Monday, May 23, 2011

Crashing the Dawn Treader and the Great Fallacy of Our Age

Before The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe came out, many of us wondered how a secular studio would handle such an overtly spiritual theme: that someone (or something) must sacrifice himself to pay for the mistakes of another, as Aslan sacrificed himself for Edmund. The surprising and pleasant answer was: faithfully. But I suppose it would be hoping too much to expect a studio to faithfully represent the spiritual themes in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader as well.

Why review a movie that came out 6 months ago? Well, because I just got around to watching it and because I think it's an important example of the spiritual themes that used to be common in our society being replaced by the more palatable modern themes that are the ideological gods of our time.

It's easy to see why it happened in this movie and not in the first one. After all, self-sacrifice is still considered noble in our society, whereas a belief in sin and repentance is repugnant to us. But that's what C.S. Lewis wanted to illustrate, and so I must presumptuously speak up on his behalf and point out how they removed his ideas and replaced them with the prevailing ideas of our own secular modern world.

In the book, we're told, "There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." (Oh, how I love Lewis' writing.) Eustace is insufferable. He is selfish and sneering. He turns into a dragon because his mind is full of "dragonish" thoughts. The ugliness within becomes the ugliness without. But after being a dragon for a time, Eustace repents. He realizes what a mean, awful boy he has been, and he wants to change. He tries scratching his dragon skin off, but after removing his snake-like skin three times, he realizes he can't do it. There's always another layer of dragonishness that he can't rid himself of. Finally, Aslan steps in. He rips Eustace's dragon layer off, and he is washed clean in a well, where Eustace turns back into a boy.

Though Lewis rarely exposits in his fiction, his theme is clear: Eustace couldn't become good on his own; he needed Aslan to change him, and it only happened once he had truly repented.

But such an idea that we, in and of ourselves, are not enough, that we are not perfect, that we need someone else to change us and make us better is diametrically opposed to our cultural mantra and, sadly, to the themes of our stories (and this movie).

The theme of the movie The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is, like every kids movie these days, "Be Yourself." Just be yourself. You don't need to be anyone but who you are. Who you are is good enough. Just follow the goodness in you and be true to yourself and everything will be great.

As Carrie Underwood sings over the closing credits, "Exactly who we are is just enough." And according to the movie, exactly who Eustace Clarence Scrubb was was just enough as well. Although he does apologize to Edmund for being beastly, the focus is on Eustace's personal transformation, aided by Reepicheep, in which he learns that deep down, he really is a brave, strong warrior. He doesn't get turned into a dragon because that's who he really was on the inside, he gets turned into a dragon because he's "special" (as Reepicheep says). Being a dragon helps him find courage, strength and even self-sacrifice. The focus is not on how Eustace needs someone else to help him, because exactly who he is is enough.

The subtle change in Eustace's character arc would have been less noticeable had it not been reinforced with Lucy and Gael's (a young stowaway on the ship) transformation. Through the course of events, they both learn that they shouldn't want to be anyone else, but just be themselves. Lucy doesn't need to be beautiful like Susan and Gael doesn't need to be brave like Lucy, because who they are is "just enough." It seems innocuous and true enough in this case, but the overall course the movie charts is a far cry from what C.S. Lewis had in mind when he wrote about Lucy's desire to be beautiful like her sister.

Like many of the lies that entangle us, this particular deception is derived from truth. As part of a larger whole, there is truth in the idea that you need to be yourself. The mistake is in letting any one truth become an overriding god, an absolute value.

When the message of Eustace's uniqueness and value is divorced from the truth of Eustace's sin and need for redemption, that message becomes dangerous.

We were each created unique and wonderful (Psalm 139:13-16). We are pieces of art, created the way we were for a unique purpose (Ephesians 2:10). What extraordinary and beautiful truths! Often, we need to be reminded of them. We need to be reminded of our uniqueness and value. Maybe we've been beaten down by others, mistreated, abused. We need to be told of our worth when everything in our environment conspires to tell us we're nothing.

But what happens when this one truth becomes not reactionary, but the primary truth of a culture, divorced from any belief in our imperfections and our need for help (from anyone, let alone God)? The message changes. The message becomes: I am god. I am god of myself because I don't need to be or become anything but what I am. All I need is me, and all the goodness I need is contained in me. I just need the courage and absolute freedom to pursue it, and I will be perfect. (Just read Satan's speeches in "Paradise Lost" to get a pretty good idea of the logical endpoint of this point of view.)

We beat our drums and nod in time with Lady Gaga, saying "I was born this way," and agree with little girls in commercials proclaiming "I don't need to be anyone but myself." Even a song like Pink's "Less than Perfect," which deals with a crippling fear of inadequacy, deals with it by screaming a simple assertion of perfection (although even she seems to realize it isn't true). But we sing along with her, without batting an eye, "Pretty, pretty please, don't you ever, ever feel that you're less than f***ing perfect."

I like Pink, but I have to take exception to the assertion that any of us are effing perfect. It sounds like a nice thing to say, but think about it. Do you really know anyone perfect? Think of just one person who has never hurt another person. If you came up with anyone, you probably don't know them very well. Pink admits that she's "made a wrong turn once or twice, bad decisions, that's alright." They're just bumps in the road. Nothing that we can't "dig" our own way out of, and nothing that's serious enough to make us believe we are less than perfect. (Or, as old-fashioned, stuffy people would say, "sinful.") So we sing to ourselves that we're perfect, against all the evidence, and we drill it into our children's minds with every well-intentioned story.

We are lying to ourselves. We're not perfect. There's a word for people who think they're perfect and are completely focused on themselves. They're called sociopaths. And we'll never find a way out of our brokenness unless we realize that. But how can we be surprised at our delusions when the primary theme to every child's movie these days is "Just be yourself"? (Think Shrek, Megamind, How to Train Your Dragon, really any children's movie that's come out in the past 10 years.) Yes, we ought to "be ourselves," in the sense of not despising and rejecting the unique way in which we were made. But when this value is paramount, it moves from self-acceptance to self-aggrandizement to the outright denial of sin and, ultimately, to placing ourselves in the place of God.

We are each the wonderful handiwork of God. We don't need to loathe ourselves in favor of Suzie down the street. But it's equally true that we are each broken and imperfect. Like Eustace, we have all chosen selfishness, pride, jealousy, hate and pettiness over good, love and justice at some point in our lives, and we've hurt others because of it. But unlike Pink's assertions, we can't just dig ourselves out. We can't just scratch off our outer layer of dragonishness to reveal our inner goodness. We need someone else to save us. To change us. To reveal the true work of art we were each intended to be (and which we never will fully attain in this life).

Eustace and Edmund needed Aslan. We need Jesus. We are not perfect and complete, and we can't do it on our own. Through what Lewis calls "deep magic," Jesus' death on the cross can make reparation for our imperfections, and through his blood our dragonishness is washed away and we are clean.

And that is why I take such exception to an otherwise mediocre movie. It is the difference between the "gospel of self" and the true gospel of salvation, forgiveness, and redemption through Jesus Christ. The gospel of self is a false gospel; there is no real hope or real good news to be found there. This chronicle is a false chronicle of Narnia. Only Jesus saves, and that salvation will only be found if we're willing to leave the prison and false hope of self for his saving grace, where our unique selves will truly be found.

"I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." Ezekiel 36:25-26

*This post was written with the help of Mikey.


Anonymous said...

This post expresses exactly what bothers me most, our searching for self while denying God. We can never know and understand ourselves without knowing our creator. It is hard to watch so many in America turn away from God and the core values that were unquestioned in our country not very long ago.

Elizabeth M. said...

I really, really didn't like the movie, as it ruined my favorite Narnia book, but I did love your post and all your wisdom in action. I love when Eustace gets all his self ripped away by Aslan's is such a good image of our sin and our helplessness. I can't believe they didn't stay true to that part (but honestly, I haven't really liked any of the movies).
Good post!

Annie said...

I found your blog via Eric Asp (he's right - your writing is "clear and refreshing"!)... and very timely too! Read the chapters on Eustace's dragonish adventure to my children at lunch today. Even at 6 and 7, they could articulate the basic truth that Eustace couldn't get rid of his sin by himself, even after he had recognized it for what it was. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I really appreciated your analysis. You're right, our culture is so good at warping truth by not telling all of the Truth. Thank you for the reminder to continue to filter the content my kids are exposed to, especially kid-geared media.

Chris D. said...

I saw and enjoyed the movie but have not read the books. We'll have to make it a point to compare the two. Thanks for the insight into the subtle twisting of the truth in the original version!

Amber said...

Thanks, guys!

cvs said...

Yours was without a doubt in my mind the greatest movie review I have ever read and being an old guy I have read many. Great because it uniquely spoke the truth in love. It put in clear verbal form what I could partly feel but not clearly understand or articulate. The good reviewer does what you did. Now we understand why we could enjoy the movie as a visual depiction of characters and a story that we love and yet feel the movie did not provide the transcendent experience that the creative Christian storyteller provides in his book.
Thanks Amber and Mike