The rest of the series.
In this final post I want to focus further on Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-stories,” which I referenced several times in Part 6. We looked at Recovery in the previous post, and I’d like to conclude this series with a look at Sub-creation, Escape, and Eucatastrophe.
Before C.S. Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, he viewed myths as being worthless lies, despite their being “breathed through silver.” To persuade him otherwise, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a poem titled “Mythopoeia,” in which he mentions the defaced image of God in man. Tolkien writes about the original mandate for man to exercise dominion over creation. Man is a “Sub-creator, the refracted light / through whom is splintered from a single White / to many hues … . / We make still by the law in which we’re made.”1 In other words, since we bear God’s image, though imperfectly, we create because God creates. We imitate and glorify the ultimate Creator as we engage in sub-creation. Tolkien puts it more clearly in “On Fairy-stories” when he writes about creating fantasy: “[W]e make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”2 Of course, Lewis eventually came to agree with Tolkien, and they both used mythology to create their own myths.
On the contemporary scene, one Christian who I believe is excelling in the sub-creation of myths is Young Adult author N.D. Wilson, whom I mentioned in Part 1. Wilson’s second book in the Ashtown series (with characters such as Gilgamesh, Arachne, and Ponce de León) was released on September 11, 2012. Christians have lots of practice complaining about fiction they don’t like, but here is a Christian who is lighting a candle in the fiction world, rather than simply cursing that bespectacled Potter boy.
The series so far.
As many of us brought up in the Christian tradition can attest, there is a regrettable familiarity that comes from constant contact with Christianity. This includes everything from the order of service, to the songs we sing, and even to what we read in the Bible. As terrible as it feels to admit this, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the force of the gospel wears off once in a while. Amazing grace is not so amazing the millionth time you’ve heard it. Speaking of this desensitizing, Bradley Birzer writes that there are many “things we have taken for granted or which have become commonplace.”1
This is not because we have fallen away as apostates, but it is hapless condition of human beings: We need constant refreshing and reminding that we are the recipients of a truly amazing inheritance. Meeting weekly as a body of believers is one way to remind us of the riches that we have in Christ, but repetition doesn’t always do the trick.
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
Read Part 1.
The ubiquity of mythology is undeniable, but to what degree should Christians interact with mythology? An answer in the third-century would most likely be in the negative if answered by the church father Tertullian, who famously asked, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Tertullian didn’t have time for a “mottled Christianity,” mixed with Platonic philosophies or other heresies.
But what about an answer in the twenty-first century? What amount of involvement with pagan mythology is proper? Christians and non-Christians alike have had differing responses to this question.
Bradley Birzer writes,
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.1
Some fundamentalists may object to Birzer’s taxonomy, but I have witnessed a similar reaction by a fundamentalist leader. A few years ago, I presented this topic at a conference for educators, and at lunch, just before I held my workshop, I mentioned to an inquiring stranger2 that my workshop had to do with the benefits of mythology. He commented that it sounded like “benefits of paganism” and questioned whether there could be any benefits of paganism.3