"If our words are ambiguous our meaning will escape [the reader]," wrote C.S. Lewis. "I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right, the readers will most certainly go into it." Pity that HarperSanFrancisco exec Steve Hanselman didn't take the advice when writing his ill-fated memo about Carol Hatcher's documentary, or that HarperCollins didn't consider it when writing its statement about its plans for Lewis-oriented material (which didn't mention a word about the new Narnia books or answer any questions about downplaying Lewis's Christianity). As a result of such unclear statements, and a gag order on HarperCollins employees, confusion about what's happening to Lewis's works is running rampant throughout the media. New news stories are hard to come by, but the commentators are out in force.

Still, as cloudy as the statements by Hanselman and HarperCollins are, one thing is clear: "The works of C.S. Lewis will continue to be published by HarperCollins and Zondervan as written by the author, with no alteration." That has been publicized elsewhere, but it didn't stop novelist, sociologist, and priest Andrew Greeley from beginning his commentary, "Plans are afoot to purge Christian content from the seven Narnia stories." The rest of his commentary isn't really worth noting, since it all proceeds from the same false premise. "Harper intends to censor out of C.S. Lewis's masterpiece that which is most essential to it—its Christian imagery—because that imagery would be offensive to mostly imaginary secularists," he writes. "Such a plan is not only vile, it is also stupid." Such a plan would be vile if it were true, but it's not HarperCollins that comes off sounding stupid after this column.

Greeley's column, published in the Chicago Sun-Times, MSNBC, and presumably elsewhere, was bad enough to coax Douglas Gresham, one of Lewis's stepsons, from out of his self-imposed silence on the matter ("This is to be my first and last post on this matter," he wrote earlier). "This is an evil lie," he tells the readers of the MereLewis e-mail list (which he takes pains to say he's not reading at the moment). "There are no such plans and there never have been any such plans." Indeed.

Charles Colson, a Christianity Today columnist and ubiquitous pundit, also gets tripped up by such "evil lies" in his commentary on the subject, expanding on The New York Times' assertion that HarperCollins "want[s] to de-Christianize the stories." "If HarperCollins and the Lewis Company get their way," he asserts, "millions more young readers may read Lewis, but it won't do them any good. They'll not only miss out on the true meaning of the stories, they won't … really be experiencing Lewis at all." Wrong again. HarperChildrens isn't just publishing Lewis's original Narnia books, it is promoting them like crazy. Readers will be able to "experience Lewis" all they want. Granted, it doesn't seem like HarperCollins is going to want to bundle Kathryn Lindskoog's allegory guide, The Lion of Judah in Never-Never Land, with Lewis's originals, but is that really what Colson wants? He's actually calling for a boycott of HarperCollins, but commends Zondervan (owned by HarperCollins, in turn owned by Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp) for its plans "to continue publishing the Narnia books in their original form and [having] nothing to do with any version that attempts to remove the Christian imagery." That's exactly what HarperCollins clarifying statement says!

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In an article on Slate.com, frequent Christianity Today contributor and Beliefnet books producer Lauren Winner takes a saner approach. She still falls for the widespread conflation between Hanselman's memo about the PBS documentary and HarperCollins' plans for new Narnia books, but her analysis is not dependent on the canard, and she does qualify her statements with an "if this is the case." Winner actually adds some substance to the debate, notably by quoting Lewis himself. It will be impossible to separate Narnia from Christianity, she writes, quoting Lewis's statement that "The whole Narnian story is about Christ." And she begins by telling the tale of Lewis's rebuke of a children's author who'd written of a magic machine simply because "it is what the modern child wants." "Better, Lewis argues, to start with the question 'What moral do I need?' and better still 'not to ask the questions themselves.'" Sound advice for a publishing company asking itself how to bring younger readers to the Narnia series. But Winner's article corrects more than just reputed bad thinking at HarperCollins and the C.S. Lewis Company—she also reminds readers that The Chronicles of Narnia aren't as blatantly didactic as, say, Mere Christianity:

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Like all successful religious allegories, Narnia can be read on many levels: The Song of Songs can be either an erotic love poem or a description of God's relationship with Israel; the famous medieval unicorn tapestries tell both of the capture and taming of a unicorn and of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, part of what makes the Narnia series endure is its light touch. (The same goes for other children's classics with Christian casts, such as Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.) It's bittersweet to see Lewis' restraint, his lack of preachiness, rewarded with an attempt to make the denizens of Narnia as unchristian as, say, the wizard named Harry Potter.

Also offering wonderfully levelheaded commentary on the controversy is Beliefnet columnist (and former Christianity Today columnist) Frederica Mathewes-Green. For starters, Mathewes-Green notes that "much of the uproar was due to a misunderstanding; readers thought that the plan was to de-Christianize the stories. The misunderstanding was reasonable, since the [The New York Times] article was confusingly headlined 'Marketing Narnia Without a Christian Lion.'" But she outlines the three separate and distinct bombshells that really have detonated: plans for Narnia toys and clothing are in the works, new Narnia books are being commissioned, and "the publisher hoped to tone down Lewis' image as a Christian apologist in order to broaden his appeal." Clearly the first two are not as problematic for Lewis fans as the third. Still, Mathewes-Green gets credit for being the first to defend HarperCollins, calling its strategy reasonable. "Some people find the label Christian apologist distasteful and lump Lewis in anachronistically with the modern-day religious right. HarperCollins hopes to minimize these associations and present Lewis to these people as a thinker worth listening to." Those up in arms should be careful:

The danger is that we could prize his image, and what it does for us, more than his message and what he intended it to do. Lewis never wanted to be a symbol. In fact, he questioned whether "little books about Christianity" had much lasting impact. … It's a good guess that he would prefer his own Christian identity to be something for the reader to discover, just as we gradually realize who Aslan is. Tampering with the words of Lewis' books would be a travesty. However, if Lewis is not labeled "Christian apologist," if he's mainstreamed into the community of other writers, it may help him escape the prejudice that traditional Christians face today. It won't limit his message; he'll still be a Christian apologist. Just one who can slip behind otherwise-locked doors more easily.
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Sadly, Mathewes-Green, like the other three columnists and almost everyone else who's written on this subject, has neglected one more thing we know about HarperCollins's plans for Lewis. The company—both through HarperSanFrancisco and Zondervan—is also republishing and promoting the writer's nonfiction, explicitly Christian works. Any criticism of what the company might do in the future must be tempered with praise for that it has done. Does anyone—except for perhaps Carol Hatcher—really have a complaint about how HarperCollins has treated Lewis's works thus far?

It is also worth remembering that Lewis himself, according to biographer George Sayer, did not intend for The Chronicles of Narnia to be his most evangelistic books. He saw them as pre-evangelistic.

"The author almost certainly did not want his readers to notice the resemblance of the Narnian theology to the Christian story," Sayer writes in Jack. "His idea, as he once explained to me, was to make it easier for children to accept Christianity when they met it later in life. He hoped that they would be vaguely reminded of the somewhat similar stories that they had read and enjoyed years before. 'I am aiming at a sort of pre-baptism of the child's imagination.'"

Thus it would be indeed lamentable for any new Narnia books to leave behind Christian sensitivities. (It's lamentable for any new Narnia books to be commissioned at all, in Weblog's opinion.) But Christians upset about making "no attempt will be made to correlate the stories to Christian imagery/theology" in the marketing of Narnia must ask if that's really what Lewis intended in the first place.

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