Friday, March 13, 2009

Fantasy And Reality, or...

The Problem With Fantasy That Tries To Be Too Closely Tied To Reality


Why "The Lord Of The Rings" is Fundamentally Superior To "Narnia"


Why I Am Moved To Tears Every Time I Watch "The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe"

This morning I had a long, very enjoyable conversation about "The Shack" with an old friend. He liked the book, I didn't. I was trying to put into words why I didn't like it, and I'm not sure I did a very good job. Later, during a walk around my office building, it suddenly dawned on me what my difficulty with the book was, and then, like a flood on realization, I realized why it is -- why it really is -- that I've been moved to tears every time I've seen "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe". Suddenly, stuff was dawning on me left and right, and I knew I had to blog about it (but I couldn't decide on a title, hence the above).

I think my wife and kids think I'm so cute when my eyes tear up at the Narnia movie. They must think I love that movie, and I do, but really it's not that great. Until now, I don't think I could have put into words what is so moving about the film for me (the second movie, "Prince Caspian", doesn't have the same effect, but it's more about the fact that I never liked that book as much, and the movie just isn't as good, from a Narnia-lover's perspective -- even if it might have been technically superior).

But let me get back to "The Shack". I remember picking it up at the bookstore, and reading the blurbs on the back cover. Michael W. Smith was on there promoting the book, along with other names I recognized. The gist of all the promotional material was: "Here's an edgy, hard-hitting book that confronts the issues and questions people struggle with who've had to go through seemingly random, meaningless pain and suffering in life, and wonder where God was through it all." So I picked it up. I've had some pain and suffering. Not as much as the guy in the book, thankfully, but I've got some issues and questions about it. I thought there might be something to it.

So this morning I'm talking with my friend about my feelings about the book. I told him what I've been telling everyone who asks me about it: that I liked it at first, but as soon as "God" shows up, and one of the first pressing issues the guy wants answers to is the precise meaning and function of the "Trinity"... suddenly the whole thing seems exposed as fake. Suddenly the book seems like yet another excuse for someone to hide a treatise on orthodox Christian theology in the trappings of a fictional story. Really, the only thing "edgy" about the book is that "God the Father" is represented by a black woman (or, more precisely, the black woman who represented The Oracle in the first Matrix film, complete with profound-sounding witticisms and cookies just coming out of the oven).

But, as I said before, that's not really the root of my problem with the book. The truth is, even if the book had been really great -- that is, even if the meetings with God had really lived up to the promotional hype of the back-cover blurbs, and what I thought was the very promising beginning part of the book -- even then, I wouldn't have liked it.

Imagine this scenario: Let's say there's a guy who's suffered in life. Let's call him George. Maybe George has suffered the loss of a child some seemingly random way, like a traffic accident. Some kind of painful loss that has him hungering for answers to some deep, troubling questions about God, justice, and the meaning of life and death.

So George is in the bookstore, and picks up "The Shack". He starts reading. Let's say "The Shack" is a well-written, edgy, hard-hitting book that deals head-on with the issues troubling George. He begins to feel consoled and comforted by the things God is represented as saying to the book's protagonist.

But later on, George starts to have troubling thoughts. He's not feeling as consoled anymore. Why not? He remembers how cool it was, in the book, when the guy gets a personal note from God in his mailbox. How the guy initially believed someone was playing a trick on him, then started to question his own sanity, until finally God himself shows up to confirm that yes, the note really was from Him, and what other questions might he have?

When George goes to his own real mailbox, there's no note from God waiting for him. Nothing but bills and junk mail. The thing is -- the pain is real, but the note, the meetings with God -- those things are just fictional or at best metaphorical. In the real world George really has experienced the pain and anguish felt by the protagonist of "The Shack". George's loved one really did die. That part resonates with George. But God hasn't left George a personal note in his mailbox inviting him to a face-to-face meeting. What gives?

If George is like me (and thankfully, not everyone is), George will start to wonder about the God presented by the author of "The Shack", and the consolation he provides. Like the God of "The Shack", the real God really does allow little girls to be raped and murdered by psychopaths. In fact, this really has happened all over the world many, many times. But unlike the God of "The Shack", the real God doesn't leave personal notes in the girl's dad's mailbox. The real God doesn't appear to the dads in a tangible way to answer their questions.

Now when George goes back to the book, the words of "God" in there seem hollow. This is not really what God does. This "God" is a fantasy. And George's pain is still with him. His questions (unless he was really struggling with the meaning and function of the "Trinity") are still unanswered.

Now let's change the topic a bit.

When I was a kid, I read "The Chronicles of Narnia" many times. For a time, I lived and breathed Narnia. I can remember praying that God would open up some kind of door behind the gym, like Aslan does for Jill Pole in "The Silver Chair", when I was suffering at the hands of some bully or other, as I often did at school -- like Jill Pole in "The Silver Chair". How silly I was! How foolish to pray to God for such a thing!

I loved those books -- they are ingraved upon my psyche in some significant way. That's why I was in the theater with my whole family (at significant cost, I might add) on opening night for "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe". There's a point in the movie toward the end, where the four Pevensie kids are revealed in full regalia before the four ancient thrones in Cair Paravel. For some reason, tears were coming out of my eyes! My own feelings surprised me! What was I crying about? It must just be my own deep psychological connection with this story, I reasoned.

And maybe that's what it was, but it was something else, because the tears weren't tears of joy, exactly, or even tears of awe and wonder, which are what I remember feeling as a child engrossed in the books. The tears were sad tears. They had to do with loss, and something like lonliness. A feeling of being abandoned.

See, as much as it pains me to say this, there isn't a Narnia. There are bullies. They can hurt you. There is a gym to hide behind and cry out in pain, but there isn't a door opening. The bombers flying over the city at the beginning of TLTWATW are real; the cracked, treasured photograph of the missing father is a real thing, but the wonderful, rescuing Aslan of Narnia is not real. The kids who really suffered were never made kings and queens of Narnia. They just died when the bombs landed. That's why I cried.

So, to move on, that's why "The Lord of The Rings" is better than the Narnia stories. Because they are completely seperate from reality, they're impact upon our reality can be greater and deeper. In Middle-Earth, the problems they're facing, as well as the solutions and answers they find, are all completely unlike anything we experience. Their problems can be metaphors for our problems, and their solutions can be metaphors for our solutions, so there's no disillusionment waiting when we realize the problems are real, but the answers are fantasy.

This problem of reality vs. fantasy in media holds for things like "Touched By An Angel", "Left Behind", and so many other well-intentioned but ultimately empty attempts to confront real-world issues in a story laced with fantastical elements. They sabotage themselves. The "angel" who appears to help the suffering man on TV ultimately drives the real, suffering viewer away from anything to do with angels.

And so...., if you've read this far, I'm truly impressed. You are the reason I wrote this. I hope you've enjoyed it. I hope you are moved to leave a comment below (or on facebook, where this also appears).