Just a bunch of Fairy Stories?!
Last Christmas the American Atheist group had a billboard campaign in several Southern States in the US reading:
“Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is to skip church. I’m too old for fairy stories”.
It is a familiar critique; belief in God is a belief in something or someone you can’t see, just a figment of imagination—the same as someone believing in fairy stories. So, at Easter celebrating Jesus’ miraculous resurrection from the dead, Christians are told that they should grow-up and grow-out of their myth.
The response of the church is usually to point out that Christianity is no fairy story. Able authors like Lee Strobel (The Case for Christ) and Josh McDowell (He Walked Among Us) draw attention to the Gospels as historical records of eye-witness testimonies with very robust manuscript evidence. The eye witness accounts to Jesus’ miracles and resurrection, the empty tomb and the witness of the early church are key pillars of this historical case.
This evidential apologetic is vitally important and needs to be emphasised. But there is a danger that on its own it can leave us feeling a bit cold. The head may be persuaded that there is good historical evidence for Jesus Christ, but it will matter little if the heart does not want it to be true.
It seems the now not-so-New-Atheist movement has started to realise the importance of engaging the heart. Richard Dawkins’ recent TV series on evolution self-consciously used fairy-story words like ‘miracle’ and ’wonder’, and his latest book is called ‘the magic of reality’. It is deeply ironic that such self-proclaimed ‘naturalists’ have chosen to use supernatural words to try to make their views more appealing!
Of course it is a strange kind of ignorance to think that fairy stories are just ‘children’s books’. J R R Tolkien’s excellent essay ‘On fairy stories’ explains why the genre of fantasy or ‘faerie’ (as it used to be known) is so important for adults and children alike. Having written arguably the most popular modern fantasy of all time—Lord of the Rings—what can we learn from Tolkien?
Tolkien highlights three key benefits of fantasy: recovery, escape and consolation.
1. Recovery: Meaning recovering a clear view of things. Fairy-stories give us a window into our own world. They help us to see things we know but often forget: beauty is not just skin deep, wisdom is not the same as knowledge, wealth and power may promise much but can also entrap us etc.
2. Escape: Not in the sense of an escape from reality (escapism), but in the sense of someone imprisoned who longs to ‘escape’ to their true home. Such popular myths bring to the surface deep longings that show we are imprisoned to a current reality which is not our true home. We long for fountains with healing properties because we know that pain and injury are imposters in the world. We delight to hear of songs that can magically make even the saddest heart joyful, because we know that as G K Chesterton put it sadness is an ‘interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul’ (G K Chesterton Orthodoxy)
3. Consolation: Arguably the most powerful function of faerie is the consolation we find in the ‘happy ending’. Tolkien writes that the happily-ever-after does not undermine the reality of pain and heartache in this world. Instead the happy ending gives us firm hope that:
‘The possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat… giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief’.
The real joy of the gospel of Jesus Christ is not just that it is true (though it is certainly true). We all know lots of things that are undeniably true but do little to command the devotion of any heart. The joy of the gospel is that it embodies all of the wonders captured in the great fairy-stories: recovery, escape, and consolation and it is also true!
The gospel allows us to recover a clear view of this world because it is God’s perfect perspective. Inscribed on the pages of Scripture in events, characters, parables, proverbs and teachings is God’s unique window on our fallen reality.
The gospel story is the great escape home from the trappings of sin and its effects. The miracles of Jesus Christ give us a brief glimpse of that world to come where,
‘The eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, And the tongue of the mute will shout for joy. For waters will break forth in the wilderness’ (Isaiah 35:5-6)
And the gospel is consolation and hope looking forward to the happiest ending of all. A day when God will make all things new and He himself will be with us as our God:
‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ (Revelation 21:4)
C S Lewis was familiar with the classical mythology of Greece and Rome and very taken by the Norse myths. One evening he walked with Tolkien (a Christian) and Hugh Dyson and Lewis was lamenting to his fellow Oxford professors that though these myths were very beautiful they were just ‘fantasy’; ‘lies and therefore worthless’, he said, ‘even though breathed through silver.’
Lewis was looking for meaning and a world which made sense of ideas like beauty, goodness and hope. The problem he found was that the myths that gave him the meaning he craved were just figments of imagination. Tolkien objected, not all myths are figments of imagination. He went on to famously say that Christianity is a myth ‘but it is a true myth’.
He explained to Lewis the difference this makes:
‘It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed… The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” [the turnaround that leads to the happy ending] in a fairy-story gives… The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind… But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.’
This was the clinching moment for Lewis. Wonder and truth combined in Jesus Christ to bring him joy. It is fitting that he would title his autobiography of coming to faith ‘Surprised by Joy’. It is also these two elements—wonder and truth—that we find time and again in his writings and lectures, and that made him such a compelling apologist of the gospel.
So next time you hear the criticism that ‘Christianity is a fairy story, just a myth’ - perhaps even the nagging doubt in your own heart - why not ask whether the greatest magic of all could be that whilst it is a myth… it is a true myth.
(Extracts of the conversation between Lewis, Tolkien and Dyson have been taken from Humphrey Carpenter’s book The Inklings. For further reading see J R R Tolkien On Fairy Stories and G K Chesterton Orthodoxy).