Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Theology of Stories V: Heroes, Humanism, and Christ

One criticism of stories that I have heard is that a heroic character that overcomes all obstacles by the might of his own arm demonstrates a humanist understanding of life. This is in many cases true, and the difficulty comes in discerning between man-honouring heroism and legitimate, God-honouring heroism.

Ancient Greece, a very humanist society, in addition to having false humanist tragedies also enjoyed false humanist heroes: heroes that sought only honour and glory, and solved the problems of the world through their superhuman strength. Many heroes of the later Romantic era—especially the heroes of Alexandre Dumas, of Victor Hugo and of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—display their author's humanist assumptions. For example, Sherlock Holmes is able to infallibly detect truth through a strictly materialist understanding of unambiguous facts, and the eponymous Count of Monte Cristo is able to execute his elaborate revenge upon each of his old enemies with few repercussions beyond a sense of ennui at the end of the book.

It has been suggested that the Greek heroes were fore-runners of the modern superhero. This is convincing. Look at the X-men, powerful humanist heroes living in a pantheon, with complex love-lives, who exist to save the world again and again, just like more benevolent Olympians. I am also reminded of movie action heroes, those curiously indestructible men who always end up saving the day, usually through violence. Sometimes these are clearly humanist fantasies, casting mortal men as saviours. More often it can be difficult to categorise a story. Have you seen the movie The Forbidden Kingdom? It's a fun martial arts movie about a teenage boy (obviously a stand-in for the target audience) who is mysteriously transported to mythological Ancient China to fulfil an epic quest, learn gung-fu from Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and have a mild romance with the pretty yet bitter girl on a quest for her own revenge. Is this high-octane wish-fulfilment, as unhealthy as fairy-floss? Or—especially taking into account the anti-revenge moral and the fact that even after learning gung-fu for six months, the hero is still pounded into the floor by the bad guys—is it a positive and healthy story about a boy growing up, taking on the responsibilities of a warrior and a man? Maybe it's a bit of both. Maybe it transcends itself in the end.

The reason the question is so complicated is that there are plenty of reasons for main characters to be heroic. In fact as we are called to imitate our Saviour Christ, we are as Christians called to be heroic as He is heroic! This really complicates things, because it then requires a lot of thought to tell whether a given character is a Christ-type (like King Thrushbeard, or Petruchio of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew) or whether he is incarnated humanism.

We're told that we can “do all things through Christ Who strengthens us” and I think this is one key to the question. We can do all things—our heroes can lead armies, be mighty warriors, and triumph over evil in the end if they do it through Christ's strength. Whether this means extraordinary victories over personal sins or alien attack, or whether it means relying on God's grace as a plain everyday thing, if we can depict our main character leaning on God for the strength to overcome, then we have easily avoided humanism. This does not have to approach the level of preachiness, however; see my discussions of Buchan and Austen (plus comments) in the previous post.

Sometimes, explicit references to God will be out-of-place; for instance, if we are writing pre-Christian stories, or stories set in a fantasy world where God walks incognito. These settings will usually be more heavily mythopoeic than a more mundane setting, and fortunately mythopoeia provides its own remedies.

Take The Taming of the Shrew--not a fantasy, but it has a heavily mythopoeic structure. In this play, Petruchio (rather like King Thrush-beard) tames, humbles, and then exalts his wife Katherine. Petruchio is loud, brash, and active. He redefines the world on his own terms, reshaping Katherine's world into a crazy fantasy reality where a respectable old man could be an old woman one moment and a pretty girl the next. Is this the kind of blasphemous fantasy Rushdoony warns against? Is Petruchio the most blatantly rebellious anarchist in the canon of Western literature? No, he's a Christ-figure; but where is the difference?

The difference is the kind of story that this is. Remember, in the True Story, Christ is the Husband; the Church is the Bride. This is a love story, a marriage story. In acting as his wife's head, Petruchio acts as the Christ-figure, and so it's appropriate for him to take on Christ's world-creating role. It is not humanist for him to behave this way, in this role. Now the story would be humanist if the bride, Katherine, was the one behaving as the head; and insofar as she tries to do so, she is depicting an unruly humanity rebelling against Christ. Petruchio's victory in the end is the same as the victory of Christ, but the context of the story means that this is appropriate.

Another remedy that mythopoeia provides is to distance the Christ-figures from the audience. Author ND Wilson pointed this out in a Credenda/Agenda column, Wanna Save the World?: Tolkien, who was so very careful to reflect only divine Truth in his writings, made great use of this. Most characters in stories are relatable: the audience understands their struggles and identifies with them. Tolkien carefully provides three partial Christ-figures in The Lord of the Rings, and then he just as carefully distances them from the audience's comprehension. Gandalf, the prophet, acts as mentor and advisor; we are never introduced to his personal struggles. Aragorn, the king, is also unrelatable; both he and Gandalf are above and beyond the readers in some way. Frodo, the priest, is very relatable at the beginning, but as he is refined through his sufferings, he becomes more and more distant. At the end, he is just as unrelatable as Gandalf and Aragorn. We are never invited to identify with a Christ-figure in The Lord of the Rings.

By contrast, Wilson says, look at Harry Potter. Unambiguously the Christ-figure of his particular series, Harry is the most relatable character: everything is told from his point of view, and the audience is invited to identify with him. You, too, could fix the world if you had Harry's magical powers! In fact, you could do it with a fraction of the whining.

Does this mean that Harry Potter is a humanist hero? I incline that way. But one thing I am absolutely sure of: if he is not, it is because his author has used the storytelling rules of mythopoeia, imitation of the True Myth, to make the story work.

Another test we can use to determine whether a certain character is heroically humanist or heroically Christian is the way in which he defeats evil. Christ introduced a new paradigm of heroism in His victory over sin and death. This was heroism through self-sacrifice, not heroism through battle. This was not a non-violent victory; it was horrifically violent. But instead of inflicting violence upon others, God both inflicted and received the violence on the Cross. Pagan and humanist heroes like Achilles or Ariosto's paladins seek their own glory, but Christian heroes like Haggard's brethren or Tolkien's Frodo suffer and die for the love of others.

This test works equally well for fantasy and non-fantasy fiction, but like all the others it has its shortcomings. The modern humanist hero of Doctor Who triumphs through self-sacrificial non-violence, but because of his faith in humanity, not because of a transcendant love for the unlovable. And Dr Ransom of Lewis's Perelandra, who is shocked to realise that he is meant to fight and kill the demonic tempter in the new Eden of Venus rather than spend his time arguing with it, is far closer to the truth.

In the end, it is hard to characterise heroes as humanist or Christlike, especially in this transitional culture where humanism rubs shoulders with centuries of Christendom. It takes careful study and careful discernment—all of which pays off when we go to consider our own stories and heroes.

How Not To Watch a Film Like A Twelve-Year-Old by Douglas Jones, which contains a great discussion of violence and heroism.

1 comment:

Justin said...

Good stuff.

And stuffing for the soul.


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