The Lion, the Witch, and the Boardroom

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken October 7, 2001

For fans of the great Christian writer C. S. Lewis, this ought to be a time of celebration. It was just over fifty years ago that Lewis published The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of seven children’s books called the Chronicles of Narnia.

The books have been a spectacular publishing success. They have also served as a wonderful tool for pre-evangelism. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a story of betrayal, redemption, atonement, and resurrection. It is not quite a Christian allegory, but it does tell the story of the gospel. In fact, my grandmother used to read it to her public school students as a form of covert evangelism. Lewis himself would have approved. He once observed that his fantasies enabled Christian theology to “steal past those watchful dragons”—the enemies of orthodoxy.

Many Christians are passionate about Narnia, which explains the storm of protest this summer when The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and other major newspapers reported on plans to update Lewis’s literary legacy. There have been three major allegations: first, that the C. S. Lewis Company is forcing a forthcoming PBS documentary to downplay Lewis’s Christianity; second, that HarperCollins is planning to add new titles to the Narnia series; and third, that the publisher is actively seeking to remove Christian imagery from Lewis’s fiction [see Marvin Olasky, “Off with his Head,” World (June 16, 2001), pp. 30-36].

These accusations are based primarily on an internal memo written by Steve Hanselman, the editorial director at HarperCollins. The purpose of his memo was to make sure that the PBS special did not say too much about Lewis’s personal faith in Jesus Christ. Hanselman wrote: “We’ll need to be able to give emphatic assurances that no attempt will be made to correlate the [Narnia] stories to Christian imagery/ theology… the documentary should not make this connection in any way. Narnia should come across as one of the great creations of fantasy literature, with roots in general myth and folklore.”

Hanselman also commented on the film’s approach Lewis’s conversion. “This drives the narrative,” he wrote, “how he [Lewis] grows to maturity and passes from atheism, to skepticism, to belief—but is not overdone so as to cause worry. As treated, there is no characterization of what ‘true conversion’ or ‘true Christianity’ is supposed to be. We’ll need to make sure it stays that way.”

These comments do not come as much of a surprise to C. S. Lewis experts. The people who now control Lewis’s publications often seem more interested in making money and protecting their literary property than in furthering the cause of the gospel that Lewis loved. So what kinds of changes can we expect?

Apparently trying to capitalize on the success of Harry Potter, HarperCollins will publish new Narnia books, written by new authors. According to the president of the children’s division, they “will not be sequels as such, but books using the same characters and with story lines which fill in the gaps of existing ones.” (It must be said that any writer who attempts to reproduce the work of a literary giant like C. S. Lewis is a fool).

It seems doubtful whether anyone will attempt to change the books that Lewis has already written. HarperCollins bristles at the suggestion that it has any intention of tampering with Lewis’s legacy. The publisher has spent millions of dollars to reissue and promote Lewis’s nonfiction, and is eager to show that its new editions are faithful to the originals. Indeed, HarperCollins has done the church a service by printing books such as Mere Christianity in a way will attract a new and wider audience.

What is more difficult to guess is what will become of the proposed documentary. Its producers are all devout Christians, who view their work as an opportunity to help bring people to Christ. Since they are unwilling to edit out Lewis’s Christian faith there is a chance that their film will never be aired.

What is striking about all of this is the blatant hostility that some people are showing to the gospel. Clearly, what they are opposed to is Jesus Christ. They seem to think that C. S. Lewis would be all right, if only something could be done about his Christianity. What makes this so laughable is that his faith is thoroughly integrated into all his work.

C. S. Lewis mastered several different kinds of writing: apologetics (Mere Christianity), autobiography (Surprised by Joy, A Grief Observed), theology (The Four Loves, Miracles, The Problem of Pain), fantasy (the Chronicles of Narnia), and science fiction (Perelandra, Out of the Silent Planet, That Hideous Strength), to say nothing of his literary criticism. Lewis’s scholarly books on medieval and Renaissance literature (such as A Preface to Paradise Lost, Oxford History of English Literature—The Sixteenth Century, An Experiment in Criticism) remain standard works in the field. Then there his inventive work on demonology (The Screwtape Letters).

What ties all these works together is Lewis’s faith in Jesus Christ. His Christian commitment informs his analysis, shapes his imagination, and guides his theology. Almost every page of his work speaks of the horrors of sin, the joy of salvation, and the duties of the Christian life. In response to the attempt to keep Jesus out of Narnia, The New York Times Book Review observed that “if Christianity is an obstacle, then the publisher has a problem… they are Christian through and through. It’s not as if Lewis composed some children’s stories, then sprinkled on a dusting of religious imagery that a sequel writer can easily sponge off. At every level except the most superficial, they’re an explicit allegory of faith” [Judith Shulevitz, “Don’t Mess with Aslan,” August 26. 2001, p. 27]. Remove the Christianity from the writings of C. S. Lewis and there would be nothing left!

In a culture that is increasingly resistant to good Christian thinking, C. S. Lewis continues to serve as a good model for our evangelism. In one of his letters he wrote of his aspiration to “say things helpful to salvation” [The Latin Letters of C. S. Lewis (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1987), p. 42]. By doing this, he kept the biblical command: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet. 3:15). In his evangelism C. S. Lewis always made Jesus Christ the central issue. May God help us to live in such a way that people are always confronted with Christ, whether they will accept him or not.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org