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With the release of the first movie installment of the Chronicles of Narnia has come a blizzard of articles bemoaning and/or celebrating the Christian content (a good roundup can be found here). Polly Toynbee of the Guardian goes so far as to write that "Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion."
The amusing aspect of all the teeth-gnashing is that compared to the later books in the series, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" is remarkably tame on the religious front. Yes, there is a great deal of Christian imagery, but it seems clear that it is in service to the story, and not the other way around. In particular, Aslan is very much not the divine figure that he becomes in the later books. Let us examine his portrayal:
The first mention of Aslan is by Mr. Beaver on pg. 64, who says that he is "on the move," perhaps "already landed." In other words, he arrived in Narnia by ship; his mode of travel seems to be physical. Later in the story, Susan and Lucy travel on Aslan's back to the castle of the White Witch, and while they move quickly indeed there is nothing about the journey that is supernatural.
The Beavers are both adamant that Aslan is "a lion—the lion" (pg. 75), in sharp contrast to later portrayals (see below). When we finally see Aslan at the Stone Table, he appears an exceptionally powerful figure, physically and magically, but otherwise unremarkable in the sense that he is not qualitatively different from the White Witch or any other magical being.
A similar portrayal is found (if memory serves) in the second book, "Prince Caspian." There is one major difference, in that he can only be seen by those who are worthy; likely the transformation of Aslan in C.S. Lewis's thinking has already begun.
By the third book, "Voyage of the Dawn Treader," Aslan has become very different. Several times he assumes different shapes, especially an albatross and a Lamb (with a capital L!). He manifests himself in visitations, for example when Lucy reads through the Book of Many Spells; and most of all, the dialogue at the edge of the world between Aslan and the children draws explicit parallels with Jesus. Aslan has morphed into a Christian divinity.
This treatment gets stronger in the later books, culminating in the Armageddon of "The Last Battle." The patronizing dismissal by the warhorse Bree ("A Horse and his Boy") of a physical Aslan, and Bree's speedy humiliation, recalls Lewis's discussion of tapioca pudding in his essay "Miracles." Surely by the end, Lewis saw his series as a way to communicate matters of theology.
In comparison, it seems clear that Book 1 was indeed simply a fairy-tale built on Christian mythological elements. And to be honest, even if one chooses to associate it with the much more overt novels in the rest of the series, it doesn't warrant the incredible invective spilled by the atheists, not does it warrant the all-consuming devotion of certain Christian groups. The Chronicles of Narnia are fun stories, no more. One can easily enjoy them, as I do, without taking off for the nearest baptismal font.
That the making of a single movie must be the focal point of all this sturm und drang is more worthy of notice. Why must religious movies be stigmatized in this way? What are people afraid of?