Friday, January 28, 2011

The Theology of Stories IV: Outer Trappings

Mythopoeia is a great idea, you might say, but shouldn't a Christian story bear an explicitly Christian message?

We live in a Trinitarian world, which means that different things and different people exist for different purposes, all to the glory of God. We see this in Paul's illustration of different people as eyes, or ears, or hands: all have different gifts, and all are needed. An eye cannot do the work of a hand; the Son, not the Spirit, died to redeem the world. It should not surprise us to find that different ways of communication are appropriate to different literary forms. A story is not a sermon: break that rule, and you damage the story irreparably, whether the sermon is false (as in Philip Pullman's Northern Lights series) or whether it is gloriously true.

What ways of communication are appropriate to stories? Look at the stories told by the Ultimate Story-Teller. Jesus often spoke in parables, in order to illustrate the truth, or to come slanting at it from a whole new angle. Instead of incorporating a clear moral, he used mythopoeia: and then the Good Samaritan came by—oh, unlooked-for grace! And then the father forgave the prodigal—oh, unexpected joy!

Christ followed the cardinal rule of all story-telling, which is Show, don't tell. His characters never turn to face the audience to explain the story; never go through an explicit conversion experience; rarely mention the name of God. Even He didn't always explain the meaning.

Instead, He spoke obliquely through metaphors, giving stories as examples not as clear directives. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard-seed; like buried treasure; like a precious pearl. Build your house on the rock, not on the sand.

Stories are the incarnation of truth, metaphors for this world of ours. “Mythopoeia” is just a big word that means that all stories are a metaphor for the True Story. While an explicitly Christian message may be appropriate, I believe such a message is more effective in a sermon, and can be positively detrimental to a story. Show grace, don't preach it. Show the good effects of grace; show the bad effects of sin. Show chastity, not lust, as sweet and healthy. Show courage and honour as desirable. You see, a story cannot preach anywhere near as effectively as a sermon. But a story is like no other tool in the world for making goodness look bewitchingly sweet and desirable. A story provides examples, like no sermon could, of Christian behaviour. Sermons tell you that you should; stories tell you why, how, and what it looks like. Even more, while sermons tell you that you should, stories show you that you get to, and turn duty into privilege.

John Buchan was particularly good at showing rather than telling. He gives his characters the virtues of courage, fortitude, perseverance, chastity, boldness, self-sacrifice, and nobility; and then, through endless small references, he clearly shows that Christendom is the homeland, and God the Father, of all these good things. These endless small references include throw-away remarks that “Providence is all right, if you give Him a chance” and even “I believe in a righteous God” or “If I weren't a hard-shell Presbyterian, I'd say a prayer for his soul.” Even the levity with which the characters use God's name—the only problem with Buchan—is clearly labelled as “blasphemy”. The King James Bible and the Pilgrim's Progress are constantly mined for good turns of phrase and metaphor: “And then slumber came on me like an armed man”. These are all throwaway remarks, but the cumulative result is powerful. These impressive, manly heroes are Christians. They are manly not despite, but because of their Christianity. The result? Well, Christopher Hitchens, that pearl-clutching atheist, author of such books as God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything has written an introduction for a recent reissue of a John Buchan novel—The Thirty-Nine Steps, I think it was—in which he pointed out that in this book, with this hero, Buchan sought to depict the best of Christian manliness. Yes, this is the author of a book subtitled “How Religion Poisons Everything” praising the depiction of a Christian man of action, by a Christian, as a symbol of all that is good about Christianity. (Poisons everything?) Buchan's Christianity is so bewitching, it even bewitched Hitchens!

Jane Austen, by contrast, never even mentions God in her stories and she emphatically never draws back the curtain on the spiritual lives of her characters. However, she was herself a devout and sincere Christian. As Peter Leithart has argued in Miniatures and Morals, Austen's novels are imbued with the practice, rather than the preaching, of Christianity. They teach by giving examples of Christian living; not by declaring Christian theology. Emma, for example, is a discussion of the Christian virtues of charity and neighbourliness. Those who have ears to hear...

Sometimes clear references to God will not be appropriate within the story, for example in fantasy where “God walks incognito”. The Chronicles of Narnia takes an unusual approach in that the character of Aslan acts as a very clear mythopoeic representation of Christ. On the other hand, The Lord of the Rings takes place in an alternate legendary past, before the Advent of Christ, in which angelic “gods” are venerated and the trinitarian creator god of that cosmos is never mentioned within the novel. Instead of referring explicitly to God or a God-representative, Tolkien prefers to use mythopoeic structure to point towards him.


Tim Nelson said...

Incidentally, I noticed Austen's Christianity more in reading Mansfield Park for the first time recently than in previous Austen books. This may've been because of your previous comments, but I suspect the Christianity is slightly more overt in Mansfield Park.

Christina Baehr said...

Suzy, I love this post and this series. But I politely take exception to the statement that Austen never mentions God in her novels. Note Lewis' citation of at least two instances in his rather lovely essay:
Also, having just re-read MP, there's a passage in which Fanny's prayer-life is mentioned. Tim, if you are interested, look up Robert Liddell's wonder ful but out-of-print book on Austen in which he makes the case that Austen was interested in Evangelicalism during the writing of MP.

Suzannah said...

My mistake! Clearly I am not as familiar with Austen as I should be!

That's a wonderful essay--thanks for sharing.


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