Friday, December 24, 2010

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: A Reflection and Review

Narnia.... the very word holds a power over countless readers. With it comes a thirst for adventure, a return to youth, and a longing to peer over the world's edge into “Aslan's Country.” Now with the release of the third film based on the Narnia series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, another generation is getting a chance to step through that magical Wardrobe and into the Realm of Infinite Possibilites.

In the Beginning was a Word…

C.S. Lewis' epic series of seven books, The Chronicles of Narnia, began their publication in the 1950's, with a succeeding volume nearly every year until 1956. Like his contemporary, and close friend for decades, J.R.R. Tolkien (author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), the germination for this wildly successful series began quite simply with a word... or an image to be exact.

“It all began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn't anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.” (C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds)

Both Lewis and Tolkien were deep and committed Christians, (Tolkien a Catholic) and this faith of theirs breathed its life into their work – for Lewis in a slightly more obvious way, like a road marked with lettered signs. For Tolkien the gospel was so deeply embedded in it, the signs are in the very leaves, trees, language, and longing of Middle-Earth. He said afterwards that The Lord of the Rings was a “profoundly religious and Catholic work” though not intentionally in the writing.

So where does Lewis’s sea journey on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader take us this time? Well, back into the Mystery of course. The mystery of myth, and the fantastical freedom of fantasy. For many, however, this journey is not an easy one. So often it’s called a tale for children. But buried in the pages (and now the celluloid) of the Narnian stories is something meant to wake up us adults too. There’s something essential for all of us to hear in Aslan’s whispers. Shakespeare’s Hamlet said it best: “There are more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio, then are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

C. S. Lewis used myth-making as a tool to slip certain realities in past our more “adult” logic and reason, when we aren’t quite expecting it. He called it “smuggling theology.”

When Lewis was asked what The Dawn Treader was all about, he simply said “the spiritual life.” I’d like to highlight a few scenes from the film version in this review that capture this inner journey, and let it be known, in the language of the blogosphere, there are spoiler alerts!

The first page of Lewis’s Dawn Treader introduces us to just one of the characters who needs to work on his spiritual life, and the first line of the book says it all: "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."

Eustace is a boy who acts like a stuffy adult. I think Lewis’ point here is to take us stuffy adults and get us to act as little children by the end of our reading! For Eustace, the greatest annoyance of having his Pevensie cousins stay at his home is their nonsensical talk of this “make believe” land of Narnia. Reality for Master Scrubb is that which can be weighed, categorized, dissected, and stuck with a pin upon his insect board. It lies, essentially, in what he can control. Sound familiar?

In Eustace, Lewis is highlighting the arrogance of modern reductionism that says a thing is simply that which is quantifiable. Is it efficient, productive, does it contribute to the collective? This modern philosophy hates superfluous exuberance and above all mystery. Strip it down to its essential use! Don’t look any further! After gazing upon a rather life-like painting of the sea (that Eustace hates and the Pevensies love) and having it actually come to life and draw Eustace and his cousins into its watery mystery, Eustace starts to come undone. Talk about a baptism of fire!

In Narnia, however, Eustace continues to be his own self-absorbed problem, and this reaches a climax when he abandons his shipmates and gathers a pile of tempting gold into his pockets. He is still thinking quantifiably! But he has a qualifiable change after turning into the very thing his hoarding thoughts have imaged: Eustace becomes a dragon.

Here is one of the films finest renditions of Lewis’s classic tale, and it strikes a powerful chord for the viewer - we who have our own struggle with pride, self-sufficiency, and greed. Eustace cannot rid himself of this hardened shell of dragon skin, only Aslan can. I believe the Great Lion only appears three times in the film, and this is one of them. With glowing slashes, Eustace the Dragon is struck again and again by the Lion, until he is stripped of the old scales of sin and replenished with a new heart, in a stunning return to his own skin; a mortal boy again. The book has him plunged in water to make clear the baptism Eustace undergoes to change his heart. The film has him reformed on the edge of the sea.

Lucy, played with pristine innocence and charm once again by British actress Georgie Henley, has grown up a bit. The struggle in her “spiritual life” is in owning her own dignity and self-worth. She struggles with the desire to be as  beautiful as her older sister, Susan, to the point of nearly losing herself in the process. It’s a powerful lesson, and watching the film, my wife and I were so grateful knowing that there were countless young girls watching and hearing the truth that they are beautiful, not by comparison with their older sisters but in being who they are. A candid scene shows Lucy beside a young troubled refugee girl, who is inspired by Lucy’s bravery. “When I grow up, I want to be just like you,” she says. Ah, Lucy’s response sets her heart aright, and Lucy’s own trajectory towards wholeness as well! “When you grow up,” she tells the child “you should be just like you!”

Edmund, played by actor Skandar Keynes, first appeared in The Lion , the Witch, and the Wardrobe. He was a dark and conniving youth, now he’s come of age. He is valiant and fearless, though still a bit unsteady under the weight of his older brother Peter (who also only appears briefly in the film).

In a climatic showdown with a massive sea-serpent (parents, the movie has some dark moments for smaller children), Edmund confronts his old weakness again. The director has the White Witch return in the form of temptation, which is an innovation that really does add a connecting thread to the films. The Witch promises to make him a man, even a king to rule beside her. In one swift stroke, Edmund Pevensie dismisses that empty promise and shows that he already is a man in risking his life defending his friends.

There are some alterations and omissions in moving from book to film, and some of them lose some of the hints and homage made to Christ so clear in Lewis’s words. Aside from that, I just missed Aslan. But truth be told, in the spiritual life, as in the Dawn Treader, there is not always the consolation of His Presence.

A good friend of mine, pointed out that this story is not so much about the enemy on the outside as in the previous books/films. Now it is the enemy on the inside. In those interior struggles, when we feel most alone in the castle of the heart, the Great Lion still walks those halls. Patiently He waits for our yes to His invitation. And the journey begins anew!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


I find this to be hilarious and refreshing in its simplicity. Who knew it could be so easy!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Train Attraction

If you are anywhere near or around or in the proximity of Flemington, NJ, in the near future, I feel you are morally and aesthetically obliged to visit Northlandz Trains. Watch this video of our first stop there a few weeks ago and you'll see why. Absolutely amazing stuff!!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Glass Half Full

I love this holy feast of Mary's Immaculate Conception, but I don't like the negative vibe I'm feeling today, listening to some of the prayers and reflections today on Our Sweet Mary. It's all this "sinless perfection" language. I think it makes Mary untouchable, and even a bit un-human. I hope you're not offended. Stay with me!

I remember as a kid hearing the method for determining if you are an optimist or a pessimist. Look at a glass of water. Describe it. Is it half full, or half empty?

Maybe we should be talking about Our Lady as more grace-full than sin-less. It feels more optimistic and realistic. Talk of sinlessness and perfection can sound so... unreachable. I know Mary is immaculate (without stain) but I don't know if she ever spilled anything on her clothes. I bet she did. I almost hope so, in a weird way. One of my favorite scenes from the greatest film of all time, The Passion of the Christ, shows Mary, as a young mother, leaping up and spilling dinner in an attempt to catch a falling Christ (who also surely must have stumbled more than three times in his via dolorosa of toddlerhood). He became one of us "in all things, except sin" - and that all things encompasses a whole bunch of things, doesn't it?

We can trick ourselves in our defining of terms like perfect. Does it mean that everything a perfect person does is flawless? They never burp, blunder, or bite off more spaghetti than they can chew? No awkwardly loud sneezes? That occassional snort in the middle of a really good laugh? Does it mean they sort of float around never touching the earth, that they are perpetually solemn, always using perfect punctuation, dotting their i's and crossing their t's?

Hmmm. I like to think of Mary as full of grace, always YES, loving and serving, open-eyed and receiving Love as it tumbled down from the Heavens towards her with as much passion as the Passion of a Good Friday. I don't like thinking of Mary as just "sinless." That's like looking at celibacy and saying "Oh, that means you can't have sex." Well, yes, but what can you have? God. Love. Union with not just one but every heart fashioned in the image of God, and the Universe as a present from a Loving and Divine Spouse to boot! How's that grab ya?

Mary's Immaculate Conception means, ultimately, that in her, God gave us a fresh start; a new beginning, a New Eve to be the Mother of All the Living Children, washed clean in the waters of Baptism. She was fully human, fully alive, all woman, and the joyful cry of her Magnificat speaks volumes about her exuberant spirit and radical passion for the Living God. There's nothing stoic, disincarnate, or stuffy there! In fact, in her heart, I'd dare to say there is an overflowing excess of love.

Oh Mary, give us a taste of that Fullness you received, into your very body! Open us up to the wonders of His Passion for us! Make us hungry for this Fullness! For the hungry He fills with good things, and the rich He sends away empty.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Little Drummer Boy Returns!

This kid has the music in him! This was the first sitting ever at his cousin's drum set. Watch how he rests the sticks after playing. A natural!!

Monday, December 06, 2010

Saved from a Train

This is video footage of a man being saved literally at the last second from an oncoming train in Madrid. A drunken man staggered off the ledge into the tracks, and an incredible off duty policeman is the only one brave (or crazy enough) to leap onto the tracks to rescue him. PS - my colleague Theresa who told me about this noticed the policeman never shows his face in the retelling of the story. Humility and courage! What a winning combination!

Talking to Your Little Ones About the Big Topic of Sex

A much repeated sentence we hear at our Theology of the Body retreats and courses is "I wish I heard this when I was younger!" ...