February 16, 2006
-- Winnifred Fallers Sullivan
Recent news stories have highlighted the fondness of contemporary Christian
conservatives for allegory. The new film version of C. S. Lewis's Chronicles
of Narnia, and its carefully targeted marketing campaign, has provoked
articles in the mainstream press about whether Lewis intended the books
to serve as a Christian allegory—and whether it is appropriate to regard
them as such, no matter what he intended. Indeed, it is now common for
the mainstream press to feature pieces concerning the "Christian"
take on new films—identifying the Christian meaning to be found in apparently
non-Christian material (points of view that are well represented on websites
dedicated to policing the media and culture for wary Christians). The
New York Times, for example, recently reported that the hit documentary
March of the Penguins has been well received by many evangelical
Christians as making a strong case for the Christian values of life, sacrifice,
monogamy, good parenting, and intelligent design (September 13, 2005).
Allegory is, of course, a technical term in literary circles, and one with ancient roots. But some have claimed that one form of allegory—the finding of Christian structures of meaning in non-biblical contexts—is a peculiarly Protestant rhetorical form of the modern period. Protestant Reformation-era critiques of Catholic allegorical biblical hermeneutic rapidly gave way to specifically Protestant forms of allegory, such as John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, which Bunyan himself famously described as "a fall into allegory."
Behind such allegorizing lies the implication that radical separation between this world and the next requires the use of allegory as a way of linking the two. Seen this way, allegory is a means of overcoming, in a Weberian sense, the unavailability of mediating sacramental ties to the divine, and the anxiety of not knowing whether one is saved. (This is in contrast to "Catholic" interpretive strategies sometimes termed "analogical"; see, for example, David Tracy's The Analogical Imagination). Even a cursory review of conservative Christian media will find an almost obsessive search for allegory—a displacement, some have said, from the narrow literalism of permissible readings of the Bible, as well as a replication of the allegorical reading of the Old Testament generally prevalent among Christians.
The reach of this form of allegorizing is further illustrated by a pattern of question and response in a recent trial at which I happened to be an expert witness. Americans United v. PFM (Civil No. 4:03-cv-90074 [U.S. District Court, Southern District of Iowa]) challenges the constitutionality of a "faith-based" prisoner rehabilitation program called InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI). Prisoners and other witnesses who testified in the Iowa trial were repeatedly asked on cross-examination whether or not it was the case that the "[IFI] program is built on six main [biblical] values, integrity, restoration, responsibility, fellowship, affirmation, and productivity." That question was often followed at trial by something like the following (objections by attorneys are deleted):
Q. In IFI, the lessons that illustrate these six values are drawn from the Bible, though; right?
Q. But these basic values, which are so universal, can be illustrated from other aspects of life; don't you agree?
A. Such as?
Q. Well, do you recall the story about Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat?
Q. That's the story of responsibility, right, the cat and the children clean up the mess they made while their mother was away?
Q. Okay. And Dr. Seuss' The Grinch Who Stole Christmas is a story of fellowship, right? The town of Whoville coming together despite the Grinch's efforts to steal Christmas; right?
Q. So these six basic values taught by the IFI program can be found almost anywhere. Isn't that so?
Q. Wherever these values are drawn from, be it the Bible or Dr. Seuss, the values are the same, aren't they?
Q. You'd not be surprised if lessons illustrating the value of responsibility, for example, could be found in the Koran, would you?
A. Not at all.
Q. Likewise, someone could probably find lessons illustrating fellowship in the Book of Mormon, don't you think?
Even the works of Dr. Seuss, the Koran, and the Book of Mormon can be
The problem with closed allegorizing of this kind as a way of life is that it points away from this world to another, better, world. The "decoding" appears to give meaning, but instead it empties this world of complexity and ambiguity. It inhibits thinking. As many people rightly pointed out in letters to the editor and on blogs after the appearance of the Times story about evangelical fans of March of the Penguins, the lives of these penguins are hardly consistent models of Christian monogamy and parenting. Indeed, the meaning of the movie might just as easily be discovered through the use of an evolutionist allegory—as the survival of the fittest.
Winnifred Fallers Sullivan is a Visiting Scholar with the American Bar Foundation and a Senior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is the author of The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton University Press, 2005).