Here, then, is a key difference between Narnia and The Shack. Aslan is a character from a different world and a different system of beliefs who has some similarities to God the Son. The Shack presents a character in this world who claims to be God the Son. It also presents characters in this world who claim to be God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. To look at Aslan on the silver screen is to see a character who is like Jesus in some key ways; to look at Papa or Sarayu on the silver screen is to see characters who claim “I am God the Father” and “I am God the Holy Spirit.” (Let me say this clearly: My concern with portraying God the Father as Papa and God the Spirit as Sarayu has nothing to do with their race or gender, or even their humanity. The concern is portraying God as anything at all.)
It’s hardly theological novelty or historical oddity to suggest we should be wary of presenting the immaterial God in physical form. This was the point of my recent article on The Shack movie in which I expressed my concern that its portrayal of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit is a violation of the second commandment. I was surprised by the scope and tone of the response. Yet amid many retorts and accusations, I received one thoughtful question from at least a hundred people: What about Narnia? If it is wrong to portray God the Father as the human Papa, isn’t it equally wrong to portray God the Son as the lion Aslan?
This is a very good question and I am glad to answer it. In what follows I want to tell why Papa of The Shack is not Aslan of Narnia. I will argue they are not the same in three key ways: they are from different genres of literature, portray different characters, and teach different messages.
The first key difference between The Shack and Narnia is one of genre. What genre is C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series? I would argue that it is allegorical fiction, but not full-out allegory. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, an allegory is “a story or visual image with a second distinct meaning partially hidden behind its literal or visible meaning.” Further, allegory “involves a continuous parallel between two (or more) levels of meaning in a story, so that its persons and events correspond to their equivalents in a system of ideas or a chain of events external to the tale.” Discussions and definitions of the term invariably point to The Pilgrim’s Progress as the most notable English-language example. Bunyan’s tale is an allegory because every major character, setting, and plot twist closely corresponds with a Christian idea or doctrine. The main character represents believers, his pilgrimage represents the Christian life, his burden represents sin, and so on. The key to allegory is the intentional, ongoing, and substantial parallel between the fictional world and the real world.
The Narnia books are not fully allegorical because they do not involve a continuous and substantial parallel between Narnia’s world and our own, or between the mythology of Narnia and the tenets of Christianity. But they undoubtedly do involve a general parallel, so that the perpetual winter of Narnia corresponds in some details to humanity’s state of sinfulness while the White Witch corresponds in some details to the devil. Yet there are many other elements of this universe that have no identifiable parallel. It would be a wrong reading of Narnia to assign great significance to the lamppost, the fawn, or other incidental characters and details.
What genre is The Shack? Some describe it as allegory, but according to established definitions, this is not the correct genre. It does not have “a second distinct meaning partially hidden behind its literal or visible meaning.”