Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

This past week I finally was able to take my family to see “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” which is a marvelous film.  Though it streamlines some of the book’s plots (it’s a favorite of my children), we found the film to be quite satisfying.

As the movie reached its climax, I was dazzled by the levels of allegory that were present.  Mind you, my doctorate is in Medieval / Renaissance literature, so this kind of literature and film is a playground for my imagination.  I love finding the story within the story, where, as Milton would say, there is more than meets the eye.  I adore typology, symbolism, and subtext.  I am gobsmacked by how well Lewis creates symbolic depictions of confession, redemption, and rebirth.  Literature is one of the best ways to communicate elements of the Gospel to non-believers because I believe that God designed us to resonate with narrative in very specific ways (my book “God as Author: A Biblical Approach to Narrative” outlines this in detail).  “Creation-Fall-Redemption” resonates incredibly with “Rising Action-Climax-Falling Action,” somehow inverting the pattern, looking-glass style.  We can find at least a shadow of the Gospel in virtually every human narrative through its very structure.

As I have pondered the Narnia series for the past few days, however, I have been fairly crest-fallen at how ill-equipped viewers and readers are to understand what Lewis (or Tolkien or Milton or . . . , well, you get the point) is doing with allegory.  Most literary theorists view allegory as quaint and out of date.  It certainly isn’t worth teaching to our students.

This is ironic, of course, because almost all literary theory is based on allegory.  When a feminist critic says that a work is “really” about the struggle for women under the oppressiveness of a patriarchy, that’s really an allegorical reading of a kind.  When a Marxist says that what’s “actually” going on in a story is the struggle of the proletariat against those who hold economic hegemony, it’s another kind of allegorical reading. 

Somehow, however, as we have left allegory behind, perhaps killing it off precisely because of its religious origins, we have ended up leaving viewers and readers with oddly literalistic interpretive skills.  The Narnia films, then, are nice movies about brave children.  We like them because we want to be brave.  There: that’s all. 

When I was in graduate school, I used to chuckle that my more theologically conservative classmates, the ones who were quietly ridiculed for taking the Bible “literally,” were the ones who understood literature more thoroughly as a symbolic artform that communicated on multiple levels.  The ones who thought that the Bible was a “nice story” that shouldn’t be taken literally all tended to view literature in a way that was almost slavishly literal.  In the end, they would aver “This is what the story means to me,” sort of giving their own personal testimony about the story, where they discovered an interesting version of themselves in the text.  I often say that what lies at the heart of most lovers of literature is a single impulse: “Let me read a story about someone who is unique and interesting, someone just like me.”   Ego-centrism, to a great extent, is the highest form of literalism.

After September 11th, some critics observed that we had witnessed the death of irony.  In the wake of such shared, genuine horror, how could we ever go back to hearing people imply with a wink that nothing is real or true?  How could we ever entertain such innocent fun as the tongue-in-cheek observation?  Irony is not dead, of course, it’s merely been refined into the sharper cultural dagger of sarcasm.  Sarcasm is not subtle; it is aggressive.  It’s not an inside joke but rather an in-your-face affront.  It is as literal as it is shameless.

Amazingly, however, despite the ignorance people currently endure where allegory is concerned, I think that allegory is what we call a divinely designed part of our humanity.  We watch something like the Narnia series and there is still something that attracts us to the story.  It’s not the literal story alone; we intuit that something else is going on.  Something more powerful.  Something beyond ourselves.  We imagine however subconsciously that the human author may be tapping into something greater than him / herself.  We suspect that there may be another Author who has granted a touch of narrative fire to that author.  A splinter of that haunting thought lies buried in our hearts and in our minds until our spirits are strangely moved by a glimpse of His identity, and then a realization that all of our stories are really re-tellings of the Story that He Himself has used to reveal His great love to us.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles