6. Recognizing metanarrative
As unfortunate as it is, the main point of Scripture is often bypassed by Christians who are more interested in the “practical” aspects of the Bible, such as learning how to be nice. In this common moralistic way of reading the Bible, readers mine the Scriptures for daily nuggets to help them become a better person. And yet, as Tim Keller and others have reminded us, the Bible is not about us.1 We could easily label the Old Testament as God’s autobiography.
Thus, metanarrative, a larger story that explains the smaller stories, is extremely important for Christians. The metanarrative for us is the overarching story of God’s providence that illuminates all of the trillions of individual moral and immoral stories that have been told throughout the history of the universe.2
While it is important to be morally conformed to the image of Christ, it is only a part of understanding what God has been doing. Mythology, fantasy, etc. can tell the overarching story-behind-the-story better than almost any other genre, except perhaps straightforward preaching, which I will touch on in the next point.3
In a recent blog post, a pastor illustrates this importance of recognizing that we are in a story, because “we need to learn how to recognize who is who and what is what.”
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Peter answered Edmund—when Edmund asked if they really wanted to follow a bird they didn’t know in a world they didn’t know—this way: “That’s a nasty idea. Still—a robin you know. They’re good birds in all the stories I’ve ever read. I’m sure a robin wouldn’t be on the wrong side.”
One of the reasons why the Scripture tells us so many stories is that we are supposed to get the feel of them down into our bones.4
Whereas reading doctrine lets us know in black and white propositional terms what is right and wrong, developing narrative sensibilities helps us discern the rightness or wrongness of things that might not be clearly delineated in scriptural propositions.
Developing narrative sensibilities also helps us pick up on the teleology of a story—its trajectory or purpose. We evaluate stories based on whether or not they tell the truth about creation, because as fallen as the world is, there is an ultimate hope of total redemption. Peter Leithart explains,
[T]here must be eschatology to get a story off the ground—somewhere to go, somewhere to arrive, which justifies separation from where the story begins. There is a teleology to every story—beginning, middle, and end—“end” here not merely meaning the last event but the goal towards which the story moves.5
The postmodern disdain for metanarratives is rooted in their denial that we can makes sense of the pieces of our lives. We cannot put the puzzle pieces together because there is no picture to piece together. Further, I suspect that many postmodernists know exactly why they must reject a metanarrative arc: It has implications that they are unwilling to accept. G.K. Chesterton saw those implications, and that is part of what drew him to Christianity:
I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician. And this pointed a profound emotion always present and sub-conscious; that this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person. I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.6
Understanding story is also crucial because it helps us see abstract structures (another point I will get to later). According to C.S. Lewis, “It is only while receiving the myth as a story”—or, in the abstract—“that you experience the principle concretely…. [M]yth is the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with that vast continent we really belong to. It is not, like truth, abstract; nor is it, like direct experience, bound to the particular.”7 Stories help us bridge the gap between the abstract and the concrete.
7. Communicating moral themes
Of course, while teaching morality is not the primary duty of Christians,8 teaching morality is not a bad thing. In fact, children are actually drawn to the moral aspects of a story, said J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien questioned a contemporary critic’s opinion that children most often ask of fairy stories, “Is it true?” Tolkien claimed, “Far more often they have asked me: ‘Was he good? Was he wicked?’ That is, they were more concerned to get the Right side and the Wrong side clear.”9
From Horace to Sir Philip Sidney, we have been told that good literature has the dual purpose of teaching and delighting. Delight often comes by nature of a story’s being itself—people simply love stories. Teaching, sometimes poorly and sometimes well, is worked into the story.
Of course, C.S. Lewis explained, the best way to communicate morality through stories is not to begin with the morality.
All my seven Narnian books, and my three science fiction books, began with seeing pictures in my head. At first they were not a story, just picture. [The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe] all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood…. At first I had very little idea how the story would go. But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it…. [O]nce He was there He pulled the whole story together, and soon He pulled the six other Narnian stories in after Him.10
But eventually Lewis was intentional regarding the truths with which he infused his stories. Perhaps nowhere else in literature is the antithesis between good and evil quite as stark is it is in mythology.11 “Romance” (a catch-all term that Lewis used for fairy stories, fantasy, etc.) had the unique power to communicate religious truth. In a letter to a woman who had remarked that Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet was surprisingly theological, Lewis replied, “Any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.”12 This is because our guard often goes down when we are reading “just fiction.” Writers know this, and more often than not, they are extremely purposeful in their worldview bootlegging.
Tolkien acknowledged this fact, writing in an essay, “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).”13 Tolkien’s contempt for heavy-handed allegory was usually unveiled, and he even viewed Lewis’s Narnia stories as being an inferior form of artistry to the complex mythological universe of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Lewis argued that his chronicles were not allegory, but analogy, or “supposal,”14 but Tolkien was not convinced. Bradley Birzer writes, “Beowulf’s greatest strength, Tolkien believed, lay in the author’s understanding that the theme should be implicit rather than explicit.”15
Moreover, in a letter, Tolkien wrote that he disliked the Arthurian legend because of its openly Christian themes—not because he was opposed to Christian themes, but because he was opposed to their appearing so openly in narrative. “Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.”16
However, although Tolkien claimed in a forward that there was no intended “inner meaning” or “message” to The Lord of the Rings,17 he admitted in a letter to an editor, “A moral of the whole [trilogy]…is the obvious one that without the high and noble the simple and vulgar is utterly mean; and without the simple and ordinary the noble and heroic is meaningless.”18
As an extension of a writer’s worldview, morality will inevitably appear, though it must be done artfully for it to be effective. Just like with Aesop’s beast fables, distance is key: People often listen better if they don’t feel that they are being preached at. Even Pilgrim’s Progress is like a riddle that people don’t really enter as a story. Readers engage fairy stories as stories and come out refreshed, maybe not even always knowing why, and the disarming quality of fairy stories is partly what makes their morality so powerful.
8. Stimulating the imagination
C.S. Lewis claimed that his imagination was “baptized” by reading the “faerie romance” Phantastes by George MacDonald.19 Here Lewis presupposes that an imagination requires baptizing, but we can easily get to Lewis’s position by applying Romans 12:2: If we are to renew our mind, it logically follows that we are also to renew our mind’s eye (the imagination).
Ravi Zacharias has used lines from a William Blake poem20 to make the point that seeing with instead of through the eye has damaging effects on our lives. What is behind the eye (e.g., conscience, imagination, etc.) should use the eye as an instrument. But when our consciences and imaginations are not renewed, Ravi says, “We now learn to listen with our eyes and think with our feelings…. We are meant to see through the eye, with the conscience; when we start seeing with the eye devoid of the conscience, all kinds of belief can invade your imagination.”21
So first, the imagination is an important faculty for guarding beliefs from worldviews bent on pillaging the Christian mind. But second, the imagination can be stimulated to visualize a better world.
According to literary critic Northrop Frye, “The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in.”22 Literary theorist Terry Eagleton writes that for Frye, “Literature is… a kind of collective utopian dreaming which has gone on throughout history, an expression of those fundamental human desires which have given rise to civilization itself, but which are never fully satisfied there.”23
This “already, but not yet” perspective is helpful, but where Frye goes wrong is that he posits literary ideals as unachievable goals. For Frye, history is bondage, and literature is freedom, and revolutionaries are the benighted ones who confuse the two, thinking that Heaven can come to earth.
And yet that is what we assume every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth.” God has placed everything in this world under our feet (Ps. 8:6), and we are therefore stewards over the affairs of this world. Not only do we long for a world in which wrongs are righted, but we also work for such a world.
This working must have an appropriate balance between extreme positions of an imperialist proselytizing at sword point, and a laissez-faire God-will-eventually-work-it-all-out numbness to culture building. But there is no denying that Christ’s work was a hopeful one, not in the “here’s hoping” sense, but in the sense that this created world, even in its fallen state, has a secure hope of redemption in its future.
Through mythology and fantasy and fairy-stories we see the merging of the indicative and the subjunctive—the splicing of what is and what could be. And why shouldn’t we use our imaginations this way? We are the stewards of a God Who routinely does exceedingly above all that we can ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20).24
2 Several proposals have been offered, but the metanarrative that I have found to be the most simple and yet comprehensive is the three-part structure of Creation, Fall, and Redemption.
3 Some readers will have noticed that it is not entirely easy to keep these benefits distinct from one another. As much as possible, I have labored to avoid too much overlap.
5 Deep Comedy (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2006), p. 87
6 Orthodoxy (New York: Random House, 2001) Ch. 4: The Ethics of Elfland, p. 59
7 God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 66
8 The good news of the Gospel is that our moral requirement has been fulfilled by Someone else.
9 “On Fairy-Stories” in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Del Rey, 1986), p. 62
10 “It all began with a picture…” in Of Other Worlds (New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1975), p. 42
11 This is where definitions of mythology, fantasy, romance, fairy stories, etc. become somewhat fluid.
12 The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, 9 August 1939
13 “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”—qtd. in Bradley Birzer’s J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2003), xxi
14 The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, 2 December 1962
15 J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, p. 34 (originally from Tolkien’s “The Monster and the Critics”)
16 The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), p. 144
17 The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Ballantine, 1988), p. 10. Cf. Mark Twain’s notice in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
18 Letters, p. 160
19 Surprised by Joy in The Beloved Works of C.S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 2008), p. 100
20 “The Everlasting Gospel” (c. 1818)
22 The Educated Imagination (Toronto: House of Anansi, 2002), p. 86 (italics mine)
23 Literary Theory (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), p. 80. Cf. Romantics (e.g., Blake and Shelley) who wanted to use the imagination “to transform society in the name of those energies and values which art embodies. Most of the Romantic poets were themselves political activists, perceiving continuity rather than conflict between their literary and social commitments” (p. 17).
24 For further reading, a great resource, which includes a section on “Myth and Fantasy,” is Lee Ryken’s book, The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing.