`Narnia' is fodder for church, business

Movie is simultaneously a subject of sermons, commercial interests

December 09, 2005|By JOHN WOESTENDIEK AND MATTHEW HAY BROWN | JOHN WOESTENDIEK AND MATTHEW HAY BROWN,SUN REPORTERS

What do a Cheerios box, a McDonald's Happy Meal and St. Martin's United Church of Christ in Dittmer, Mo., have in common?

It's Narnia business - or at least business for Narnia. All three, though not all see it as such, are promoting The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the new movie based on the C.S. Lewis novel in which a Christ-like talking lion gives himself up to be sacrificed, is resurrected and triumphs over evil.

It's not the first time churches and religious groups have joined commercial interests in getting behind a Hollywood production. Last year's The Passion of the Christ serves as the prime example of what a movie can do (it grossed more than $600 million at theaters worldwide) with a push from the pulpit.

With Narnia, though, the movie company's marketing campaign goes beyond the Christians who flocked to The Passion. And it goes where that movie, in all good taste, could not.

You'll find Narnia everywhere from the grocery shelves to library shelves, from NASCAR tracks to Sunday school class, on boxes of Lucky Charms, Honey Nut Cheerios, yogurt, fruit snacks and Happy Meals. There will be a Narnia-themed NASCAR racer, an Oral B Narnia toothbrush and promotions on cleaning products including Tide, Downy, Bounce, Joy, Snuggle, Wisk and Mr. Clean.

And there's always the Sunday sermon.

The Rev. Scott Lohse, a lifelong Lewis fan and pastor of St. Martin's in Dittmer, outside St. Louis, plans four sermons that tie in with the film, including his Christmas address, for which he hopes to rent a live lion cub as a prop.

"I'd love to bring a lion cub to church on Christmas Eve," he said. "All I've found so far is somebody who will rent me a Siberian tiger, and he wants $3,000."

Lohse isn't shilling for Disney, though he was among those invited to preview the movie. He's just taking advantage of the story's return to popular culture and using it as a talking point, he says, as are pastors across the country.

"We just organized a group of people - adults and children - to go see it on Dec. 11," said the Rev. Kenneth E. Kovacs, of Catonsville Presbyterian Church in Baltimore County. "We make reference to Lewis a lot just generally, but with the movie coming out, it's a good time to talk about it."

Lewis' 55-year-old novel, which he preferred to characterize as "suppositional" rather than allegorical, follows the adventures of four siblings who enter a mystical land through the back of a wardrobe and join forces with Aslan, the lion who dies for someone else's sins, comes back to life and reclaims Narnia from eternal winter and the forces of evil.

Like the book, the movie can be seen as an enchanting adventure or as a religious allegory. In a time in which Hollywood seems to have extended an open hand to Christians - albeit one wanting to be greased - that gives it unique marketability.

Biblical parallels

Christians will like the biblical parallels and the values Narnia forwards; non-Christians can appreciate its fantasy and adventure. Youngsters will be enthralled by the swordplay and special effects; older people will find it a nostalgic reminder of a book many read in childhood. Schools and libraries will push it because it is a classic that, like the Harry Potter series, might entice young people to read.

With such universal appeal, Narnia was a natural for Lohse, who has been known to use episodes of The Andy Griffith Show as sermon fodder. He sees it as a way to capture the attention of his 200-member congregation.

Lohse, while he attended a preview of the movie, passed on purchasing the promotional materials offered during the event.

"I'm not participating in promoting the movie," he says. "That's not what I'm called to do. The movie just gave me an opportunity. I always try to seize things from the headlines and find things in popular culture that I can interpret for the congregation. Jesus used parables to teach lessons, and these are just parables."

In his Narnia sermons, Lohse, 47, is presenting monologues as if delivered by characters from the book. This Sunday, he will be the White Witch, who represents evil and temptation in the novel.

If he does spark interest in the movie, that's fine with him. Hollywood, he says, needs to make more movies that reflect strong moral values. "If they do Christian-themed movies, they're going to prosper," he said.

Christian money

With the box office success of The Passion of the Christ, there has been a mutual realization: Hollywood now knows there is money to be made in the Christian market; Christians are more aware than ever that movies can spread The Word widely and quickly.

"Some people say, if you're being marketed, don't you feel used? And I think, no, because it's a win-win situation," said Bob Waliszewski, media specialist for the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family.

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