Sunday, December 19, 2010

C.S. Lewis's Delight in Hierarchy

Four years ago Esther and I commented how the movie of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe disrupted Lewis's hierarchical vision that was embedded in courtly etiquette. We made the point that Lewis shows in his writings, such as The Allegory of Love, that chivalrous themes and symbols are pointers to higher realities, and that Narnian culture is saturated with such images. By contrast, Adamson, the director of the first Narnia film, seemed intent on eliminating all the subtle nuances that point to these symbols and images. For example, regarding the Father Christmas scene, Andrew Adamson said
"[In the book], Father Christmas says, ‘I do not intend you to use it because battles are ugly when women fight.’ I thought that was very disempowering to girls, the fact that you get a tool and you’re not allowed to use it. I think C.S. Lewis wrote this book before he met Doug’s mother. I think there are a lot more strong female characters in his books after he met Doug’s mother. ‘Battles are ugly affairs’ made it more of a universal thing and not a sexist thing. "
The problem here is not simply that Adamson tried to create a politically correct Narnia  but that Adamson’s approach was essentially reductive, getting rid of the hierarchical themes that permeate relationships between the different classes in Narnia and between men and women. It is reductive because he was subtly rejecting transcendent themes such as a chivalrous society where men are manly and fight to protect woman. Similarly, the whole way in which family solidarity was made to replace loyalty to Aslan as the childrens' motivating factor throughout the narrative (an point we develop here) was another move away from transcendent themes to two-dimensional, empirically accessible themes. This approach has the effect of flattening Lewis’ Narnia, like turning something that is in colour into black and white.
I was delighted the other day to have our perspective confirmed by Steven D. Boyer who has written some great things about C.S. Lewis' hierarchical view of the world, and the films' implicit rejection of this worldview. In his article, "Narnia Invaded: How the New Films Subvert Lewis’s Hierarchical World" he makes the following observations:

The word “hierarchy” does not have very pleasant connotations in our day, so to speak of someone being “fond of hierarchy” sounds very “peculiar” indeed. It is like admitting that your great-uncle....

Lewis’s thinking...insists upon hierarchy. We might not use this term very often, but it is clear that any serious doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”) involves the recognition of a very real hierarchical distinction between God and world. The difference between the great Creator who gives reality and the cosmos that receives reality is absolute. The one is utterly independent, the other utterly dependent. The one is worthy of all worship; the other rightly offers this worship. There is here a hierarchy of the deepest, richest kind, for in every imaginable respect, the world is subordinate—and rightly subordinate—to the God who creates and constantly sustains her.

Yet right alongside this affirmation of hierarchy in the Christian doctrine of Creation, we find the insistence that creation is fundamentally, unambiguously good—and with a goodness that grows directly out of its unqualified dependence upon its Creator. Note the surprising interpenetration of these two principles. Creation is not good in spite of its subordination to God, in spite of the hierarchy; it is good because of its subordination, because of the hierarchy. It is good because it is created, and to be created is to be glorious precisely by virtue of reflecting or showing forth the greater, higher glory of the Creator.
Indeed, as soon as any created thing ceases to be rightly subordinate to God, that creature ceases also to be good. It becomes a competitor with God, like Molech or Baal or Satan, rather than a servant of God. This is the essence of sin in Lewis’s mind: it is a turning away from our true creaturely status. It is an attempt to replace the goodness that naturally comes from being subordinate to God the Creator with a different, independent, autonomous goodness. It is a rejection of God.
So hierarchy, by its nature, is fundamentally good. And Lewis follows the overwhelming majority of the Christian tradition by going further, by believing that the goodness of hierarchically ordered relationships extends all through the world that God has made. Relationships of all kinds are ordered, Lewis thinks, with an appropriate kind of giving and an appropriate kind of receiving. When that order is respected, real joy and freedom are the result.
Now we don’t have space here to pursue this idea very far, but the point is absolutely crucial: in Lewis’s mind, hierarchy is the source of freedom. This means that, as odd as it sounds to most of us, hierarchical order is something that we all ought not to hate or to fear, but to delight in.
To be sure, hierarchy has been abused, and Lewis is well aware that, in a fallen world, we need equality as a protection against that abuse. But it is one thing to protect ourselves from the abuse of hierarchy, and it is another to reject outright the thing that is abused—and it is this latter error that the modern world has fallen into. Finding that hierarchy has been abused, we have rejected hierarchy in principle.
But this is a dreadful mistake. It is like discovering that some of our food has been poisoned and therefore resolving never to eat again. Worse still, if Lewis is right, this rejection of hierarchy is nothing less than a rejection of a fully Christian way of seeing the world.

Further Reading

"Review of Voyage of the Dawn Treader"

"The folly of trying to squeeze a blockbuster out of Dawn Treader"

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