Sunday, December 19, 2010

Good Without Aslan?

One of the latest salvos in the seasonal squabbles between atheists and Christians came as more "good without god" ads have gotten pasted onto the sides of buses in Texas. This is a reprise of ads run last year in London, but given that Texans gets a bit more riled when they think you're messin' with their Jesus, it's been testier.

The default response from certain wings of Christianity when asked if you can be good without God is, of course, no.  Typically, our response has to do with folks not being saved, that nothing good can exist in folks who haven't proclaimed Jesus as Lord and Savior.  Unless you fall at the foot of The Bleedy Bloody Cross All Spattered With Gore (Hymn number 42 in the Really Old Hymnal), you're just S.O.L.  That's Salvation Out of Luck, kids.

More smugly erudite Jesus folks get into the philosophy of it, going back to teleology, ontology, and the purpose of Plato's Euthyphro Dilemma to make the case that without an noncontingent ground, there can be no meaningful definition of the good.  Lord have mercy on me, a smug and erudite sinner.

Whether you get all orthodox with the former, me...tend to obscurely think the latter, things can still get testy and self-righteous.  Which defeats the purpose of the whole Jesus thing.

What strikes me, in this season when yet another Narnia movie has been released, is how far the faith has wandered from the openness to the Good you can find on the green fields of Narnia.  I don't intend to see the latest movie, not in the theatres.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was passable, even if it leaned too heavily on the CG.  Prince Caspian just plain old bit as a movie.  Portraying Caspian as a smoldering Latin studmuffin was waaaay too much.  And it was appallingly dull, both loud and plodding.

Now the whole franchise has been sold off by Disney, with the rights transferred over to Fox.  The reviews don't make it seem worth my while, particularly given that for the first time, some significant liberties have been taken with C.S. Lewises narrative.  As a Narnian fanboy, I find this annoying.  The point of those liberties is to make it more overtly "faith-oriented," and to fold in even more martial imagery.  Given that Rupert Murdoch now owns the rights to the story, that's no surprise.  So...I'll wait until it's on BluRay.  Or not.  More likely I'll catch it in snippets as I pan through the channels on cable in six months.

In the Narnia books, though, it's clear that C.S. Lewis understood that goodness and overt statements of faith weren't always the same thing.  Narnia is a place far more willing to see the good in folks who might not have an orthodox grasp on Aslan.  Three characters from Narnia typify this attitude.

There is, for instance, the noble-if-a-tick-snooty war charger Bree, the eponymous horse from The Horse and His Boy.  Bree is quite convinced that Aslan the Lion is some sort of metaphor, certainly not a lion, representing some greater truth or reality or person, about which not much can be definitively known.  He'd be quite comfortable in an Episcopalian stable.   He is proven wrong, of course, and ends up feeling like an idiot.  But even in his liberal erudite smugness, he remains firmly and incontrovertably in the camp of the good.

Perhaps there's hope for me yet.

There is the red dwarf Trumpkin, who makes an appearance in Prince Caspian, is referenced in Dawn Treader, and is still kickin' around in The Silver Chair.  In Prince Caspian, Trumpkin is an atheist.  Or an "A-Aslanist."  Or perhaps..because "humanist" doesn't work for dwarves...just plain old "Narnian."  He believes that Aslan is a myth, an old wife's tale, and a superstition.  From his dwarvish practicality, he can see no reason that such a being actually ever existed, and he repeatedly and explicitly says as much.  He is, nonetheless, a strong, hearty, tireless, and cheerful supporter of Narnia.  When Aslan does arrive, Trumpkin gets tossed in the air a bit, but with love.  Even before Trumpkin's tossing, he's one of the good guys.  He's on the right side.

Finally, there is Emeth, the honorable young Calormene Lord from The Last Battle.   Emeth is an infidel, who worships the great and terrible Tash.  Here, Lewis makes his most pointed defense of the existence of the good outside of the bounds of the orthodox "us."  Even though Emeth has his whole life only ever worshipped Tash, his encounter with Aslan does not end up with him being kibble.  Instead, C.S. Lewis tells us that Emeth's noble life, while done in the service of Tash, nonetheless count as a life lived to the honor of Aslan.

As Aslan puts it, "...I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and no service which is not vile can be done to him."   That which is self-evidently good, noble, right and true belongs to God.  Period. Given that that name "Emeth" means "Truth" in Hebrew, Clive Staples is clearly making a point here. 

Despite many conservative Christian's embrace of Lewis for the wonderful, joyous and articulate way he proclaims Christian faith, his is not the stuff of rigid orthodoxy.  Lewis speaks a more gracious truth, one a far sight better than the shrill and closed-hearted literalism that seems to govern this benighted age. 

Ah well.  Even if he's wrong, I can imagine fewer folks I'd rather share a circle in the fundamentalist hell with than C.S. Lewis.