28 December 2005

The Liar, the Witless and the Warroom

The most problematic scene in the both the book and new cinematic versions of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe takes place early on, potentially poisoning the rest of the work. Fortunately for those who look forward to suspending disbelief, what follows makes for compelling storytelling and, in the case of the film, dazzling cinematography.

Nevertheless, a few days later, I found that one scene niggling at my brain. It's the one in which the kindly old Professor Kirke tries to help the children determine whether one of their own is telling the truth about the existence of an interdimensional portal at the back of the eponymous wardrobe.
"Logic!" said the Professor half to himself. "Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn't tell lies, and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth."
The old man's line of inquiry is the very same process of reasoning that led Lewis, who, though born into a Christian family, spent most of the first 33 years of his life as an atheist before rejoining the Church (of England). This he did after falling in with a pious set of writers at Oxford, including J.R.R. Tolkien. The Narnia fantasies are widely considered a poorly disguised children's guide to the main themes of his religion of choice: sacrifice, redemption, and resurrection.

The inclusion of Christian references in a children's fantasy has annoyed quite a few secular writers. The Narnia books may even be the only works of children's literature to have prompted the writing of another children's series in rebuttal. I refer here to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, which also features alternative universes but in which the supreme being is trounced by reason.

Just how Christian the Narnia books really are has occupied a fair bit of the mainstream press these past few weeks. One bizarre essay in the New York Times Magazine even suggested that only two of the seven volumes in the series offer much in the way of Christian allegory. (The creation of Narnia in The Magician's Nephew and the apocalyptic Last Battle being too obvious to ignore, I guess.) But what really amazes me is the decison of most of those philosophical reviewers to ignore Prof. Kirke's truth-evaluating exercise, despite its centrality to Lewis' own faith.

Lewis' return to faith is based on the argument that Jesus Christ was either a liar, lunatic or Lord. As he clearly didn't fall into either of the first two categories, he must have been telling the truth, and is therefore ... a witch, I mean, the son of God.

It doesn't take much reflection to find the gaping flaws in this line of reasoning. For one thing, it assumes that the gospels are an accurate record of Jesus' words. In other words, you have to believe the Bible is the word of God before assessing whether it contains the word of a god. Second, the gospels could have been written not as literal history, but allegorical teachings. Sort of like the Chronicles of Narnia. Third, why can't a crazy person or someone with the tendency to lie be telling the truth in certain cases? And so on and so forth. It's all pro or ad hominem, rather than assessing the claim on its own merits. Classic logical fallacy.

But it only gets worse in the context of the book. To judge the integrity of a prepubescent child seems beyond foolish. Ask any parent whether they can comfortably compartmentalize their children into mad, mendacious or meritorious categories for more than a few minutes of any given day.

The pitfalls of the argument, which more recent wags have dubbed the "trilemma," are even more evident if you try to apply it to someone like, say, a president. Bill Clinton, for example, may have been less than straightforward with Hillary, Chelsea and the people of the United States when it came to his sexual habits, but few outside of Rush Limbaugh's loyal listening audience would argue that he was a particularly dishonest president on most matters of state.

Similarly, George W. Bush is easily dismissed as a witless wonder with next to no grasp of reality, but it's not his sanity, or lack thereof, that undermines the morality and legality of his policies on Iraq, civil liberties and tax cuts for the wealthy. Sorry, C.S., but it would appear the human capacity for cognitive dissonance means one can be a liar, a lunatic and a righteous evangelical all at the same time.

Then there's the case of Hwang Woo-suk, the South Korean biologist with a stellar repuation at home for integrity and brillance. It turns out he fabricated what was until recently hailed as groundbreaking research on cloned embryonic stem cells. Lewis' test would have been useless there.

Meanwhile, back in Narnia, the children make short work of sorting out the good guys from the bad. And that -- not the conversant chimeras, not the instant climate change, not even the incongruous meeting with Father Christmas -- is what makes the Narnia series a true fantasy.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe suffers needlessly from the intrusion of Lewis' own misguided venture into reasoning his way to Christ. Lewis' buddy Tolkien knew better than to mix logic and faith, and it is a shame that director Andrew Adamson didn't see fit to leave the trilemma scene on the cutting room floor.

I concede that I may be quibbling. Overall, the film deserves the positive reviews, and other than the trilemma, I would have no quarrel with those who want their young ones to experience its magic. I didn't get the references to Christianity when I was 10, and I doubt today's kids are that much smarter.

And while I still believe that Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy makes for superior reading at any age, I just can't get angry enough with Lewis to dismiss his literature and deny Narnia to my nieces and nephews, or riled up enough to write more than one blog column about his betrayal of reason.

2 Comments:

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