Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Theology of Stories III: Mythopoeia and the Charge of Escapism

"Because ours is an age with a will to fiction, the role of imagination is extremely important. Men who will not be governed by God’s word will not be governed by reality, because reality is not of their making. God having created all things, reality reflects the mind of God, not man. Hence, it is the essence of sin to resort to imagination to escape God’s law world...It is essential to imagination to create a man-made world and a man-ordained decree of predestination. It is the essence of sin to demand such a world.” R.J. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology Volume I, pp. 474, 475.
Here Rushdoony warns against sinful use of the imagination. I'm not aware of anywhere in his writings that extol the rightful use of the imagination, but that's probably my own fault. Now I know the imagination can be used sinfully. I've got a particularly strong one. But I believe the imagination is also a gift of God, a gift and a tool that can be used rightly or wrongly. Is using one's imagination to alter reality really sinful?

I hesitate to disagree with Rushdoony about anything. In the kingdom of heaven, he prunes the shrubs of wisdom and discernment, while I scrub the floors of the kitchen of richly-deserved humble pie. That said, I find it hard to believe that he was really opposed to all use of the imagination in principle.

I believe that imagination, defined as the ability to think of the world as different to the way it is, is an indispensable tool in the fulfilment of the Genesis dominion mandate; without it, we could do nothing. For centuries man imagined he could fly; and then the Wright brothers, sharing that dream, made it possible. Tyndale imagined a world in which every man could read the Bible in his own tongue, and then gave his life to make it possible. The music of Bach and Handel, the exquisite illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight, the navy of King Alfred, the art of knitting, the magnificent decorations of Solomon's temple, the novels of Jane Austen, and every cultural achievement that has ever been made has resulted from an act of imagination without which it would have been impossible. Imagination, when put into the service of God, is good; and so may fantasy be.

Christian fantasists argue that God's reality is closer to what we would call fantasy, than to the cold materialism of modernism. Which is closer to the truth: an Asimov novel in which there is no supernatural, and robots may have many of the same attributes as humans—may even question their own programming (for example, to develop the Zeroth Law of Robotics); or the cosmos of Lewis's Space Trilogy, in which each world is ruled by an angelic intelligence, each obedient to the Creator of them all?

The God who made this world is a brilliant and excessively imaginative God. At least one way in which we honor and image our Creator is through recreating and imitating His arts. The stories we tell and paint and live ought to be filled with the same sorts of mind blowing events and details. The secularists and evolutionists are boring and uninteresting with their chance and arid naturalism. But we are the sons and daughters of a God who plays with dragons, dances over His people, and became a man for our salvation. We live in a faerie land, and we can’t help but love fairy tales because we are in the middle of one. --Toby Sumpter, The Elfin Knight, “Fairy Tales”
Sumpter here summarises the theology of stories known as mythopoeia, which was developed by JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and the other Inklings in the first part of the last century. It is authoritatively stated in Tolkien's essay, On Fairy Stories (the most important discussion of fantasy in the last century; GK Chesterton's The Ethics of Elfland is a runner-up) and in his poem Mythopoeia. I am persuaded that it fully answers any charges of fantasy-as-attempt-to-escape-from-God's-justly-created-order.

Tolkien's mythopoeia theology can be broken into two main points. The first is that God is a Creator Who created us in His own Image, and thereby gave us creative, imaginative impulses. Tolkien saw the impulse to create as a way of honouring, glorifying, and imitating our own Creator, and stated (in Mythopoeia the poem):
Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons--'twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we're made.
And in On Fairy Stories, he goes on to argue:
Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It can even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors' own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum [abuse doesn't nullify use - S]. Fantasy remains a human right: we 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.
Yes, our fallen natures twist the imagination to evil uses, but before that twisting we already had a wonderful gift of good and God-honouring imagination. Tolkien called this God-honouring creativity subcreation—the creativity of a created being in submission to the Creator. As an artist and writer himself, Tolkien dedicated his life most earnestly to God-honouring subcreation; the endless changes, additions, and revisions he made to his mythos until the end of his life were usually attempts to make it closer to God's own reality. By the end of his life, he was beginning to worry about the Orcs of his subcreation, beings of pure evil. They were not fallen angels, so Tolkien worried that he might be sending the false message that certain races of people were beyond salvation!

The second point of mythopoeia is somewhat harder to explain. It is that history, His Story, is a myth like all other myths, with one difference: that it is True. Before we go on, I'd like to make it clear that I mean that literally. Christ was born of the Virgin Mary in a body that could be touched and killed; He was crucified, died, rose on the third day, and made propitiation for our sins. This myth, unlike all others, actually is true.

If we define “myth” as a cultural/religious story giving a supernatural and artistically compelling explanation of the world, then God's Story (otherwise known as history) really is a myth; as is the myth of Osiris, or the Titans, or Ragnarok. A myth has power insofar as it has two things: objective truth, and artistic beauty. Some myths are more powerful than others; some have more shadows of truth in them. Let us take the Norse myth of Odinn, hanging himself upon the World Tree Yggdrasil for three days and nights as a sacrifice to himself to bring wisdom to the world. Tolkien would point out that this myth is powerful because it contains a reflection of the truth, which is that the Son of God was hanged on a tree for three days and three nights as the ultimate sacrifice to bring redemption to the world. The pagan myth of Ragnarok, that enchantingly beautiful and terrible myth that in the end, monsters shall slay everything that is good, defeat the gods, and plunge the earth into ruin, is powerful and true because it tells us that it is a good and honourable thing to be on the right side even when it's the losing side; and false, because it tells us that the right side will not win the ultimate victory.

While other myths have truth and power in small, distorted quantities, only the Christian myth is actually true in the full sense of the word. Tolkien called it True Myth. It is the truest, the most powerful, and the most beautiful story in the world. It is the Ultimate Story, and God is its author. It begins Once Upon a Time; it ends Happily Ever After, at the marriage supper of the Prince. And right now, you are living in the middle of it.

Tolkien took this theory even further. He noted the narrative structure of this True Myth: everything begins happily, but falls and is cursed. But then, just when things look worst, God Himself comes into the world to save us. Tolkien called this sudden happy turn the eucatastrophe:
In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden a miraculous grace: never to be counted upon to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: 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 and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
To Tolkien, the sudden and unexpected happy ending wasn't just good story structure—it was the Gospel! In the Epilogue of On Fairy Stories, Tolkien ties together fantasy and True Myth:
The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: 'mythical' in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfullment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.
This is the Ultimate Story, the only True Story. Every other story in the world is a reflection of this master-Story. Every story ever written, by fallen or redeemed, faithful or rebellious man, is only good, true, or beautiful insofar as it reflects the True Story.

Tolkien argued that we have been given the impulse to sub-create; we have been given the True Story as an artistic template. Reflecting the True Story does not necessarily mean re-telling the True Story. Rather, it means that every story that adheres to the narrative structure of the True Story is a good story. Every artistically well-crafted story, as measured against the True Story's artistic standard, is a God-honouring story (absent any complicating factors). Conversely, every story that has been structured to dishonour God must defy basic narrative structure in order to do so, and ends up being a bad story (see for example the most virulently anti-God writings of Philip Pullman).

Fairy-tales especially are powerful reflections of the True Story. One of my favourite fairy-tales is a wonderful reflection of Christ's relationship to His covenant people: King Thrush-beard. It tells of a beautiful princess who is courted by many different kings and princes, but she ridicules and sends away all of them, especially making fun of a grey-bearded king she calls “Thrush-beard”. Angry, her father swears she shall marry the next beggar to come to his gate, and this she is forced to do against all her protests. The beggar takes her to his miserable hovel, and finds that she is incapable of washing or cooking. He buys her a spinning-wheel so that she can earn some money, but her hands are too tender for the work. He sets her up in the marketplace to sell pots and pans, but a drunken soldier knocks over the stall. Finally he gets her a job in the palace kitchens of the local king, where she is put hard to work preparing the king's bridal feast. The eucatastrophe of the story comes when the king sends for the sad and humbled princess-kitchen-maid to come to the feast—and reveals himself as King Thrush-beard, and as her beggar-husband, and also as the soldier who knocked over her stall. The bridal feast is her own! Having been humbled, she is now exalted.

This does not explicitly re-tell the True Story, but it is a wonderful reflection of it.

That has a happy ending; it is a comedy. But what about tragedy? Rushdoony was not a fan of tragedy, showing how it casts man in the role of innocent victim of the gods rather than as sinner in need of grace. I think the situation in regards to tragedy is a little more nuanced than this. Certainly, in the Greek tragedies, such as the Oedipus trilogy, man is depicted as the helpless, innocent plaything of malicious gods. This does not accurately reflect True Myth; it is a false use of imagination and truly anti-Christian. But what about, say, Shakespeare's Macbeth? In Macbeth we trace the horrifying career of a man who seeks to determine his own destiny through unlawful means—murder! Blood calls for more blood; Macbeth is forced to pile murder upon more murder. He is no innocent victim: he is a man fallen and corrupted, full of sin that offends a just God. Only when he is killed can Scotland be blessed again. I believe that this kind of tragedy does accurately reflect True Myth. Like Macbeth, although richly blessed, we sought our own self-determination, and reaped death (though the hope of redemption through Christ must never be forgotten either!).

Mythopoeia has far-reaching consequences for the author. It means that just a bare plot outline can tell the Good News! You don't need to put preaching in your characters' mouths—in fact, you'd probably better not—in order to eloquently convey truth. But more on this later.

How can one use mythopoeia and the True Story to tell stories the very plots of which honour God? In the same way that every marriage is a picture (sometimes a better picture, sometimes not so good) of Christ and the Church:—Well, so every time a death-and-resurrection motif is used; every time a man gives his life for his bride; every time victory is won through self-sacrifice; every time a wicked man reaps destruction or a good character displays the fruit of the Holy Spirit, God's Story is honoured and the Truth has been told.


Kara Dekker said...

Thanks for the comment you posted on my blog a while back. You're quite welcome to link to Biblio-File, if you like.

I've only just begun to skim your series, "Theology of Stories", something I'm very interested in. This post caught my eye, because I too would like to know more of Rushdoony's thoughts on imaginative writing. I find it's hard to search his books topically. A bit of a treasure hunt, sometimes!

Kara D.

Suzannah said...

If Rushdoony had a shortcoming, I think it was in the area of imaginative writing--I don't think he spent much time thinking about it (though I could be wrong). The most interesting thing I've read him say about imaginative writing, though, was on Greek tragedy in his Survey of World History:

"The moral of Greek tragedy is that fate rules and man is a helpless pawn in a perverse universe. [...] For Greek tragedy, man is not a sinner but a victim. The gods torment him, and Fate destroys both men and gods. [...] Life is presented as meaningless or perverse. Man does not have a chance, nor is it his fault that he fails."

This and his comments on fantasy (he also discusses the evil use of fantasy/imagination in Vol II of the Institutes of Biblical Law, there's a chapter on it in there somewhere) are as much as I know about his attitude to fiction in general. It's sad that he never seems to have said much, if anything, to praise the just use of the imagination...

...but then, we have Tolkien and Lewis and Wilson and others for that.

Kara Dekker said...

In one of Rushdoony's talks (an Easy Chair recording, I think, but possibly in the World History series) he said something about tragedy being ultimately un-Christian, because it gives a false picture of history. I can identify with that somewhat. But I wonder if there is still a place for tragedy, because, of course, for the non-Christian, the end of history will be a tragedy.

I've not yet read Vol. II of the Institutes. I may just get that out today and have a look.

It does seem sad. But each writer has his strengths.

Suzannah said...

I absolutely agree with you. He said Macbeth was an example of anti-Christian tragedy, but I couldn't disagree more--Macbeth is obviously about the justice of God overtaking an evil man, and is a profoundly Christian tragedy.

I still appreciate what he says about tragedy, though, because it also applies to horror. See my discussion of Dean Koontz at the bottom of this post: and my post on Dracula.

I haven't read Vol II of the Institutes either--just went through it the other week doing research for this legal textbook I'm writing for Aussie homeschoolers...:)

Anonymous said...

This was a wonderful assessment of a Christian writer's attitude toward fantasy. I remember hearing a speaker warning of the dangers of 'alternate realities' once, and I wondered how this related to fiction, Tolkien, Lewis,..... I found this an excellent portrayal of the attitude of sub-creation that I have found woven into Tolkien's work. "and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds f his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he sis the son of his father." Silmarillion chap. 2 Thank you for your insight.

Suzannah said...

Glad you enjoyed the post! Yes, a lot of speakers do warn about escapism and the dangers of alternate realities. I do understand where they're coming from. To them, the problem is that people are taking fiction way too seriously, but from my point of view, people aren't taking fiction seriously enough. They're treating it like a way to indulge themselves, but I want to treat it like a way to instruct and edify myself.


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