Its depiction of a Trinity was so human and trite that the three musketeers, “One for all and all for one,” could have done the job better. It was blasphemous. The laid back Dude, Jesus, is so banal and misrepresentative of the Second Person of the Trinity (the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who judges and makes war in righteousness, Rev 19:11; who in flaming fire will take vengeance on his and our enemies, 2 Thess 1:6-10; who stands before the throne of God as a Lamb, slain, Rev 5:6; before whom multitudes upon multitudes cry out in praise and adoration, Rev 5:8-13; before whom the most intimate and holy angels fall down and worship, Rev 5:14), that he is horrendously blasphemous. To say everything that ought to be said about that scandalous book would take another article, and my muster to finish reading it. I don’t think I can do that.

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