Christians And Muslims, Together In Intolerance? Followed By A Christian Criticism Of Lewis

I was wondering how McDonald's could promote the Narnia movie in a heavily Muslim portion of the world. Well, according to atheist Philip Pullman, the explanation is simple - Lewis' allegedly racist views would go over well on the Arabian peninsula.

To millions The Chronicles of Narnia are a childhood tale of wonder and triumph now made into a film that could inspire millions of children to read. To others, including the celebrated fantasy author Philip Pullman, they are stories of racism and thinly veiled religious propaganda that will corrupt children rather than inspiring them.... an avowed atheist and a critic of Lewis....'If the Disney Corporation wants to market this film as a great Christian story, they'll just have to tell lies about it,' Pullman told The Observer.

Pullman believes that Lewis's books portray a version of Christianity that relies on martial combat, outdated fears of sexuality and women, and also portrays a religion that looks a lot like Islam in unashamedly racist terms.

'It's not the presence of Christian doctrine I object to so much as the absence of Christian virtue. The highest virtue, we have on the authority of the New Testament itself, is love, and yet you find not a trace of that in the books,' he said.

The Narnia books, Pullman said, contained '...a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice; but of love, of Christian charity, [there is] not a trace'.

In October 1998, Pullman published an essay entitled The Darkside of Narnia, which didn't get into the Muslim comparisons, but which was withering in its own way. Here are excerpts:

Why the Narnia books are popular with children is not difficult to see. In a superficial and bustling way, Lewis could tell a story, and when he cheats, as he frequently does, the momentum carries you over the bumps and the potholes. But there have always been adults who suspected what he was up to. His friend Tolkien took a dim view of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, particularly disliking Lewis's slapdash way with mythology: 'It really won't do, you know!' And the American critic John Goldthwaite, in his powerful and original study of children's literature The Natural History Of Make-Believe (OUP, 1996), lays bare the misogyny, the racism, the sado-masochistic relish for violence that permeates the whole cycle.

For an open-eyed reading of the books reveals some hair-raising stuff. One of the most vile moments in the whole of children's literature, to my mind, occurs at the end of The Last Battle, when Aslan reveals to the children that "The term is over: the holidays have begun" because "There was a real railway accident. Your father and mother and all of you are - as you used to call it in the Shadowlands - dead." To solve a narrative problem by killing one of your characters is something many authors have done at one time or another. To slaughter the lot of them, and then claim they're better off, is not honest storytelling: it's propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology. But that's par for the course. Death is better than life; boys are better than girls; light-coloured people are better than dark-coloured people; and so on. There is no shortage of such nauseating drivel in Narnia, if you can face it.

There is the loathsome glee with which the children from the co-educational school are routed, in The Silver Chair: "with the strength of Aslan in them, Jill plied her crop on the girls and Caspian and Eustace plied the flats of their swords so well that in two minutes all the bullies were running away like mad, crying out, 'Murder! Fascists! Lions! It isn't fair.' And then the Head [who was, by the way, a woman] came running out to see what was happening." There is the colossal impertinence, to put it mildly, of hijacking the emotions that are evoked by the story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection in order to boost the reader's concern about Aslan in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe.

And in The Last Battle, notoriously, there's the turning away of Susan from the Stable (which stands for salvation) because "She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up." In other words, Susan, like Cinderella, is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn't approve of that. He didn't like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up. Susan, who did want to grow up, and who might have been the most interesting character in the whole cycle if she'd been allowed to, is a Cinderella in a story where the Ugly Sisters win....

I haven't the slightest doubt that the man will be sainted in due course: the legend is too potent. However, when that happens, those of us who detest the supernaturalism, the reactionary sneering, the misogyny, the racism, and the sheer dishonesty of his narrative method will still be arguing against him.

He's talked about Islam elsewhere:

Now: what does it mean to say "I am a Muslim"? Is it the same sort of thing as saying "I am a Jew" or "I am a Sikh"? Not quite, because being a Jew or a Sikh is a matter of race as well as of belief, according to the law as it stands.

Is it the same sort of thing as saying "I am a Catholic"? It might be more like that, because saying you are Muslim or Catholic says nothing about your ethnic origin. But it isn't quite like that, because you can choose to leave the Catholic church without facing a penalty on earth, though you might go to hell when you die. If you choose to stop being a Muslim, you are an apostate and, depending on where you live, liable to severe punishment, which might include the death penalty. So being a Muslim is partly a matter of choice and partly one of coercion. If you are born into a Muslim family and brought up in that faith, you will not be able to leave it as easily as a child born into a Catholic family can leave the Church....

I'd better say why I would like to be free to criticise religion, and think about its effects on society, without fear of prosecution. Religion is something that human beings do. Like art, it's a phenomenon that has characterised every society we know about. Thanks partly to the Enlightenment, it's been possible in the past couple of hundred years or so to consider religions dispassionately, to look at their historical development, to examine their social effects, to appreciate the art they inspire, to question the philosophical implications of their claims to truth, and so on.

It's easier for someone who is not a zealous believer to do this. Those who are passionate adherents of their faith, who are willing to kill and die for it, are less likely to take a wide and considered view of the subject. And the fact that religion makes people willing to do these extreme things is one of the reasons we need to examine it. Something in the nature of religious conviction gives believers the chance to experience sharp and intoxicating tastes; those inclined to it can become addicted to the gamey tang of the absolute, the pungency of righteousness, the furtive sexiness of intolerance. Religion grants us these malign sensations more strongly and more deeply than any other human phenomenon.

And it's religion that allows otherwise intelligent people to discard the fundamental methods of science and to teach "creationism" to schoolchildren. It's in the name of religious law that vile and grotesque punishments (mutilations and stonings) are carried out in parts of Africa and the Middle East today, as they were in Europe (torture, burning at the stake) only a few hundred years ago. And in the US especially, it's religion that's called in to justify the rapacity of the giant corporations that despoil the environment, by saying that there is no shortage of resources in God's earth, and in any case it doesn't matter if the earth is ravaged beyond repair, because all the good people are going to be whisked up to heaven in the Rapture. That sort of religion is aesthetically nauseating, intellectually toxic, and ethically squalid, and I can think of few activities more valuable than saying so loudly and clearly.

Here's what Pullman's web page says about religion:

Some of the articles and talks I've written are to do with the subject of religion, which I think is a very interesting one. The religious impulse – which includes the sense of awe and mystery we feel when we look at the universe, the urge to find a meaning and a purpose in our lives, our sense of moral kinship with other human beings – is part of being human, and I value it. I'd be a damn fool not to.

But organised religion is quite another thing. The trouble is that all too often in human history, churches and priesthoods have set themselves up to rule people's lives in the name of some invisible god (and they're all invisible, because they don't exist) – and done terrible damage. In the name of their god, they have burned, hanged, tortured, maimed, robbed, violated, and enslaved millions of their fellow-creatures, and done so with the happy conviction that they were doing the will of God, and they would go to Heaven for it.

That is the religion I hate, and I'm happy to be known as its enemy.

And with that, enjoy your Narnia Happy Meals, children of Qatar. And think of loving Philip Pullman. Here's what Brad Sondahl said:

Clearly, in comparing Pullman and C.S. Lewis, one feels Lewis comes out far
ahead in the "heart" category...

Debbie Gascoyne felt that many would not survive a political correctness test:

Well, I think it's a case of Philip Pullman being the pot calling the kettle black. I have some admiration for his work, but there's a lot that doesn't bear up to close scrutiny. Most of his criticism is aimed at easy marks (the "Susan" question has been debated here). Not to condone Lewis' sexism and racism, but don't we have to place the books in their social and political context? J.R.R. Tolkien, bless his heart (and, I think, a far superior writer to Lewis), can't stand up to detailed analysis by the politically correct. As for someone like Enid Blyton, well, I shudder to think. That doesn't detract from the hours, cumulative years, of collective pleasure those authors have given readers. If there are elements that don't wear well after 50 years, well, parents and teachers can raise interesting questions for discussion.

Andrew Osmond wrote a letter:

my own letter to the paper (not published) went something like this:

Dear Sir,

Philip Pullman's hyperbolic attack on CS Lewis ('The Dark Side of Narnia,' G2, October 1st) is disappointingly thin. Contra Pullan's piece, I've seldom met a Narnia 'devotee' who doesn't concede that the Narnia books can be cruel, clumsy and sexist - points which could also be made against a huge range of childrens' media, from Blyton to Disney. But Pullman's complaints are misplaced. The whole point of Susan's fate, as Lewis makes clear, is that she *doesn't* grow up, stopping in arrested adolescence. The charge of Lewis' 'impertinent' use of the Crucifixion is strange, given Pullman's own NORTHERN LIGHTS [the British title for THE GOLDEN COMPASS] culminates in a Genesis pastiche. Finally, if Pullman really thinks Lewis hated 'darkies,' he must have forgotten the character of Emeth in THE LAST BATTLE.
Yours sincerely,

I'm the first to admit these points aren't watertight - e.g. there still may be misogynist undertones to the Susan case - but I thought Pullman's article begged too many questions and I wanted to present the other side....

P.S. Pullman quotes approvingly from the US critic John Goldthwaite, author of THE NATURAL HISTORY OF MAKE-BELIEVE, which I'm afraid I haven't read. All I've seen of Goldthwaite are a few quoted, ranting soundbites against Lewis, attacking his 'unashamed racism', 'snide misogyny,''contempt for democracy, 'smug chauvinism' and 'his travestying of Christ in a supposedly Christian fable.' He concludes 'the word evil comes to mind.' (As do the words, 'pisspoor, hectoring criticism' to mine.)

Steffan O'Sullivan weighed in:

While I like the Narnia books very much, even after several rereadings, I don't care for Pullman's fantasies. The Sally Lockhart series showed a LOT of potential - at first (and I still love The Ruby in the Smoke). By the second book, though, I was disgusted with his cruelty to his characters, and the third book of that series and then the Tin Princess only confirmed that I would *not* want to be a character in a Pullman novel. I also find, after many years of reading, that if I wouldn't want to be in a novel, I don't enjoy them.

I suspect, having read the Guardian article by Pullman, that he's an ex-Christian who threw the Baby out with the bathwater, and can't forgive anyone still Christian anything. I personally find Lewis a bit sappy at times, but forgive him that for the very fine moments in his books. I find I can't forgive Pullman for the very cruel moments in his books, though - crueler than anything Lewis did even to Susan.

So who is John Goldthwaite? BigHominid quotes from a Salon article (yes, BigHominid, I am unprincipled) that summarizes the Goldthwaite work:

John Goldthwaite, a Christian himself and a scholar of children's literature, wrote an extended critique of the purported Christian underpinnings of the "Chronicles" in his intelligent, fiery and occasionally injudicious 1996 study of the field, "A Natural History of Make-Believe."

In essence, Goldthwaite argues that Lewis uses Narnia as a sheltered preserve for his own prejudices -- which, it must be admitted, were many and far from pretty. But closer to the heart of this critique lies Goldthwaite's assertion that "whenever a professed Christian feels he must create some wholly other world to explore the meaning of his religion, he is flirting with bad faith. When he fills that world with the make-believes of other religions, he is playing at polytheism. When he further sets sorceresses to rule over it, and werewolves, incubuses and wraiths, he is dabbling in Manichaean dualism, the idea that standing opposed to God's good creation is another, separate and equal, or nearly equal, creation given over to evil."

From the Ontario Empoblog (Latest OVVA news here)