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A potential mega-blockbuster film, financed by a fervent Christian and bursting with Christian overtones, is being mass-marketed to - guess who? - Christians.
Church groups are buying up whole theater showings just like Daddy Warbucks did for Annie. Advance screenings are being held for pastors and ministers, who have given the film their blessing, literally. Catholic publishing companies are putting out companion guides.
And the Jewish community is â€¦ well, no one knows quite what to think.
That's because the film in question isn't Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. It's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the special-effects laden adaptation of British author C.S. Lewis' classic 1950 children's book.
The $250 million film, which opens Dec. 9, was produced by the owner of the San Francisco Examiner, the right-wing evangelical billionaire Philip Anschutz, who also owns Walden Media. Walt Disney Co. also helped, especially on the distribution end. In fact, many of the same firms that so successfully recruited whole congregations to attend showings of The Passion have been contracted again for Lion.
The re-oiling and firing up of the machinery that pulled Christians into theaters and made The Passion a huge hit, as well as Lion's Christian overtones, have given some Jews reservations.
Rabbi Judah Dardik was hooked on Lion when he read it years ago as a day-school student. He borrowed the entire series from his older sister and devoured them.
It was only years later that he was told it was steeped in Christian allegories. He was "surprised and embarrassed I hadn't realized. I felt duped," Dardik said.
Rereading the series, he saw more and more allegories and could never appreciate the books as mere fiction again. Now he sees them as theology - beautifully written theology.
"Should Jewish children see this movie or read the books? I'm unsure. My personal jury is still out," said Dardik, the spiritual leader of Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, Calif. "I read them â€¦ clearly it didn't affect my personal theology."
He added, "I haven't seen the movie, but I wouldn't be surprised if they fleshed out the Christianity a bit more to be satisfying to the Christian audience. That's the part that's most disconcerting to me. I also have concerns about the marketing. Hollywood has a way of being very in-your-face."
Like Gibson, Anschutz is a figure who makes many wary. Walden Media in recent years began creating Christian-friendly films short on sexual content or profanity - drug abuse and philandering were trimmed from last year's Ray Charles biopic Ray, for example.
Anschutz also is an outspoken evangelical, who was attracted to the Narnia tales for the same reason others in the business were repelled - its Christian messages.
But Lion is no Passion. Compared to the extremely negative reaction Passion garnered from Jewish organizations before, during and after its release, the marketing of Christian allegory as popular entertainment in Lion has created hardly a ripple.
The story is based on a book many people read as children, only to learn later that Lion and the six other books in Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series were full of Christian allegories.
The latent nature of Lion's Christian message, and the fact that one can be completely oblivious yet still enjoy the story, allows the film's producers to promote Lion on two levels: one method for avowedly Christian audiences and one for everyone else.
While the uplifting Christian message is pitched to pastors and church groups, the theatrical trailer features a dazzling array of special effects created by Peter Jackson's WETA - the company the New Zealand-based director founded to tackle Lord of the Rings - and huge battle scenes.
Disney is allocating about 5 percent of its promotional budget to wooing Christian groups. Peter Sealey, a marketing professor at the University of California Berkeley's Haas School of Business and the former president of marketing and distribution for Columbia Pictures, describes this as "a very effective use of that money â€¦ that audience does not have as many films as it wants."
Sealey, however, saw "duplicity" in the way Disney is shying away from mentioning Lewis' Christian message in its general publicity materials. In a 16-page "Narnia Educator Guide" that Sealey found on the film's Web site, religion and Christianity aren't mentioned even once.
"The issue is secular audiences. Will they appreciate seeing a religious message without knowing it?" he asked. Disney "should make a statement, they should let people know. The lion is resurrected. â€¦ It's a great piece of entertainment and you can enjoy it if you're Christian or not. However, the underpinnings of the work reflect the New Testament."
Once it's known that Lewis was a theologian who wrote with a Christian message in mind, the parallels between the Narnia tales and the New Testament easily fall into place.
â€¢ Narnia is a magical kingdom created by the divine King Aslan, but currently in a state of perpetual winter due to a curse of the evil White Witch. The four children (two "Sons of Adam," two "Daughters of Eve") stumble in via the enchanted, eponymous wardrobe and become the disciples of Aslan.
The child Edmund betrays his siblings and Aslan, Judas-style, to aid the White Witch, and is saved when Aslan allows himself to be sacrificed, not unlike Jesus.
â€¢ Aslan is resurrected and the White Witch is vanquished. The four children are crowned kings and queens of Narnia. Peter - not a coincidental choice of names - becomes High King.
â€¢ In the last of the Chronicles of Narnia, fittingly titled The Last Battle, an army of people described in a manner recalling the medieval Turks and aligned with a donkey in a lion costume (a false god, if you will) invades Narnia.
Those who believe in Aslan pass through a gate into another realm. After a terrifying moment passing through the gate, a beautiful kingdom is revealed. Aslan decrees that he has ended Narnia just as he began it, and the four children, who died in the world of postwar Great Britain, can now live with him forever in paradise along with other believers.
You figure it out.
Pastor Earl Palmer, co-founder of Berkeley's New College and a scholar on Lewis, said Lewis always saw his tales as "stories of the marvelous," but Palmer admits that Aslan is a loosely veiled Christ figure. But Lewis wasn't trying to fool anyone, Palmer says: Before turning to children's books, he wrote Christian religious tracts.
"Lewis said you can take a rock out of your shoe, but you can't take an idea out of your mind. His faith is in everything he writes," said Palmer, senior minister at Seattle's University Presbyterian Church.
"I always say that you should let the story flow over you. Don't try to interpret it," he said. "Later, when you look back, you'll see certain biblical allusions. There are theological themes, just like in Lord of the Rings."
Lewis, however, denied he was writing allegorically. Instead, he claimed to simply be imagining the concepts of good, evil and the ultimate redeemer in a mystical world of his own creation.
But he never went so far as to claim the obvious Christian parallels were a coincidence.
"There's one funny line he put in a letter. He said children know who Aslan is," Palmer said. "The great golden lion, son of the emperor from beyond the sea, is a Christ reference."
And the golden lion is the sole redeemer.
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