Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.

4.26.2012

Literary Aside: Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling, and Rand?


Tolkien vs. Lewis: Does religion matter?
Sometimes you find odd questions in polls that allow you to explore things you never imagined. One of my favorite sources for these are the 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair polls conducted with CBS News. The involvement of 60 Minutes guarantees religion will be among the demographics (allowing for a comparison of Catholics to others). The involvement of Vanity Fair means you get questions that are often unexpected and abstract. A recent example allows for the examination of something at the crossroads of religion and literature.

Two of the most popular book series in history sprung from Catholic author J. R. R. Tolkien and Anglican author C. S. Lewis while both were at Oxford. This literary friendship (and rivalry) later spilled over to the Christian masses. With recent film adaptations of their work, most Americans presumably now have awareness of their stories. One might assume that Catholics might prefer Tolkien’s tales of Middle Earth to Lewis’s stories of Narnia. Perhaps Protestants might exhibit the opposite? That is a testable hypothesis (maybe not an important one... but one of my areas of study is popular culture so I am interested).

A recent 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll provides the data for that test (Nov.-Dec. 2010, N=1,067, margin of error ±3 percentage points). Respondents were asked, “Which one of these fantasy worlds would you most like to visit—Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, Alice’s Wonderland, Peter Pan’s Neverland, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth?” Oddly, Americans are almost evenly divided on which mythical realm they’d like to vacation in. Narnia and Neverland split the lead but all of the percentages are similar given margin of error. One in five either could not decide or did not wish to visit any of the worlds.


Looking at preferences by age reveals a bit more. Among the under-30 crowd, Hogwarts is a clear favorite. This is the generation that read and saw J.K . Rowling’s story evolve from the first book in 1997 to the last film in 2011 (the oldest members of this cohort were 17 when the first book was published). Their second preferred destination is Tolkien’s Middle Earth—which also was a box office favorite in the last decade.

My own generation, those 30 to 44, which grew up reading about Narnia—most often in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe—prefers Lewis’s fantasy world over the others, followed by Hogwarts. It seems that the magic disappears a bit among Americans age 45 and older. Their leading preference is one of indecision or “none.” People really do seem to grow up (but apparently not until 45 and I’m not there yet).


What about the impact of religion? Catholics are as evenly divided as the population overall. If we take the survey percentages literally (ignoring margin of error), the Catholic respondents were more likely to select Alice’s Wonderland than any other option. Seems a bit of a surprise. Narnia trails Middle Earth by 4 percentage points (12% compared to 16%).


In a clear lead among Evangelical Protestants is a preference to visit Narnia at 28% (followed by none or don’t know). Mainline Protestants are about as evenly divided as Catholics. A desire to visit Hogwarts has an overwhelming lead at 31% among those with “other” religious affiliations. Nones (i.e. those without a religious affiliation) show a preference for Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

All of these literary works have film adaptations (… and the most glaring omission from the survey question is Dorothy’s Oz. …  Perhaps the question was written by an Anglophile?). At the U.S. box office Tolkien’s Middle Earth wins out. After adjusting for inflation it is the only literary fantasy film to rank higher at the box office than America’s leading religious films (in terms of revenue, not necessarily in artistic or theological value)—just edging out The Passion of the Christ.


It appears there is not much that differentiates Tolkien from Lewis in American minds or film choices (reliable data for all-time book sales does not exist). Narnia edges Middle Earth as a fantasy destination, whereas Middle Earth draws more to the movies (but this may be due more to the quality of the films than the essence of the stories themselves).

The real interesting dynamic is with J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts. If we were looking at the global box office rather than the American, there would be little competition to any of the others. What is it about Hogwarts that makes it less appreciated in the U.S.? Take a look at the Evangelical Protestant percentage in the survey question—just 8% say they would like to visit here. Take a look online and you will find what seems like an unending series of posts and articles written by Evangelicals about the “pagan” dangers of the Potter series (there are also a few Catholics in the mix). Although wizards and witches are a staple of the fantasy genre it appears these are only acceptable to some Christians when they come from the pen of a notable Christian author. Rowling self-identifies as Christian but this is not at the center of her work or public persona in the same way it was for Lewis and Tolkien.

One other odd thing you’ll find in the box office data globally is the lackluster success for The Passion of the Christ. Its strong following was almost a uniquely American phenomenon. Where it succeeded Harry Potter suffered. As shown in the table above Americans have historically come out well for religious films (...yes The Exorcist is a religious film. Although the USCCB movie review notes “the movie is on shaky ground theologically” I am at Georgetown. How could I leave it off the list?). But most of these religious films were made decades ago, whereas fantasy movies fill seats these days. Only The Passion of the Christ is an outlier. But it is an important outlier because it does show that that desire to see faith on screen still exists in the American psyche. I imagine if Hollywood made a greater effort to develop religious films and scale back a bit on super hero series they might find themselves surprised by some of the domestic profits they could earn.

As for Rowling, and any others creating a fantasy series (books and/or films) with wizards and witches, I guess there is a lesson in the data as well. If you want to succeed in America it is important to wear your religion on your sleeve.

I am not sure how I would answer the Vanity Fair survey question myself. My preference wasn’t listed. I’d choose the Doctor’s TARDIS (...I know it’s not literary and it’s sci-fi rather than fantasy, but hey bow ties and scarves are cool). I am a nerd (...who else would write a post like this?).

Ryan and Rand
Once upon a time (this morning actually) Rep. Paul Ryan, architect of the Republican Party budget, came to Georgetown. A good number of Georgetown faculty are using this occasion to let him know that they are disappointed with his budget. I could not sign the letter as I always try to be a detached and objective observer (unregistered to vote, politically inactive). I also would like to see more of these letters from faculty, whether here at Georgetown or other Catholic colleges and universities, when figures on the Left who gravely ignore the Church’s teachings appear on campus (although to be fair, I would be unable to sign on to these as well… I probably should not be giving advice on this topic!).

The Georgetown letter follows up similar letters of concern about budget proposals released by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in recent weeks. Here the bishops note that “We join other Christian leaders in insisting ‘a circle of protection’ be drawn around essential programs that serve poor and vulnerable people.” They also instruct that “Just solutions … must require shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and fairly addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs.”

One interesting and literature-related quote in the Georgetown letter to Rep. Ryan is: “In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love.”

Ryan has noted that Rand was a key figure in his intellectual and professional development saying, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand” (...he reportedly asks his staff to read her epic, Atlas Shrugged). This quote may have gone over well in a room full of Objectivists but it might not ring as well in a room full of Catholic bishops (or Georgetown faculty). Rand’s libertarian philosophy is often in direct opposition to the values, teachings, and culture of Catholicism.

Regardless of philosophical differences, her real life story had an unusual plot twist in the end that some might not be aware of. In her senior years, with her health failing, she had to rely on Medicare (and Social Security)—the very program Ryan’s budget would fundamentally alter. Given her life’s work that scorned government assistance, it was apparently not easy for her to accept these benefits. Instead it was circumstances that forced her hand. Oh the irony… 

As a political scientist who is often studying policy implications I can attest to the reality of American life today where a middle class wage earner, age 65 or older, even with a health savings account and other modest savings and investments, is likely to have their resources quickly drained by a cancer diagnosis or the aftermath of a stroke without the assistance Medicare currently provides. There are no investments I know of that would or will outrun the rate of inflation for health care services and medicine. Also no economically developed, democratic, capitalist state leaves its seniors to fend for themselves (while cutting taxes no less!). It is hard to imagine a story line where this would happen here in America. That sounds like a very sad chapter of a Charles Dickens’ novel (add in Speaker Gingrich’s support for bringing back child labor and we have a full plot setting). I've heard all the “We can't afford it. Look at Europe,” “We'll be the next Greece.” I always respond, “Why not be the next Norway? ...drill, baby, drill...”

Alas, this post has its own final twist (...before I am accused of losing my detached, non-partisan objectivity). Rep. Ryan does deserve credit for offering and voting with his party on a budget plan. Although I think it provides unsatisfactory outcomes, it is a start to a process that could fix the dilemmas we face as a country (doing nothing is not an option). I don't know how Democrats in Congress are seriously vying for votes in 2012 without putting their own budget plan on the table. Maybe they are just looking for a good writer? Fantasy authors need not apply.

Update (4/27): Rep. Ryan has now disavowed his statements regarding Ayn Rand because of his view that she promoted an “atheist philosophy.” But that may not be the best reason for a break up. Catholics are in no way prohibited from reading or learning from the works of atheists. Catholics can even marry an atheist in the Church in a non-sacramental ceremony (it’s by no means encouraged or advised but it is permitted with a dispensation from your bishop). Even popes take advice from atheists on occasion (and I assume they give spiritual advice back to these atheists as well). Not believing in God does not make one universally ignorant. If I wanted to understand black holes I would do well to read Stephen Hawking. When I read what he has to say about religion I feel bad for him on this point but this does not falsify his knowledge of black holes. Ayn Rand is not offensive because she did not believe in God. That was her problem (just as it is Hawking’s). She is offensive because she created a political and economic philosophy that is in conflict with the Church’s commitment to a preferential option for the poor (she discouraged public assistance and private charity... in her words, What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue). Most reasonable people understand that if everyone acts as selfish as possible the world is not likely to achieve her utopia. Marx was guilty of a similar ignorance thinking this could be achieved by enforcing universal equality. There is a happy (real world) middle ground between these two atheists that can provide for individual liberty and property, a viable social safety net that protects people in times of need, and belief in God. 

Search This Blog

Loading...
© 2009-2013 CARA, Mark M. Gray. Background image courtesy of muohace_dc.