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On faith and fairy stories: J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis on myth and the gospel

This is post No. 1 in a series on faith, myth and allegory. The series was originally a paper submitted in its entirety for an Apologetics class.

There is nothing quite like curling up in a recliner with a great book that, in a way, draws the reader in through the cover into the pages and transforms him or her into an invisible observer of the plot, similar to the character “Scrooge” in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A great book leaves the reader positively changed and with a lesson learned. Myths have enraptured generations of readers and left an indelible mark. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are the modern-day masters of myth. A good story, Tolkien would say, births desirability. This desire is to be a part of the journey and the adventure. It is almost an ironic balance; the reader is pleased to be in the comfort of his or her home, safe from dungeons and dragons, but as Tolkien writes in his article, “On Fairy Stories,” there is a part of each of us that wishes we could enter the dangerous unknown world. After all, as Tolkien says, the heart is harder and stronger than the body.[1] Myths identify psychological, metaphysical and historical truths that are important today. Myths present characters that all can relate to and offer the opportunity to take part in an adventure of growth, learning and pleasure. The Bible, as the ultimate and original myth, is historical, presently applicable and a divine, eternal story meant for all to read, learn from and transform through reading.

As an atheist, C.S. Lewis saw the stories about Jesus as mere fairy stories. Upon his conversion to Christianity, he realized that yes, they are fairy stories, but they are fairy stories that are historically and theologically true. It is an incarnational story that has all of the functions of a myth but it is also historically true.[2] As C. Stephen Evans writes in his book The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith: The Incarnational Narrative as History, the incarnational narrative not only delivers truth, it actually happened. “On Lewis’s view, a myth is a story that captures universal, abstract truth in concrete form,” Evans wrote.[3] Using the word ‘myth’ in connection with the Gospel can be dangerous, Evans admits, because the common definition skews the real meaning of myth.[4] Myth has come to mean fictional story, but it should mean a story that conveys a truth. “If God or gods exist and can act in the natural order—then there seems no necessary reason why a narrative with the structure and one or more of the functions of myth might not be historically true or at least contain historical elements.”[5] The English word for myth comes from the Greek mythos, which means story or narrated word.[6]

The root of mythos is mm (pronounced “mu” and meaning “to make a sound with the mouth”). The proto–Indo-European root for mm is mu, a primary first sound made by most babies. The making of meaningful sounds in the form of storytelling is a peculiarly human practice, something that identifies us as a species. Over time, of course, we have differentiated between ordinary stories and myths, the latter being stories of primary significance to cultures, particularly in relation to origins and religiously identified significance. In practice, mythos is closely related to the Greek concept of logos, the defining logic of the universe, usually translated as the “Word.” Thus in the famous King James Bible translation of the Christian creation of John, we find the words “In the beginning was the Word.” When we put mythos and logos together, we get mythologia, or our mythology, meaning the study of myths or a particular cultural collection of myths.[7]

Not all myths are created equal. Nor do they all attempt to achieve the same end. In “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien describes three kinds of myth: the mystical supernatural, the magical toward nature and the “mirror of scorn.”[8] Some myths are fictional stories only, but there is a higher myth, dubbed by Richard L. Purtill as original myth. Purtill‘s book, J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion, aids the understanding of myths and how Tolkien understood them. Purtill defines how the Gospels are myth. He writes that the Gospels are literally and historically true and they hold these beliefs in common: they possess religious and moral significance for the teller and the audience, they come in a variety of literary forms and they have connections with ritual.[9] Purtill interprets the Gospels as original myth. Original myths convey truth in story form, but, unlike other forms, the Bible’s stories are historical events that occurred in an actual space of time.[10] Calling the Bible original myth sets it apart from the other accounts, perhaps alleviating the worries of Søren Kierkegaard and other hesitant philosophers.

Purtill describes two other forms of myth: literary myth and philosophical myth. These are the forms most people think of when they hear myth mentioned. Literary myth employs mythical characters that serve a literary function. In this case, neither the author nor the readers think that the story is true. There are moral and spiritual lessons to learn but they are not conveyed in the same way as in original myth.[11] The philosophical myth expresses philosophical opinions that utilize metaphors and allegories. Purtill says that the ideas and truth that are expressed in these philosophical myths are true, but the historicity or the actual events in the stories are not.[12] Plato’s stories can be categorized as philosophical myth.

Evans takes this further, claiming there is so reason why a myth cannot embody multiple characteristics.[13] To understand myths, a detailed look at the function of myth is important. Evans writes about the various functions of myths. He says some point to the function of myths as pre-scientific accounts for why and how our universe came into existence and operates. Another function is to explain ritual and highlight the identity of a people in a certain time.[14] A third function would be their communication of psychological truth. This function does not pay special attention to dates but highlights the truths that are communicated. This function relates to Purtill’s philosophical genre of myth. The last function that Evans mentions is the ability myths have to relay metaphysical truth.[15] Myth can be seen as a combination of the above. Evans moves forward to argue that myths can have the above functions and still be historical. “On this view a myth could be historically true, as well as possessing psychological and/or metaphysical truth and performing various sociological functions.”[16] Evans utilizes Lewis’ writings about myth and the Gospel to make his argument. Lewis argued that myths contain combinations of truths, metaphysical, psychological and historical.[17] Tolkien and Lewis use a combination of the aforementioned characteristics in their books.[18]

Tolkien says that fairy stories can be categorized as, “the magical nature kind.” If we use Purtill’s categories, they would fall under literary myth. While they are a literary myth, Tolkien was attempting to create an account that was as close to original myth as it could be.[19] Lewis did the same in The Chronicles of Narnia. Tolkien and Lewis’ myths – the story of Narnia and Middle Earth – are a mirror of the original myth, the creation and redemption of mankind we find in the Bible. Lewis’ mirroring is more overt. Aslan breathes into life the world and makes the ultimate sacrifice for those he loves, just as God created the world and Jesus sacrificed His life for mankind.[20] The characters in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings play out a divine mirroring as well though the non-Christian reader might miss it if he or she was not originally aware or looking.[21]
Stay tuned for the next installment.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 13 [article on-line]; accessed on April 15, 2013; available from http://brainstorm-services.com/wcu-2004/fairystories-tolkien.pdf. Internet.
[2] C. Stephen Evans, The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith: the Incarnational Narrative as History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 1996), 51.
[3] Evans, 55.
[4] Ibid., 52.
[5] Ibid., 51.
[6] David Leeming, Oxford Companion to World Mythology: 1st (first) Edition (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 127.
[7] Leeming, 127.
[8] Tolkien, 9.
[9] Richard L. Purtill, J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 2.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Purtill, 2-3.
[13] Evans, 52.
[14] Ibid., 49.
[15] Ibid., 50.
[16] Ibid., 51.
[17] Ibid., 52
[18] Purtill, 2-3.
[19] Tolkien, 9-11.
[20] John Warwick Montgomery, “The Chronicles of Narnia and the Adolescent Reader.” In Myth, Allegory, and Gospel: an Interpretation of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton [and] Charles Williams. ed. John Warwick Montgomery. (Minneapolis,: Bethany House, 1974), 109-110.
[21] Purtill, 2-4.

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Kickboxing with Bonhoeffer

It’s easier to fight visible enemies. Actually, fighting enemies in general is easier. I’m not talking about Muay Thai kickboxing.

Many times it is easier to try to fight the woes that ail us, thinking that our struggle will result in victory and sage-ness. With every Jackie Chan-like kick, we think we’re taking one giant step for man and one giant leap for mankind.

That’s not Jesus’ way.

Many people thought His coming to earth meant a physical battle. They thought Jesus would duke it out with Caesar.

That’s not the way of the cross.

I’m in the midst of reading, as I have been for quite some time, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” by Timothy J. Keller. It’s a biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Keller writes about German pastors and their struggle against Ludwig Müller, the Nazi-appointed bishop of the German church. Ludwig agreed with views of an “Aryan race” and wanted to purge the country of Jews.

“While Hildebrandt, Niemöller, and Jacobi were thinking about how to defeat Müller, Bonhoeffer was thinking about God’s highest call, about the call of discipleship and its cost. He was thinking about Jeremiah and about God’s call to partake in suffering, even unto to death,” Keller writes.

Discipleship. It has a cost. Bonhoeffer knew that and chose to occupy his thoughts with God’s calling instead of inventing his own ways to struggle.

Bonhoeffer was first concerned with God and His calling on his life. He knew the key to victory was trust in Jesus. Through focusing on God, he fought his enemies. By choosing to look first to God and concentrate on discipleship, he allowed God to take control.

Bonhoeffer stood up to Hitler. Though I haven’t gotten to this part in the book, I know that Bonhoeffer didn’t sit around and he wasn’t resigned to his fate. Bonhoeffer was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler and was later hanged for doing so. He fought. He fought hard.

I’ve struggled the past few months with a fear of failure and crippling worry. Though these enemies are nothing like the Fuhrer, they were very real to me. I’ve been incapacitated at times from writing. I questioned my calling. I’ve heard and seen things not many people get the chance to see or hear and wanted so badly to do their stories justice.

I spent hours fighting, kickboxing at these fears, praying for strength as I did so. Many times it was a “in the midst of a crisis” prayer.

It’s easier to fight on your own sometimes, because you feel like you’re at least trying, that you’re doing something tangible to annihilate the problem. It’s harder to let go and allow the Spirit lead.

It’s downright scary. What is the Spirit going to ask me to do if I let go?

What I’ve learned is that I need to concern myself with discipleship and its cost. Being a disciple means suffering–it means blood, sweat and tears. Bonhoeffer knew this. He died for discipleship. He didn’t spend time trying to do things on his own without first submitting to God. He also knew he must faithfully suffer.

“Simply suffering-that is what will be needed then-not parries, blows or thrusts such as many still be possible or admissible in the preliminary fight; the real struggle that perhaps lies ahead must simply be to suffer faithfully,” Bonhoeffer wrote.

He kept his eyes fixated on the cross and followed his Savior’s lead. In Bonhoeffer’s case, it meant death. He already considered this though and had accepted it the cost of discipleship. The cost varies from person to person, but the calling to follow Him is the same.

Reckless abandon, fixation on the cross and wholehearted obedience.

That is what He wants from me. That is what He wants from you. He wants you to follow Him with reckless abandon. He’ll slay your enemies for you. It may not be the way you expect, but He makes good on His promises.

Hitler met his demise. Bonhoeffer’s struggle was not in vain.

Looking to the cross doesn’t mean rolling over and accepting evil is in the world. It means allowing our King, who knows better, to take kick in the Muay Thai arena in your life.

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Mornings and Evenings

I don’t know how you spend your mornings and evenings, but I’m adding Charles Spurgeon to my daily Bible reading and Oswald Chambers morsel.

David Platt’s book, “Radical,” gives several challenges at the end. One of those challenges is to read the Bible through in the coming year. While I have read the Bible through several times, I loved the idea of reading it through this year with the expectancy that God will reveal new things.

I recently received Charles Spurgeon’s devotional book, “Mornings and Evenings with Spurgeon.” The book has daily Bible readings that correspond to the daily devotional. When I decided to read through the Bible this year I hadn’t decided what method to use. I’ve decided to use Spurgeon’s daily Bible readings.

Today’s devotional and Scripture reading reminded me of the importance of being a cheerful giver.

I’m looking forward to the divine adventure in the upcoming year.

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The Voice

I’ve always enjoyed reading different versions of the Bible. It gives you a fresh perspective. I think it causes different passages of Scriptures to stand out. The Bible verses I’ve read so many times have new meaning in different translations.

I am currently reading “The Voice New Testament.” It’s a retelling/translation of the New Testament published by Thomas Nelson Publishers in conjunction with Ecclesia Bible Society.

It’s created for the church today–the church in transition. It’s tailored to speak to a post-modern audience. Before each book of the Bible, the authors set the stage for the book by giving an introduction and background. Within the books, the authors have put explanatory notes that elaborate on certain portions of Scripture. The font families chosen and layout of the Bible also lend itself to a post-modern audience.

It’s great for new believers because of the explanation and commentary given. It’s great for those who’ve been Christians for awhile because of the different translation and insight into passages.

“The Voice” follows the theme of the Liberating King and his church. I love this choice–partly because I don’t think we think of Jesus being a Liberator as much as we need to.

I have enjoyed reading “The Voice.” I would not recommend it as someone’s only and primary Bible–but a great cross-reference Bible. This isn’t just because there isn’t an Old Testament, but I think it’s important to have one of the more well-established versions as your constant.

“I’m not there yet, nor have I become perfect, but I am charging on to gain anything and everything the Liberator, Jesus, has in store for me–and nothing will stand in my way because He has grabbed me and won’t let me go.” Philippians 3:12, The Voice.

I received a copy of The Voice through Thomas Nelson’s BookSneeze book review blogger program. Check it out: http://www.booksneeze.com/ It’s pretty fantastic in my opinion

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Big Brother

“While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.” Matthew 28:11-15 [ESV]

As I read the Easter story this weekend this section stood out to me. To this day people believe Jesus’ body was whisked away by His disciples. The lie that started so long ago is still widely accepted as truth today.

Can you imagine being the guards? They carried the secret of what really happened that night to their graves. Perhaps they lay awake in the wee hours of warm Jerusalem summer nights thinking about what happened. They felt the earth shake. They saw the sealed tomb open. They remember falling to the earth–frozen like corpses and Katy’s Custard. (Katy’s is a frozen custard business in Waco, TX)

Either the disciples are demi gods or truly Jesus is the Son of God, they thought. (Or at least I’d wager they thought that)

I just finished reading “1984” by George Orwell. My mind made the connection between Matthew 28:11-15 and the words Orwell coined, ‘Party’ and ‘Big Brother.’

Perhaps the guards in the Bible are like Party intellectuals, the Jewish leaders are like the ‘Thought Police’ and the practice of ‘doublethink’ is the perpetuated lie about Christ. Hear me out.

In “1984,” the Party rewrites history–shaping it to suit the Party’s purposes. The book goes into great detail about the mutability of the past. Lies are purported as truth. History is rewritten and records are altered. And, thankfully for us, records have not been destroyed of what really happened with Jesus’ body. In this case, the truth can only be ignored, not rewritten.

Orwell writes:

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory belief’s in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows that he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated. The process has to be conscious, or it would be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt.”

Doublethink is to tell intentional lies and then genuinely believe in them. It’s forgetting inconvenient facts. That’s what Jewish officials did.

“The essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty,” Orwell writes.

However, this lie, that Jesus was spirited away, is not believed by everyone. There are Party members who don’t believe the falsehoods of the Party in “1984”  entirely, as Orwell’s character Winston didn’t believe in the Party. And then there are what Orwell calls ‘proles.’ Proles are outside the system, so to speak. Perhaps for the sake of this article I can call Christians proles?

Proles, as Winston writes, are the salvation of humankind. While Christians are not salvation, they do have an answer to how to find salvation.

Jesus still lives despite tries to wipe, stamp, rewrite and explain away what happened when Jesus was resurrected.

“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20b

He lives, not just in vague memories, but in actuality. He is risen.

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