Skeptical of the Skeptic

Part C. S. Lewis-biography, part literary analysis, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia is, at its heart, the story of a journey. The first step came when its author, Laura Miller, was given a copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by her second grade teacher. Today a well-respected writer and literary critic, Miller looks back at the spell this book cast on her and at how it shaped the reader and the person she has become.

Like all journey stories, some parts will be familiar and some will not. Most Narnia fans will be able to relate to Miller’s account of how the Chronicles of Narnia changed the way she looked at the world. They will identify with Miller’s deep desire to be Lucy, “that rare creation, a character who is good without being a prig or a bore.”

But these are side trips, not the main path in a book which promises to reclaim Narnia “for the rest of us,” this meaning readers who, like Miller, loved Narnia as young people but then felt “tricked, cheated, and betrayed” after they discovered that many Narnian themes mirrored themes found in Christianity.

Anyone not belonging to this “rest of us” group may find it hard to understand why this discovery produced so much anger and bitterness in Miller. Although she devotes most of her book to describing her rocky relationship with the Narnia books, she is never able to articulate exactly why learning that they represent C. S. Lewis’s attempt to put his most foundational beliefs into story form “horrified” her.

Would she have felt so horrified had she discovered Lewis was a Buddhist?

What would be said about a Christian who first loved a book but then became angry and rejected it after discovering its author was, for example, Jewish or Muslim and that the story reflected his or her underlying beliefs? My guess is that such a reader would be labeled as narrow or bigoted, and rightly so.

Miller states that in Narnia we find a “better” world, a world “fresher, more brightly colored, more exhilarating, and more fully felt,” a world that is “merry, enchanted, and boundless.” She then goes on to maintain that the Chronicles of Narnia are “really just the doctrines of the Church in disguise,” an institution which she asserts is characterized by “endless proscriptions and requirements,” by “guilt-mongering” and “tedious rituals.”

One of these claims must be false.

Christianity, for Miller, is “a black hole, sucking all the beauty and wonder out of Narnia.” In the 1996 column where Miller first explored this topic, an essay which appeared in the Salon.com “Personal Best” series, she called Christianity “noxious” and “twisted.”

How is it that Miller can love Narnia and loathe the Christian faith?

One answer to this question is that Miller has a mistaken view of what Christianity is and that her resentful bitterness at Lewis for the Christian morality that runs throughout Narnia stems from the fact that she makes no distinction between the teachings of Christ and the very human and sometimes very flawed Christian church down the block.

In her book Miller writes, “The Christianity that I knew—the only Christianity I was aware of—was the opposite of Narnia.” Narnia was “liberation and delight” while Christianity was “boredom, subjugation, and reproach.”

Miller further comments: “The Narnians did as Aslan asked because he was strong, kind, warm, and lovable, and because his requests always led to that most desirable of ends: the continuation of Narnia as it should be, the most wonderful country imaginable. Christianity instructed me to comply with a list of dreary, legalistic demands…. Narnia and Aslan made me happy. Jesus wanted me to be miserable.”

If we Christians have given Miller, and others like her, the impression that Christianity is nothing more than, as she says, a list of dreary, legalistic demands, if we have given them the impression that Jesus wants them to be miserable, then we have done them a great disservice.

The Jesus that C. S. Lewis proclaimed—in the Chronicles of Narnia, in Mere Christianity, in The Screwtape Letters–was never this misery maker. Miller almost seems to recognize this fact for at one point she asserts that the Christianity found in Narnia is not really Christianity but has been “substantially” transformed and so is “much less Christian, perhaps, than Lewis intended.”

Having found a way to get around what she sees as the stories’ religious content, what Miller complains about now are the hints of sexism, racism, and snobbery she claims to find in Narnia—elements which, if they were present, would be non-Christian elements. Thus in order to be acceptable to Miller, the Chronicles of Narnia would need to be both less Christian and more.

Although her discovery that there were Christian elements in the Narnia stories “almost nauseated” her, in the end Miller concludes: “It is still possible for me to love these books, despite the biases and small-mindedness they sometimes display, despite often feeling that I wouldn’t have much liked the man who wrote them.”

How wonderful—in the end, the Chronicles of Narnia still have something to offer readers if only they can somehow pick around or get past the Christian aspects. What Miller fails to acknowledge is the bias and small-mindedness of her hostility towards anyone or anything associated with Christianity.

Miller’s “the rest of us” group is larger, or at least more vocal, than one might expect. The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia has received glowing reviews from a number of secular outlets. In the Washington Post, Elizabeth Ward enthusiastically writes that Miller rescues the Narnia series “from the narrow Christian box into which it has been crammed.” Time magazine includes Miller’s work in its list of the top 10 non-fiction books of 2008. Michael Gross, a colleague of Miller’s writing in the Los Angeles Times, calls her work “easily the best book ever written about Lewis,” a comment which conjures up a long list of books about Lewis which Gross must never have read.

While Miller’s work may appear to focus on Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia, the determining role is played by the contact she had as a young person with a less-than-perfect version of Christianity. Much of her critique of that experience may be valid, and if so, Lewis would be the first to agree with it. But when Miller purports to be criticizing the Christian elements in the Narnia series, it is really this experience and not Christianity, or Narnia, or Lewis she is taking to task.

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Devin Brown is a Lilly Scholar and Professor of English at Asbury College, where, among other duties, he teaches a class on Lewis. He is the author of Inside Narnia: A Guide to Exploring The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Baker 2005) and Inside Prince Caspian: A Guide to Exploring the Return to Narnia (Baker 2008). He is currently working on Inside the Voyage to the Dawn Treader to be released in fall 2010 in advance of the third film.

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