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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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white as snow

They are white as snow. I wish I could say I was talking about my friends in the red light district.

My Thai friends recently knit beautiful white scarves for me and my friends as a present. I wish I could say my Thai friends were also white as snow – they are workers in Thailand’s sex industry.

They can be white as snow though. It’s my prayer they will be – that they’ll accept the sacrifice of the One who was slain.

All but one friend hasn’t yet, but it’s a new year and a new chance.

In our weekly English class we talked about our wishes for the New Year. Wishes is easier to translate and say than “New Year’s Resolutions.”

I asked them what they wished for. They answered: more money, more customers, better health and to have their own home.

I told the men and women my New Year’s wish was to grow closer to God this year. He makes us beautiful, I said.

They are beautiful outside, but inside, they are still searching, still lost.

One of my new favorite songs is “Beautiful Things” by Gungor. The song talks about God making a beautiful creation out of us.

“You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us.”

He created us from the dust and we are beautiful because of His Gospel’s transformation in our lives.

He also makes us new.

“You make me new, You are making me new,” the song says.

I pray that this year He will make these men and women new. He can create something beautiful inside of them. They are already beautiful outside and He can make them beautiful inside too.

Beauty comes from the dirty ground. Beauty isn’t instantaneous and it often involved pain. Is beauty worth the pain of transformation for these women and men?

As Gungor’s song says:

“All this pain
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change at all
All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found
Could a garden come up from this ground at all.”

Yes, yes it can. Because He makes beautiful things out of us.

These men and women in the sex industry are beautiful creations of God. He’s working in their hearts and will make them beautiful if they allow Him to make them white as snow.

That’s my prayer, that this year they’ll allow the Lamb who was slain to make them white as snow.

Here’s a link to listen: Beautiful Things

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twin grievings

Ten years ago I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, just like I am tonight.

I was 14 on September 11, 2001. Now, I’m 24 (I’m great at math, can’t you tell?) and I am back in the Land of Smiles on September 11, 2011.

I was getting ready for bed when the planes hit the Twin Towers. It was Sunday evening our time, we’re 12 hours ahead, and I was preparing for another school day at my international school. My parents called me in the living room to watch the coverage. I plodded out in my PJs and sat cross-legged on our couch and watched in horror as the buildings crumbled like sand castles under the weight of a wave. I also watched the reports on the Pentagon and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.

I grieved over the lost lives and the men and women who met their eternity without knowing Christ.

Today a friend and I visited my friend John’s home and met his 83-year old grandmother. John works in the red light district. He recently became a believer.

I grieved today again for those who lost their lives but also for John grandmother.

She’s a wisp of a woman–she looks if you hug her too hard she might break. She’s missing all of her teeth, but that doesn’t stop her from smiling.

I couldn’t help but notice the veins in her arms and hands. They tell of a long life– a life without knowing her Creator.

They’ve lived in this house all of John’s life.

A poster of a senior monk hangs over her bed. His grandmother talks about going to the wat, or temple, whenever she’s able, which isn’t as often as her earlier years because of her age.

We shared, but mostly John shared, about how we believe in God and go to church instead of the temple.

It’s all good, she said, all religions are good.

She showed us pictures from her and John’s youth. She struggled to keep her reading glasses on her nose as she flipped through the worn photos.

“He’s so cute,” she said. “Such a big baby he was.”

We talked about life and memories. We did a lot of smiling and laughing.

Before we left, we said a prayer over her. She held our hands and strained to listen to our English and broken Thai. She came over and hugged me, laying her head on my chest. This surprised me, hugging isn’t too common in Thai society.

Her sweet hug is a moment I’ll always remember.

I pray that she’ll love Jesus. My heart grieves to think of her not. It’s not too late–her eternity hasn’t come. But, like the fateful day 10 years ago, we’re never guaranteed another day.

Today is the day to share with that person your heart grieves for.

 

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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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washed in the waterfall

“I’m so happy,” John* said, smiling and shivering a little from the waterfall’s cold water.

Angie* emerged from the water with a smile I won’t easily forget.

I’m still recovering from a recurring case of glorious goosebumps.

Today, my two dear friends from the red light district followed Jesus in believer’s baptism. We went to a nearby waterfall to baptize them. We celebrated with roast chicken, papaya salad, sticky rice and brownies.

In the past year, several women I work with started a ministry to reach out to men and women in the red light district here in Thailand.

God has placed on my heart a burden for the women and men in the red light district. As I’ve traveled for work, I’ve encountered stories of redemption, heartbreak and renewal in red light districts across Asia. These are my people, God told me. “They need me, they’ve always needed me, and this is the time,” He said.

For the past several months, I’ve been venturing into Thailand’s nightlife with my coworkers, trying to meet people and share Christ’s message of redemption. It’s been God, all God. Whenever I don’t feel like going or don’t feel like I have anything to say, that’s when God knocks my socks off.

Isn’t it awesome how His power is made perfect in our weakness? It’s so we know that this all-surpassing greatness is from Him and not from us.

Let’s back up a little and I’ll explain how we met Angie and John.

Prior to my busy summer travel schedule, I’d been going out once or twice with other women involved in the ministry to share God’s stories. A friend and I met Angie one night after a door closed with another friend of ours.

Angie approached us and invited us in to sit and talk at the massage parlor where she works. This started a beautiful friendship.

Angie told us she’d been wanting to learn about God and Christianity. This caught me off guard. Not many Thai people say this.

I told her that my friend and I like to talk about God and that we would love to talk with her. She was very excited. I pulled out my Thai-English Bible and started to flip through to the book of John. Just then, a little old man came, asking us to sign a petition. Another man came out of the massage parlor and walked purposely toward us.

“Blast,” I thought, we are going to get her in trouble.

Turns out, he was coming to make sure the man with the petition didn’t bother us. His name is John — and there started another beautiful friendship.

John also showed an interest in learning about God. Let’s study together, we suggested.

“But, where do I read, where do I start?” Angie asked. From there, my coworker and I decided to start studying John with them. We visited weekly, reading a chapter at a time, and studying. Angie’s English is excellent, John is wanting to improve his English. We used our Bible study times to also teach English.

The beginning of June, John trust Christ as his personal Savior. Several weeks later, Angie decided to become a believer.

Today, they were both baptized.

To God be the glory.

There’s much more to the story, so stay tuned to the next installment.

*name changed.

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Yes, Virginia, there is a God

“Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.”

As I sat on my balcony this morning, sipping my gingerbread coffee and sampling my scrambled eggs, I realized I couldn’t see the mountain that’s just a few miles from my apartment. The mountain, except for mornings like this, is always visible and is my landmark in Chiang Mai.

I woke up to mist, rain and clouds. The rain is what obscured the mountain from my perch. Do I doubt that the mountain is there, just because I can’t see it right now?

No.

This mountain has been a stalwart in my life. From when we first moved to Chiang Mai when I was a 10 year old who wore jumpers and side ponytails, to my 17-year-old self who wore Soffe shorts and Grace International School athletic gear and finally, to my 23-year-old self who wears wrinkly shirts and flip flops, the mountain has been a reminder of God’s majesty. I’ve learned a lot about the Lord from this mountain.

Virgina O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Sun, asking if Santa Claus existed. Her friends told her he didn’t exist. The only place he seemed to exist was in and on “Miracle on 34th Street.” Virginia had never seen Santa, so how was she to know he existed?

I’ve heard many people say, how do I know God is real? I have never seen him.

“VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see,” Francis Pharcellus Church, the editor of the New York Sun, wrote.

“They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge,” Church continued.

Skepticism has taken the place of a child-like faith.

I couldn’t see the mountain this morning. Yet, it is there. I’ve had mornings when I sit and gaze at the mountain, feeling so close to God. I’ve had great times spent in the Word gazing at the mountain. It’s easy to believe when everything is spelled out, when we are having a mountain-top experience.

When the rain comes, when life isn’t as clear and spelled out, it’s harder. But the rain is needed, just as the earth needs rain to grow and flourish, so also do we need rain.

Rain nourishes. It isn’t always pleasant. Times of growth in our life, where we are stretched and when hard lessons come, help us become more like our Creator. They are for our good. The mountain is still there in these times of growth, during rainy seasons. God is still there during hard times. He may feel farther away than He did when you were on the mountain top, but He is so close, He is always there, as a strength and support.

He’s proved this is all of our lives, if we are willing to be honest. We choose to ignore the mountains sometimes, or forget they are there. But they are there. You can’t pretend the Himalayas aren’t there. You may forget, but they’ve been there much longer than you have. Just as the mountains have always been in our world, since God created them, God has always been there. He wants to have a relationship with you.

“Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see,” Church wrote.

Isn’t that true though? The most real things in this world are things we cannot see.

“Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”

Yes, Virginia, there is a God. He exists because He IS love, generosity and devotion. These qualities exist in our lives to give our lives its highest beauty and joy.

“Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”

God lives forever, ten times ten thousand years from now, God exists, and makes glad the hearts of children, men and women. Let’s remember that this Christmas. He is the reason for the season after all.

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just the way you are

It’ll be nice to look back on this moment and know that it is over, that this culmination of emotion moved me toward and forward and I am going to be stronger for it and because of it.

Right now, it was enough to stand up and leave the bridge.

I found myself in tears, sitting on a wrought-iron bridge overlooking the river in Chiang Mai. I went there to clear my mind, cry and talk to Jesus.

I’m not going to get into why I was crying and what I was upset over. It’s a culmination of many things that pent up and then came out.

What I will say, is that I needed to trust that this has a purpose and trust that God is in control.

I wish I knew what God had in mind, why I struggle with the same things, over and over, and what the final result of all this will be.

Life is a story. I don’t know the in between, but I know the beginning and end.

It’s hard not knowing the in between sometimes. Good stories always have conflict and good stories also have conflict resolution. It’s no fun when you are in the conflict stage–waiting for the resolution of hurt sucks.

It’s all for His glory. I don’t know what God’s doing. I know that I trust him. I know that I can’t sit and be hurt on the bridge forever, I have to get back to life. I have to get back to playing my role in God’s story.

Getting up from your place of hurt takes courage. It’s easier to wallow. It takes faith. It takes knowing that there’s a God that sees your tears.

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