As I was reviewing The Voyage of the Dawn Treader I noticed something peculiar. I’ve been going on and off to Orthodox Bible studies for the past few years, so there are certain uses of Christian symbolism that are blisteringly obvious. Like wine, bread, oil, feasts, and water. Sometimes Narnia looks a bit heavy handed. The Lion turns into a Lamb at the edge of the world? Well, not in the movie, but that’s another discussion. And: a coal? The white birds from Aslan’s Country fly to the star and fead him a coal? Sure, and then he responds: “behold this has touched my lips and shall purge away my iniquities and cleanse me of my sins.” Well, no, he doesn’t — but he almost might have.
A couple of years of Orthodox interpretation will do that to a person. He annointeth my head with oil? Christmation anyone? Taste and see that the Lord is good? I will take the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord? Of course, this isn’t just Orthodox — I’m sure Catholics speak like this sometimes, and probably Anglicans — and traditional Protestants? I’m not sure, but that seems likely. We sing it in church, pray it, read it, and study it until all this seems blisteringly obvious, and Psalm 21 looks surprisingly sacramental. Indeed, until the connection between the Burning Bush and the womb of Mary seems quite certain and obvious. Until it doesn’t sound so strange to sing that “the sea monster cast Jonah from its belly like a babe from the womb.”
But then I remember being surprised at some of those connections. Perhaps not at the Passover/Easter connections, but at least at “oil to make my face shine” and Christmation. Christian symbolism is a language, which must be learned, prayed, sing, and participated in in order to sound natural — like a regular language, which we have to hear, speak, and begin to think in before it becomes intuitive. Only later is it: oh, yeah, of course: unhewn mountain, Theotokos. Of course.
I think there’s some of that going on with Narnia, but Americans have a shocking case of symbolic illiteracy. Because otherwise — it’s not even like it’s hidden. Bacchus holds a part with Aslan and the girls through the streets of Narnia! These are children’s books, after all. Children’s books written symbolically — though not everything is allegory; the imagery is symbolic, but that doesn’t mean there’s a direct correspondence between an image or event and a particular idea. Otherwise, why bother writing a story — just go ahead and write an essay. But what if people are symbolically illiterate? What if we can read essays, but not certain kinds of stories, or icons, or poetry?