C-S- Lewis

C.S. Lewis: Still too popular after 50 years

Even though it has been 50 years since his death, the faithful at Headington Parish Church in Oxford, England, are constantly reminded of the loyal, but rather quiet, parishioner who always occupied the same short pew hidden by a sanctuary pillar. Going to church was never easy for C.S. Lewis, even before he became one of the world's most famous Christian writers, noted the Rev. Angela Tilby, in a recent service in memory of the Oxford don's death on Nov. 22, 1963 -- the same day as the death of British author, Aldous Huxley, and, of course, President John F. Kennedy.

Lewis considered church organ music far too grand and thought the words of most popular hymns were "a literary disgrace," said Tilby. Illogical sermons irritated him no end and he was highly critical of liberal trends in theology and biblical scholarship. As a former atheist, Lewis believed that far too many people in the modern world were slipping into an "easy," "fashionable" agnosticism.

In particular, Lewis was "aware of the way belief in an afterlife had come to be ridiculed by critics of Christianity as 'pie in the sky when you die' -- an imaginary compensation for those who had a raw deal in this life," she said, in a service broadcast on BBC Radio. "Lewis' response was to argue that hope for a better world could never deliver unless it was grounded in something more than the here and now."

Lewis lived to see his popular fiction -- especially "The Screwtape Letters" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" -- become bestsellers in England, America and around the world. Meanwhile, most of his Oxford University colleagues rolled their eyes at what they considered the merely popular Christian apologetics of his BBC commentaries and books such as "Miracles," "The Problem of Pain" and "Mere Christianity."

The bottom line: Lewis was considered a dinosaur from an earlier age and far too popular to be taken seriously. Half a century later, that verdict remains popular among many academics and liberal religious leaders.

Yet half a century after his death, to the day, a small stone marker in honor of Lewis was added in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey, in the south transept near a variety of memorials for Geoffrey Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, John Milton, John Keats and many others.

Meanwhile, the entire Lewis canon is as popular as ever, with so many books in print, with so many publishers, that researchers struggle to total the numbers. More than 100 million copies of the seven Narnia books have sold worldwide, in 40 languages. HarperOne's C.S. Lewis Signature Classics series -- the non-Narnia Lewis works -- was created in 2001 and sales are nearing 10 million volumes. An estimated 18 million copies of "Mere Christianity" have sold in the United States alone since its publication in 1952.

Memorial stones are fitting, but it's significant that Lewis is best known for his books, said the Rev. Alister Edgar McGrath of King's College in London, who will soon return to Oxford to teach science and religion. He is the author of the recent "C. S. Lewis -- A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet."

"In the 1930s, Lewis declared that a writer is not a spectacle, who says, 'Look at me!' Rather, a writer is more like a set of spectacles, who says, 'Look through me.' ... The Christian faith, Lewis discovered, gave him a lens that brought things into focus," said McGrath, in the text for his sermon during the Headington Parish service.

This focus -- in his writing, in the classroom and in life -- included an unashamed belief in the reality of heaven and eternal life. Yet Lewis argued that focusing on heaven was the best way for believers to be truly serious about the actions and decisions that make up everyday life.

The ultimate goal for Lewis, said McGrath, was to "raise our horizon and elevate our expectations, and then to behave on earth in the light of this greater reality. ... The true believer is not someone who disengages with this world in order to focus on heaven, but the one who tries to make this world more like heaven.

"Lewis is surely right when he declared that the 'Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.'"

Losing faith in Narnia, part II

The producers and writers behind "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" say the same thing when describing the challenge they faced bringing the novel to the screen.

The problem, all agree, is that the second book in the classic seven-book fantasy series by C.S. Lewis is not structured like a movie.

The book's plot looks like this: The royal children from "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" are whisked back to the magical land of Narnia, where they meet a grumpy dwarf, who tells them a long, sad story that doesn't involve them about a prince they've never heard of named Caspian. So Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie decide to help, which leads to a long, long walk in the woods that eventually brings them to Caspian. Then there is a battle. The End.

That doesn't exactly scream, "Summer movie!"

"Through the magic of C.S. Lewis, that all works quite well on the printed page," said co-producer Douglas Gresham. "However, it's almost impossible to make that plot work on the screen. ... In terms of its story and message, I would say that 'Prince Caspian' is impoverished, in comparison with 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.' But while it may be poorer, as a story, I believe we have been able to make it into a better movie."

To do that, the team assembled by Disney and Walden Media decided to radically restructure the plot, including adding a second act that is not in the novel. That is sure to cause concern among legions of Lewis loyalists, which is a large crowd since sales of "The Chronicles of Narnia" have topped 100 million. The movie version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" grossed $748 million at the global box office.

In this case, it truly helps to know that Gresham -- in addition to being a producer -- is also Lewis' stepson and has been on a 30-year quest to turn the Narnia novels into full-scale motion pictures. Needless to say, he has played a strategic role in talks about artistic changes in Narnia.

"It would be hard to find someone who knows these stories better than I do or cares more about them," said Gresham, whose mother, poet Joy Davidman Gresham, met and married C.S. "Jack" Lewis during the years when the Chronicles were published. "The Narnia stories are a big part of Jack's legacy and, believe me, I am aware of that."

This has been a joy and a burden. Parts of "Prince Caspian" were filmed in the Czech Republic and, while in Prague, Gresham was introduced to the American ambassador. He wryly notes that, when the ambassador inquired about Gresham's role in the project, producer Mark Johnson had a simple reply: "Oh, he's to blame."

The key, said Johnson, is whether the messages in these books remain intact.

"The themes are the most important things," he said, during press events in New York. "You have to say, 'What is this movie about?' The first one was about a certain kind of faith and this one is about losing faith and then regaining it."

On one level, explained Gresham, "Prince Caspian" remains an adventure story about how the kings and queens from Narnia's golden age return to a troubled land and fight to restore "truth, justice, honor, glory and a sense of personal commitment and responsibility" during troubled times. However, the Pevensie children also struggle to believe that Aslan -- the Christ figure in Narnia -- will return and guide them.

The High King Peter, in particular, struggles with the "sin of pride" and his desire to prove he is still in command, said Gresham. This leads to a new twist in the plot, linked to an assault on the castle of the evil King Miraz.

"If anything, this theme that Peter has to regain his faith in Aslan is stronger in the movie than it was in the book," he said. To state this in terms that Narnia lovers will understand, if the younger King Edmund had to face his sins in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," then Peter faces a similar crisis in the new movie.

"This is something we all have to deal with in life," said Gresham. "We all have to realize that no matter how far we stray, there's only one way to come back."

Losing faith in Narnia, Part I

While there are no cars in Narnia, screenwriter Stephen McFeely rolled out an automotive image to express the message at the heart of the second film drawn from the seven-book fantasy series by C.S. Lewis.

At its heart, he said, "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" describes what happens "when people lose faith, when you don't keep Aslan in your windshield and he's in your rear-view mirror."

But if the most important thing to do during a life-shaking crisis is to keep one's eyes on a character named Aslan, then it's crucial to know who Aslan is and why following him is so important.

Yet dealing with the Aslan question has been the greatest challenge facing the Narnia team from Disney and Walden Media, which saw the first movie in this franchise -- based on "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" -- gross $748 million at the global box office, a total that soared over $1 billion with the DVD sales.

The bottom line: Aslan means different things to different readers. This is an awesome equation to ponder since sales of the Chronicles have topped 100 million, while being translated into more than 35 languages.

On one level, Aslan -- which means "lion" in Turkish -- is a magical beast who created Narnia and all of the talking beasts, spirits and people who inhabit it. Period.

Yet if he created this world then it would be logical to call him Narnia's Creator, with a large "C." Thus, many readers see Aslan as a powerful, yet vague, deity.

Then again, it's a fact that Lewis -- an outspoken Christian apologist -- stated that this series offered a sweeping parable of creation, fall, redemption and, ultimately, apocalypse. While the novels can be enjoyed on many levels, the Oxford University don provided a precise description of Aslan's identity in the first Narnia novel.

"I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea," says a talking beaver who helps Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie after the children arrive from the world of Adam and Eve. "Don't you know who is the King of Beasts?"

Thus, Aslan is the son of the ultimate ruler of Narnia and, in the most famous sequence in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," he allows himself to be sacrificed to pay for the sins of a traitor. Then, at dawn, the stone altar is empty and Aslan is raised from the dead.

That's a rather obvious metaphor, noted William Moseley, who plays Peter, the oldest Pevensie, who becomes the high king in Narnia's golden age.

"I don't want to go into the ... Christian analogy, but it's obviously there," said Moseley, during recent New York press events for "Prince Caspian," which reaches theaters this weekend. "Aslan represents God. People say every day, 'Why can't I see God? If he's there, why can't I see him?' "

Questions about the absence of Aslan loom over the action in the second movie. When the plot begins, the children have been back in England for a year. Then they are magically recalled to the land they once ruled, only to find that 1,300 years have passed. Narnia is controlled by the evil tyrant Miraz, who has stolen the throne from his nephew Prince Caspian.

It's a time of doubt, corruption and cynicism, in large part because Aslan has not been seen since the time of the four young rulers. The land the children knew is gone and they are tempted to lose faith, in Aslan and in their own mission.

The big problem is that when Aslan finally appears, only Lucy can see him and her visions are mysterious and highly personal.

The youngest queen faces a frustrating paradox that is at the heart of the book's message. As she grows older, Aslan will grow in stature and power, yet it also requires more faith to see and follow him.

"The thing is, Narnia isn't a game" for the children, said Georgie Henley, the 12-year-old actress who plays Lucy. In the context of Lewis' parable, "It's a real world. Although Aslan fades for a while, when he comes back he's stronger than ever and he's bigger than ever.

"I love that saying, you know: 'As long as you grow, so shall I.' "

NEXT WEEK: Douglas Gresham, on turning his stepfather's novel into a movie.

Tesser well, Madeleine L'Engle

Madeleine L'Engle found it amusing that her critics kept missing the obvious in her fiction.

Consider the magical women in "A Wrinkle In Time" -- Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which. It's true that they have strange wardrobes and unique ways of speaking. Mrs. Whatsit is chatty, for example, because she is so young -- a mere 2,379,152,497 years, eight months and three days old.

When the elder Mrs. Which arrives from another dimension, her colleagues begin giggling. Why? Since she is meeting three human children, Mrs. Which elects to appear as a "figure in a black robe and a black peaked hat, beady eyes, a beaked nose and long gray hair." She is holding a broomstick.

Get the joke? For decades, L'Engle's fiercest critics kept missing it. Thus, "A Wrinkle In Time" -- which won the 1963 Newbery Medal -- became one of America's most frequently banned children's books.

"If you read the book, there is no way that they are witches. They are guardian angels -- the book says so. You don't have to clarify what is already clear," L'Engle told me, in a lengthy 1989 interview.

"Don't they know how to spell? W-H-I-C-H is not W-I-T-C-H."

This interview came during a time when L'Engle (pronounced LENG-el) had increased her already busy lecture schedule after the death of her husband of 40 years, actor Hugh Franklin. But L'Engle kept writing and talking about the themes that dominated her life -- faith, family and creativity -- until her health failed. She wrote more than 60 works of fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry and prayers during her life, which ended with her Sept. 6th death in Litchfield, Conn., at the age of 88.

Wherever L'Engle went, people kept asking her to explain her beliefs, from heaven to hell, from sex to salvation, from feminism to the arts. The writer did not hide her views, but rarely used the kind of language that so-called "Christian writers" were supposed to use.

Thus, her career was defined by a paradox: Many of her strongest admirers were evangelical Christians, as were most of her fiercest critics. Thus, it's symbolic that she donated her personal notes and papers to Wheaton College -- the Rev. Billy Graham's alma mater -- where they are part of a collection best known for its materials about the life of Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.

L'Engle was also candid about the role her faith played in her writing. She was, throughout her life, an Episcopalian's Episcopalian from New York City who was determined to keep describing the visions and voices that filled her soul. While her writing was often mysterious, she kept hiding the crucial clues right out in the open.

It's hard, for example, to miss the source of the climactic speech to Meg Murray, the heroine in the science fiction series that began with "A Wrinkle In Time."

"The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men," says Mrs. Who, who always speaks in quotations, such as this lengthy passage from St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. "... God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty."

It's even clearer, in the next novel, that the children are backed by the powers of heaven. Meg finds herself face to face with a many-eyed creature with a 10-foot wingspan, a being with too many wings to count, wings that were in "constant motion, covering and uncovering the eyes." This is a biblical cherubim, yet another angelic vision. He stresses that he is not a singular cherub, and adds, "I am practically plural."

The goal, said L'Engle, was to create fiction that was unmistakably Christian, while writing to an audience that included all kinds of believers and unbelievers.

"I have been brought up to believe that the Gospel is to be spread, it is to be shared -- not kept for those who already have it," she said. "Well, 'Christian novels' reach Christians. They don't reach out. ... I am not a 'Christian writer.' I am a writer who is a Christian. I think that you have to be the best writer that you can be. Now, if I am truly a Christian, then that will show in my work."

Final Harry Potter wars? Part I

Harry Potter and his best friend Hermione Granger arrived in the magical town of Godric's Hollow on a snowy Christmas Eve.

Carols drifted out of the village church as they searched its graveyard for the resting place of Lily and James Potter, who were murdered by the dark Lord Voldemort. First, they found the headstone honoring the family of Albus Dumbledore, the late headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The inscription said: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

Then the Potter headstone proclaimed: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." Harry was mystified. Was this about defeating the evil Death Eaters?

"It doesn't mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry," said Hermione, gently. "It means ... you know ... living beyond death. Living after death."

For millions of religious believers who embrace Harry Potter, this pivotal scene in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" -- book seven in J.K. Rowling's giant fantasy puzzle -- offers new evidence that the author is, in fact, a Church of Scotland communicant whose faith has helped shape her work.

The first inscription is from St. Matthew's Gospel and the second -- stating the book's theme -- is a passage in St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians about the meaning of Christ's resurrection. Is this part of what Dumbledore had called an all-powerful "deep magic" built on sacrificial love?

Nevertheless, for millions of Rowling critics the presence of scripture in this final book will not cancel a decade's worth of wizardry, magic and what they believe is vague, New Age spirituality. And besides, Potter clearly didn't recognize the unattributed Bible verses. Right?

Religious battles commenced soon after Rowling released "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone." It didn't help that "Philosopher's Stone" -- a term from medieval alchemy -- was replaced with "Sorcerer's Stone" in U.S. editions. After the sale of 325 million-plus books worldwide, there are now at least three camps of Potter critics in these theological debates and three prominent camps of Potter defenders. The critics include:

* Some who insist these books are secular or subtly anti-religious. Writing in Time, Lev Grossman has argued that Rowling shares more in common with atheists like Christopher Hitchens than with J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, whose books were rooted in Christian faith.

"Look at Rowling's books," says Grossman. "What's missing? If you want to know who dies in Harry Potter, the answer is easy: God. Harry Potter lives in a world free of any religion or spirituality of any kind. He lives surrounded by ghosts but has no one to pray to, even if he were so inclined, which he isn't."

* Conservatives who think Potter-mania can lead to the occult. Some even oppose fantasy novels by Lewis and Tolkien -- which contain references to wizards, magic and demonic powers. The key is a Deuteronomy passage: "There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or daughter pass through fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells. ..."

Focus on the Family's James Dobson responded to "Deathly Hallows" by saying: "Magical characters -- witches, wizards, ghosts, goblins, werewolves, poltergeists and so on -- fill the Harry Potter stories, and given the trend toward witchcraft and New Age ideology ... it's difficult to ignore the effects such stories (albeit imaginary) might have on young, impressionable minds."

* Believers who see mixed signals. Evangelical activist Chuck Colson, for example, praised the books in 1999, noting that they contrasted good and evil, while the main characters displayed courage, loyalty and self-sacrifice. "Not bad lessons in a self-centered world," said the founder of Prison Fellowship.

But Colson's latest statement warned: "Personally, I don?t recommend the Potter books. I?d rather Christian kids not read them."

Soon after that Colson commentary, however, current Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley gently praised Rowling's books and, above all, the role fantasy novels can play for readers numbed by modern life.

"The popularity of these books -- and, yes, even of the Harry Potter series -- reminds us that the yearning for hope, for good to win and evil to be vanquished, is no infantile desire," he said. "Rather, it is one of the deepest and most important parts of our nature, placed in us by the God of all truth."

NEXT WEEK: Believers who embrace Harry Potter.

Shadows of THE wardrobe

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- The tall wardrobe in the office of the Westmont College English department isn't much to look at, but visitors from near and far keep visiting to peek inside.

A previous owner described this piece of oak furniture as a "perfectly ordinary wardrobe," a big one of the "sort that has a looking glass in the door." It was big enough to hold "a second row of coats hanging up behind the first one," yet the threshold was low enough that a small child -- perhaps a girl playing hide and seek -- could step into it.

It helps to know that this previous owner was a scholar named C.S. Lewis and that he wrote this precise description of this wardrobe, or an imaginary armoire just like it, in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." This was the first book published in his classic fantasy series "The Chronicles of Narnia."

Naturally, legions of Lewis lovers want to see and touch the wardrobe.

"Day after day you see people coming through to pay homage," said Paul J. Willis, whose office is next to this doorway into the land of Aslan, the Christ figure in Narnia. "There is that part of me that wants to say to each and every one of them, 'Hey! It's just a wardrobe!' ... Yet part of me also thinks that it's funny, and significant, that we are so serious about our literary relics. Why is that?"

There is no sign of declining interest in the life and work of Lewis and this is especially true of the Narnia novels, with more than 100 million copies sold over the past half a century. Meanwhile, the film version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" grossed $745 million worldwide and the first sequel, "Prince Caspian," is slated for a May 2008 release.

Willis has a unique perspective on this phenomenon and not just because he teaches at Westmont, a liberal arts college on the coast north of Los Angeles. The professor and novelist is also a graduate of Wheaton College in Illinois, which includes the Wade Center, a famous center for Lewis studies. This collection includes his desk, 2,400 books from his personal library, 2,300 of his letters and an ornate, double-door oak wardrobe handmade by Lewis' grandfather in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Wheaton obtained this item in 1973 and researchers stress that, according to the famous author's older brother Warren, this spectacular wardrobe was in their family home during the years that shaped their imaginations and childhood games.

Willis remembers the emotions stirred by the arrival of this wardrobe on campus. Some people seemed to think it was an object worthy of worship, because of its connection to the "unofficial patron saint of Wheaton College." Willis even wrote an editorial in the student newspaper, jokingly suggesting that administrators could cut slivers out of the back and sell them as relics.

It's crucial to remember that the Narnia wardrobe is the "threshold to fantasy," wrote Willis, in a 2005 book of essays entitled "Bright Shoots of Everlastingness." For many readers devoted to the novels, this physical wardrobe had become "a sacrament of the literary imagination. It was the closest thing we had to Narnia."

And then there were two, when Westmont obtained its wardrobe in 1975.

This was the last piece of furniture left in The Kilns, the house near Oxford in which the Lewis brothers lived while the Oxford don wrote his Narnia novels and many other books. This wardrobe was about to be destroyed because it was too big to be removed through a narrow doorway created by renovations Lewis had made to his bedroom.

Thus, Wheaton has a beautiful wardrobe linked to the childhood of Lewis, the time when he began telling his first tales about magic lands full of talking animals.

Westmont, meanwhile, has a Lewis wardrobe that fits the description of the one that the adult writer inserted into his most famous fantasy. It is an ordinary, everyday wardrobe like thousands of others in homes throughout England.

"Lewis, of course, would say that neither of these wardrobes are the real thing," said Willis. "They are merely copies. They are what Lewis would call shadows of the wardrobe. What really matters is the wardrobe in the story, because that is the doorway into the land beyond our own -- the true land of Aslan."

The future of Narnia

Soon after the smashing opening weekend of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the Rev. Bob Beltz had a vision of what his Hollywood colleagues might be doing someday just before his funeral.

"They could end up holding the first screening of 'The Last Battle' just before my funeral service. That's about how long it may take us to do the whole series," quipped the 55-year-old Presbyterian pastor, referring to the seventh and final Narnia novel by the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.

Pre-production work has begun on "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" and its creators are shooting for a pre-Christmas 2007 release.

Using a best-case scenario, it would take two years to make each movie, said Beltz, director of special media projects for the billionaire media entrepreneur Philip Anschutz. That would mean 12 more years and the last film would appear in 2017. But what if there are snags?

"Seriously, when we started seeing those first really big numbers roll in at the box office, that's when it hit me," said Beltz. "Some of us worked on this first movie for a very long time and now it seems like we may literally get to work on the Chronicles for the rest of our lives."

Of course, Anschutz and his Walden Media associates were convinced that the Narnia novels -- with 100 million copies sold over the past 55 years -- could turn into the kind of family-friendly franchise that makes Hollywood insiders see visions of "Star Wars," "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter." That's why Walt Disney Studios helped pour $180 million into creating "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

Within days of the movie's release, Beltz and other members of Narnia team knew that they had a green light. At the beginning of this week (Feb.28), the global box office for first Narnia movie was nearing $664 million. And for fantasy fans that are keeping score, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" has rung up $288,193,914 at the U.S. box office since its Dec. 9 release, while "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," which came out three weeks earlier, is a nose ahead at $288,733,970.

Director Adam Adamson of New Zealand will return for the next film, along with the young quartet of British actors at the heart of the first film -- Georgie Henley, 10, Skandar Keynes, 14, Anna Popplewell, 17, and William Moseley, 18. In "Prince Caspian," the four heroes return to the land of Narnia soon after their first adventure, only to discover that centuries have passed in Narnian time. With the help of the great lion Aslan, the Christ figure in the series, the children fight to bring the young Prince Caspian, the rightful heir, to the throne of Narnia.

The clock is already ticking. With the interconnecting plots, the actors playing the Pevensie siblings cannot look radically different even though they will be two to three years older than they were while filming "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." To further complicate matters, the two youngest children -- the characters Lucy and Edmund -- are featured in the next novel, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader."

The key to the whole project is the response of the millions of readers who have shared the novels with their children for decades, said Douglas Gresham, the 61-year-old stepson of Lewis and co-producer of the first film. He stressed that he will work on the Narnia movies as long as he is able to do so.

As important as the movies are, he said, the ultimate goal is to faithfully deliver the author's stories, symbols and themes. The books must have the last word.

"The challenge for us as filmmakers, and I have had to become one, is that everyone who has ever read the Chronicles of Narnia ... has a firmly cast picture, a precise visualization, in their mind of what Narnia looks like, what the creatures look like, how they should behave and how they should seem," said Gresham.

"We must produce films in which we equal or exceed every single one of those visual imageries. If we do that, then I believe that readers who love the books will keep going to theaters and we'll be able to complete the series."

The Lion, the Witch and the Fans

Mrs. Dilber is not one of Charles Dickens' most famous characters.

Still, Ebenezer Scrooge's spunky housekeeper became a favorite of director Paul McCusker and his Radio Theatre (www.RadioTheatre.org) team during its production of "A Christmas Carol." As a tribute, characters named Dilber were written into the Father Gilbert Mysteries and "The Legend of Squanto," while a "Dilberius" appeared in a biblical series.

McCusker also decided to continue this inside joke in his first radio script for "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," turning a housekeeper named "Mrs. Macready" into yet another "Mrs. Dilber." Douglas Gresham, the stepson of author C.S. Lewis, jumped on this tiny change as soon as he saw the script.

"His logic was simple," recalled McCusker, laughing. "He said that the diehard fans will know that it's supposed to be Mrs. Macready because millions of them know these books cover to cover. Diehard fans will know we changed it and, for them, that will affect everything. Then they'll start calling and writing, wanting us to change the name back to Mrs. Macready. Why go through that?"

It was nearly a decade ago that McCusker began dramatizing "The Chronicles of Narnia," the Oxford don's fantasy series that has sold nearly 100 million copies in the past 55 years. Thus, McCusker has already worked his way through some of the creative and even theological issues faced by movie director Andrew "Shrek" Adamson and the rest of the team that has turned "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" into a $150 million epic for Walden Media and Walt Disney Studios. Adamson has also worked closely with Gresham, whose mother, American poet Joy Gresham, married Lewis late in life.

Legions of Lewis fans must realize, said McCusker, that turning books into movies requires changes. Today's digital artists can show in mere seconds what, in print, required many paragraphs to explain. Meanwhile, dramatic scenes that Lewis quickly sketched -- such as massive battles involving talking beasts and magical creatures -- will be expanded because this is what modern audiences want to see fleshed out on screen.

"You have to make choices, but you have to make careful choices. If you take a major scene out, or you make a big change in the plot of a book that is this beloved, you are going to hear about it. Just ask Peter Jackson," said McCusker, referring to the director of "The Lord of the Rings" movies.

Gresham, 60, is serving as co-producer of the Narnia project. He stressed that he has, "for 30-odd years," dedicated himself to finding artists and entrepreneurs who share his commitment to faithfully capturing the themes in his stepfather's books.

"It is my ambition to live long enough to see all seven Narnian Chronicles made into feature films," he said, during a recent visit to Washington, D.C.

Because of recent leaps in technology, insiders realized that "now is the time to make this movie," said Gresham. "If you can imagine it today, then we can film it. ... But I don't want people coming out of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' saying, 'Wow, what tremendous special effects.' I want people to look at each other, slightly bemused, and say, 'Where did they find a real centaur to play that role?' "

But Gresham knows that many viewers will dissect the movie's theology, even more than its production values. They will be especially tense when the Christ figure in Narnia, the lion Aslan, offers himself as a sacrifice.

In a lengthy speech after his resurrection, Aslan explains that the evil White Witch "knew the Deep Magic. But if she could have looked a little further back ... she would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards."

This is, as Time magazine noted, "Christianity in a kid-lit veil."

"They can change a speech like that a little. They may need to shorten it," stressed McCusker. "If they stay true to the spirit of what was written, people will understand what is happening. ... Lewis has woven the Christian symbolism so tightly into the story that you can't cut it out without changing the story itself. The people who love this book are simply not going to let that happen."

Freud, Lewis & God on PBS

Dr. Armand Nicholi of Harvard Medical School was caught off guard as he read evaluations of his first seminar on the life and philosophy of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis.

"Several of the students said the same thing," he said, recalling that semester 35 years ago. They thought the class "was good, but that it was totally unbalanced. They said it was one sustained attack on the spiritual world."

Nicholi had a problem. He decided that the students were right, but he knew it would be hard to find another writer with the stature to stand opposite Freud -- perhaps the 20th century's most influential intellectual. Then he remembered a small book he discovered by chance during his internship in a New York City hospital, a time when he wrestled with the agonizing questions of cancer patients and their loved ones.

The book was "The Problem of Pain" by C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don and Christian apologist. Nicholi revamped his seminar, focusing it on the life stories and writings of Freud and Lewis. Rather than back into discussions of spiritual questions, the psychiatrist placed them at the heart of the syllabus. Decades later, Nicholi's classic course became "The Question of God," a book that has inspired a pair of PBS and Walden Media documentaries for television and home video.

The format blends academics and drama. Nicholi presents Freud as a spokesman for the "secular worldview" that denies the existence of any truth or reality outside the material world. Lewis is the champion of a "spiritual worldview" which accepts the reality of God. Seven articulate women and men representing a variety of viewpoints join in the seminar discussions.

Freud and Lewis are represented by their own words, the commentary of experts and actors who dramatize a few episodes from their lives, often seen in counterpoint with archival photographs and film footage.

Nicholi said the goal is the same as in the seminar -- to let these giants grapple with the big questions of life. Is there a God? What is happiness? Why do people suffer? Is death the end? What is the source for morality? It helps that Lewis, before his conversion, was an articulate atheist and familiar with Freud's work.

"I was astonished at how Freud would raise a question and then Lewis would attempt to answer it," said Nicholi. "When you read their work it is almost as if they are standing side by side at podiums, debating one another. It was uncanny."

At the center of the project is a word that is criticized by some scholars -- "worldview." Nicholi said it's impossible to deny that Lewis and Freud had different approaches to life. Each saw the world through filters created by culture, heritage, philosophy, education, experiences, faith and prejudices.

Their actions and writings make no sense when separated from these secular and sacred worldviews, said Nicholi. By studying their worldviews, students can test and refine their own. Many educators seem afraid to even discuss this process, he said. They find it especially hard to discuss questions of faith and morality.

"You can study an opposing worldview and learn everything that you can about it or you can try to ignore it," said Nicholi. "Many religious believers are afraid to take Freud's work seriously. They reject him out of hand. On the other side are the critics of Lewis who say that his traditional Christian beliefs were fitting for the uneducated masses, but not for the classroom. You hear them say, 'I do not consider this is an intelligent point of view and, since I am intelligent, I don't have to pay attention to it.' "

This is education?

Through the years, Nicholi has defended his seminar from critics on both sides. He still finds it hard to believe that people who claim to cherish academic freedom and diversity can question the value of reading and contrasting the works of these two intellectual heavyweights.

"We are supposed to be as critical, as objective and as dispassionate as we can possibly be," said Nicholi. "But if we cannot allow this kind of dialogue between two worldviews to take place in an academic setting, then we are in trouble. Discussing these kinds of questions is what academic life is supposed to be about."