The Wardrobe in the Classroom
The story has barely-veiled religious themes, its author is a renowned Christian theologian, and many Christians see it as an eloquent tool for evangelism. In other words, not the usual formula for public-school reading lists. But "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" is not the usual children's book. It, like the rest of the Chronicles of Narnia series, is beloved by readers of all ages, and read as much, if not more, for its thrilling fantasy, universal moral lessons, and magical creatures as it is for its retelling, in the saga of Aslan the lion and his faithful followers, of Christ's death and resurrection. That could be why the story's religious aspects have mostly not stopped public schools from using Narnia in the classroom, and now that "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" is being released as a highly anticipated Disney movie, teachers are sure to seize the chance to promote reading.
But how to handle the Christian elements of the story? Should these be discussed in the classroom? What about the role Christianity played in the life and work of Narnia's creator, C.S. Lewis? Lewis, an Oxford don and Anglican, was--even before writing the Narnia series--a celebrated and prominent writer of Christian apologetics. His theological works--including the "The Screwtape Letters," a satirical conversation among demons about winning humans’ souls, and "Mere Christianity," a call to faith--remain, like Narnia, well read and much loved.
These questions have come to the surface in at least one high-profile instance recently. In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration is running a statewide school competition tied to the Dec. 9 release of the Narnia movie. His "Just Read, Florida!" contest calls for public, private, and home-schooled students in third through 12th grades to submit essays, illustrations, and short videos exploring their reactions "The Lion, the Witch..." The prizes awarded to the three winners will include a private screening of the movie at Disney-MGM Studios and a weekend stay at a Disney resort. The rules say nothing about Lewis’s Christian view, or his purpose in the book’s themes.
The contest has drawn criticism from at least one group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which objects to a state-sponsored contest focusing on “a religious book.” The group complained in a news release that the book is “a Christian allegory that many religious leaders use to introduce children to Christianity.” The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director, called for Bush to allow students to submit entries based on an alternative, non-religious book. (Americans United, however, does not object to the book being read in public schools, as long as it is part of a voluntary reading program, and students have other options.)
Bush’s office responded to criticism of the contest with a statement that said: "'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' is a timeless and much lauded novel that has entertained children and families for more than 50 years. It is a classic story of good versus evil that transcends generations."
The Palm Beach Post quoted Mary Laura Openshaw, director of "Just Read, Florida!" as saying "The Lion, The Witch" could be read without allusion to Christianity, and that she wanted children “to read the book and decide for themselves.”
At the Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian, nonprofit organization headquartered in Orlando, President Mat Staver says that’s as it should be: The contest shouldn’t mention the religious aspects. But, he says, teachers should.
“I think if public school teachers have children read the book but do not address the perspective of C.S. Lewis, they have a safe of knowledge but don’t have the key to it,” says Staver, author of "Eternal Vigilance: Knowing and Protecting Your Religious Freedom."
Kevin Seamus Hasson, founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public-interest law firm that advocates for the free expression of religion shares that view. "The basic principle is simple: We don’t want the government telling us who God is,” Hasson says.
"The Lion, the Witch" is “a classic of modern literature, and I think it should be taught as freely and as openly as classics of earlier times. No one would dare say 'Paradise Lost' didn’t belong in a public school curriculum,” says Hasson, author of "The Right To Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America." “It goes without saying that religion is a natural part of our arts, because religion is a natural part of our lives.”
First Amendment scholar Charles Haynes says the Narnia books deserve their classic status and there is nothing wrong with assigning them in public schools--as long as they aren’t used in a devotional or proselytizing way.
“I think that there are many, many authors whose books are used in public schools who have religious convictions of various kinds. And that in itself shouldn’t determine whether the books are used,” he says.
Though many teachers are inclined to omit references to spirituality when discussing Narnia and Lewis, Haynes says students should be educated about these aspects of the books and their author, as well as what Lewis had in mind with his writing. But they should be encouraged to find their own meaning in his words.
“I think that most teachers understand that the students themselves should be free to interpret the story in a variety of ways. Just because a story is considered by many to be allegorical--a Christian allegory--does not mean that all readers interpret in that way,” Haynes said.
When it comes to finding classroom resources for Narnia, teachers have no lack of choices. Walden Media, which produced the movie for Disney, has been working for two years already on school and library outreach in partnership with HarperCollins, principal English-language publisher of Lewis’s work.
This outreach has included classroom kits distributed to about 8,000 educators; distribution of more than 100,000 teacher's guides and 10,000 teacher's editions of "The Lion, the Witch"; advertising in institutional publications; online promotions at Harperteacher.com; and educational matter posted at NarniaResources.com.
Walden Media respects Lewis's Christian standpoint, but is focusing the educational materials on his storytelling gifts, the creative process of the filmmakers, and the historical context of the story, which takes place during the World War II Nazi blitz of London, says Deborah Kovacs, Walden Media's vice president for publishing.
The materials also address such themes as bravery, family love, and kids’ empowerment. “I think from our point of view this is a story about the power of imagination, about children taking control in a world that is out of control, and about valor and heroism,” Kovacs says. She expects children dealing with today’s problems to reverberate with those ideas.
As for the author himself, Lewis's primary goal in writing the Narnia books was to produce fiction books he himself would have enjoyed as a child. He wanted his readers to discover for themselves the books' messages. And, yes, the great theologian made no secret of the fact his tales were intended to teach Christian lessons. In his essay "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” he wrote:
"I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings.... But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past these watchful dragons? I thought one could."