During the 42 years since his death, the prolific C.S. Lewis has never failed to lure hordes of fans through his writings - nor has the Oxford and Cambridge literature scholar ceased to rouse antipathy from religious skeptics.
Now next week's release of the lavish Disney-Walden Media film "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," based on the first of Lewis' seven children's novels, is creating a new round of Lewis mania.
Beside parallel marketing blitzes for religious and secular audiences, new editions of Lewis' works have been published, as have numerous books and articles about him and the film. There are new study guides, lectures, Internet chatter, audiotapes, music CDs, games... and one legal threat.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State has informed Florida Gov. Jeb Bush that he offended the U.S. Constitution by choosing "Lion" for his state's annual student reading campaign because it's "filled with allusions to Christianity."
True enough, the lion of "Lion" is a Christ figure and the other novels are filled with biblical themes - though like many young readers, "Harry Potter" creator J.K. Rowling says she "adored" Lewis' stories and only grasped their Christian inspiration as an adult.
The Narnia series, published from 1950 to 1956, originated while Lewis was suffering from physical exhaustion and caring for his alcoholic brother, Warren, and the ailing mother of a deceased Army buddy.
The books have achieved permanent stature as children's classics, with 85 million copies sold. That far outpaces the still-steady readership for his more overtly Christian titles including "The Problem of Pain," "The Screwtape Letters," "The Great Divorce," "Miracles" and "Mere Christianity."
At least modest movie success seems assured, considering the box office for good-vs.-evil fantasy epics like the Harry Potter movies and the "Lord of the Rings" series, based on books by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien and Lewis were close Oxford colleagues whose friendship eventually cooled. Lewis was a "Rings" enthusiast while Tolkien loathed the Narnia books. Yet Narnia probably wouldn't exist without Tolkien.
As a young don, Lewis was a thoroughgoing skeptic who dismissed Christianity, in part, because it resembled ancient pagan myths about dying-and-rising deities.
In 1931, the devoutly Roman Catholic Tolkien and another Christian scholar spent a long evening with "Jack" Lewis arguing religion. Lewis wrote a friend that they had convinced him "the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others but with the tremendous difference that it really happened."
Earlier, in 1929, Lewis had come to belief in God, though not Christ. As his autobiography recounts, "I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England."
Conversion unleashed creative powers that made Lewis a celebrated champion of orthodox Christian belief. Bryan Stone of Boston University's divinity school thinks Lewis has few rivals as an intelligent and serious exponent of Christianity with broad popular appeal. He expects Disney's movie will draw new readers to the explicitly religious books as well as the Narnia tales, with their Christian undertones.
While Narnia appeals to believers and nonbelievers alike, reactions to Lewis as a religious thinker often depend on the beholder's attitude: The author's ecumenical but strongly traditional form of Christianity attracts some and repels others.
Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College in Illinois observes that "Lewis inspires really extraordinary levels of devotion. He can also inspire extraordinary levels of hostility" from the likes of fantasy author Philip Pullman, whose works are often regarded as anti-Christian.
Meanwhile, Narnia fans are extraordinarily defensive. Jacobs says he's been greeted with harsh reactions from some fellow evangelicals because his "The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis" (HarperSanFrancisco) raises questions about "Saint Jack."
J. Stanley Mattson of the C.S. Lewis Foundation recalls a liberal British priest telling him: "You realize, Lewis was the most hated man in Cambridge." Yet a nonreligious professor remembered Lewis as "one of the most delightful men here."
Today, Americans are more interested in Lewis than his fellow Britons are.
It's telling that Jacobs' college, not Oxford or Cambridge, sponsors a study center devoted to Lewis and his friends, while Mattson's California-based foundation bought Lewis' Oxford home for a shrine and sponsors Oxford and Cambridge seminars about him.
Why? "The English side has become so secularized.... They're just not interested in the subject," says Episcopal priest Clair McPherson, who is delivering Lewis lectures at New York's Trinity Church.
Likewise, many mainline Protestants have moved beyond Lewis' robustly conservative brand of belief, Jacobs says, so excitement about Lewis' Christian books "is largely a function of the evangelical and conservative Catholic worlds. But those are big worlds."
Admirers appreciate Lewis' skill with rational arguments on behalf of the faith, but Jacobs thinks his greater achievement is in "making holiness and the Christian life attractive, beautiful and radiant" for both adults and the delighted youngsters who explore Narnia.
On the Net:
Film publicity: http://adisney.go.com/disneypictures/narnia
Books publicity: http://www.cslewis.com
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