When “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (magical title!) opens, four children who have been sent to the countryside discover an enchanted land on the other side of an old wardrobe; this is Narnia, and it has been enslaved by a White Witch, who has turned the country to eternal winter. The talking animals who live in Narnia wait desperately for the return of Aslan, the lion-king, who might restore their freedom. At last, Aslan returns. Beautiful and brave and instantly attractive, he has a deep voice and a commanding presence, obviously kingly. The White Witch conspires to have him killed, and succeeds, in part because of the children’s errors. Miraculously, he returns to life, liberates Narnia, and returns the land to spring.
Yet a central point of the Gospel story is that Jesus is not the lion of the faith but the lamb of God, while his other symbolic animal is, specifically, the lowly and bedraggled donkey. The moral force of the Christian story is that the lions are all on the other side. If we had, say, a donkey, a seemingly uninspiring animal from an obscure corner of Narnia, raised as an uncouth and low-caste beast of burden, rallying the mice and rats and weasels and vultures and all the other unclean animals, and then being killed by the lions in as humiliating a manner as possible—a donkey who reëmerges, to the shock even of his disciples and devotees, as the king of all creation—now, that would be a Christian allegory.
I'm not religious, but this strikes me as pretty pallid. Surely Gopnik doesn't really think that washed-out theology of New York's Upper West Side, in which Jesus came to tell us to turn the other cheek and be nice to the poor, and his rather unnecessary self-martyrdom was undergone largely to really drive home his point about progressive non-violence, is the sum total of Christian theology.
Jesus is a little more complicated than that. Says He, in Matthew 10:
Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.
Indeed, Jesus is actually referred to as "the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David" in Revelations, most of which he spends being distinctly un-lamblike.
Contrary to what Gopnik says, a lamb or a donkey in Aslan's place wouldn't make it more accurate; it would rip the heart out of Christian theology. The sacrifice of the Lamb of God is extraordinary precisely because the Lamb of God is actually the Lion of Judah. A lamb that dies on the sacrificial altar is no more than one in a string of pointless sacrifices; the lamb has no choice in the matter. What is central to the Narnia stories, and to Christian theology, is that the lion, which could rend the sacrificiants limb from limb, instead deliberately eschews violence and lays himself down to be killed. The lion-as-lamb simultaneously acts to end the violent power that is lion-ness, and the passivity that is lamb-ness. It is an endlessly rich act, which Gopnik would have us replace with the martyrdom of the cow at the slaughterhouse gate.
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