Christian 'Lion' Just a Paper Tiger

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As Disney’s holiday blockbuster "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" roars into movie theaters on Friday, so does a lot of debate about the movie's Christian backstory and marketing.

After all, the book — a thinly veiled take on Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection by C.S. Lewis, one of the 20th century’s foremost defenders of Christianity — comes nearly on the heels of "The Passion of the Christ," 2004's blood-drenched Mel Gibson film that proved deeply religious moviegoers could be a force to be reckoned with at the box office.

And Disney’s dual-track marketing scheme — selling the movie to both Christian and mainstream audiences — certainly means that the House of Mouse is taking the subgroup seriously.

But people connected with the film, experts and observers seem to agree that when it comes to the religious aspect of the movie, the lion that roared is really just a paper tiger — especially Disney, which risks its film becoming labeled a niche, “Christian” movie and losing the mainstream audience.

“I’m anxious for when people talk about how great the movie is,” Disney’s senior vice president of marketing, Dennis Rice, said. “It’s going to be one of the greatest movies of the year, and I’m dying for people to write about that because that’s far more exciting and relevant to people.”

Rice quickly pointed out that less than five percent of the marketing budget for “Narnia” is earmarked for programs targeting the faith community — the same as for such movies as “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” “Tuck Everlasting” and “Holes.”

Theologians said that Disney’s marketing effort has seemed to strike the right balance between appealing to the mainstream and acknowledging the Narnia books’ Christian roots.

“It won’t detract from the mainstream because it’s not an explicitly Christian movie,” Bryan Stone, professor of theology at Boston University, said. “It’s a win-win situation.”

Hollywood insiders agreed. “Unlike ‘Passion,’ which used controversy as a stepping stone to draw people in, this is quite the flip of that,” said Michel Shane, producer of “Catch Me If You Can” and “I, Robot.”

And so did those outside the Christian community who had denounced Gibson’s film.

“I think some people are trying to make this into another ‘Passion’ thing, but the objection to ‘The Passion’ wasn’t that it was Christian but that it had some very violent anti-Jewish imagery,” said J.J. Goldberg, editor of Jewish newspaper The Forward.

“There’s nothing in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ that’s an attack on anybody else. I’ll see it, my kids’ll see it, and they’ll love it, and the fact that we’re religious Jews won’t have anything to do with it. Forgiveness, courage and honor — you don’t have to be a Christian to believe in that. I mean, Christians read ‘Anne Frank.’”

That said, some saw the popularity of “Lord of the Rings” with Christian groups as a quiet success for the reunion of religion and Hollywood. Then came “Passion,” which redefined the way the media looked at movie audiences and the economic clout of the Christian community.

“Theirs is this great untapped marketplace that’s always been there, but that it took Mel Gibson to figure out how to drive them into theaters,” Shane said.

Or, to put it in box-office terms: “Hollywood rediscovered the church audience — the biggest audience out there, if you’re not just including evangelicals,” said Ted Baehr, author of “Narnia Beckons” and head of the Christian Film and Television Commission.

“Last year, movies with overt Christian content averaged over $100 million, those with moral content averaged about $60 million and those with anti-Christian or anti-moral content averaged only about $10 million to $10 million. Good always does better in the box office.”

It was a long road back to the silver screen for religious groups, which once had a close relationship with moviemakers but shut down their Hollywood film offices in the late ‘50s and 1960s, according to Baehr.

“The church retreated from Hollywood. Liberal churches decided they wanted to be more involved in social action and liberation theology,” Baehr said. “Conservatives didn’t want to be involved with movies at all. That’s when Hollywood went into an adolescent period, which gave us ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘The Wild Bunch.’”

And there's no denying the Christian content in "Narnia." An atheist most of his early life, “Narnia” author Lewis accepted God in 1929 and joined the Anglican Church on Christmas Day 1931, in large part thanks to his friendship with fellow Oxford don, “Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic who shared his passion for mythology.

As Tolkien labored on “Rings” (eventually publishing the three books from 1954 to 1955), Lewis whipped out “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” in 1950 as an answer to his speculation about what Jesus would do and look like in other worlds. Six more Narnia books would follow.

Lewis was always up-front about his work’s relation to Christianity and Christian themes. Tolkien, on the other hand, was much more ambivalent, resisting interpretation of “Rings” as a Christian allegory but also admitting in 1953 that his epic was “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”

Half a century later, Tolkien’s non-Christian Christian tale would become the benchmark blockbuster for fantasy films, without any specific nod to the Christian crowd.

But when “The Fellowship of the Rings” came out, some religious groups pointed to Tolkien’s strong themes of temptation, sacrifice and redemption as examples for Christians to follow; Christian study guides to the films and books were published, and pastors talked about the trials of Frodo Baggins in sermons.

In Seattle, Bryan Burton, pastor of John Knox Presbyterian Church, hosted a special film night for congregants and to attract new worshipers. And, despite its lack of any overt connection to Christianity, “Rings” was a great success.

“With the ‘Fellowship of the Rings’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, we had people who came to faith — and it wasn’t through Sunday morning worship,” said Burton, who sees the movies as the modern version of Jesus’ parables. “It was by coming and seeing a film. We’ve really drawn on that.”

Burton’s church already has plans for similar “Narnia” nights.

Indeed, all signs point to the movie's crossover success. In addition to the regular soundtrack to “Narnia,” which will come out after the movie debuts, EMI Christian Music Group has already put out an album with music inspired by “Narnia,” as performed by big names in Christian music.

A single by Christian pop musician Steven Curtis Chapman — “Remembering You” — has done well, No. 38, in the mainstream adult-contemporary charts, while it’s done “well but not over the top” in the Christian market, according to EMI-CMG executive vice president of business development Greg Ham.

But the bottom line is it's not a Christian story — it's a good story.

“I think Hollywood understands instinctively that good storytelling makes for good movies,” said Robert Hodgson, dean of the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship at the American Bible Institute. “And religious storytelling taps into a deep vein of piety.”