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ELKHART -- When Kevin Joyce's fourth-grade students at St. Thomas Catholic School ask him why he's teaching "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" in religion class, he answers with a question.
"Is this really a book about four children playing hide and seek, a wardrobe and a lion?" says Joyce.
He proceeds to read the book with his students and they make posters showing the symbolism in the book. "You may think the story is just about four kids, but it's not," said Carly Lochmandy, one of Joyce's students.
Theologian and author C.S. Lewis wrote the series of seven books, published in the 1950s. He denied that they were allegory, in which the fiction would parallel something real, but Joyce's students figure out that Aslan the lion represents God or Jesus and the White Witch represents the devil or evil. "They think Peter (the character) is St. Peter," said Joyce, adding that they also believe Edmund is Eve.
In the book, Aslan sacrifices his life for one of the four children who had been tempted by and become a captive of the White Witch. After his torture and death, the mighty lion comes back to life, and life as the children and residents of Narnia changes. Sound familiar?
"Aslan's death is like Jesus dying on the cross," said Jessica DuBois, a St. Thomas fourth-grader.
With the arrival of the movie, critics and scholars, as well as fans of fantasy literature, are debating the symbolism of the movie. Lewis claimed pictures came into his head and he wrote stories about them, but Jo-Ann Brant, Bible professor at Goshen College, said some of the symbolic Christianity in the books is drawn from ancient religious texts.
"What's blatant to me is probably very subtle to children, but it should be quite obvious to anyone who knows the Christ story and the crucifixion and resurrection stories," said Brant of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
"It's kind of like a story about God," said Joseph Kavanagh, another of Joyce's students. But at its heart, it's a story. Joseph said he liked the book for its adventure.
But Joseph and some of his classmates said Lewis' Chronicles aren't just a good fantasy story. "I think Harry Potter's just a story. It's not based on something. That's why I like the Chronicles of Narnia better," said Carly.
Both Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia are books that excite kids and get them to read, said Joyce.
Disney officials appear to believe Narnia will make money, just as Potter movies have, he added. Both series are also about the power of redemptive love, said Brant. In the Harry Potter books, the evil character Voldemort doesn't understand redemptive love and neither does the White Witch in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," said Brant.
Christians from the third to the 12th centuries believed the same thing, she said. Lewis' story of redemptive love follows some of the understandings of the early Christian church.
"One thing I find interesting as a Bible professor is Lewis uses the understanding of what Jesus accomplishes through his death and what his resurrection means as a triumph over evil," she said. Lewis' version of Christianity differs from some more modern interpretations of Jesus' life and is an invitation to think more deeply, she said.
Stories of redemptive love aren't restricted to children's books or movies based on them, said Brant, adding that "Pirates of the Caribbean" had some of the same themes. But Lewis appeared to draw from ancient religious texts for his children's books, she said.
Joyce and his students are planning a field trip to see the movie. "It looks really good," said student Maddie Keeslar.
Brant is hopeful that the movie has the visuals of "The Lord of the Rings" and a true following of Lewis' story. She already has tickets for a showing tonight to see how well the filmmakers did.
Contact Marshall V. King at firstname.lastname@example.org.