Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Theology of Stories I: Why fantasy might be the wisest form of Christian fiction

Here is a quote from Planet Narnia:
“Spenser disguised Venus in the Faerie Queene (so Lewis argues in Spenser's Images of Life) because he was drawing on the tradition of neo-Platonic thought which deemed it proper that ‘all great truths should be veiled,’ should ‘be treated mythically (per fabulosa) by the prudent.’ It is for the same reason that the good ‘is (usually) hidden’ in Spenser and that the Faerie Queene is ‘dangerous, cryptic, its every detail loaded with unguessed meaning.’ And as with the romance, so with the masque: ‘The iconography of masques could be extremely sophisticated. In fact, much of the effort in writing them must have gone into subtle finessing on the well-known iconographical types, into progressively lightening the touch in pursuit of the ideal of multum in parvo.’ One particular element that was hidden or finessed by these techniques was divine presence. ‘In the medieval allegories and the renaissance masks, God, if we may say so without irreverence, appears frequently, but always incognito.’ Sir Philip Sidney neatly expressed the prevailing aesthetic temper of the period when he wrote: ‘there are many misteries contained in Poetrie, which of purpose were written darkly, least by prophane wits it should be abused.'” (footnotes omitted).

There are people even today who will argue that sacred things should always be hidden “least by prophane wits [they] should be abused”--for example, that ready access to Scripture will bring on religious hysteria. To Hell with this idea, where it belongs: the Word is life and health to all men. Did Sidney and Spenser subscribe to this view, given their sentiments described above? Hardly! They were Puritans, writing when for the first time all Englishmen enjoyed ready access to Scripture in the vernacular. Their own faith thrived on this privilege.

No, Spenser and Sidney hid the sacred things not when living or in everyday speech, but only in their fiction, their poetrie. Instead of dealing with angels and demons, they dealt with Elves and satyrs. I believe they were most wise to do this. Had they instead written of the spiritual realities, not only might the unwise reader stumble by taking fiction as Gospel, but the unwise writer might have found himself trying to deal with things far beyond his knowledge. As Douglas Jones says (in an old back issue of Credenda magazine entitled "Old Man Willow", Vol 12, Issue 1, to which the link is unfortunately broken), “The problem is that we can’t just start putting dialogue in the mouths of angels and demons at whim. Their reality and psychology is beyond us; it would be backhandedly blasphemous to write a tale that dictated where these great beings went and said, what God did next, and how the Holy Spirit answered a particular prayer. In short, we can’t write about real reality without degrading it.”

While Jones aims his comments at, for example, the works of Frank Peretti, this remains a valid point. Ariosto, the Italian Renaissance answer to Spenser, lacked Spenser's breathless reverence for God. He depicted women sent to Hell for not entertaining their lovers' lust, and on one occasion puts words into the mouth of God Himself, commending the actions of a character who encompasses her own death in order to avoid dishonour.

Nor was this just a problem for Reformation/Renaissance-era epic poetry. It's also a problem for contemporary Christian literature at large, which for a long time I've felt borders on the blasphemous. Fiction suddenly become much more perilous when you begin writing about details of a person's spiritual life. We are characters in God's story. When writing a book about a person experiencing a close relationship with God, God is made a character in our own story. Any “God” we create or write about in fiction becomes our own creation and may break any or all of the first three commandments, especially if the work is trivial or dares to state outright how “God” reacts to a fictional prayer. From the looks of it, the Puritans Spenser and Sydney knew they trod on dangerous—because holy--ground.

We aren't going to learn much useful about having a relationship with God from a work of fiction, for heaven's sake. We'll learn far more from biographies of the saints, from the teaching of our leaders, and from Scripture. In fiction, characters struggle only as much as their author allows them to; they are not immediately in God's hand, but in the author's. Meanwhile, either the message becomes so obvious as to overwhelm the story, or vague enough to admit misunderstanding.

However, I believe this problem may and should be circumvented in non-fantasy fiction through the use of care and common-sense. It's true that God and humanity's relationship with Him is an important part of life, and non-fantasy fiction should not pretend that He doesn't exist. That would also be to lie about Him. Non-fantasy fiction must walk the thin line between depicting healthy God-man relationships and involving Him in the story to such an extent that He becomes the author's creature.

On the other hand, this problem is not going to crop up in fantasy. Fantasy gives us the opportunity to talk about the deepest realities of this life in an oblique and reverent manner that acknowledges the possibility of our being dead wrong. The greatest work of Christian fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, teaches many things about Christlike behaviour through the behaviour of the three Christ-figures Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo. These characters make no claim for divinity or to any special holiness. They simply display it insofar as the Tolkien is capable of portraying it (for a closer study of this topic see "Christological Typologies in The Lord of the Rings" by Forrest W Schultz in the December 2002 edition of Chalcedon Report). Similarly, in George MacDonald's Lilith which takes place in a fantasy world ruled by the True God, all the theological teaching is imparted through the mouths of allegorical figures or characters that, though real human beings in the far past of the world, are not divine and cannot be blasphemed.

In a recent interview, Douglas Wilson talked about the theological fumble in CS Lewis's The Last Battle when the worship rendered by Emeth to Tash is accepted by Aslan. I am not convinced by Wilson's views here but an interesting implication comes up: this is fantasy fiction, not allegory. In this format, Lewis has a certain limited freedom to make mistakes.

In fantasy, we have the opportunity to speak of holy things through metaphor. And because we do not live in a sterile, materialist cosmos we must speak of them, for they are the higher reality from which we cannot escape. In this sense, fantasy is more real than any other kind of fiction; and strictly materialist, atheist fiction is the real escape from God's created reality! Seen in this light, fantasy takes on new importance for Christian storytellers.

3 comments:

Tim Nelson said...

The problem you cite is more of a problem for non-fantasy supernatural fiction. That's why Peretti and Ariosto run into more problems than Francine Rivers (Mark of the Lion). A similar problem applies to role-playing games -- if you try to make a Peretti-style role-playing game, it's all decided by dice, not God, so that doesn't work.

Suzannah said...

I'm not sure I would classify Peretti as a writer of 'non-fantasy'! But yes, he runs into more problems than Francine Rivers, because Rivers is content to leave the supernatural alone (wisely, I think). The problem there is that people should write about the supernatural, that 'higher reality from which we cannot escape'.

Rivers is actually a good writer, but others (I speak of Dee Henderson specifically, through a book of whose I was unable to struggle) have their characters toss off a prayer so often that it gets in the way of the story. The story becomes less about the story and more about the characters' spiritual lives, and I object to that for the reasons noted above-it doesn't actually teach much, it shouldn't try to, and it once more tries to make God a character in the author's story.

But you are quite right. The problem isn't as pronounced in non-fantasy Christian fiction.

Tim Nelson said...

When I say "non-fantasy", I say so because, at least in the Peretti books I've read, the non-human agents are things like angels and demons, both of which are real.

You may also be interested to note that older versions of the Wikipedia "Novel" page list Spiritual autobiography as one of the stylistic origins of the novel.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritual_autobiography

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