Archive for the ‘Understanding Mythopoeia’ Category


The Deeper Magic: Atonement In Narnia — Alister McGrath

June 7, 2013
One major theme in Christian theological reflection concerns how the death of Christ on the cross is to be interpreted, especially in relation to the salvation of humanity. These ways of interpreting the Cross, traditionally referred it to as "theories of the Atonement," have played a major role in Christian discussion and debate through the ages. Lewis positions his account of the death of Aslan at the hands of the White Witch within the context of this stream of thinking.

One major theme in Christian theological reflection concerns how the death of Christ on the cross is to be interpreted, especially in relation to the salvation of humanity. These ways of interpreting the Cross, traditionally referred it to as “theories of the Atonement,” have played a major role in Christian discussion and debate through the ages. Lewis positions his account of the death of Aslan at the hands of the White Witch within the context of this stream of thinking.

I must confess here what a pure joy it has been to have been reading McGrath’s analysis of Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. I never read them as a child and thus never had that childhood understanding of fantasy literature. In fact for most of my life I never even liked Fantasy or even Science Fiction as a genre. On the contrary, it used to irritate me no end and it wasn’t until Michael Crichton appeared with a kind of science fiction where it was difficult to see where the science left off and the fiction began (I’m thinking of his classic The Andromeda Strain) that I could begin to see any redeeming value in the genre.That was something I found educational and useful. This other stuff was a waste of my time.

But for me and my conversion nothing was more important than C. S. Lewis. Thanks to Lewis, it was as if all my reading and my literary understanding of truth and beauty were finally made accessible to and enveloped in the person of Christ where previously it had only been able to stand outside, making me a mute observer of miracles, never able to fully embrace and completely believe. McGrath’s reading of Lewis is so perceptive and follows my own path of conversion. Lewis and I just simply connected.


Lewis develops many of the classic Christological statements of the New Testament in the Chronicles of Narnia, generally focusing these on the person of Aslan. Yet perhaps his most intriguing reworking of a classic theological theme concerns his depiction of the death and resurrection of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. So what does Lewis understand by atonement?

One major theme in Christian theological reflection concerns how the death of Christ on the cross is to be interpreted, especially in relation to the salvation of humanity. These ways of interpreting the Cross, traditionally referred it to as “theories of the Atonement,” have played a major role in Christian discussion and debate through the ages. Lewis positions his account of the death of Aslan at the hands of the White Witch within the context of this stream of thinking. But what ideas does Lewis himself develop?

Before considering this question, we need to appreciate that Lewis was not a professional theologian, and did not have any expert knowledge of the historical debates within the Christian tradition on this question. While some have tried to relate Lewis to, for example, the medieval debate between Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard, this is not a particularly profitable approach. Lewis tends to know theological ideas through their literary embodiments. It is therefore not to professional theologians that we must turn to explore Lewis’ ideas on the Atonement, but to the English literary tradition — to works such as Piers Plowman, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, or the medieval mystery plays. It is here that we will find the approaches that Lewis weaves into his Narnian narrative.

Lewis’s first discussion of approaches to the Atonement is is found in The Problem of Pain (1940). Lewis argues that any theory of the Atonement  is secondary to the actuality of it. While these various theories may be useful to some, Lewis remarks, “they do no good to me, and I am not going to invent others.”

Lewis returns to this theme in his broadcast talks of the 1940s. Lewis here remarks that, before he became a Christian, he held the view that Christians were obliged to take a specific position on the meaning of Christ’s death, and especially how it brought about salvation. One such theory was that human beings deserved to be punished for their sin, but “Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off.” After his conversion, however, Lewis came to realize that theories about redemption are of secondary importance:

“What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor any other is Christianity. The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter.”
Broadcast Talks, p.52

In other words, “theories of the Atonement” are not the heart of Christianity; rather, they are attempts to explain how it works. We see here Lewis’s characteristic resistance to the primacy of theory over theological or literary actuality. It is perfectly possible to “accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works.” Theories are always, Lewis holds, secondary to what they represent:

“We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has lashed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself, that’s the formula. That’s Christianity. That’s what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they don’t help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself.”
Broadcast Talks, p. 53, 54

These reflections are in no way inconsistent with actually adopting such a theory; they merely set a theory in context, insisting that it is like a plan or diagram, which is “not to be confused with the thing itself.”

One of the most shocking and disturbing scenes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the death of Asian. Where the New Testament speaks of the death of Christ as redeeming humanity, Lewis presents Aslan’s death initially benefiting one person, and one person only — Edmund. The easily misled boy falls into the hands of the White Witch. Alarmed that the presence of humans in Narnia is a portent of the end of her reign, she attempts to neutralize them, using Edmund as her unwitting agent. In his attempts to secure her goodwill (and more Turkish Delight), Edmund deceives his siblings. And that act of deception proves to be a theological turning point.

The White Witch demands a meeting with Aslan, at which she declares that Edmund, by committing such an act of betrayal, has come under her authority. She has a right to his life, and she intends to exercise that right. The Deep Magic built into Narnia at its beginning by the Emperor-by-the-Sea laid down “that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill.” Edmund is hers. His life is forfeit. And she demands his blood.

Then a secret deal is done, of which the children know nothing. Aslan agrees to act as a substitute for Edmund. He will die, so that Edmund may live. Unaware of what is about to happen, Lucy and Susan follow Aslan as he walks towards the hill of the Stone Table, to be bound and to die himself at the hands of the White Witch. This scene is as moving as it is horrific, and parallels at some points — but not at others — the New Testament accounts of Christ’s final hours in the garden of Gethsemane and his subsequent crucifixion. Aslan is put to death, surrounded by a baying mob, who mock him in his final agony.

One of the most moving scenes in the entire Narnia series describes how Susan and Lucy approach the dead lion, kneeling before him as they “kissed his cold face and stroked his beautiful fur,” crying “till they could cry no more.” Lewis here shows himself at his imaginative best reworking the themes of the images and texts of medieval piety – such as  the classic Pieta (the image of the dead Christ being held by his till Mary), and the text Stabat Mater Dolorosa (describing the pain and sorrow of Mary at Calvary, as she weeps at the scene of Christ’s death).

Then everything is unexpectedly transformed. Asian comes back to life. The witnesses to this dramatic moment are Lucy and Susan alone. paralleling the New Testament’s insistence that the first witnesses to the resurrection of Christ were three women. They are astonished and delighted, flinging themselves upon Aslan and covering him with kisses. What has happened?

“But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. 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 backward.”

Aslan thus lives again, and Edmund is liberated from any legitimate claim on the White Witch’s part.

And there is still more to come. The courtyard of the White Witch’s castle is filled with petrified Narnians, turned into stone by the Witch. Following his resurrection, Aslan breaks down the castle gates, romps into the courtyard, breathes upon the statues, and restores them to life. Finally, he leads the liberated army through the shattered gates of the once-great fortress to fight for the freedom of Narnia. It is a dramatic and highly satisfying end to the narrative.

But where do these ideas come from? They are all derived from the writings of the Middle Ages — not works of academic theology, which generally were critical of such highly visual and dramatic approaches, but the popular religious literature of the age, which took pleasure in a powerful narrative of Satan’s being outmaneuvered and outwitted by Christ. According to these popular atonement theories, Satan had rightful possession over sinful human beings. God was unable to wrest humanity from Satan’s grasp by any legitimate means. Yet what if Satan were to overstep his legitimate authority, and claim the life of a sinless person — such as Jesus Christ, who, as God incarnate, was devoid of sin?

The great mystery plays of the Middle Ages — such as the cycle per formed at York in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries — dramatized the way in which a wily and canny God tricked Satan into overstepping his rights, and thus forfeiting them all. An arrogant Satan received his comeuppance, to howls of approval from the assembled townspeople. A central theme of this great popular approach to atonement was the “Harrowing of Hell” — a dramatic depiction of the risen Christ battering the gates of hell and setting free all who were imprisoned within its realm. All of humanity were thus liberated by the death and resurrection of Christ. In Narnia Edmund is the first to be saved by Aslan; the remainder are restored to life later, as Aslan breathes on the stone statues in the Witch’s castle.

Lewis’ narrative in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe contains the main themes of this medieval atonement drama: Satan having rights over sinful humanity; God outwitting Satan because of the sinlessness of Christ; and the breaking down of the gates of Hell, leading to the liberation of its prisoners. The imagery is derived from the great medieval popular religious writings which Lewis so admired and enjoyed.

So what are we to make of this approach to atonement? Most theologians regard Lewis’ narrative depiction of atonement with mild amusement, seeing it as muddled and confused. But this is to misunderstand both the nature of Lewis’ sources and his intentions. The great medieval mystery plays aimed to make the theological abstractions of atonement accessible, interesting, and above all entertaining. Lewis has brought his own distinct approach to this undertaking, but its historical roots and imaginative appeal are quite clear.


C. S. Lewis’ Aslan: The Heart’s Desire – Alister McGrath

June 6, 2013
Lewis here transposes one of the central themes of works such as Mere Christianity into an imaginative mode. There is indeed a emptiness within human nature, a longing which none but God can satisfy. Using Aslan as God's proxy, Lewis constructs a narrative of yearning and wistfulness, tinged with the hope of ultimate fulfillment.

Lewis here transposes one of the central themes of works such as Mere Christianity into an imaginative mode. There is indeed a emptiness within human nature, a longing which none but God can satisfy. Using Aslan as God’s proxy, Lewis constructs a narrative of yearning and wistfulness, tinged with the hope of ultimate fulfillment.

How did Lewis develop the idea and image of a noble lion as his central character? Lewis himself seems to disclaim any privileged insight here. He once remarked, “I don’t know where the Lion came from or why He came. But once He was there, He pulled the whole story together.” It is not however, difficult to suggest possible explanations of how Aslan came bounding into” Lewis’ imagination. Lewis’ close friend Charles Williams had written a novel titled The Place of the Lion (1931), which Lewis had read with interest, clearly appreciating how the image could be developed further.

The use of the image of a lion as a central character made perfect and theological sense to Lewis. A lion was already used widely in Christian theological tradition as an image of Christ, following the New Testament’s reference to Christ as the “Lion of the tribe of Judah, of David” (Revelation 5:5). Furthermore, a lion is the traditional symbol associated with Lewis’ childhood church, St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Dundela, located on the outskirts of Belfast. The church’s rectory, which Lewis visited regularly as a child, had a door knocker in the form of a lion’s head.

The use of the image of a lion is relatively easy to understand. But what about the lion’s name?

Lewis came across the specific name Aslan in the notes to Edward Lane’s translation of The Arabian Nights (1838). The name Aslan is particularly significant in Ottoman colonial history. Until the end of the First World War, Turkey was an imperial power, exercising considerable political and economic influence in many parts of the Middle East. Although Lewis links his discovery of the term with the Arabian Nights, it is entirely possible that he also came to know of it through Richard Davenport’s classic study of 1838, The Life of Ali Pasha, of Tepeleni, Vizier of Epirus: Surnamed Aslan, or the Lion.

Davenport had earlier published an important life of Edmund Spenser (1822), which Lewis would have encountered while researching the poet. This Ottoman lineage explains how Lewis came to use the Turkish name “Aslan” for his great lion. “It is the Turkish for Lion. I pronounce it Ass-lan myself. And of course I meant the Lion of Judah.”

The most characteristic feature of Lewis’s Aslan is that he evokes awe and wonder. Lewis develops this theme with relation to Aslan by emphasizing the fact that he is wild — an awe-inspiring, magnificent creature, which has not been tamed through domestication, or had his claws pulled out to ensure he is powerless. As the Beaver whispers to the children, “He is wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

To understand the literary force of Lewis’s depiction of Aslan, we need to appreciate the importance of Lewis’ early reading of Rudolph Otto’s classic religious work The Idea of the Holy (1923). This work, which Lewis first read in 1936 and regularly identified as one of the most important books he had ever read, persuaded him of the importance of the “numinous” — a mysterious and awe-inspiring quality of certain things or beings, real or imagined, which Lewis described as seemingly “lit by a light from beyond the world.”

Lewis devotes a substantial part of the opening chapter of The Problem of Pain to an analysis of Otto’s idea, and offers one specific literary illustration of its importance. Lewis notes the passage in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908) in which Rat and Mole approach Pan:

“Rat!” [Mole] found breath to whisper, shaking, `Are you afraid?”

“Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid? Of HIM? O never, never! And yet — and yet — O Mole, I am afraid!”‘

This passage deserves to be read in full, as it had clearly influenced Lewis’s depiction of the impact of Aslan on the children and animals in Narnian.

For example, Grahame speaks of Mole’s experiencing “an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean That some august Presence was very, very near.”

Otto’s account of numinous experience identifies two distinct themes: a mysterium tremendum, a sense of mystery which evokes fear and trembling and niysterium fascinans, a mystery which fascinates and attracts. The numinous, for Otto, can thus terrify or energize, giving rise to a sense of either fear or delight, as suggested in Grahame’s dialogue. Other writers reframed the idea in terms of a “nostalgia for paradise,” which evokes overwhelming sense of belonging elsewhere.

In describing the reaction of the children to the Beaver’s softly whispered confidence that `Aslan is on the move — perhaps has already landed,” Lewis offers one of the finest literary statements of the impact of the numinous:

“And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning — either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside.”

Lewis then describes how this “numinous” reality impacts each of the four children in a quite different manner. For some, it evokes fear and trembling; for others, a sense of unutterable love and longing:

“Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.”

Susan’s thoughts are clearly based on Lewis’s classic analysis of “longing,’ found especially in his 1941 sermon “The Weight of Glory,” which speaks of this desire as “the scent of a flower we have not found” or “the echo of a tune we have not heard.”

Lewis is here setting out, in a preliminary yet still powerful form his core theme of Aslan as the heart’s desire. Aslan evokes wonder, awe and an “unutterable love.” Even the name Aslan speaks to the depths of the soul. What would it be like to meet him? Lewis captures this complex sense of awe mingled with longing in the reaction of Peter to the Beaver’s declarations about this magnificent lion, who is “the King of wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea.” “I’m longing to see him,’ said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened.”

Lewis here transposes one of the central themes of works such as Mere Christianity into an imaginative mode. There is indeed a emptiness within human nature, a longing which none but God can satisfy. Using Aslan as God’s proxy, Lewis constructs a narrative of yearning and wistfulness, tinged with the hope of ultimate fulfillment. That this is no misguided strategy is strongly suggested by a powerful passage in the writings of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), easily one of the most articulate and influential British atheist writers of the twentieth century:

The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain .. searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite. The beatific vision — God. I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found — but the love of it is my life…. It is the actual spring of life within me.

When, towards the end of The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader, ” Lucy piteously declares that she cannot bear to be separated from Aslan, she echoes this theme of the longing of the human heart for God. If she and Edmund return to their own country, they fear they will never see Aslan again.

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?” “But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.

“Are — are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

In using Aslan as a figure or type of Christ, Lewis stands within a long and continuing tradition of Christ figures in literature and film, such as the “Old Man” in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea Such Christ figures are found in literature of all genres, including Children’s books. The phenomenally successful Harry Potter series of novels incorporates a number of such themes. Gandalf is one of a number figures within Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, whose Christological associations are accentuated in Peter Jackson’s recent film version is series.


Narnia and the Retelling of the Christian Grand Narrative – Alister McGrath

June 5, 2013
The Chronicles of Narnia use an imaginatively transposed version of the Christian narrative to enable its readers to understand and cope with the ambiguities and challenges of the life of faith. An imaginative engagement with Narnia prepares the way for, and helps give rise to, a more reasoned and mature internalization of the Christian grand narrative. Rarely has a work of literature combined such narrative power, spiritual discernment, and pedagogical wisdom.

The Chronicles of Narnia use an imaginatively transposed version of the Christian narrative to enable its readers to understand and cope with the ambiguities and challenges of the life of faith. An imaginative engagement with Narnia prepares the way for, and helps give rise to, a more reasoned and mature internalization of the Christian grand narrative. Rarely has a work of literature combined such narrative power, spiritual discernment, and pedagogical wisdom.

It is impossible to understand the deep appeal of Narnia without appreciating the place of stories in shaping our understanding of reality, and our own place within that reality. The Chronicles of Narnia resonate strongly with the basic human intuition that our own story is part of something grander — which, once grasped, allows us to see our situation in a new and more meaningful way. A veil is lifted, a door is opened, a curtain is drawn aide — and we are enabled to enter a new realm. Our own story is now seen to be part of a much bigger story, which helps us both understand how we fit into a greater scheme of things and discover and value the difference we can make.

Like Tolkien, Lewis was deeply aware of the imaginative power of “myths”– stories that tried to make sense of who we are, where we find ourselves, what has gone wrong with things, and what can be done about it. Tolkien was able to use myth to saturate The Lord of the Rings with a mysterious “otherness,” a sense of mystery and magic which hints at a reality beyond that which human reason can fathom. Lewis realized that good and evil, danger, anguish, and joy can all be seen more clearly when “dipped in a story.” Through their “presentational realism,” these narratives provide a way of grasping the deeper structures of our world at both the imaginative and rational levels.

Lewis may also have come to realize the power of myth through G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, with its classic distinction between “imaginary” and “imaginative,” and deft analysis of how imagination reaches beyond the limits of reason. “Every true artist,” Chesterton argues, feels “that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil.”

Steeped in the riches of medieval and Renaissance literature, and with a deep understanding of how myths work, Lewis managed to find the  right voice and the right words to get past the suspicions of a “full wakening imagination of a logical mind.” Somehow, Narnia seems to provide a deeper, brighter, more wonderful, and more meaningful world than anything we know from our own experience. Though its readers all know that The Chronicles Of Narnia are fictional, the books nevertheless seem far more true to life than many supposedly factual works.

Lewis always recognized that the same story might be a “myth” to one reader, and not to another. The stories of Narnia seem childish nonsense to some. But to others, they are utterly transformative. For the latter group, these evocative stories affirm that it is possible for the we foolish to have a noble calling in a dark world; that our deepest intuitions point us to the true meaning of things that there is indeed something beautiful and wonderful at the heart of the universe, and that this may be found, embraced, and adored.

The contrast with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is important here. The complex and dark narrative of The Lord of the Rings is about finding a master ring that rules the other rings — and then destroying it, but it turns out to be so dangerous and destructive. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are about finding a master story that makes sense of all other stories — and then embracing that story with delight because of its power to give meaning and value to life. Yet Lewis’s narrative nevertheless raises darker questions. Which story is the true story? Which stories are merely its shadows and echoes? And which are mere fabrications spun to entrap and deceive?

At an early stage in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the children begin to hear stories about the true origins and destiny of Narnia. Puzzled, they find they have to make decisions about which people and which stories are to be trusted. Is Narnia really the realm of White Witch? Or is she a usurper, whose power will be broken when two sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit on the four thrones at Cair Paravel? Is Narnia really the realm of the mysterious Aslan, whose return is expected at any time?

Gradually, one narrative emerges as supremely plausible — the story of Asian. Each individual story of Narnia turns out to be part of this greater narrative. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe hints at (and partially discloses) the big picture, expanded in the remainder of the Narnia series. This “grand narrative” of interlocking stories makes sense of the riddles the children see and experience around them. It allows the children to understand their experiences with a new clarity and depth, like a camera lens bringing a landscape into sharp focus.

Yet Lewis did not invent this Narnian narrative. He borrowed and adapted one that he already knew well, and had found to be true and trustworthy — the Christian narrative of Creation, Fall, redemption, and final consummation. Following his late-evening conversation with Tolkien and Dyson about Christianity as the true myth in September 1931, Lewis began to grasp the explanatory and imaginative power of an incarnational faith.

As we saw, Lewis came to believe in Christianity partly because of the quality of its literary vision — its ability to give a faithful and realistic account of life. Lewis was thus drawn to Christianity not so much by the arguments in its favor, but by its compelling vision of reality which he could not ignore — and, as events proved, could not resist.

The Chronicles of Narnia are an imaginative retelling of the Christian grand narrative, fleshed out with ideas Lewis absorbed from the Christian literary tradition. The basic theological themes that Lewis set out in Mere Christianity are transposed to their original narrative forms in Narnia, allowing the deep structure of the world to be seen with clarity and brilliance: a good and beautiful creation is spoiled and ruined by a fall, in which the creator’s power is denied and usurped.

The creator then enters into the creation to break the power of the usurper, and restore things through a redemptive sacrifice. Yet even after the coming of the redeemer, the struggle against sin and evil continues, and will not be ended until the final restoration and transformation of all things. This Christian meta-narrative — which early Christian writers called the “economy of salvation” — provides both a narrative framework and a theological underpinning to the multiple stories woven together in Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.

Lewis’ remarkable achievement in the Chronicles of Narnia is to allow his readers to inhabit this metanarrative — to get inside the story, and feel what it is like to be part of it. Mere Christianity allows us to understand Christian ideas; the Narnia stories allow us to step inside and experience the Christian story, and to judge it by its ability to make sense of things, and “chime in” with our deepest intuitions about truth, beauty and goodness. If the series is read in the order of publication, the reader enters this narrative in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which concerns the coming — technically the “advent” — of the redeemer. The Magician’s Nephew deals with the narrative of creation and fall, while The Last Battle concerns the ending of the old order, and the advent of a new creation.

The remaining four novels (Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader, The Horse and His Boy, and The Silver Chair) deal with the period between these two advents. Lewis here explores the life of faith, lived the tension between the past and future comings of Aslan. Aslan is now at one and the same time an object of memory and of hope. Lewis speaks of an exquisite longing for Aslan, when he cannot be seen clearly; of a robust yet gracious faith, able to withstand cynicism and skepticism; people of character who walk trustingly through the shadowlands, seeing “in a mirror darkly” and learning to deal with a world in which they are assaulted by evil and doubt.

The Screwtape Letters brought a fresh perspective to the Christian’s struggles with temptation and doubt through its ingenious narrative framework of a master devil and his apprentice. The Chronicles of Narnia have a far greater scope and reach, using an imaginatively transposed version of the Christian narrative to enable its readers to understand and cope with the ambiguities and challenges of the life of faith. An imaginative engagement with Narnia prepares the way for, and helps give rise to, a more reasoned and mature internalization of the Christian grand narrative. Rarely has a work of literature combined such narrative power, spiritual discernment, and pedagogical wisdom.


Mythopoeia and Me – Derek Jeter

September 18, 2012

Mythopoetic thinking approaches cosmic reality first through a sure instinct that there exists a spontaneous accord between our spirit and that reality, then through the very quality which allows our spirit to grasp reality, not only from one specific and superficial viewpoint, but by means of a deep sympathy with its inner structure and its fundamental evolution.
Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought

I have a favorite poem that echoes experiences of mine. Did I have the experiences and recognize them in the poem or did I read the poem and then view my experiences through its powerful lens? Does it matter?  The verses I recall are part of a reverie on death written by Conrad Aiken many years ago. I met Mr. Aiken when I was 14 or so (also many years ago) and became familiar with his story thanks to my best friend’s father, the poet Charles Philbrick. Mr Philbrick has passed some 40 years ago but many of my fondest summer memories of my youth were spent at his house on Blackfish Creek in South Wellfleet MA, growing up as the fifth boy in his family.

His son Steve had asked him to tell us the story again of Mr. Aiken and I recall his watching me as the tale unfolded. While I recall the overall narrative, the son finding his mother dead, shot by his insane father, the telling was punctuated by the words “Shot dead” and delivered in such a manner that in the stunned silence that followed there was great appreciation for the story teller who had mesmerized us with the telling. Steve was immensely proud of his Dad and I know that I had completely fallen under his powers, which tickled his fancy further. See, he seemed to be saying: This is what poets do. Some forty years ago and I can still recall the moment.

Meeting Mr. Aiken some time later was anti-climactic and finding some of his poems in my 20s was another byproduct of my youth. Tetélestai was a poem I memorized and could speak from memory. I read it at my father’s funeral, although it had little to do with us and more with my own darkness and sense of abandonment and despair.

Listen! …It says: ‘I lean by the river. The willows
Are yellowed with bud. White clouds roar up from the south
And darken the ripples; but they cannot darken my heart,
Nor the face like a star in my heart! …Rain falls on the water
And pelts it, and rings it with silver. The willow trees glisten,
The sparrows chirp under the eaves; but the face in my heart
Is a secret of music… I wait in the rain and am silent.’
Listen again! …It says: ‘I have worked, I am tired,
The pencil dulls in my hand: I see through the window
Walls upon walls of windows with faces behind them,
Smoke floating up to the sky, an ascension of sea-gulls.
I am tired. I have struggled in vain, my decision was fruitless,
Why then do I wait? with darkness, so easy, at hand?
But tomorrow, perhaps… I will wait and endure till tomorrow!’…
Or again: ‘It is dark. The decision is made. I am vanquished
By terror of life. The walls mount slowly about me
In coldness. I had not the courage. I was forsaken.
I cried out, was answered by silence… Tetélestai!

I recalled it again when I read C.S. Lewis’ comments on mythopoeia: myths are ‘lies, he had thought and therefore worthless, ‘even though breathed through silver’. No,’ said Tolkien. ‘They are not lies.’ At that moment, Lewis later recalled, there was ‘a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We held our breath.’ Tolkien resumed, arguing that myths, far from being lies, were the best way of conveying truths which would otherwise be inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor, whereas materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to the abyss and to the power of evil.

Breathed through with silver… Rain falls on the water And pelts it, and rings it with silver. The willow trees glisten,The sparrows chirp under the eaves; but the face in my heart is a secret of music… I wait in the rain and am silent… At some point we realize with Lewis: “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’.

Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.”

Is this not when, slowly, inevitably, we begin to read Scripture spiritually – in the sense of “in the spirit” – and then comprehend the “totality of the one Scripture,” as Benedict XVI calls it, not merely the mass of details contained in the Bible, but precisely the Gestalt-like pattern that it expresses itself in, and constitutes all such details. This pattern, in and through its details, is meant to illumine and transform our lives — as if every word of the Bible were written for us personally.

“Myth is a narrative or story, but it is no mere fable or expression of infantile consciousness. Its referents are objective reality and the innermost experience of man’s subjectivity. Myth moves in both of these ultimate directions at once as it narrates the sacred history of the origin of the world and of man. How stories can convey truth in ways that elude ordinary rational thought is a question worthy of great wonder and meditation. But if stories in general have this power, myth is characterized by stories that deliver truth in the most refined and compact narrative form. There is therefore no tension between myth and truth.

As John Paul II writes, “Following the contemporary philosophy of religion and that of language, it can be said that the language in question is a mythical one. In this case, the term “myth” does not designate a fabulous content, but merely an archaic way of expressing a deeper content. Without any difficulty we discover that content, under the layer of the ancient narrative. It is really marvelous.”

It really comes about because human consciousness is fundamentally oriented to seeing ultimate reality as a unified whole and as essentially personal. The myth of the Fall is like this:  much great imaginative literature is merely an articulation and ramification of this myth, deepening our understanding of its meaning and of ourselves as well as regards the qualities and the condensation of the truths contained in it. It took me a long while, all the way through my 20s, 30s, 40s and 50’s before I came to see that the poetry and stories I so deeply loved was the same stuff of scripture.

The new age nitwit in me had challenged scripture with some impossible to satisfy historical critical standard that held its existence as fact in abeyance while not understanding what mythopoeia actually was. When I finally linked the two, I became me, a Christian man fully alive in Christ. I think differently now. Still the same stupid brain, I guess, but one that stands alongside a bend in the river as the rain pelts my umbrella, transfixed by the face like a star in my heart.


The Mystery of the Incarnation – Bishop Christoph von Schönborn

September 6, 2012

Christ Pantocrator, God incarnate in the Christian faith, shown in a mosaic from Daphni, Greece, ca. 1080-1100.

Myth Became Fact
Can a rational human being be expected to believe that a God, or a Son of God, “came down from heaven”, “took flesh”, was born of a virgin and, after the dramatic conclusion of his earthly career, “ascended into heaven” again? Are we not at the heart of myth here? Can we expect people today to regard such mythological assertions as truth?

In England in 1977 seven noted theologians wrote a book with the deliberately provocative title The Myth of God Incarnate. In the book’s preface the authors unmistakably and honestly set forth their conviction that Christian teaching today needs a clear change of direction:

The need arises from growing knowledge of Christian origins, and involves a recognition that Jesus was (as he is presented in Acts 2:21) “a man approved by God” for a special role within the divine purpose, and that the later conception of him as God incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity living a human life, is a mythological or poetic way of expressing his significance for us. This recognition is called for in the interests of truth …
(Hick, p. ix).

The change of course here called for is a radical one. Jesus is a man approved by God; incarnation is a mythical mode of speech designed to tell us that Jesus is important. This implies that the notion of the divine Trinity is on shaky ground, as is the question of Jesus’ divinity. Not that all such talk is simply false; it is true in the way a myth is true, i.e., as imagery, as a symbolic and poetic way of expressing that something has very special significance. Not surprisingly, the book by these seven authors unleashed a veritable storm of debate. We shall try to use this debate as the starting-point for our own observations, since it raises a number of essential preliminary questions connected with our topic.

Incarnation And Myth
Christian faith speaks about the Son of God who, in order to become incarnate, comes down from heaven and returns thither after having accomplished what he is sent to do. There are similarities between this and the myths of other religions which speak of gods who descend to earth, die, and are subsequently resurrected. There is nothing new about this. Even early Christian authors make reference to parallels of this kind; at the most they are regarded as a kind of premonition of the revelation that was to take place in Christ, but in the main they are treated as a mere plagiarization of the Christian teaching.

Since the nineteenth century the historico-critical method generally takes the opposite direction. It does not explain the myths as plagiarization of the biblical revelation: vice versa, it sees the language of the Bible and particularly the New Testament as the result of the influence of particular extra-biblical myths. The so-called “history of religions” school interpreted the ancient mystery-cults as the “matrix” of the Christian myth.

In the ceremonies of initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries, in the sharing in the death, burial and resurrection of Osiris, in the rebirth of the votaries of Cybele who, using bull’s blood, achieved union with the dead and resurrected god, scholars thought they had found the “spiritual climate” which could have given rise to the Christian myth of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the heavenly Son of God, and the associated Christian rite whereby the believer dies with Christ and rises with him (Rahner pp. 19-54) .

It was as a result of the work of R. Bultmann that the theory of myth proposed by the “history of religions” school attained wide currency, for he related it to his program of “demythologization”. Thus the theory became one element of an all-embracing revision of the Christian proclamation and of Christianity’s understanding of itself. As a result the problems associated with “myth” emerged from the confines of a purely historical discussion (the whole question of sources) and constituted a fundamental issue: What is the function of mythical speech?

A historical critique was applied at a very early date to the origins of the Christian belief in the Incarnation. Today it is appropriate to re-examine this critique, since it has become almost fashionable again to trace all manner of elements in Christianity back to possible (and frankly impossible) parallels in other religions. No less a scholar than Adolf von Harnack energetically opposed this confusing of sources, “that comparative mythology which tries to find a causal connection between everything, tearing down firm boundaries, lightheartedly ignoring the chasms which separate whole areas and often dreaming up links on the basis of the most superficial similarities.”

He goes on: “By this means people can in a trice make Christ into a sun-god and the twelve apostles into the twelve months; the story of the birth of Christ reminds them of all the other stories of divine births; the dove at Christ’s baptism prompts them to recall all the doves in mythology, and the donkey in Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem just has to be linked with all the other famous donkeys. Thus, using the wand of the `history of religions’ school, they succeed in eliminating every spontaneous trait” (Rahner).

Particularly as regards the doctrine of the Incarnation of the Son of God, careful historical examination of the sources has shown with increasing clarity that it cannot be put down to the influence of some (vague) Iranian redeemer-myth (R. Bultmann) or of Hellenistic mystery-cults. The images and concepts of the primitive Church’s faith in the Incarnation belong first and foremost to the world of Old Testament faith (Hengel 1974).

This, however, does not give us an answer to the question of myth itself. True, nowadays we see more clearly that the picture of Christ we find in Paul and in the primitive Church is, in general, largely shaped by Jewish ideas. But the stark question remains: are not these after all mythical ideas, whether of Hellenistic or of Jewish origin?

The genetic question leads to the question of fact; the question of historical origin leads to the question of truth. The issue is not simply whether notions of God’s Incarnation originated, historically speaking, in myth, but primarily whether mythical notions are true, and if so, how. This is the nub of the whole debate. The seven English authors are also concerned about the question of truth when they describe the Incarnation as myth. John Hick, one of the seven, defines myth as follows:

“That Jesus was God the Son incarnate is not literally true, since it has no literal meaning, but it is an application of Jesus of a mythical concept … ; it offers a way of declaring his significance to the world”
(Hick, p. 178).

At a first reading the question of truth is given a clear answer here: the Incarnation is a myth, i.e., it is not literally true. Rather it is pictorial, metaphorical, poetic, symbolic language. Is this opposition between “literally true” and “pictorial and metaphorical” tenable? Let us explore this question in connection with the article of the creed: “He came down from heaven.”

Myth And Reality
The period following the Second Vatican Council — not always a very inspiring time — saw many liturgical experiments. On one occasion an Old Testament scholar who had a keen interest in liturgy attempted to make a translation of the Psalms for liturgical use from which he had expunged all the images which, allegedly, were alien to “modern man”. There was no longer a deer yearning for the running streams; the Lord no longer had a rod and staff to give me comfort; and the longing “to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” was turned into the pale privilege of “being always near to God”. Why had the Psalms’ strong poetic images been replaced by pale, banal ones?

It is a mistake to think that we can speak without using images and metaphors. Does this mean that everything we say by means of metaphors is “not literally true”? If I say, “the audience hung spellbound on his lips”, no one imagines that they literally hung on his lips. On the other hand no one would conclude that the expression is purely subjective and does not refer to an objective reality: the audience is really fascinated and listens “as if spellbound”. The metaphor “hanging on someone’s lips” is meant to underline precisely the reality of the audience’s involvement.

However, the seven English authors think that “literally true” language refers to objective facts, whereas mythic and metaphorical language is the expression of subjective attitudes and feelings. This is untenable. Image and myth also refer to reality, and not merely to subjective attitudes and feelings. But they refer to reality in a different way from the “literal” language, i.e., through images.

Today we are continually being faced with this either–or: Is the statement, “Jesus is the incarnate Son of God” to be taken literally or in a symbolic, mythical sense? Was Jesus born of the Virgin Mary in a literal or metaphorical sense?

The answer of the seven Englishmen is clear:

“That Jesus was God the Son incarnate is not literally true, since it has no literal meaning, but it is an application to Jesus of a mythical concept …; it offers a way of declaring his significance to the world.”
(Hick, p. 178, italics added.)

To find a way out of this cul-de-sac I would like to refer to another English author who has thought about myth more than most of our contemporaries, himself a writer of wonderful myths, and whose path brought him — in a unique way — via myths to faith: C. S. Lewis (1898-1963).

When he was a young lecturer in Oxford, C. S. Lewis, like many of his (and our) educated contemporaries, subscribed to the view that Christianity was simply a re-casting of old myths. Like Sigmund Freud, Lewis had read J. G. Frazer’s monumental twelve-volume work, The Golden Bough (1890-1915), and was fascinated by the plethora of parallels, drawn from the history of religions, to the idea of the “dying god”. “The myths of Adonis and Osiris, who are killed only to rise again, so renewing the life of nature and of their votaries, are nothing other than myths of natural growth, symbolically applying a natural process to human life.

Every year the corn dies, is laid in the earth as seed, and subsequently rises up to a new and more abundant life; so man too has to go through death in order to attain life. The young Lewis was of the opinion that the stories of Jesus were simply another myth of natural growth.  Jesus says that the grain of wheat must die if it is to bear fruit; he takes bread, i.e., grain, in his hands, breaks it and says, `This is my body’; he dies the following day and rises from the dead three days later: is not this Jesus simply another harvest-god, a corn-king, giving his life for the life of the world? One evening, however, Lewis heard another committed atheist remark during a conversation that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was surprisingly good: `A strange thing: all that stuff of Frazer’s about the dying God — it almost looks as though it actually happened once.’” (Kranz, p.71; Brague) .

In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis says that this conversation was a decisive step on his path to conversion. From childhood Lewis had been fascinated by myths. What was it in them that so strangely moved him? It is that they awaken in the reader a longing for something that is beyond his grasp. Myths have this fascination because they affect a catharsis, that is, they move us and purify us; thus they expand our consciousness, allowing us through them to transcend ourselves. So myths are not “poets’ deceptions” (as Plato said in his Republic) nor demonic delusions (as many of the Church Fathers thought), nor clerical lies (as many Enlightenment figures asserted), but “Myth in general is … at its best, a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination” (Lewis, Miracles, p. 134).

Surely, the reason why the great myths of the nations have something in common with the story of the Son of God who came down from heaven for our sake is that there is a trace, in the imagination of great pagan teachers and myth-makers, of that very Incarnation which, according to our faith, is the core of all cosmic history.

The distinction between myth and Christian history is not simply that between false and true; myths are not false simply because they are myths. C. S. Lewis sees the relationship between myth and Christian history as the difference “between a real event on the one hand and blurred dreams and intimations of this same event on the other hand”.

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle
(Lewis, God in the Dock).

C. S. Lewis encourages us not to be afraid if we find that Christianity has parallels to myth. Would it not be a pity if Christianity, in order to assert its truth, had to reject all prior intimations of this truth? If Christianity is to fulfill the “longings of the nations”, it does not need to reject the expression of this longing as it is found in the myths.

It sounds like a theological manifesto when Lewis says, “We do not need to be ashamed of the mythical luminosity which attaches to our theology.” All creative theology lives and draws sustenance from this “mythical luminosity” which our theology still bears. “Demythologization”, conceived as the task of a “theology for today”, misses the fact that the “secularization” of our world is only one side: on the other side there is a flourishing world of myths — although seen in different garb, e.g., the world of science fiction. Here, as in former times, we find the great themes of mythology: monsters and demons, gods and spirits.

Johann Georg Hamann once said, “Unless our theology is worth as much as mythology, it will be simply impossible for us to reach the level of pagan poetry, let alone surpass it.” It is not a question of setting myth against reality; because of a defective understanding of “reality” this leads inevitably to the repression of the symbolic dimension of the Christian message, what one might call its “mythical luminosity”. But it is equally mistaken to reduce the historical reality of the events of Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection to a “merely” symbolic significance, as gnosticism did. Rather we must say that the history of Christ is the “highest myth” because, in it, myth has become reality (Lewis, God in the Dock) .

What If It Were So?
This is the direction we shall take in what follows, as we ask what is the meaning of God’s Incarnation. We shall try to show that the power of symbolism of such images as “came down from heaven”, “born of the Virgin Mary”, “and was made man,” lies precisely in the fact that here symbol and reality, myth and life, coincide. However, before we set out on this path we must go into one final preliminary question.

In The Myth of God Incarnate we read the following sentence: “That Jesus was God the Son incarnate is not literally true, since it has no literal meaning” (Hick, p. 175, italics added) . This view is supported by further remarks by the various authors:

  1. “Humanity cannot, without ceasing to be humanity, ie the expression, embodiment, contingent form of God” Goulder, p. 63). Put more simply this means that it is irnpossible for God to become man, because a God who did so would not be a genuine man.
  2. “When we move over to speaking of God being part of his own creation or a part of that creation being God, Prima facie this does seem to me to involve logical self-contradiction” (Goulder, p. 6) . In other words, the Incarnation of God — God becoming a creature — contradicts God’s being as God.

No doubt it would be necessary to examine these two statements in more detail and set forth their implications in a more nuanced way. All the same it is quite clear from the context that, as far as these seven authors are concerned, the idea of real Incarnation of God is just as absurd as a “square circle”. Their idea of man and their idea of God are equally incompatible with the notion of a real Incarnation. Here we have come up against a limit that cannot be passed by adducing more arguments.

If the above principles are taken as fundamental, what Christians say about “the Son of God coming down” can only be understood as a myth in the sense of something that is “not literally true”.

In this situation we can only ask — not in a triumphalist manner, but by way of an invitation — ` `But what if, all the same, it were so … ?” What if the substance expressed in so many myths like the echo of a great yearning, a shadowy presentiment, has actually become reality?


J.R.R. Tolkien On Entering Faerie — Bradley J. Birzer

May 8, 2012

Edward Robert Hughes “Midsummer Eve” ca. 1908

To enter faerie — that is, a sacramental and liturgical understanding of creation — is to open oneself to the gradual discovery of beauty, truth, and excellence. One arrives in faerie only by invitation and, even then, only at one’s peril. The truths to be found within faerie are greater than those that can be obtained through mere human understanding; and one finds within faerie that even the greatest works of man are as nothing compared with the majesty of creation. To enter faerie is, paradoxically, both a humbling and exhilarating experience. This is what the Oxford don and scholar J. R. R. Tolkien firmly believed.

The last story Tolkien published prior to his death, “Smith of Wootton Major,” follows a normal but charitably inclined man who has been graced with the ability to make extraordinarily beautiful things while metal smithing. Smith, as he is known, discovered the gift of grace on his tenth birthday, when the dawn engulfed him and “passed on like a wave of music into the West, as the sun rose above the rim of the world.”2 Like the earth at the end of Eliot’s “Wasteland,”

Tolkien’s Smith had been baptized, and through this gift he receives an invitation to faerie. While visiting that world, he discovers that in it he is the least of beings. Its beauty, however, entices him, and he spends entire days “looking only at one tree or one flower.” The depth of each thing astounds him. “Wonders and mysteries,” many of them terrifying in their overwhelming beauty and truth, abound in faerie, Smith discovers, and he dwells on such wonders even when he is no longer in faerie. Nevertheless, some encounters terrify him:

He stood beside the Sea of Windless Storm where the blue waves like snow-clad hills roll silently out of Unlight to the long strand, bearing the white ships that return from battles on the Dark Marches of which men know nothing. He saw a great ship cast high upon the land, and the waters fell back in foam without a sound. The elven mariners were tall and terrible; their swords shone and their spears glinted and a piercing light was in their eye. Suddenly they lifted up their voices in a song of triumph, and his heart was shaken with fear, and he fell upon his face, and they passed over him and went away into the echoing hills.’
J.R.R. Tolkien, Smith of Wooten major and Farmer Giles of Ham

And yet, despite the fact that he portrayed the man Smith in prostration before such grand visions, the rest of the story reveals that it was not Tolkien’s intention to denigrate Smith’s importance, but only to emphasize his place — and therefore the place of humanity in general — in the economy of creation. The English Roman Catholic G. K. Chesterton, who served as a significant source of inspiration to Tolkien when he was a young man, once wrote that “[h]e not only felt freer when he bent; he actually felt taller when he bowed.” Likewise, Tolkien shows in “Smith of Wootton Major” that it is an understanding of the transcendent that allows Smith to fully become a man. This was a teaching to which Tolkien ascribed his entire life.

For Tolkien, one of the best ways to understand the gift of grace was through faerie, which offered a glimpse of the way in which sacrament and liturgy infuse the natural law and the natural order. Faerie connects a person to his past and helps order his understanding of the moral universe. In an essay describing the greatness of the medieval poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Tolkien wrote:

Behind our poem stalk the figures of elder myth, and through the lines are heard the echoes of ancient cults, beliefs and symbols remote from the consciousness of an educated moralist (but also a poet) of the late fourteenth century. His story is not about those old things, but it received part of its life, its vividness, its tension from them. That is the way with the greater fairy-stories — of which this is one. There is indeed no better medium for moral teaching than the good fairy-story (by which I mean a real deep-rooted tale, told as a tale, and not a thinly disguised moral allegory).’
G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man.

Not only does faerie teach us higher truths; it also bonds us together in communities, of which there are two kinds: the one which is of this time and place, and the one which transcends all time and all places. As Chesterton wrote, “[B]eauty and terror are very real things,” but they are also “related to a real spiritual world; and to touch them at all, even in doubt or fancy, is to stir the deep things of the soul.”

Certainly myth, of which faerie is one kind, holds an estranged place in the modern world, as Tolkien well knew But, he believed, so much the worse for the modern world. Indeed, myth might just be the thing needed to save the modern world from itself, as Tolkien suggested in his famous poem, “Mythopoeia,” which echoes the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).’°

Myth, Tolkien thought, can convey the sort of profound truth that was intransigent to description or analysis in terms of facts and figures, and is therefore a more powerful weapon for cultural renewal than is modern rationalist science and technology.” Myth can emphasize the beauty of God’s creation as well as the sacramental nature of life. “Our time, sick nigh unto death of utilitarianism and literalness, cries out for myth and parable,” American novelist and political philosopher Russell Kirk explained. “Great myths are not merely susceptible of rational interpretation: they are truth, transcendent truth.” Tolkien believed that myth can teach men and women how to be fully and truly men and women, not mere cogs in the vast machine of modern technological society.

In his inimitable way, Chesterton once wrote that

Imaginative does not mean imaginary. It does not follow that it is all what the moderns call subjective, when they mean false. Every true artist does feel, consciously or unconsciously, that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil. In other words, the natural mystic does not know that there is something there; something behind the clouds or within the trees; but he believes that the pursuit of beauty is the way to find it; that imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up.

Besides offering an essential path to the highest truths, myth plays a vital role in any culture because it binds together members of communities. “It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by a majority of the people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad,” Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy. Communities “share symbols and myths that provide meaning in their existence as a people and link them to some transcendent order,” political theorist Donald Lutz explains. “The shared meaning and a shared link to some transcendent order allow them to act as a people.” The man “who has no sympathy with myths,” Chesterton concluded, “has no sympathy with men.”” One cannot, it seems, separate men from their myths.

Yet many of our contemporaries — a bizarre combination of those who have embraced secular modernity as well as those who abhor it, the Christian fundamentalists — have rejected the importance of myth. For the modernist, imbued with the doctrines of Jamesian and Deweyite pragmatism, myth is a lie. One cannot, after all, see, feel, smell, taste, or hear myth. Myth remains just beyond our material and physical senses, and we most certainly cannot scientifically verify it. Though myth is essential to man qua man, as Chesterton rightly contended, one of modernity’s chief characteristics is the watering down of richly felt and imagined reality, and the substitution of cheap counterfeits and thin shadows for the mythic vision.

“In this new sphere,” wrote theologian Romano Guardini in the mid-1920s, “things are no longer directly detected, seen, grasped, formed, or enjoyed; rather, they are mediated by signs and substitutes.”‘ To the modernist, “myth,” like religion, merely signifies a comfortable and entrenched lie. For the postmodernist, myth simply represents one story, one narrative among many; it is purely subjective, certainly signifying nothing of transcendent or any other kind of importance.

For religious fundamentalists, myths also represent lies. Myths, the argument runs, constitute dangerous rivals to Christian truth and may lead the unwary astray, even into the very grip of hell. Why study The Volsunga or Homer, for example, when the Christian Gospels tell us all we need for salvation? It is likely, the fundamentalist concludes, that all myth comes from the devil and is an attempt to distract us from the truth of Christ. The ancient gods and demigods of Greece, Rome, and northern Europe, after all, must have been nothing more than demons in disguise.

For Tolkien, however, even pagan myths attempted to express God’s greater truths. True myth has the power to revive us, to serve as an anamnesis, or way of bringing to conscious experience ancient experiences with transcendence. But, Tolkien admitted, myth could be dangerous, or “perilous,” as he usually stated it, if it remained pagan. Therefore, Tolkien thought, one must sanctify it, that is, make it Christian and put it in God’s service. Medieval believers had the same idea, and the story told of the early-medieval saint Boniface of Crediton exemplifies one such attempt.

The story (a non-factual myth, certainly!) of Boniface claims that while evangelizing the pagan Germanic tribes in north-central Europe, he encountered a tribe that worshiped a large oak tree. To demonstrate the power of Christ as the True God, Boniface cut down the tree, much to the dismay of the tribe. But rather than seeing Boniface struck down by their gods, the pagan tribe saw an evergreen instantaneously spring up on the same spot. So that Boniface could continue preaching to the astounded pagans, the story continues, his followers placed candles on the newly grown evergreen, which eventually became the first Christmas tree. This motif of “sanctifying the pagan” has been repeated throughout history by Christians in a multitude of ways, and was instrumental in contributing to the wildly successful spread of the faith.

Christmas and Easter, for example, were placed on high pagan holidays; St. Paul attempted to convert the Athenians with reference to their statue of the “Unknown God”; St. Augustine re-read the works of Plato and Cicero in a Christian light in his City of God; St. Aquinas uncovered the synchronies between Aristotelian and Christian thought; and on our own continent, we see that Catholic monks built a monastery on top of the highest mound-temple in Cahokia, Illinois, former site of the priest-king of a vast Native American empire. Indeed, churches throughout Europe and North America sit on formerly sacred pagan sites. In building churches in such places Christians sought, in essence, to baptize the corrupt ground, just as Sts. Augustine and Aquinas baptized pagan ideas.

It was Tolkien’s understanding that man’s role in the sanctification of the world is a cooperative and limited one. Given the constraints of his materiality, man ultimately only catches a glimpse of the highest things, and his attempts to emulate them in their truth, beauty, and excellence are but meager. When Smith of Wootton Major discovers to his embarrassment that a doll of a beautiful woman his village has revered is horribly shabby and trite when compared to its transcendent model, the Faery Lady, whom he has just met, she calms his fears: “Do not be grieved for me… Nor too much ashamed of your own folk. Better a little doll, maybe, than no memory of Faery at all. For some the only glimpse. For some the awakening.” As an artist, a scholar, and a mythmaker, Tolkien gave us a glimpse of the truth, beauty, and excellence that lies beyond and behind our tangible world. That glimpse, which leads to real joy, Tolkien labeled the euchatastrophe.

Throughout his entire mythology — The Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings, and the other works on Middle-earth — Tolkien stubbornly affirmed that the hope of the modern world lay in a return to some form of the Christiana Res Publica. “Someday Christendom may come/Westward/Evening sun recedent/Set my resting vow/Hold in open heart,” cries the poet Mark Hollis. What form such a transfigured world would take, of course, is unclear. After all, Tolkien believed, man’s job is not to plan the universe, but to use the gifts God has given him for the betterment of all.

“The awful Author of our being,” one of Tolkien’s favorite thinkers, Edmund Burke, wrote, “is the author of our place in the order of existence.” He, “having disposed and marshalled us by a divine tactic, not according to our will, but according to His, He has, in and by that disposition, virtually subjected us to act the part which belongs to the part assigned to us.”

In his thinking about truth, reason, science, art, and myth, and in his hope for a renewal of Christendom and an end to the ideologically inspired terror of the twentieth century, Tolkien fits in nicely with a group of twentieth-century scholars and artists which we might collectively label as “The Christian humanists.” The Christian humanist asks two fundamental questions:

(1)  What is the role of the human person within God’s creation? And

(2)  How does man order himself within God’s creation? Christian, or theocentric, humanism, as opposed to anthropocentric, secular, Renaissance, or Enlightenment humanism, argues that one cannot understand man’s position in the world until one first acknowledges that man is created in the image of God and lives under the natural law as well as the divine law

The ranks of the Christian humanists include such poets and scholars as T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Christopher Dawson, Eric Voegelin, Russell Kirk, and Romano Guardini. (You will find examples of their writings under our Categories) Tolkien should be counted as one of their foremost thinkers and spokesmen.


Mythopoeia — J.R.R. Tolkien

May 7, 2012

In his masterful essay “On Fairy Stories,” J. R.R. Tolkien describes the vital role played by these tales in the cultures of the world. They contain rich spiritual knowledge. The sun may be green and the fish may fly through the air, but however fantastical the imagined world, there is retained in it a faithfulness to the moral order of the actual universe. The metaphors found in the literary characters are not so much random chimeras as they are reflections of our own invisible world, the supernatural.

Whether in dreams or conscious imagination, the powers of the mind (and one must see here the powers of the human spirit) are engaged in what Tolkien calls “sub-creation”. By this he means that man, reflecting his divine Creator, is endowed with gifts to incarnate invisible realities in forms that make them understandable.

For example, magic has been used traditionally in fairy stories to give a visible form to the invisible spiritual powers. But a crucial distinction must be made between the use of “good magic” and “bad magic” as they appear in fairy stories, because for us in the real world, there is no such thing as good magic, only prayer, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and abandonment to divine providence. “Good magic” in traditional fairy stories represents these very realities, symbolizing the intervention of God in the lives of good men put to the test. It is actually a metaphor for grace and miracle, the suspension of natural law through an act of spiritual authority culminating in a reinforced moral order.

Bad magic in traditional stories represents the evil power that the wicked use in order to grasp at what does not rightly belong to them — whether worldly power, wealth, or even love. It is also a metaphor for the intervention of the enemies of God the evil spirits, in the lives of wicked men. As Saint Paul says, “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual host of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
Michael D. O’Brien, Just a Fairy Story

The following poem Tolkien wrote on a fateful evening following a long discussion with his friend C.S Lewis. Another view of it here. Benedict XVI on the One True Myth here.


To one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though “breathed through silver”

You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are `trees’, and growing is `to grow’);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, Inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.

At bidding of a Will, to which we bend
(and must), but only dimly apprehend,
great processes march on, as Time unrolls
from dark beginnings to uncertain goals;
and as on page o’erwitten without clue,
with script and limning packed of various hue,
and endless multitude of forms appear,
some grim, some frail, some beautiful, some queer,
each alien, except as kin from one
remote Origo, gnat, man, stone, and sun.
God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,
tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these
homuncular men, who walk upon the ground
with nerves that tingle touched by light and sound.
The movements of the sea, the wind in boughs,
green grass, the large slow oddity of cows,
thunder and lightning, birds that wheel and cry,
slime crawling up from mud to live and die,
these each are duly registered and print
the brain’s contortions with a separate dint.

Yet trees and not `trees’, until so named and seen -
and never were so named, till those had been
who speech’s involuted breath unfurled,
faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgment, and a laugh,
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.
Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves,
and looking backward they beheld the Elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.

He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.

The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship one he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with elves and goblins, though we dared to build
gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sow the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

Yes! `wish-fulfillment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem ?
All wishes are not idle, not in vain
fulfillment we devise – for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is dreadly certain: Evil is.

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate,
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
through small and bare, upon a clumsy loom
weave rissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.

Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumor of a harbor guessed by faith.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things nor found within record time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).

Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have turned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.

I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends -
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden scepter down.

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day-illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see
that all is as it is, and yet may free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden not gardener, children not their toys.

Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not been dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.


The Friendship And True Myth

July 21, 2011

The walk along the river…

I’ve posted on this before but this retelling of the story by Joseph Pearce in his Tolkien Man and Myth was so well done I shall do it again. Great book as the following selection shows:


Tolkien had first come to Lewis’s attention on 11 May 1926 during a discussion of faculty business at an ‘English Tea’ at Merton College. ‘I had a talk with him afterwards,’ Lewis recorded in his diary. ‘He is a smooth, pale, fluent little chap … No harm in him: only needs a smack or so.’” From these indifferent and inauspicious beginnings, a friendship soon developed which would become increasingly important to both men.

Shortly before Tolkien and Lewis had first met, Tolkien had formed the Coalbiters, a club among the dons dedicated to the reading of Icelandic sagas and myths. Its name derived from the Icelandic Kolbitar, a lighthearted term for those who lounge so close to the fire in winter that they bite the coal. Initially its members were confined primarily to those with a reasonable knowledge of Icelandic, but soon the club’s members were augmented by enthusiastic beginners, one of whom was C.S. Lewis. By January 1927 Lewis was attending the Kolbitar regularly and finding it invigorating. The influential friendship between Lewis and Tolkien had begun.

Like Tolkien, Lewis had been excited by Norse mythology and ‘Northernness’ since his childhood. He had always been enthralled by what Tolkien referred to mystically as ‘the nameless North’ and now, in the person of the Professor of Anglo-Saxon, he had found not only a kindred spirit but a mentor. On 3 December 1929 Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves: “I was up till 2.30 on Monday, talking to the Anglo Saxon professor Tolkien, who came back with me to College from a society and sat discoursing of the gods and giants of Asgard for three hours, then departing in the wind and rain — who could turn him out, for the fire was bright and the talk was good.”

A few days after this late-night conversation, Tolkien decided to show his Beren and Luthien poem to Lewis. On 7 December Lewis wrote to Tolkien, expressing his enthusiasm:

I can quite honestly say that it is ages since I have had an evening of such delight: and the personal interest of reading a friend’s work had very little to do with it – I should have enjoyed it just as well if I’d picked it up in a bookshop, by an unknown author. The two things that come out clearly are the sense of reality in the background and the mythical value: the essence of a myth being that it should have no taint of allegory to the maker and yet should suggest incipient allegories to the reader”

At last, Tolkien had found an appreciative and sympathetic audience and he began to read more of The Silmarillion aloud to Lewis in the weeks and months ahead. “The unpayable debt that I owe to him,” Tolkien wrote of Lewis years later, “was not ‘influence’ as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby.”

If Tolkien’s debt to Lewis was due to the latter’s encouragement and enthusiasm, Lewis’s debt to Tolkien was to be much more profound. Friendship with Tolkien, wrote’ Lewis in Surprised by Joy, marked the breakdown of two old prejudices. “At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. [vocab:  the study of literary texts and of written records, the establishment of their authenticity and their original form, and the determination of their meaning.]  Tolkien was both.”

It did not take Tolkien long to win Lewis over to philology, and it was partly due to Lewis’s support that Tolkien succeeded in getting his reformed syllabus accepted in 1931, yet Lewis’s prejudice against Catholicism was deeply ingrained, rooted in his sectarian upbringing in Ulster.

When they had first met, Lewis was beginning to perceive the inadequacy of the agnosticism into which he had lapsed, having previously discarded any remaining remnants of childhood Christianity. By the summer of 1929 he had renounced Agnosticism and professed himself a theist, believing in the existence of God but renouncing the claims of Christianity. According to Walter Hooper, Lewis’s friend and biographer, to realization of the truth in mythologies triggered Lewis’s conversion’ to Christianity:

“This came about after a long discussion in 1931 with Tolkien and Hugo Dyson which continued until four o’clock in the morning. At the end of this marathon discussion Lewis believed that myths were real and that facts took the shine off truth, emptying truth of its glory. Thereafter he became an excellent Christian apologist.”

This meeting, which was to have such a revolutionary impact on Lewis’ life, took place on 19 September 1931 after Lewis had invited Tolkien and Dyson to dine at Magdalen. Dyson, who was Lecturer in English Literature at Reading University, was a good friend of Lewis, visiting Oxford frequently, and was also known by Tolkien who had first met him at Exeter College in 1919. After dinner the three men went for a walk beside the river and discussed the nature and purpose of myth. Lewis explained that he felt the power of myths but that they were ultimately untrue. As he expressed it to Tolkien, myths are ‘lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver’.

No,’ said Tolkien. ‘They are not lies.’

At that moment, Lewis later recalled, there was ‘a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We held our breath.’

Tolkien resumed, arguing that myths, far from being lies, were the best way of conveying truths which would otherwise be inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor, whereas materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to the abyss and to the power of evil.

“In expounding this belief in the inherent truth of mythology,” wrote Humphrey Carpenter, “Tolkien had laid bare the centre of his philosophy as a writer, the creed that is at the heart of The Silmarillion.”

Lewis listened as Dyson reiterated in his own way what Tolkien had said.

Building on this philosophy of myth, Tolkien and Dyson went on to express their belief that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened. This revelation changed Lewis’s whole conception of Christianity.

In fact, such a line of reasoning struck a particular note of poignancy with Lewis because he had examined the historicity of the Gospels and had come to the almost reluctant conclusion that he was “nearly certain that it really happened.”  Indeed the discussion with Tolkien and Dyson had been foreshadowed by a previous conversation five years earlier. At the time, Lewis had just read Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense’, a revelation that had shaken his agnosticism to its foundations.

I had not long finished The Everlasting Man when something far more alarming happened to me. Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. “Rum thing,” [vocab: Old-fashioned; queer; odd; as, a rum idea; a rum fellow.] he went on. “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum Thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.”

“To understand the shattering impact’ of the atheist’s admission,” Lewis wrote, “You would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity). He was the cynic of cynics, the toughest of toughs.”

Now, five years later, it seemed that Tolkien was making sense of it all. He had shown that pagan myths were, in fact, God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their ‘mythopoeia’ to reveal fragments of His eternal truth. Yet, most astonishing of all, Tolkien maintained that Christianity was exactly the same except for the enormous difference that the poet who invented it was God Himself, and the images He used were real men and actual history. The death and resurrection of Christ was the old ‘Dying God’ myth except that Christ was the real Dying God, with a precise and verifiable location in history and definite historical consequences. The old myth had become a fact while still retaining the character of a myth.

Tolkien’s arguments had an indelible effect on Lewis. The edifice of his unbelief crumbled and the foundations of his Christianity were laid. Twelve days later Lewis wrote to Arthur Greeves: ‘I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ – in Christianity. I will try to explain this another time. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.”

The full extent of Tolkien’s influence can be gauged from Lewis’s letter to Greeves on 18 October:

“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’. Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.”

Now that Lewis and Tolkien had found agreement and shared the same philosophy, their friendship flourished as never before. In October 1933 Tolkien recorded the following entry in his diary:

“Friendship with Lewis compensates for much, and besides giving constant pleasure and comfort has done me much good from the contact with a man at once honest, brave, intellectual — a scholar, a poet, and a philosopher — and a lover, at least after a long pilgrimage, of Our Lord.”


Yes, a lovely story and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.


C.S. Lewis And J.R.R. Tolkien

May 12, 2011

Magdalen Daffodils at Merton College, Oxford

Lewis and Tolkien first met in 1926 at a Merton College English Faculty meeting. Initially Lewis noted some apprehension: In his diary, he wrote of the “smooth, pale, fluent little chap” that there was “no harm in him: only needs a smack or so.”

The following is taken from Patrick W. Curles’ Tolkien’s Impact in Literature and Life:

“It was Tolkien who, as a professor of Anglo-Saxon language at Oxford University, led a colleague to embrace Christ in 1929. The colleague was C.S. Lewis, who would go on to become a stalwart apologist for the Christian faith. Lewis also wrote a Christian fantasy series, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” along with apologetic works such as “Mere Christianity,” and “The Problem of Pain.”

It was Tolkien’s view of myth — that it is always grounded in the reality of the transcendent God, (even if subtly) — that ultimately shattered the barriers to Christianity for Lewis.

“Tolkien did not mean by ‘myth’ that it is defined as ‘non-historical,’” Parker said, “but that it exhibits certain characteristics, certain ideas, recurring themes such as the dying and rising God, the sense of the moral universe behind things.

“Lewis said when he read the Gospels, he felt like he was reading a myth because it contained mythical elements. But ultimately, he knew it was fact. This was the ‘true myth’ that was absolutely true and historical.”

There are truths, Tolkien said, that are beyond us, transcendent truths, about beauty, truth, honor, etc. There are truths that man knows exist, but they cannot be seen – they are immaterial, but no less real, to us. It is only through the language of myth that we can speak of these truths. We have come from God, Tolkien said, and only through myth, through story telling (or poetry says DJ), can we aspire to the life we were made for with God. To write and/or read myth, Tolkien believed, was to meditate on the most important truths of life.

It was Tolkien’s view of myth that that most aided C. S. Lewis in his pilgrimage to accept Christianity. All the other myths of the world, Tolkien said, are a mixture of truth and error – truth because they are written by those made by and for God – error because written by those alienated by God. But the Bible is the one true myth. It is a true accounting of truth, while everything else we do is mimicking. This perspective was decisive in Lewis’ conversion to Christianity.

Tolkien and Lewis … were together at least three times per week: on Tuesday mornings and Thursday evenings with the other “Inklings” (a literary circle of friends), and at least one other day for lunch. Tolkien wrote, “Friendship with Lewis compensates for much, and besides giving constant pleasure and comfort has done me much good from the contact with a man at once honest, brave, intellectual – a scholar, a poet, and a philosopher – and a lover, at least after a long pilgrimage, of Our Lord.”

Personalism is what fosters, strengthens and protects the conversation of the soul, every soul, with God. We can accomplish those transcendent activities in any number of ways as we respond to the transcendent in our lives, be it any time we encounter or demonstrate beauty, truth, or honor. It’s the very heady stuff of living and, whenever we find it, our souls cry out for more and we remember our true home, not of this earth.

If we want reform, we must adhere to orthodoxy: especially in this matter …of insisting on the immanent or the transcendent deity. By insisting specially on the immanence [vocab: existing or remaining within; inherent] of God we get introspection, self-isolation, quietism, social indifference — Tibet. By insisting specially on the transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation — Christendom.

Insisting that God is inside man, man is always inside himself. By insisting that God transcends man, man has transcended himself. …But to a Christian existence is a STORY, which may end up in any way. In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he MIGHT be eaten by cannibals. The hero must (so to speak) be an eatable hero.

So Christian morals have always said to the man, not that he would lose his soul, but that he must take care that he didn’t. In Christian morals, in short, it is wicked to call a man “damned”: but it is strictly religious and philosophic to call him damnable.
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy


The One “True Myth”

May 11, 2011

Addison’s Walk — Just before 3am on the Sunday morning of the 20th September 1939, Tolkien, Lewis and another Inkling, Hugo Dyson, took a stroll along the Cherwell in the grounds of Magdalen College (Addison’s Walk). All the previous evening the men had been discussing their lifelong fascination with myths. It was sad, Lewis declared, to think that classic tales of courage, beauty, sacrifice and virtue are all untrue and ultimately worthless. Tolkien stopped his skeptical friend cold by forcefully arguing: No! They are not lies! Myths contain great spiritual truths.

Nothing is more terribly right in this world than having someone you agree with. It is the very stuff that unites one soul with another. I remember coming across these sentiments beautifully expressed by Emerson and never went back to collect them (to my lasting chagrin), as is my usual reading habit. Suffice to say the good Sage of Concord waxed lyrically on the chemistry that occurs between reader and writer as well as the preparation required to even absorb the thoughts in the first place:

“No man can learn what he has not preparation for learning, however near to his eyes is the object. A chemist may tell his most precious secrets to a carpenter, and he shall be never the wiser- the secrets he would not utter to a chemist for an estate. God screens us evermore from premature ideas. Our eyes are holden that we cannot see things that stare us in the face, until the hour arrives when the mind is ripened, then we behold them, and the time when we saw them not, is like a dream.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays, IV: Spiritual Laws

Which is why Adrian Walker’s comments on Benedict XVI’s embrace of a version of J. R. R.Tolkien’s and C. S. Lewis’ idea that Christianity is the one “true myth” that fulfills man’s natural religiosity leapt off the page to me. It’s exactly what I had been considering on my posts about the Lord of the Rings and J.R.R. Tolkien. And here was Walker considering the same thing in relation to Benedict XVI and Tolkien and Lewis:

[T]he possibility of such an innate religious sense presupposes that the cosmos itself reveals the divine, and that the being of the cosmos is inherently symbolic of God, having therefore a sacramental quality. True, biblical religion puts an abrupt end to all pantheistic confusion between God and the universe he has created. Nevertheless, it does not strip the world of its nature as a symbol that reveals the divine, but rather enables this innate symbolism to stand forth in its full splendor for the first time. Consider the following magnificent passage (bearing in mind that what Benedict XVI says in it about bread applies equally well to water):

“Earthly bread can become the bearer of Christ’s presence because it contains in itself the mystery of the passion, because it unites in itself death and resurrection. This is why the world’s religions used bread as the basis for myths of death and resurrection. In this connection, Cardinal Schönborn reminds us of the conversion of the great British writer C. S. Lewis. Lewis, having read a twelve-volume work about these myths, came to the conclusion that this Jesus who took bread in his hands and said, “This is my body,” was just “another corn divinity, a corn king who lays down his life for the life of the world.” One day, however, he overheard a firm atheist remarking to a colleague that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was actually surprisingly good. The atheist then paused thoughtfully and said: “About the dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it really happened once.”

Poetic fantasy does not make water (or bread) symbolic of the divine. Rather, it unfolds the innate symbolic nature that constitutes it from the creation of the world. As we have just seen, this unfolding begins already in extra-biblical mythology and religion, which, with Tolkien, we can trace back to mythopoeic “subcreation” on the part of man who, even though fallen, still retains his Adamic privilege of naming his fellow creatures. The Old Testament, of course, marks a decisive turning point. Now the Holy Spirit takes full possession of man’s innate and God-given sub creative power, heals it, and enables it to express with unswerving faithfulness God’s saving deeds.
Adrian Walker, Living Water: Reading Scripture In The Body Of Christ With Benedict XVI

So The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia is part of this extra-biblical mythology and religion that engages in the unfolding of our “innate symbolic nature that constitutes it from the creation of the world.” Not everyone gets this of course. As Emerson points out, you need to be predisposed in some ways “until the hour arrives when the mind is ripened.” Then it all clicks. I recall Chesterton’s description of his Emersonian moment when the spike of dogma encountered the hole in the world:

I found this projecting feature of Christian theology, like a sort of hard spike, the dogmatic insistence that God was personal, and had made a world separate from Himself. The spike of dogma fitted exactly into the hole in the world — it had evidently been meant to go there–and then the strange thing began to happen.

When once these two parts of the two machines had come together, one after another, all the other parts fitted and fell in with an eerie exactitude. I could hear bolt after bolt over all the machinery falling into its place with a kind of click of relief. Having got one part right, all the other parts were repeating that rectitude, as clock after clock strikes noon. Instinct after instinct was answered by doctrine after doctrine…

All those blind fancies of boyhood … I was right when I felt that roses were red by some sort of choice: it was the divine choice. I was right when I felt that I would almost rather say that grass was the wrong color than say it must by necessity have been that color: it might verily have been any other. My sense that happiness hung on the crazy thread of a condition did mean something when all was said: it meant the whole doctrine of the Fall. Even those dim and shapeless monsters of notions which I have not been able to describe, much less defend, stepped quietly into their places like colossal caryatides [A supporting column sculptured in the form of a draped female figure] of the creed.

The fancy that the cosmos was not vast and void, but small and cozy, had a fulfilled significance now, for anything that is a work of art must be small in the sight of the artist; to God the stars might be only small and dear, like diamonds. And my haunting instinct that somehow good was not merely a tool to be used, but a relic to be guarded, like the goods from Crusoe’s ship — even that had been the wild whisper of something originally wise, for, according to Christianity, we were indeed the survivors of a wreck, the crew of a golden ship that had gone down before the beginning of the world.
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

As Christians how does this moment occur for us while reading scripture?

The Risen One’s glorified body is not just the supreme masterpiece of the Holy Spirit, but is also the medium through which he communicates this same Creator Spirit to mankind (Acts 2:32-41).

This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.
Acts 2: 31-42

And this is the foundation of “canonical exegesis” itself, which fixes its gaze upon Christ, dead and risen, as the focal point around which Scripture has both its being and its intelligibility. The practitioner of canonical exegesis has to rely on the Holy Spirit to lead him, through the letter of the Scriptures, to an encounter with Christ, dead and risen. And he draws his understanding of the Bible precisely from the Holy Spirit, whom he receives through an encounter with the risen Lord through the pages of Holy Writ.

This is what Walker finds in Benedict XVI’s writings about reading scripture spiritually – how it is a training in sonship:

So what exactly happens when we read the Scriptures spiritually, in the sense of “in the Spirit”? A good way to begin answering this question is by recalling that Scripture displays a coherent overall Gestalt or pattern. The “totality of the one Scripture,” as Benedict XVI calls it, is not merely the mass of details contained in the Bible, but precisely the Gestalt-like pattern that expresses itself in, and constitutes, all such details. This pattern, in and through its details, is meant to illumine and transform our lives — as if every word of the Bible were written for us personally. In fact, that is just the point: when we are molded according to the scriptural pattern, we discover and receive our true identity: not as mere individuals, isolated from each other, but as theological persons, bearers of a mission within the divine plan to recapitulate all things in Christ.

To read the Scripture spiritually is to let the Spirit mold us (and our understanding of the text) according to the pattern that gives Scripture as a whole its shape. But let us not forget that this biblical pattern is the Gestalt of Christ as Son. To read Scripture spiritually, then, is to receive Holy Writ as an icon displaying the features of the Incarnate Son — and to receive the impress of those features by the working of the Holy Spirit: “All of us, mirroring the glory of the Lord with unveiled face, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory as by the Lord who is [such by the] Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

To read Scripture spiritually is to share in the life of heaven by letting the pattern of sonship Jesus lives out before our eyes in the gospels penetrate and transform the whole substance of our day-to-day existence in every detail. This is why Paul remarks that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for . . . the training that is to righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Greek word I have rendered as “training” is “paideia,” at the root of which stands the word “pals,” which means “child.” What Paul is saying, then, is that to read the Scriptures as “inspired by God” — to read them spiritually — is to be “trained” in sonship by the Father through his Spirit.

This training demands repentance, asceticism, and the struggle to acquire virtue, but we are not just being taught and converted. At the same time, we are being generated as sons in the Son according to the pattern of Christ. To read Scripture spiritually, then, is to know with our whole being what it means for the Father to “conceiv[e] us by the word of truth” in the Holy Spirit “so that we might be a certain first-fruits of his creatures” James 1:18). The Spirit gives us Christ, Christ gives us the Spirit, and both give us Christ’s Father as ours by adoption.

The “school” in which we learn to “obey from the heart the pattern of doctrine into which we were handed over” (Romans 6:17) is the “living tradition of the whole Church” (xviii). The living tradition is itself the unique act of receiving the biblical pattern, an act in which our individual reading of Scripture is called to participate. Furthermore, the liturgy is the comprehensive matrix of this “traditioning.” Scott Hahn has written beautifully on what he calls the “liturgical actualization” of the Bible in his Letter and Spirit: From Written Text to Living Word in the Liturgy (2005). This notion helps us understand the liturgy’s role as the privileged school of the spiritual reading of Scripture.

In the liturgical action in both East and West we move from the Old Testament promises to their New Testament fulfillment, culminating in the sacramental re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary as Jesus lifts us up through the Spirit into the Heavenly Sanctuary (the High Priest who appears before the Father in his own blood). Sandwiched between Word and Sacrament is the homily, which partakes of the character of both, and so testifies to their inner unity. This mediating role of preaching, which unites exposition and mystagogy in a single event, underscores in turn the distinctiveness of the “method” by which the liturgy teaches us to read Scripture spiritually.

The didactic element is itself embedded in, and gets its form from, sacramental participation in the very realities the Scripture is about. Partaking of the body and blood of Christ is both the summit and the source of our understanding of the scriptural pattern and of our instruction in how to decode it. In fact, Eucharist and Scripture are two sides of the same coin. Scripture is itself a sort of “verbal sacrament” of the risen Lord. Its inexhaustible interconnections (a source of never-ending delight for the Fathers) convey something of the indestructible integrity of the Spirit-life that fills Christ’s glorified body beyond the reach of death or decay.

Thus what Dei Verbum calls “reading Scripture by the same Spirit by whorn it was written” is much more than private Bible reading with a little help from above. It is the Holy Spirit’s act of drawing us up, through the liturgical interplay of Eucharist and Scripture, into the Event that is Christ. Jesus and the Spirit, Eucharist and Scripture, inspiration and spiritual reading, are indissolubly united, and the liturgy is the Church’s reception of this unity as the form and substance of its own life. Hence the two-in-one invitation of the Spirit and the Bride: “And the Spirit and the Bride say `Come.’ And he who hears, let him say `Come.’ Let him who thirsts come, let him who wills receive water of life gratis” (Revelation 22:17).
Adrian Walker, Living Water: Reading Scripture In The Body Of Christ With Benedict XVI


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