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A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Little Lord Jesus”

In Books, Movies and Television on September 20, 2014 at 6:30 pm

Owen MeanyIn A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen and Johnny function as foils in Irving’s exploration of faith and doubt. Owen represents an incarnational position where transcendence is seen to be within the material world, and the young Johnny sees the transcendent as far off and irrelevant (likely nonexistent) to the world in which we live.  The young Johnny resists Owen’s belief that objects have inherent meaning, because he first rejects the presence, or at least relevance, of the transcendent in the material world.

This difference between the Owen and Johnny is brought out in several episodes in the chapter, “The Little Lord Jesus.” One occurs during the Christmas holiday when all the boys’ rooms at Gravesend Academy are vacant. As drama teacher at the Academy, Dan Needham lived in the residence and had keys to all the rooms. During Christmas holidays Johnny and Owen borrowed Dan’s passkey and explored each room. Owen

looked in every drawer, examined every article of clothing, sat in every desk chair, lay down on ever bed—this was always his last act in each of the rooms: he would lie down on the bed and close his eyes; he would hold his breath. Only when he’d resumed breathing did he announce his opinion of the room’s occupant. (Irving 155)

Using all the objects in the room, he would interpret the relative happiness of each resident with school or their home-life. For Owen, meanings are not exclusively in the mind, and so he falls under the spell of significant objects. Johnny, however, insists that the contents of the rooms are “just things” (156); what they found in the rooms was “random disorder and depressing sameness” (157).

In Owen Meany, Irving has created a character who is open to the supernatural, but Irving has gone further. In an attempt to emphasize the importance of the transcendent in and through Owen Meany, he has given Owen the burden to symbolically embody the incarnational view of reality–to embody the transcendent while at the same time remain profoundly immanent.

The transcendent qualities of Owen Meany are apparent in the first pages of the novel. The Sunday school children “thought it a miracle” (2) how little he weighs and so, made a game of lifting him into the air. When the Sunday school teacher returns from her cigarette and finds Owen up in the air she would always command, “Owen Meany . . . . You get down from up there!” (5). The narrator derisively comments on the stupidity of Mrs. Walker to miss the obvious cause of Owen’s levitation. Yet in the final paragraphs, he acknowledges that they did not realize there were “forces that contributed to [their] illusion of Owen’s weightlessness,” suggesting that there was a transcendent tug on Owen that they “didn’t have the faith to feel” (617). Furthermore, Owen Meany had a peculiar voice; it was a “strangled, emphatic falsetto” (5) or a “shout through his nose” (3). In any case, it was a voice that was “not entirely of this world” (5). It was also observed that “light was both absorbed and reflected by his skin, as with a pearl, so that he appeared translucent at times” (3). The overall effect of these elements on others was significant. Hester later says of her first encounter with Owen, “I didn’t think he was human” (69) because he looked like a descending angel . . . a tiny but fiery god” (69).

Irving has not made Owen wholly transcendent, but grounds him is such a way to blur the boundaries between the immanent and the transcendent. Owen is extremely small and light, yet he lives, and later works, in a granite quarry. His name—Meany—suggests his humble origins and his littleness, yet he sees himself as an instrument in the hand of God and acts the part. The cumulative effect of grounding the transcendent Owen Meany is that Irving is attempting to locate transcendence in immanence. By doing so shows that Irving understands the importance of the incarnation to Christian faith and in the novel, Owen continues to represent an integrative faith in contrast to other characters.

Although it is one of the funniest episodes in the book, Owen Meany as the Little Lord Jesus in the Christmas Pageant is also one of the most significant. Irving has explicitly linked the Incarnation of Jesus with Owen Meany.   In the preceding pageants, Owen played the transcendent announcing angel, but for the pageant in 1953 he has come to earth as the baby Jesus. For the Christian, the key to the unified view of reality is the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, the Word became flesh, God became human without ceasing to be God; he became temporal without ceasing to be eternal and immanent without ceasing to be transcendent. By linking Owen to the Incarnation, John Irving shows that he understands the importance of the Incarnation in Christian belief.

Read the next chapter, “The Ghost of Christmas Future,”  in A Prayer for Owen Meany and read my commentary here.

The Evening Sky

In Devotional, Worldview on July 1, 2013 at 3:11 am

Calvin-and-Hobbes-HD-night-sky 

Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes, once said, “If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I bet they’d live a lot differently.”

It wasn’t that long ago when people did sit outside and look at the stars each night.  This is certainty one of the reasons why anyone who lived before Edison had an entirely different view of reality–both of themselves and the world around them–than we do.  

This passage from Psalm 8 is but one example.

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place, 
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? 

When we look up at the night sky, we are seeing a tremendous distance through both time and space.

How far away is the farthest star? 

Here are a few of the answers.

  1. The Milky Way galaxy is about 120,000 light years in diameter.  We’re about 25,000 light years from the center.  So, the most distant stars in our galaxy are about 95,000 light years away. 
  2. The most distant known object has a redshift of just over 5.  That means that the light from this object started its journey toward us when the Universe was only  30% of its current age.  The exact age of the Universe is not known, but is probably roughly 12 billion years.  Thus, the light from this object left it when the Universe was a few billion years old.  Its distance is roughly 25 billion light years. 
  3. Existing observations suggest that the Universe may be infinite in spatial extent.  If so, then the farthest star would actually be infinitely far away!

There’s a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin is lecturing Hobbes on astronomical truth.  He explains, “That cloud of stars is our galaxy, The Milky Way. Our solar system is on the edge of it. . . .  We hurl through an incomprehensible darkness. In cosmic terms, we are subatomic particles in a grain of sand on an infinite beach.”  Then, after glancing at his watch he says, “I wonder what’s on TV.”

A regular submission to the night sky will certainly leave us impressed by our smallness.  In the modern world, we know it, but we no longer experience it.  Not with any regularity anyway.

Another Calvin and Hobbes cartoon has a similar theme.  Again, while looking at the night sky, Calvin says, “Just look at the stars! The universe just goes out forever and forever,” prompting Hobbes to say, “It kind of makes you wonder why man considers himself such a big screaming deal.”  Calvin explains, “That’s why we stay inside with our appliances.”

When you are in your family room, it’s not difficult to consider yourself to be a big screaming deal.  You are almost God-like in this context. 

Omnipotent in your ability to create light.

Omniscient in your access to the internet.

Omnipresent because you have Google Earth.

Which perspective is the more real?  The one from your family room, or the one from the campfire? 

One of my favourite quotes comes from Robertson Davies’ novel, The Fifth Business:  “You have made yourself in to a god, and the insufficiency of it has turned you into an atheist.”

 

 

Language, Sex, and Violence — Will We Watch?

In Books, Movies and Television, Christ and Culture, False Dichotomies - the lines between on October 2, 2012 at 5:00 pm

“If it’s not appropriate for children, it’s not appropriate for anyone.”

I’ve always had trouble with this idea, because if I took that approach, I’d no longer be able to read my Bible.

I have been told by those who can read the original languages in which the Bible has been written that some of the language is pretty course, especially in the prophets. And you don’t need to read the original language to find sexual content both the beautiful stuff, like The Song of Songs, and the repellant, the story of Lot and his daughters (Gen. 19:30-36) comes to mind. There’s also plenty of violence. When I was young, my imagination played the tent peg story (Judges 4:21) and the murder of Eglon (Judges 3:12-30) clearly on the screen of my mind.

The good folks down at the Skeptics Annotated Bible give the following, tongue in cheek, review of the Bible using the same categories that some concerned Christian groups give to movies:

• Sex/Nudity: 197
• Drugs/Alcohol: no information
• Violence/Scariness: 957
• Objectionable Words/Phrases: 180

Their jibe does make a point.

Rather than using the MPAA rating system (Read Post “R Rated Movies”) or a misunderstanding of Philippians 4:8 (Read “Dog Poop in the Brownies”), I would like to suggest a new standard by which discerning parents, can determine what movies to watch with their older children or patronize themselves.

It is not the language, sexual content and violence in and of themselves that should keep us from reading the Bible. It is not the presence of Sex/Nudity, Drugs/Alcohol, Violence/Scariness or Objectionable words/Phrases that should prevent us from going to movies.

It is how they treat these things. If they treat them as the Bible does, then we can watch them. Or even OUGHT to watch them? You see, I’m not just looking for a loophole to get away with watching whatever movie I want. I believe that by encountering this art form makes us better neighbours.

Art—and movies are art—is a dialogue about what it means to be human. It explores the good and beautiful; it also explores the evil and sin; and it explores the need and longing for redemption. Experiencing art broadens and deepens our experience and, therefore our understanding of our neighbours. Understanding the language of film, and how to talk about it, makes us better able to attend to, and even contribute to, the dialogue and, thus, be more effective servants to God and neighbour as we partake in Christ’s redemption of creation.

Art has this serious purpose, but it can also be fun. This distinction is important when we talk about movies and some of the more adult content they often contain.

Movies have two functions that occupy points on a continuum. On one side are movies which are made to provide consumers with pleasure or entertainment. Commercial success is the primary goal so these movies are designed to help large numbers of people to escape the tedium or stress of their ordinary lives. This is not in itself a bad thing. Because they want to attract as many viewers as possible, they have to provide a good product, and they need a PG rating, so they don’t have strong language, nudity, or realistic violence.—if successful, everybody wins. I would classify The Avengers (2012) or Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as a film that occupies this end of the spectrum.

On the other end are movies that are made in the hopes that it may broaden, deepen or sharpen our awareness of the human experience; these bring us into reality, rather than provide an escape from reality. These have a more artistic purpose and they demand more from us in that they attempt to bring us more deeply into life’s joys and struggles, while they and often produce empathy in the audience. Precious (2009) or Ordinary People (1980) perhaps fit into this category.

Because this is a continuum, movies usually occupy some point between the two ends of the spectrum. Some lean toward the entertainment side, but still tell us something about life—Finding Nemo. Others tell us something serious about live, but while they do it, they entertain—Little Miss Sunshine.

How much language, sexual content and violence we are willing to tolerate in a film has something to do with where it is on the continuum. Movies that are on the entertainment side of the continuum ought to have a minimum of language, sexual content and realistic violence. These things are a means to an end, and they ought not to be an end in themselves. If they are presented as such, discerning viewers will avoid them.

But because language, sexuality and violence are a part of the human experience, they can be in the sorts of films that bring us into reality. Context matters a great deal here. The nudity presented in Spielberg’s, Schindler’s List (1993) is much different than the nudity presented in American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile (2006). The first shows the humiliation and abuse of women in a very dark time in human history, and the other objectifies women for the viewing pleasure of its male audience.

I have never been impacted by a scene of violence as much as the opening scenes of A Time to Kill (1993). 10-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally attacked by two rednecks. These two white racists are caught boasting about what they did to Tonya. Her father, played by Samuel L. Jackson is understandably distraught and, recalling an incident a year previous when four white men were acquitted after raping an African-American girl in a nearby town. He is determined that justice will be done. So he shoots and kills the smirking rednecks as they leave the arraignment.

The violence of the initial attack is intense, but it was necessary for us to share some of the horror and violation of the act, so that we could empathize with the distraught father who killed the men who attacked his daughter. The rest of the film involves his trial for murder. There is no doubt that he is guilty, but we understand his actions because we watched the event that motivated his decision to kill. Had you read this story in the newspaper, you’d likely be able to offer a flippant opinion about who’s right in this case, but by your participation in the violence, the issue is at least more complicated and your empathy makes you a better neighbour.

The violence in this movie is not the end, it is the means to an end, and that end is the honest exploration of the human condition.

There are some movies that seem to say something significant about life and human experience, but are really presenting sentimental and over simplistic views of life. One such movie is Remember the Titans, which the filmmakers would have you believe is a realistic representation of how a football team overcame issues of racism and hatred to win the state championship. Although, based on a true story, racism in the real world is not so easily dealt with and movies that tell us that it is are not doing us any good.

The following analogy might be helpful.
• The movies which are just for entertainment are like home-made apple pie with a scoop of good quality ice cream a la mode; they are really good, but you oughtn’t have a steady diet of the stuff.
• The artistic film that bring us into reality is like a well-balanced meal—I’m thinking turkey dinner here—they are good for the soul.
• Then there’s the TV-dinner type movies that pretend to be saying something about life, they got turkey and vegetables, but they are really giving us such a simplified version of reality that we’re better off eating the pie.
• The ones that are full of sex, violence, or base humour are analogous to chocolate covered dog poop—they might look good in the trailers, but you won’t like the taste it leaves in your mouth.

In Defense of Fairy Tales (3) – Fall

In Uncategorized on August 30, 2012 at 5:58 am

Of all the evil characters in fairy tales, I found the Red Riding Hood’s wolf the scariest. He’s been called the “Big Bad Wolf,” but that name evokes a canine domesticated by the animator’s pen.  The wolf I encountered alone in the deep dark woods of my imagination, while being read the story of Little Red Riding Hood, was a terror whose title couldn’t be tamed by alliteration.

Fairy tales don’t just present readers with Creational goodness, they also illustrate the results of human failure to obey God’s one condition—the presence of Evil.  So we encounter both nobility and brutality, beauty and ugliness, harmony and conflict; dichotomies resulting from the distortions of a good Creation caused by the Fall.

In this regard, then, fairy tales reflect reality as it is presented in the Bible: that human beings live in a moral universe.  In man’s disobedience to God, sin entered the world and fairy tales reflect the moral struggle that ensues.  For in almost every fairy tale, characters and their actions embody good and evil; and “it is this duality which poses the moral problem, and requires the struggle to solve it” (Bettelheim).  That humans are moral creatures with the choice between good and evil is fundamental to the biblical worldview.

The power and scope of evil is another truth that faerie stories offer.  In them we encounter external evils, like ogres, wolves and villains whose very presence is a sign of the evil that threatens and “often it is temporarily in ascendancy” (Bettelheim).

Evil not only an external threat but is also found in “the closest circle of intimate relationships.” Most often this intimate evil is signaled in the form of stepmothers.  These tales depict “perverted relationships within the family . . . the [reader] learns that despite all the moral teachings and the wide range of appropriate behaviour hammered into him, he cannot take this world for granted—especially not people” (Shokeid).  Scriptures clearly relate that evil is not only a force from without, but also something with which we struggle within ourselves and within those who are closest to us.

In “Cinderella” we find this situation in that Cinderella’s mother, “who had been the nicest person in the world,” was replaced by a stepmother who was “the haughtiest, proudest woman that had ever been seen” (Perrault).  The hyperbole emphasizes the effects of sin are not experienced only by the wicked, but also by the good: Cinderella, “who was of an exceptionally sweet and gentle nature.”  Under the guise of close relatives, the [step relatives] function as agents who introduce the outside unprotective world into the safe family shelter” (Shokeid).

Many parents believe that children should not be exposed to realities of evil but only to “pleasant and wish-fulfilling images . . .—that [they] should be exposed only to the sunny side of things.  But such one-sided fare nourishes the mind only in a one-sided way, and real life is not all sunny” (Bettelheim).  Rather than taking the child out of reality, fairy tales presents him with the reality of the fall—that life is “a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence” (Bettelheim).  Through the symbols of evil the child experiences the presence of evil and the moral dilemma that sin presents; they begin to develop the resources to live in a fallen world.

Encounters with injustice and, occasionally, brutality bring the reader into another important Biblical reality.  Because fairy tales expose the tension that exists between the good creation and the sin that has entered it through the fall, they provide a sense that things are not as they should be; they create in us a longing for a restoration of all things to what they once were.  C. S. Lewis uses the term Sehnsucht to describe this feeling which literally means “longing” or “yearning.”  Because the yearning is for what has been lost, “the crucial concept in defining this attitude is best expressed by the English word ‘nostalgia.’  In Sehnsucht there “is an underlying sense of displacement or alienation from what is desired” (Carnell).  All mankind has a deep awareness that there is something wrong with the world and “longs for and strives toward the happy ending so vividly expressed in fairy tales” (Meider).  What we long for is the perfection we enjoyed before the Fall.

. . . crossing the line between fantasy and reality

Fairy tales appeal to us because they tell us something that we desperately want to be true.  They illustrate what we long for and suggest it is a possibility; they provide us with hope that we can become what we were created to be.  Lüthi says, “Every man has within him an ideal image, and to be a king, to wear a crown, is an image for the ascent into the highest attainable realms.”  This ideal is found in all humanity because we are aware of our fallenness.   Nothing is how it is supposed to be, so we long that it be restored—redeemed.

Cinderella create a sense of longing in the reader.  Cinderella was an exceptional young woman, but the stepmother “could not endure” Cinderella’s “excellent qualities” and so, mistreated her—she “thrust upon her all the meanest tasks about the house” and “made her sleep on a wretched mattress in a garret at the top of the house” (Perrault 39).  The combination of the goodness of Cinderella and the injustice of her treatment at the hand of her step-relatives creates a sense of longing for the past, for life as it was when her real mother lived.  This is Sehnsucht.

In “The Reason For God,” Tim Keller talks about beauty being a clue to the existence of God.  He suggests that “innate desires correspond to real objects that can satisfy them”; we experience hunger, thirst, and the desire for sex and friendship, and these needs can be satisfied with food, drink and other people.  The presence of beauty, joy and love evokes an “unfulfillable” desire in us, and we “want something that nothing in this world can fulfill” (134-135).  Keller says that because it is true of other innate desires, it is also true of this one: there is something to satisfy it—or more accurately, a someone.

Although many deny its existence, Evil is real.  Those who believe in the existence of evil, might want to question where they are standing when they are amongst those who treat them too lightly and declare them mere fantasy.  Or those on the other side of the room who consider them evil because they contain it.

Read In Defense of Fairy Tales (1) – Introduction
Read In Defense of Fairy Tales (2) – Creation
Read In Defense of Fairy Tales (4) – Redemption


Resources:

Bettelheim, Bruno. “The Struggle for Meaning.”  Folk & Fairy Tales. 3rd ed. Ed. Martin Hallet and Barbara Karasek. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2002.  376-391.

Carnell, Corbin Scott.  Bright Shadow of Reality: Spiritual Longing in C. S. Lewis. Grand   Rapids: Eerdmens, 1974.

Keller, Timothy.  The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton (2008).

Lüthi, Max.  Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales. Trans. Lee Chadeayne and Paul Gottwald. Bloomington:IndianaUniv. Press, 1979

Meider, Wolfgang.  “Grimm Variations From Fairy Tales to Modern Anti-Fairy Tales.”  The Germanic Review.  62.2 (1987) : 90-102.

Perault, Charles. “Cinderella.” Folk & Fairy Tales. 3rd ed. Ed. Martin Hallet and Barbara Karasek. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2002. 39-45.

Shokeid, Moshe. “Toward an Anthropological Perspective of Fairy Tales.” The Sociological Review 30 (1982): 223-233.

In Defense of Fairy Tales (2) – Creation

In Uncategorized on August 20, 2012 at 6:12 am

We get a lot of rain in south western BC so we often talk about it, often disparagingly.  We fail to see magic anymore—even when it drops out of the sky and hits us on the head.

We think about rain in the same way we have been trained to think about many things.  In science texts, rain is presented as a result of a series of intractable processes.  First, water in the ocean is obligated by impersonal forces to do something we have called evaporation; as it moves inland and cools at higher altitudes the water vapor begins a process that human beings have named condensation; eventually, gravity takes over and the water falls in some form of what we have labeled precipitation.  Why does water do these things?  It does it can’t do anything else.  We expect it.  It’s the law—Natural Law.  We have named all these mindless processes, the water cycle.

Think about it.

What is happening here?

WATER IS FALLING OUT OF THE SKY!!!

This is incredible! Water is falling out of the sky!

What kind of a world is this, where water falls out of the sky?!

It didn’t have to be this way, but it is!

What is reality?  Does nature tediously adhere to natural law, or is it “a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful” (Chesterton).

Which is more consistent with the Biblical teaching of Creation?

The Bible begins by telling us that God made everything and it was good (Genesis 1:31).

. . . crossing the line between fantasy and reality

This means there is no such a thing as an ordinary thing, and Chesterton claims that fairy tales help us to remember this truth.  In the fairy tale we encounter a golden apple and this brings back to us the “forgotten moment,” and the ensuing thrill, when we first discovered that they were green.  We come to see the creation, not as slavishly following a deterministic law, but joyfully producing green apples again and again, like a child who wants to be thrown into the air one more time.  “Again . . . again . . . again.”  It is not law, but “magic” that we find in creation.  There is no wonder associated with law, but there always is with magic.  It is because they ought to invoke our sense of wonder, that Chesterton can claim “[a] tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree.  Water flows downhill because it is bewitched.”

Tolkien refers to this characteristic of fairy tales as recovery.  It is the quality that “allows us to stay ‘childish,’ in the sense of viewing the world in the same way a child does—as if everything is brand new.”  We recover the sense of wonder that creation affords, “not seeing things as they are, but seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them” (Northrup).  This recovered sense of wonder is not “a mere fancy derived from fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this” (Chesterton).  According to Chesterton, the natural response—the child-like response—to the creation is one of wonder.  And the immediate effect of wonder is praise.  To be filled with wonder at the world around us and to respond with praise to the creator is to be brought back to reality, not drawn from it.

In the fairy tale “Cinderella,” through the presentation of the extraordinary, we experience the ordinary as brand new.  When Cinderella’s fairy godmother transforms an ordinary pumpkin into “a beautiful coach, gilded all over” and six ordinary mice into six “dappled mouse-grey horses” (Perrault), we see anew the commonplace pumpkin and mouse as exceptional. Because they were turned into something different we can, with Chesterton, marvel at their original state.  Which is a greater marvel, a carriage or a pumpkin?  Because it could have been otherwise, we get a sense that in the orangeness and roundness of a pumpkin, “something has been done” (Chesterton) by a creator.  Mice and pumpkins are not as they are simply because they must be; Chesterton proclaims it magic and then stands in awe of these ordinary creatures.

How much more enriching is life when we live in a world where there are no ordinary things?

******************

So fairy tales help us to see the reality of the wonder of Creation. But there is another Creational truth that fairy tales help us to see—the reality of limits.

Cinderella’s fairy godmother “bade her not to stay [at the ball] beyond midnight” (Perrault)—this was her incomprehensible condition of joy. Happiness depends on not doing something: if Cinderella stays beyond midnight, she will be humiliated and lose her happy-ever-after ending. This is a perspective that the fairy tale provides and it is consistent with the conditions found in Eden. Accept the curfew and happiness will endure, leave after midnight and suffer humiliation; do not eat of the Tree of Knowledge and enjoy paradise forever, eat of it and “you will surely die.”

Man was placed in God’s good creation to enjoy and prosper, but there was a condition—that he “must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” for to eat of this tree would bring death (Gen. 2:17). This prohibition seems arbitrary and irrational, but upon it hinges life itself.

Chesterton recognizes this biblical reality in fairy tales where we find “incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition.”  He calls it the “Doctrine of Conditional Joy.” Chesterton metaphorically compares this condition to glass, a prevalent substance in fairyland.  “Strike a glass, and it will not endure in an instant; simply do not strike it, and it will endure a thousand years.”   The fairy instruction is, “You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word ‘cow.’”

Although these fairy restrictions may seem arbitrary and irrational, they are not unfair. When held up against what we can do, we should not be resentful of the little thing we cannot do.  Chesterton’s illustration of this point is monogamy.  Many chafe under the Christian restrictions of sex only within marriage, all the while failing to see, and be grateful for, the great gift that sex is [Read “KD, Bud and Sex”]. Chesterton thought that “existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that [he] could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when [he] did not understand the vision they limited.” The thrill of what we can do outshines that which we cannot do and our happiness depends on obeying the restriction. This aspect of fairy tales is consistent with reality as presented in scripture.

Fairy tales present the biblical truth that our continued happiness rests on a condition of obedience.

Read In Defense of Fairy Tales (1) – Introduction
Read In Defense of Fairy Tales (3)Fall
Read In Defense of Fairy Tales (4) – Redemption

Resources:
Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. New York: Doubleday, 1990.
Northrup, Clyde B. “The Qualities of a Tolkienian Fairy-Story.” Modern Fiction Studies. 50.4 (2004) : 814-837.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “The Monsters and the Critics.” The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

In Defense of Fairy Tales (1) – Introduction

In Uncategorized on August 11, 2012 at 8:07 am

Many years ago, I had to defend the use of Madeleine_L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time for use in my 7th grade classroom.  Fortunately, the key figure in the battle was so exhausted from a prolongued war in another school district that they no longer had the energy to wage this war again.  Later, there was a battle over whether books in the Harry Potter series ought to be in school libraries.

In an on-line article entitled “Christian Fantasy: Biblical or Oxymoron?” the author asserts:

God would not have His children take refuge in unreality . . . .  If a Christian is loving the Lord with all his mind (imagination), he will be dwelling on truth, reality, His Word, and Him, not fairy tales and fantasy!  . . . Because fantasy is anti-reality, it is against godliness, it opens the door to deceit, and is an affront to the very core of your being as a Christian.

Although this position is extreme, there are many Christians who are suspicious of fairy tales because they contain magic or other impossibilities.  They mistrust these stories fearing they are an unhealthy escape from reality.

Escape FROM Reality

Those who take this view, often see fantasy in opposition to reality.  I contend this is a false dichotomy.   Rather than being the opposite of reality, fairy stories bring us back to reality—a biblical reality, for in reading them we can experience the wonder of Creation, the presence of evil and brokenness caused by the fall, and the hope of redemption.

J. R. R. Tolkien was apparently familiar with the argument that escape through reading fantasy literature and fairy tales was harmful.  His response to this charge is found in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” He agrees that reading such things is an escape, not an escape from reality, but an escape to reality.  He compares the escape of the prisoner of war to the flight of the deserter and suggests that the kind of escape provided by fairy tales is that of the prisoner.

He argues that these stories do not take us unjustifiably away from our duty to cause and country which gives the enemy the advantage, as in the flight of the deserter.  Instead, the escape we experience in these tales is that of the prisoner of war from an enemy so that we can go home and return to fight another day.  His argument is that we misunderstand reality, and in so doing, misunderstand the nature of escape.

. . . crossing the line between fantasy and reality

Tolkien is not alone in his belief that fairy-tales actually return the reader to reality.  G. K. Chesterton argues as much in his book Orthodoxy.  He says, “The things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales.”  Although each fairy tale contains a healthy principle particular to itself, Chesterton is not concerned with these specific truths “but with the whole spirit of [fairy] law . . .  a certain way of looking at life” which is rooted both in our experience and in the scriptures.  Frederick Buechner’s chapter entitled, “The Gospel as Fairy Tale” is found in the book, Telling the Truth.  In it he discloses the truths found in fairy tales—the fundamental truths of the gospel.  For Chesterton and Buechner, fairy tales return us to reality—the biblical reality.

Escape TO Reality

When these authors use the word reality, they mean the reality presented in the Scriptures.  The Old Testament tells of a God who created all things and declared his creation good.  Evil is not a part of creation; it is not found in the structure of the universe but is in the human heart and in our disobedience to God’s will.  Man was created good, but ‘fell’ by his deliberate choice to turn away from his creator.  The redemption element says that because of his love for us God will redeem us; he will forgive us when we turn back to him.  We are powerless to save ourselves from evil, but God is actively seeking to rescue us.  Accepting the Hebraic understanding of Creation and the Fall, Christians have expanded the notion of Redemption.  They believe that Jesus Christ is the epitome of God’s redeeming love and power – and that this redemption is available to all humankind and even the whole creation through him.  In short, reality is what the Bible tells us about Creation, the Fall, and Redemption.  This is the reality to which fairy tales bring us.

Read In Defense of Fairy Tales (2) – Creation
Read In Defense of Fairy Tales (3)Fall
Read In Defense of Fairy Tales (4) – Redemption

Resources:
Buechner, Fredrick. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. San Fransisco: Harpers, 1977.
Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. New York: Doubleday, 1990.
“Christian Fantasy: Biblical or Oxymoron.” Biblical Discernment Ministries. Ed. Rick Miesel. June 97. <http://www.rapidnet.com/~jbeard/bdm/Psychology/fantasy.htm>.
Perault, Charles. “Cinderella.” Folk & Fairy Tales. 3rd ed. Ed. Martin Hallet and Barbara Karasek. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2002. 39-45.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “The Monsters and the Critics.” The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.