Wednesday, December 29, 2010

my take on Voyage of the Dawn Treader

I love going to movies; it's such an event, based in a place, not like popping library DVDs into my laptop. Of course, this drawn-out student life and budget and schedule means I go to probably three films a year, if that, and often when I'm visiting my parents. Josh and I put in a special request that we see The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader while we were with them last week, and so we did.

I had heard mixed reviews. I'd read this review by Andrew O'Hehir on, which presents the film as not terribly good and strangely purposeful in its spiritual overtones. But then I'd had conversations with a few friends who found it absolutely beautiful and just plain fun. What I saw in the theater was a fast-paced action story, much more focused on self-acceptance than the book and also much more plot-based than the meandering tale. Did I cry when Reepicheep went to Aslan's country? Maybe. Did I love the lion when he showed up? Of course.

I had a strange sense that something was missing but couldn't put my finger on it (I blame my terrible memory) until Josh pointed it out. I'm sure I'm not the first person to ask this, but where is the lamb?

After all the struggles and wandering of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Lucy and friends make their way to the End of the World, they drift east on the Last Sea of lilies and watch on the third day as the sun dawns unbearably bright and beautiful. They see the tall wave, and they know that Aslan's country lies beyond it. But what they find on the beach is not a lion, as in the film, but a Lamb:

     "Come and have breakfast," said the Lamb in its sweet milky voice.
     Then they noticed for the first time that there was a fire lit on the grass and fish roasting on it. They sat down and ate the fish, hungry now for the first time for many days. And it was the most delicious food they had ever tasted.
     "Please, Lamb," said Lucy, "is this the way to Aslan's country?"
     "Not for you," said the Lamb. "For you the door to Aslan's country is from your own world."
     "What!" said Edmund. "Is there a way into Aslan's country from our world too?"
     "There is a way into my country from all the worlds," said the Lamb; but as he spoke his snowy white flushed into tawny gold and his size changed and he was Aslan himself, towering above them and scattering light from his mane.

And then, in the book, the children have the conversation about how they are too old to be returning to Narnia in the future, and Lucy sobs at the thought of never seeing Aslan again.

    "But you shall meet me, dear one," said Aslan.
     "Are--are you there too, Sir?" said Edmund.
     "I am," said Aslan. "But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there."

This last line is quoted in the movie, quite beautifully. But where is the Lamb?

As Josh reminded me, there is another story of a Lamb cooking fish on a beach and inviting his friends to "Come and have breakfast," and it occurs in the Gospel of John, chapter 21. The disciples go out fishing (carrying on with life, even though their leader has recently been crucified), and at daybreak they see a man standing on the shore. They don't recognize him as the Lord, not until after he has performed a familiar miracle, having them cast their nets and catch more fish than they can carry, and then they realize who he is, and that he has a fire going, and fish, and bread, and has made them breakfast.

This beautiful, quiet act--of preparing food for those one loves--is an example of a far greater act of service--of submitting oneself "like a lamb to the slaughter" in a radical subversion of expected divine power, and it is central to my faith and to the imagery of Lewis's book. The brief and unexpected reminder, after a novel full of adventure and even violence, that the Most High is not just a lion but also lamb--this is absolutely key.

I think a lot about the dangers and beauties of a faith story that believes in a powerful God who chooses incarnation, caring service, and humiliating death, and only then resurrection and victory, as a paradigm for salvation. My protestant heritage has instilled in me a deep appreciation for grace and faith, but how does that grace come to us, and in whom precisely are we placing our faith?

Increasingly, I am compelled to remember that my faith is in one who, for mysterious reasons beyond my understanding, abandoned the roar of a lion for the "sweet milky voice" of a lamb, who chose in earthly ministry to heal and feed rather than rouse a powerful following, who, as the old song says, "could have called ten thousand angels / to destroy the world and set him free," but instead willingly suffered death, even death on a cross. And who rose again, who claimed victory over death's power, yet was did not immediately demand recognition and worship but instead walked with some along the road, appeared at a house, showed up on a beach and cooked breakfast for his friends.

We need to remember the lion, too, of course, the glorious dignity and beyondness and protection. He is not a tame lion. But let me just suggest that the choice to excise the lamb from a film like Voyage of the Dawn Treader is not just a choice of simplifying a confusing plot twist; it is political, and it is theological. It relates, I think, to a certain reactionary strand of "muscular Christianity" present in contemporary America, led by those who make infamous claims like, "I cannot worship a guy I can beat up." And this strand of muscular Christianity has a lot to do with power, a lot to do with empire. But it is not representative of the One I seek to follow, and it is not faithful to the picture I see in scripture.

We worship not just a powerful lion who is on our side, but a lamb who often surprises us. Let us stand with awe before the mystery, hold both sides of the paradox in that impossible tension. Let us worship the lion, towering above and scattering light from his mane, but please, please, let's not forget the lamb. "Come and have breakfast," Jesus says in John 21:12, and at that point, even though they hadn't recognized him at first, "None of them dared ask, 'Who are you?' They knew it was the Lord."


  1. I enjoyed reading your insightful and thought provoking commentary, Cindy. I think your critique is extremely pertinent for the contemporary political and spiritual struggles that we must be committed to.


  2. Couldn't agree with you more...
    We're always at risk when we try to balance truth by eliminating elements we either don't understand or simply don't like.
    I really love how you and Josh have precisely nailed (no pun intended) the missing character to this movie!


  3. It is much too easy to focus on the elements of God and Christ that we like the most, dismissing the parts we'd rather not dwell on and losing the whole picture of His personhood in the process. Thanks for the insightful commentary and thoughts. I have not seen the movie, but remember the power of the end of the book coming from the lamb.