Friday, March 13, 2009

Fantasy And Reality, or...

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

-or-

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

-or-

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).

-Tim

10 Comments:

At 9:46 AM, Blogger Ed said...

Tim,

This is great! First because I think you are onto something with "The Shack". My wife and many others have read it and loved it, so for them I cannot deny the effect it's had on them. But you have named what is so disturbing about. Who wouldn't want a letter from God? And yet so far the only writing on the wall, so to speak, happened thousands of years ago. In fact there's a film out called "Fireproof" that I'm just not interested in seeing. It is, of course, a Kirk Cameron film that is supposedly an incredible story and film. I have my doubts, it was the same thing that was said to me when I decided to rent (a mistake in the end) "Facing the Giants." Everything gets tied up in a nice little bow and because we love God and do what is right we'll win the state championship (more than once) and our infertility problems will go away and we'll live happily ever after. Now I'm being unfair to "Fireproof" because I've not seen it, but nonetheless, even on the level of writing and cinematography these "family friendly" films seem to lack alot.

Now, on your thoughts around Narnia and LOTR...

First, I cry every time the Pavensies have been in Narnia for years and are adults and then re-discover the wardrobe and re-enter the "real world" again. That to me is a gut-wrenching moment. Everytime I cry.

But ultimately LOTR does exactly what you say (although I certainly can relate directly to the feeling of the hobbits at the very end when they have to say goodbye to Frodo). Narnia inspires imaginations, but LOTR somehow moves beyond with language, imagery, mystery, and just enough we can relate too, but not in any overt way. Tolkien captures the gamut of emotions, he takes us to the point of saying "there's now way Frodo can survive this!" And then somehow they do!

In fact, and I think you've heard me say this before, I sometimes feel like the biblical texts like Revelation functions in much the same way (and please don't hear me saying that it's just fiction). Revelation is written to people suffering and in trial for their faith and only a story that inspires the imagination of the readers will help them persevere to the end! It matters little if all the facts and dates line up, but instead we are faced with images and metaphors that point us to a greater reality and perhaps a more true reality than we're given in the newspapers that are supposed to be un-biased and factual.

I recently read an chapter from a book titled "Hope Against Hope" by Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart. In it they paraphrase Helen Gardner as she notes that in "art it is perfectly permissable for the tragedian, by presenting a dark and tormented vision of the human condition, to pose deep questions without any attempt to answer or resolve them."

And then later, they write, "Only by allowing the imagination to be blown wide open by transcendence which blows the future itself wide open can we begin, however partially and tentatively, to envisage a telos, and end or purpose, which may legitimately furnish us with an object of hope."

I think the point is that some of this modern day stuff fails on the level of treating us as human beings who may actually need to know just that we may not get the miraculous answers from God, but that there's still hope! "The Shack" has served some purpose, but it's not a Narnia and it's especially not a LOTR. I agree, that these nuances of fantasy and reality make or break a work of art be it literature, film, visual art, etc.

My artist friend has said as graciously as possible about Thomas Kinkade's art that "well, if you want to eat at McDonald's everyday, that's your choice..." I'd like to nourish my body and soul and mind with stuff that blows my hair back without answering all the questions and without limiting my imagination to Firemen and football championships.

Blessings, Tim, and may we all find that piece of fantasy that brings tears to our eyes!

 
At 2:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought that your somments were interesting. I haven't read "The Shack", so I don't exactly know what the writer is trying to get at with the letter from God, but God did write a book for us known as the Bible. No, things don't always turn out peachy for Christians, but I think that's the problem with Christianity today. It focuses on how we might have a nicer life. In reality, the Gospel gives no garantee of things being fuzzy in our lives, but it tells us how to be reconciled to a good, holy God through Jesus. We can circle around the issue of God and salvation with excuses like, "I can't believe in God when so many bad things are happening on earth. For one thing, God's goodness is not reflected by the choices people make. If one sees God's goodness in relation to the evil in the world, then we become guilty of equivocation. There are two laws, called, Natural Law and Moral Law. Natural Law is descriptive, while Moral Law is prescriptive. In Natural Law, there can neither be virtue or vice, while Moral Law is based on virtue and vice. Moral Law deals with our choices, while Natural Law describes cause and effect. God is the ultimate cause of the universe, which is in and of itself, good, Our motives and choices are what ultimately result in right and wrong. God is not responsible for our choices, though in the end, we will be responsible before the Creator and Judge of all living for every thought and action that we have chosen to take part in.

 
At 2:49 PM, Blogger Tim said...

To Ed:

Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments!

I agree with you completely with regard to so much Christian pop-media, such as "Fireproof" (which I haven't seen either), "The Shack", "Touched by an Angel", "Left Behind", "Omega Code", and on and on and on.

On a related side note -- I don't know if this is specifically "Christian" or not, but I've just recently seen the pilot episode of the new TV series "Kings" and I was blown away. It's closely based on the biblical book, but set in modern times. It may become my new favorite show. It was created by a man named Michael Green, who's behind "Heroes" and "Smallville" and an upcoming "Green Lantern" movie, so he's obviously into comics, but I don't know if he's the same person as the theologian and apologist by that name.

 
At 3:23 PM, Blogger Tim said...

To the anonymous poster:

Thank you for you excellent comments! I hope your visit to my blog site was valuable to you.

I think we disagree on a few points. Let me say the following:

If you would equate the Bible, written 2000 years ago and only available to me as a translation of a copy of a copy many times removed from the original, to a personal and immediate communication directly addressing my specific needs and questions -- well then, all I can say is you have low standards when it comes to communication. Perhaps you can imagine a father who, having just witnessed the birth of his child, writes him a lengthy letter in which he tries to address every issue the child might ever have in life, and then goes away and is never seen again. Would this be an example of good parenting? I guess you would consider this father a good communicator?

Also, I don't think I ever said anything about the Christian life being easy or, as you put it, "fuzzy"? It sounds like you may be pigeonholing me, and assuming I hold positions I do not. I am fully in agreement with you regarding the "moral law" and our free will.

God is not responsible for our choices. You are right about that. However, many passages of scripture show (I believe) that, while he does not CONTROL our choices, he KNOWS what they will be and has provided for all of them. It is like a shepherd with his sheep. The shepherd sends the sheep out into the field. They wander about, maybe get into little fights with each other, maybe eat some grass, maybe lie down. Maybe some of them get into trouble. But regardless of the little choices the sheep make, the shepherd KNOWS HOW to get every one of the sheep back into the fold at night. Even those who screw up and get themselves into the brambles. They may experience pain for a while, but ultimately the good shepherd cares about them and will not leave them or forsake them.

You say that "in the end, we will be responsible before the Creator and Judge of all living" for our choices. In that, if nothing else, I think we can be in agreement. In fact, I take great hope and courage from that, because I cannot help but believe that God is a righteous and JUST judge who will not make judgements based on incomplete knowledge or hand down punishments greatly in excess of justice.

Throughout my life, I've heard Christian teachers use the idea that "God is a God of justice" as if that were some terrifying thing ("he's not only a God of mercy..., he's a God of JUSTICE!!!" --spoken ominously, with a rise in volume at the end to imply that you'd better watch out!), when in reality it ought to be a great comfort, and give us confidence in life! Think of our own criminal justice system. If I tell you that our system is "more just" than another system, does that increase your fear of our system, or decrease it, and give you greater confidence in your own position within it?

 
At 1:32 PM, Blogger MollyMom103 said...

Nice thoughts. These are my peeps.

I'm not a Inkling like Tolkien or Lewis but I am a Diviner like Janet, and am working hard to throw my hat into this very ring.

My favorite fantasy authors:
1. Madeleine L'Engle
2. Ursula K. Le Guin
3. Lloyd Alexander
4. Janet Lee Carey
5. David Almond
(Not a complete list.)

I connect with these authors because they managed to phase the ordinary enough out of regular spacetime to make me understand the Universe or the smaller universe of myself. When the dove of wisdom lands on my head, yes, this is when I see and hear God.

Love your thoughts, Tim.
your Molly

 
At 9:09 PM, Blogger jesse joshua watson said...

That was one of the coolest things I have read in a while. Thanks! I agree so much that Narnia sucks when compared to Lord of the Rings, and my reasons are similar with yours. Narnia (and my dad would roll over in his studio chair if he read this, which he probably will, in which case prepare for a rebuttal) is unsatisfying and carries with it this empty feeling for me, where as LOTR is filled with satisfaction throughout. Characters bleed and sweat and fail, and that is freakin awesome. And, of course, reality.

(My one exception from my general growing dislike of the Narnia series is the Last Battle. The depiction of death in that book is one of my all time favorite Lewis moments. It is like Harry's encounter with death in the Deathly Hallows.... Both of those just give me goosebumps. Such a lovely, beautiful and hopeful way of thinking about death!)


Puff people up too much and they sail to high, only to fall down hard when they open their eyes. Just think of some of those christian youth camps that send all the kids back to school with expectations that they stumble over before they are even out the door.

Hit em with reality because that is even more impressive. Nobody should try to out-Hollywood Hollywood. Truth doesn't need to be edgy or flashy or hip or trendy. It is what it is.

 
At 9:14 PM, Blogger jesse joshua watson said...

oh, and Molly, I agree with your picks. All great authors of humanity through fantasy.

 
At 11:35 PM, Blogger Timothy Blaisdell said...

Jesse:

Thank you so much for your complementary complements!

Narnia has a special place in my heart, since I discovered it as a 9-year-old, and didn't read LOTR for the first time 'til I was in college.

I find it interesting that you should mention The Last Battle as your favorite of the series. Are you aware that J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman have all made repeated public statements regarding a particular event from that book that profoundly influenced them as children? In fact the entire "His Dark Materials" series is actually - at least in part - a response from Philip Pullman (who HATES Lewis by the way) to that one event. And Neil Gaiman wrote a short story about it and has said that it's why he became interested in writing, and J.K. Rowling has said that the character of Hermione is her way of responding to the event.

Do you know what event in "The Last Battle" has evoked all this? I find it interesting, because it is one scene from the series that really got to me as a child. I remember breaking into tears and being struck with real terror when I first read it at age 9.

 
At 10:19 AM, Blogger jesse joshua watson said...

I, too, was raised on Narnia (I mean actually raised in it- having it read to me early on with my dad's awesome voices enhancing the coolness of the fantasy) and have read the series a dozen times on my own, but more recent readings have carried some kind of residual feelings from childhood that for whatever reason leave a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe it was the puffed up idealism that I found to be missing in my own walk on earth, or maybe it was that the farther I get away from the child's view of Narnia the more my cynical old man inside me gets in there and grumps up everything, oddly similar to the account of the dwarves who were presented with the feast but because of their filters saw only sawdust and manure. Chained by their own minds, like so many of us. That scene was one of my very favorites in The Last Battle. It was like the Bob Marley quote from Redemption Song, "None but ourselves can free our minds."

...I wonder what the directors of that movie will do with this book? Another possible reason for my lack of Narnienthusiasm lately... the movie, especially the LWW, felt as if it had been made by a committee of evangelicals hellbent on following up the end of the movie with an alter call. I felt it did not treat the similarities of this book and the story of Jesus with enough care. Some artistic self control was in order, especially seeing as how the book itself sits dangerously close to a scene by scene retelling anyway. To me, the very best analogies are the ones that trust the reader to draw conclusions, something many writers have a tough time doing but something that is vastly more effective than didactic author hovering.

The particular scene in The Last Battle was where the Pavensies walk through death, observing it as if it was a passing of summer into fall or something like that, was my scene of glory in this book. One of my treasured bits of literature. Their train wreck death was another portal into Narnia? How friggen awesome was that!? It slays me every time. It is how I want to learn of my own death. From Aslan, as we hike up toward the real Narnia. Ah. Man. Just amazing.

And that is very cool about those authors' views on this book. I sure felt similar goosebumps when reading that scene in Deathly Hallows. A striking resemblance to the feelings I got from this LB scene.


Another of my favorite bits in that book was the Callormene (sp??) who Aslan welcomed into "heaven" even though he had been worshipping the "wrong" god all his life. I feel like that was a really gutsy thing for Lewis to include and something that really flies in the face of the hell and damned damnation rhetoric street evangelists and ratings seeking pulpit pounders tend to overuse.

So there are plenty of beautiful and worthy gems in the Narnia series, to be sure. But in the end, I cannot come to terms with that lingering feeling that accompanies them, so I am sadly resigning myself to allow for this evolution in my own mind. sigh. It happens.

Peace

 
At 10:02 AM, Blogger Timothy Blaisdell said...

I was reminded of this blog entry today and reread the comments here.

Jesse, the scene in The Last Battle I was referring to, which Rowling, Gaiman, Pullman and others have credited (or griped about) as influential to them was the scene where Susan Pevensie does not make it into the "heaven" with the others because (Lewis' words) "Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia. She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons, lipstick and invitations."

In other words, Susan grew up and discovered sex.

The tragedy for the young readers (esp. the female readers) is that they are guaranteed to grow up and discover these things for themselves. Thus, right there at the end of this fantasical, beloved 7-book story is a condemnation for the reader. And really not just any readers, but the female readers. Are the boys condemned for shaving or wearing nice clothing or cologne? No. But Susan the Gentle, one of the original four, matured and was therefore shut out not only from Narnia, but from the glorious reunion in what is apparently a Heaven shared with our world, where they meet their parents, etc.

 

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