Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Narnia for Jews

With the movie release of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the question arises whether it is permissible for an observant Jew to read the seven books in the Narnia Chronicles series or see the movie. The discussion here will assume that it is permissible to read fiction and will only focus on the following issue: Underlying the entire series is an unquestionable and intentional allegory to Christian theology.

Lewis was a convert from atheism to Christianity and a professor of English at Magdalene College and the University of Cambridge. Aside from his works of scholarship and fiction, he wrote very effective essays and books championing Christianity. He was quite possibly the leading Christian apologist of the twentieth century. (It is interesting to note that, as US News reports, Lewis had no children of his own but two stepsons from a Jewish mother. One of those stepsons is now an Orthodox Jew. UPDATE: Paul Shaviv gives us the true story, based on personal knowledge.)

I. Studying Christian Theology

While writing the Narnia Chronicles, Lewis inserted a number of Christian themes. This has been well documented. However, I can say from personal experience that when I read the books at approximately the age of 11, I had no clue about the Christian themes. It was not until my first year of college that Daniel Renna, a friend who is better read and more worldly (now literally), noted in passing the Christian themes of the books. This blew my mind, as I immediately realized how obvious these themes were and was puzzled how I had not previously noticed them. But they are there.

Is it permissible to read a book with an allegory to Christian theology, particularly if it is possible that you will not notice it?

I spoke with my rabbi about this and neither of us could find any reason to prohibit reading the books (note the caveat at the end of this post). While it is forbidden to study the theology of another religion (absent a specific exception), these books do not really qualify because the theology is not explicit. If you don't know about the theology already, you won't see it. If you do know the theology, though, and there is no specific reason to study it in this fashion (there might be, for a pulpit rabbi or a teacher), then seeing the movie/reading the book would probably be prohibited.

II. Honoring Christianity

In discussing whether one may attend a concert of Christian music, R. Yehuda Henkin (Bnei Banim 3:35, p. 127) raises the issue that going to a public concert in praise of the Christian god is showing honor and respect to another religion's deity. This, he rules, is forbidden and therefore one may not attend a concert of Handel's Messiah (he offers other reasons as well).

This just might apply to the Narnia movies as well. There will definitely be some people who will look at the box office receipts as some sort of confirmation of the Christian religion. And while the few thousand observant Jews who might listen to a ruling on this subject will not make much of a dent into those receipts, there will also be people who see a visibly observant Jew standing on line and attending this movie as some sort of confirmation or added respect to Christianity. Therefore, it might be better (not necessarily good, but better) to buy/rent the book/movie online and have it delivered than buy/attend it in public.

III. Not Recommended

Regardless of the halakhic details -- meaning, even if you can find ways around the possible issues discussed above -- my rabbi and I agree that reading these books and seeing these movies are certainly not recommended. Stay away from other religions in your entertainment needs. There's plenty of other ways to relax and enjoy yourself without having to partake in subtle Christian allegories.

[As I was telling this to my wife, my 8-year old son overheard and said that he's not interested in Narnia anyway. "How do you know about Narnia?" "I read about it on the cereal box but it looks boring."

Talk to your children because it is REALLY hard to isolate them from the outside world.]

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