Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Theology of Stories II: Symbol and Metaphor in Christian Fantasy

Once you acknowledge that fantasy may be the best way to talk of the things of God in fiction, you develop a need for symbols. Something must symbolise Him, must allow the viewer to see “through a glass, darkly”. The medievals and the Puritans had a way of doing it: while acknowledging that the Greek gods were in fact demons (as Paul says), they redeemed that symbolism as a useful way of reminding the reader of the True God. Michael Ward says:
As we pointed out in chapter 2, Lewis had a high view of the pagan gods and he was not averse, in fact he was wholly committed, to using them for literary purposes. He held this view largely because writers he respected had held it before him. ‘Gods and goddesses could always be used in a Christian sense’ by a medieval or Elizabethan poet; paganism was not just ‘plumb wrong’ to their minds. The redeemed gods could perform all sorts of good, true, and beautiful tasks, as was recognised by Dante, Sidney, Spenser, and Milton, for all of whom ‘the gods are God incognito and everyone is in the secret.’
All belief systems in the end come down to this: God is Sovereign, or man is. A Christian use of pagan symbols—as for example Lewis's in the Chronicles and in the Space Trilogy—will redeem them, divorce them from all man-honouring meanings, and use them to preach the sovereignty of God. The symbols can be redeemed. Conversely, Greek humanist philosophy existed only to give glory to man and was in many instances actively hostile to the myth and religion of its own culture.

Of course, like everything else, the pagan gods must be thoroughly killed before they can be resurrected. Redeeming them as symbols means forgetting what they stood for that was evil, and remembering only the good; and that can only be done clearly once the worship of them is long faded. “Fathful as Aurora,” we might say, or “patient as Isis.” “Kingly like Jove,” “clever as Loki.” Read Shakespeare. Such expressions are everywhere.

The reason why the widespread medieval and Reformation use of pagan symbols seems so strange to us today is because the Enlightenment, that great humanist revival, was a reaction against the solempne, the pageantry and beauty and symbolism of the medievals. For the medievals, everything—colours, objects, beasts, or even the old gods--were metaphors for something else, something higher. Metaphor was a fundamental and vital part of the medieval imagination, and the medievals used everything they could to convey meaning, including pagan symbols, which they redeemed and hallowed by putting them into the service of Christ. The book Signs and Symbols in Christian Art is a fascinating study of how the medievals, possibly because the common people couldn't read or write, used all the contents of creation to form a symbolic universal language.

Rationalism, especially in the Enlightenment, demanded that all truth be conveyed baldly. One said exactly what one meant; one said “St John,” not “The Eagle of Patmos.” Language is fundamentally incarnational, and incarnation is fundamentally metaphorical. When the Word spoke this world into being, He spoke the words “St John,” and lo, the man appeared in the fullness of time, the command of the Word incarnated in flesh. Metaphor is both a kind of incarnation and a way of communication. We say, not that A is A, but that A is B. Robert Burns did not write, “My love is love,” but “My love is a red, red rose.” He imagined his love, an abstract, incarnate in matter, and saw it as a rose; and so he incarnated his love, and so he communicated to us what it was like.

The Enlightenment attack on metaphor was thus both an attack on language itself, and an attack on Christ, the Word of God, as the fount of all language. Modernism waged a relentless war against metaphor; and postmodernism, which brought back metaphor but stripped it of all meaning, has driven the last nails into the coffin.

Owing to the philosophical history of the modern era, both the medieval metaphorical language and the redemption of pagan symbols has been surgically removed from the modern imagination. Modernism constituted a revolt against allusion, metaphor, and incarnation that almost completely destroyed our willingness to speak in parables, to grasp knowledge allusively. Now nobody is in on the secret: no wonder people feel uncomfortable when Bacchus turns up in Narnia! Yet for a thousand years, he was simply the anthropomorphic personification of Divine bounty.

Might not the use of pagan symbols be damaging, however? Those of you who have read Rushdoony's The One and the Many may understand when I say that acceptance of man-centred Greek philosophy was far more damaging to the glorious medieval Christendom than the redemption of Greek symbols was.

Redemption of pagan symbols should not feel strange or wrong to us. In his fantastic little book The Central Significance of Culture, Francis Nigel Lee points out that--
...the Old Testament Israelitic culture borrowed many cultural treasures from its Egyptian, Philistine, Phoenician, Babylonian, and Grecian neighbors, normatively reinterpreted them in terms of the Word of God, and thus used them to extend its own art and architecture and music and poetry and philosophy and history, generally to the glory of God—at least whenever obeying the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Lee's postmillenial vision includes a Christendom that conquers and absorbs pagan culture to the glory of God:
For after creation and before the fall, “God saw every thing that He had made, and behold it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). And, even though sin subsequently stained all things in the universe (Rom. 8:19-22), nevertheless, as a result of the cosmos-embracing work of Christ whereby He reconciled all things in earth and in heaven (Col. 1:20), today too “every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer” (I Tim. 4:4-5).


...For Babylon the great shall fall, and be lost forever. But all its true culture shall be saved, and preserved forever, after the final judgement! For Babylon ultimately serves the New Jerusalem! […] For all that is truly beautiful and lovely in this world's culture, shall be inherited and enjoyed by believers in the next. Yes, true culture is indestructible, and will be enjoyed by the covenant-keeping believers unto all eternity! The covenant-breaking non-Christian artists and scientists and musicians will indeed be lost eternally in hell, on account of the hardness of their hearts—but the work of their hands (insofar as it is true art, true science, and true music) will be saved for all eternity—and enjoyed by God's own children on the new earth. [Emphases in original.]
The great downfall of medieval Christendom was caused by attempts to fuse Christianity with Greek philosophies built on the sovereignty of man; and this was surrender. But the medieval use of pagan symbols, pressing them into the service of the almighty God—this was not a compromise; it was a conquest. Jupiter, Mars, and Venus went into captivity; became the slaves of the true God; were defanged, and unable any more to demand blood and homage and fear.


Tim Nelson said...

You've misinterpreted Burns. First, you misquoted him -- it's a simile, not a metaphor.,_Red_Rose

Second, when he says "my love", he means "the person that I love", not "the love that I feel". So it would be perfectly within the context (but not metre, etc) of the poem, to write, "my love, she is a fair maid". I had a feeling this was the case, but in re-reading the poem, I was not certain until I came to the part that said "And fare thee weel, my only Luve", which clearly refers to a person, not an emotion/decision/whatever.


Suzannah said...

*blush* Ah, dear. I think I must be confused from the old poetry textbook I used to read. I came away thinking Burns's actual line was the metaphor, not the simile. That'll teach me to check my work.


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