Friday, August 5, 2016
Using Five-Point Covenant Structure to Identify a Theme
Today I'm taking a quick break from reviewing books to discuss a useful tool for identifying theme in storytelling. Whether you're a reader trying to engage with the deeper messages of someone else's story (or even History!) or a writer looking to strengthen and reinforce a theme in your own story, having a quick, comprehensive set of worldview questions to apply can really help.
The model I want to discuss today is based on a particular stream of covenant theology most recently developed by theologians like Ray Sutton and James Jordan. I have to admit I haven't studied this indepth, but it's a view of Biblical covenants (and, more generally speaking, all ancient Near-Eastern covenants), that breaks the terms of any given covenant down into five headings, which are easily summarised with the acrostic THEOS.
T = Transcendence (Who's in charge here?)
H = Hierarchy (To whom do I report?)
E = Ethics (What are the rules?)
O = Oath or Sanctions (What do I get if I obey or disobey?)
S = Succession (Does this outfit have a future?)
Now: I haven't studied this explanation of the covenant in enough depth to say whether I think it's a good expression of what actually is in Scripture. However, I've recently been playing with it as a tool to help me identify and evaluate themes in my own stories, as well as in history, and I've been very impressed with the results. The reason is that the considerations listed above are all considerations which every worldview must answer. Too often, whether we're authors or readers, our attention to the worldviews and themes we're faced with is limited to Transcendence, with sometimes just a bit of attention to Ethics or Oath. Apply all five points, however, and you get a much more full-orbed worldview that can be expressed in a much more powerful, reinforced way.
So how exactly does this model help? Let's look at two well-known fantasy epics, the Star Wars Original Trilogy and CS Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, to find out.
Of course, as Christians, we recognise that God is the ultimate transcendent authority in every situation. However, when we're talking about non-Christian worldviews, or literature with allegorical or symbolic overtones, the transcendent authority may look a little different. If you're trying to discover the transcendent authority in any given story, try asking these questions:
Who is the creator?
Who is the redeemer?
Who is the lawgiver?
Who is the revealer of truth?
In Star Wars, the answer to the first question is the Force - it creates and sustains all life. Redemption is brought to the world by bringing balance to the Force. The Force communicates with those who are attuned to it, by listening to their feelings: this shows them what to do (law, or a kind of lite law substitute) and reveals truth to them. So in Star Wars, the Force, as mediated through personal feelings, is the transcendent reality.
In CS Lewis's Narnia books, by contrast, all these questions are answered in the character of Aslan, who both creates and redeems Narnia. Unsurprisingly, Aslan was intended as a very clear allegory of Christ. In a story I'm currently working on, on the other hand, this position of transcendence is occupied not so much by God or a Christ-figure, as (focusing on just one of God's attributes) divine law and justice.
This is where things start to get interesting. Hierarchy is all about representation. Who represents the transcendent authority to the main characters of this story? Or which character most consistently embodies the story's worldview? This, obviously, is where all the doomed yet kindly elderly mentor figures come from.
In Star Wars, it's Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and other Jedi masters who train their apprentices in the ways of the Force. They have evil--or "dark" counterparts in the Sith lords who train evil apprentices. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf does substantially the same job, representing a more personal creator.
In Narnia, by contrast, the main characters interact with Aslan personally. In a sense Aslan fits into the hierarchy too, being himself the son of the Emperor-over-the-sea. However, there's a great deal of discussion in the books about the fact that only Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve - Men - can be kings and queens in Narnia. Like the original Adam and Eve, they're given the care and protection of the whole nonhuman, plant and animal world of Narnia. So the main characters themselves represent Aslan to Narnia, and Narnia to Aslan. Which may, in fact, be a distinctively Protestant way of seeing things--it's a kind of fictional expression of the priesthood of all believers.
Ethics is all about rules, which is to say, the basis upon which the characters make their moral decisions.
In Star Wars, the characters solve moral dilemmas through emotional intuition. But, there's a dualism in emotions as well as in the Force. You know the line: "Anger, fear, aggression, the Dark Side are they!" Oddly, the Light Side does not draw on the contrasting "positive" feelings. In the prequels, it's the main character's love that is his Achilles heel, eventually corrupting him. Rather, the "feelings" that can be trusted as inspired by the Light, apparently resemble a sort of passionless Zen state.
On the other hand, in Narnia, much is (again) made of the Emperor's laws and rules. It's these rules that demand Aslan die in Edmund's place in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; later, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan reminds Lucy that he obeys his own rules. In The Silver Chair, Jill is given a set of explicit instructions by Aslan, which leads directly into the most memorable moral dilemma in the whole Narniad--free the dangerous madman, or ignore Aslan's orders?
Here's where we look at what happens to the characters as a consequence of their actions. You might think this is a no-brainer, but some stories exist merely to prove that no matter what you do, the consequences don't matter--that was, after all, the big problem I had with Rebecca, where the protagonists get away without significant consequences for their wrong actions. This can go the other way, too: you can imagine a story where no matter how hard the protagonist tries to be good, he can't prevent awful things happening to him, the obvious inference being that they are pawns of Fate in a brutal and random universe (hello, Candide and Oedipus!)
In Star Wars, however, this is probably the most conventional aspect of its whole thematic structure. People who commit mass murder and extortion die nasty deaths. People who sacrifice themselves for others' lives and freedoms are honoured. Heroes who resist tyranny must battle through dark times, but come out all right in the end thanks to the helping hand of the screenwriters--I mean, the Force--and are rewarded with way awesome telekinetic laser sword powers. Villains who repent and join the goodies come to a satisfyingly bittersweet end, not reaping the full benefits that accrue to those who have been heroic all along, but dying well and joining the Light Side after death. All this is relatively Judeo-Christian.
Now bear with me, because I'm going to argue that on this point, the Chronicles of Narnia are seriously lacking. In the first six Chronicles of Narnia, there's no issue: at the end of each book, faithfulness triumphs and is blessed, while evil loses and is judged. The stories are satisfying--right up to the final book, where this pattern completely upturned, owing to CS Lewis's depressing premillennial eschatology. In this sense, Star Wars could actually be said to be the more Christian of the two stories! Like the Narniad, Star Wars has its dark, Saturnine chapter; but unlike the Narniad, it puts that chapter right in the middle of the trilogy, not at the end of the whole series. (The Empire Strikes Back is one of my favourite movies, but imagine if that had been the end of the whole story?) In Star Wars, the characters battle through the darkness in the faith that their obedience will be rewarded. In Narnia, the pattern of covenantal blessings and curses, which holds steady all the way through the first six books, is suddenly, jarringly, and (in-universe) inexplicably abandoned. The Last Battle is not without its own good points, and it is in itself somewhat internally consistent; but I'd argue that not only is it a deeply unsatisfying story, it's utterly out of keeping with every other story in the series.
Don't be premillennial, folks. It's bad storytelling.
According to this model, the final provisions of a Biblical covenant usually have to do with succession--what happens in the future. So ask yourself: What provisions do the characters of this story make for the future?
This is also quite conventional in Star Wars. Luke ends the Original Trilogy a fully-tested Jedi Knight ready to revive the lost Jedi Order and the ways of the Force in the newly-freed galaxy. Han has left his irresponsible scoundrel ways behind him and seems ready to settle down with Leia. They've proven themselves good leaders for new adventures in the galaxy's new future.
By now you're aware that The Last Battle is the caterpillar in my Narnian salad, so I'll try not to labour this too much. In one sense, The Last Battle does a fair job of depicting the time when the heavens and earth are wound up, when succession will entail eternal life in the new heavens and the new earth, which Lewis does gloriously depict. What I'm not at all keen on is the fact that the story ends in a final defeat in the physical world. In this sense, succession is brought to a full stop, since all the faithful main characters are raptured away from their homes in a terrible train crash (except Susan, but that's a discussion for another time). And this too is inconsistent with the rest of the series. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan tells Lucy that she'd been brought to Narnia so that she would learn to know him better in her own world; there is a telos of maturity here, with Narnia's purpose being to equip adults for the "real" world. In The Last Battle, that telos of maturity is abruptly reversed. Instead of going on to disciple their own world, everyone returns to Narnia and then goes to heaven, leaving no-one behind in their own world (not even Susan, whose Narnian discipleship has failed) to bear witness to what has been learned in Narnia.
So there's a quick critique of two major twentieth-century fantasy epics according to the five-point covenant model, with apologies to those among my readership who really love The Last Battle or happen to be premillennial. (I love y'all as brothers & sisters in Christ! Really!) I'm sure there's far more that could be said about both stories (and I want to acknowledge that CS Lewis has probably thought far more deeply and rigorously than I have about just about everything), but as you see, this is a really helpful way to evaluate some of the themes and internal inconsistencies of a story's worldview.
Which is why I'm so excited about using this model to help build the themes in my own stories. Applying this to a work-in-progress recently helped me to get my mind around how I could strengthen the story's theme by paying more attention to ethics and also succession--ending the story in a way that reinforces (rather than subverting) the main theme.
What do you think? Do you have an alternative view on The Last Battle? How do you evaluate or build thematic structure in your stories?