Narnia, Joseph Campbell, and the Common Themes of Mankind

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Fresh from dealing with Harry Potter and witchcraft, Jewish parents must now pass judgment on the Lion King, coming to a theater near you.

Assume, for the moment, that there are no outright halachic objections to reading works with a clear Christological agenda. (The assumption is made for argument’s sake only. In a quick discussion – not intended as a firm halachic decision – I had with Rabbi Bleich, shlit”a, my description of both Lewis’ state of religious faith in the 1950’s, and the story line of The Chronicles of Narnia led him to term the series “warmed-over New Testament,” quite possibly as halachically off-limits as liturgical music and religiously-themed art.) If somehow halacha would not be an issue, how wise will it be for observant children to read the books that have delighted millions for decades?

I think there is less danger in C.S. Lewis than some believe, because the themes he addresses are universal, rather than Christian. The distinction, I believe, has value beyond a theoretical review of a new Disney movie.

There are themes in world literature that transcend time and culture, and never become the property of one treatment or faith. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (the subject of the movie) deals with a world held in the grip of evil, of a redemptive journey to escape it, of obedience to a leader who dies and returns. Once these themes are pointed out, and once people become familiar with the life of Lewis as perhaps the most compelling advocate for Christianity in post-war Europe, the parallels to basic Christian dogma are unmistakable. Remove Lewis from the equation, however, and the themes move to the public domain, not the copyright of the Bishop of Rome and his corporate partners. There is nothing Christian per se about sin, rising above it, sacrifice, and even rebirth. These are considered by many faiths and cultures, including Torah Judaism. Lewis could only hope to strike a resonant Christian chord with children already equipped with a Christian set of strings. Those who were familiar with Christian motifs of crucifixion and resurrection could indeed enter into them through the thrill and adventure of his gripping storytelling. Through his well-constructed allegory, Lewis hoped to make these ideas come alive to his Christian readers.

Non-Christians would have to react differently. A perceptive Orthodox Jewish child will plug in very different values in the equation he or she faces. When a frum child tries to imagine what the journey to the world of Good might mean to him, he will naturally think of mitzvos, not of faith alone. Reading about obedience will call to mind those who embody the Law, not those who die for their sins. The death of a strong leader will be compared to Mashiach ben Yosef (the proto-Messiah, who will die before the redemption of Israel is completed); rebirth will be seen as the gift of techiyas hameisim (resurrection of the dead), the Biblical promise to many, not just a single figure. In short, Jewish children will either find an engaging story and miss all the allusions, or they will find Jewish motifs. They will not find subliminal Christianity.

Living Jewishly is not about ignoring certain themes of life, but of reacting to them differently. This realization took hold of me rather forcefully a while ago, when unrelated people beat a path to my door clutching copies of the Bill Moyers PBS series on the late Joseph Campbell. Each door-beater was observant; each was troubled by the assertions of the acclaimed scholar that all religions essentially told the same stories. Did Campbell succeed in showing that all faiths known to Man amounted to tweedledum and tweedledee? I agreed to watch the Power of Myth series and get back to them.

I sweated in anticipation. (To be expected, actually, since the only time I had to watch was while working out on my treadmill.) In the space of the first part of the first segment, I heard Campbell solemnly tell Moyers that it is a “universal theme” that Man steals fire from the gods, usually with a chase ensuing. Other such themes include the hero, who always transitions from childhood and dependency to adulthood and self-sufficiency, usually by taking a long journey of discovery. And then there is the encounter between the young man and the god, which always transforms the former. Campbell must have skipped over traditional Judaism when he developed his theories. Our version has G-d bestowing Man with the gift of knowledge, through which Adam figured out how to produce fire. (G-d gives a yasher koach (congratulations), not chase.) Abraham undertakes the great journey – at the height of his adult success and self-sufficiency. Moshe’s transformation begins as a young man who leaves the royal court to commiserate with his brethren. He continues to display his devotion to justice as a stranger in Midian who risks everything on behalf of some unknown women who are being treated unjustly at some insignificant water-hole. By the time he encounters G-d at the burning bush, he is almost eighty years old, and already transformed. If Campbell is correct at all, it is only in that different societies dealt with common themes. Some found fairly similar ways and common literary devices for explaining them. Judaism marched to a different drummer.

Jews learn to look at the same scenes as everyone else, and see things differently. Abraham and Isaac each see the Divine cloud over Mt. Moriah; it is lost on Yishmael and Eliezer. The Alter of Slabodka was once asked about the Gemara (Eruvin 100B) that tells us that if we had not received the Torah, we would have been able to learn modesty from the cat, to abhor theft from the ant, and the value of fidelity from the dove. If so, asked a student, why do we need the Torah? Simple, replied the Alter. If we didn’t have a Torah, we would instead mimic the modesty of the ant, the fidelity of the cat, and property scruples of the dove. Where would we be then? With Torah, we look at the same phenomena as others, and draw very different conclusions.

Thinking Jews need to do this often. When Conservative scholars encounter Gilgamesh and the priest-king Ziusudra who escaped a massive flood by building a boat, they see evidence that the Torah is not Divine (chas v’shalom). Rather, as they indicate in their new Etz Hayim edition of Chumash, they show that the Jewish Flood story was borrowed from Sumerian myths. A Torah-true Jew looks at the same stories, and sees evidence for the Biblical Flood in the fact that many other societies (not just the Sumerians) preserved stories of such an event! Because he believes that the Torah is G-d given, he doesn’t doubt its veracity. The Gilgamesh story strengthens his emunah (belief), rather than weakens it.

Secular biblical scholars insist that Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos are merely ancient agrarian festivals. They observe that even the earlier Chumashim use agricultural milestones to describe them: the Spring, Harvest, and Ingathering Festivals. Clearly, they say, the Hebrews simply took some pagan holidays, and invented some national myths to give them a Jewish flavor. Maharal (lehavdil) sees the same phenomenon, and beautifully links the maturation of the Jewish people to the yearly growing cycle. We were born as a people at Pesach, poking our heads out, as it were, from the hard, barren soil of the spiritually void millennia that preceded the Exodus. G-d harvested His people, so to speak, at Shavuos, when the newly created people had grown enough to be able to serve His purpose – the acceptance of the Torah. Bringing the harvest home, however, had to wait until Sukkos, until after the long first summer, in which we both fell at the Golden Calf, and rebounded through months of teshuvah (repentance) and our rapprochement with Hashem on Yom Kippur. Because the physical world was created to serve the spriritual and not the reverse, it should come as no surprise that G-d enshrined this progression in the cycle of seasons that He Himself engineered. Each year the earth itself marches in lockstep with those early chapters in Jewish history, mimicking the trajectory of our forefathers.

Where scoffers see “problems” with the Torah, the Maharal – and all Torah Jews – find evidence of the synergy of the spiritual and physical.

It is not only the minority of frum Jews who encounter issues of biblical criticism and archeology who must polish their Torah lenses before taking a closer look. All of us do, every day. Some of our fellow citizens take every bit of new knowledge to demonstrate man’s self-sufficiency, crowding out the need for G-d as we (think) we understand more about our world. The Torah Jew ponders the same universe, and sees ever more of the depth of G-d’s Wisdom in a world that becomes more complex and more fascinating each day. Peering down the same microscope, the skeptic turns his back to a G-d he has no use for, while the Torah Jew proclaims with even greater enthusiasm, “Mah gadlu ma’asecha Hashem– How great are your works, Hashem!”

Vive la difference.

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5 Responses

  1. MP says:

    RYA wrote:
    “A perceptive Orthodox Jewish child will plug in very different values in the equation he or she faces….The death of a strong leader will be compared to Mashiach ben Yosef (the proto-Messiah, who will die before the redemption of Israel is completed)….”

    Hmmm. How many Jewish children (even teenagers) know of Mashiach ben Yosef (as opposed to simply “Mashiach [ben David]”)?

    My nieces (nine and seven years old, respectively) will soon see this movie. They’re perceptive, as compared with the average child, but I’m fairly sure they’re going (more precisely, being taken by their parents) in order to enjoy the movie, not in order to ponder its subliminal (or not-so-subliminal), serious underpinnings.

  2. Aaron says:

    I read the Chronicles of Narnia when I was younger (around 10 years old) and it never once occurred to me that there was Christianity involved in it. Perhaps things will be different with the movie, or perhaps older children will see more. I think R. Adlerstein is correct; a great deal of the struck “chords” will depend on what set of strings each child comes equipped with.

  3. mb says:

    As usual, common sense from Rabbi Adlerstein. I wish you were my Rabbi!

  4. Lisa says:

    The Little Prince is a Christian allegory? I had no idea. I mean, I read Narnia probably a dozen times as a kid without seeing the Christian connection, but I’d never even heard of The Little Prince being one. What is the elephant in the snake supposed to signify?

  5. Toby Katz says:

    St. Exupery’s *The Little Prince* is an allegory of Jesus but Jewish children read it and don’t pick up on the Christian allusions at all. In fact, some teachers in frum schools assign the book for homework and even the teachers don’t realize it’s a Christian book. So I guess if the Christian motif doesn’t hit you over the head, it’s kosher. Maybe.