Welcome to the second post in the series I am doing about fairy tales and the bible. Last week, I explained what my interest was, why I am interested, what my theoretical basis is, and said that I would be, more or less, applying Tolkien’s fairystory cannons to the bible this week. After giving it some thought, I feel like I need to do another post about my overarching theoretical assumptions when it comes both to mythology and the bible. In this way, I can set better parameters for the posts in the weeks to come.
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In a famous conversation between Tolkien and Lewis (dramatized here), Tolkien challenges the prevailing scientism/materialism of his day. His challenge was neither new (see Chesterton‘s Heretics and Orthodoxy) nor different, but it was integral to Lewis’ conversion. Tolkien maintained that myth cannot be immediately conflated with “false” since myths may be true, just not true in a material sense. Or, as I’ve written before:
With the Renaissance came Early Modern Philosophy. These philosophers (Bacon and others) tended to push against knowledge as a worthy end and, instead, insisted that knowledge get out and do something productive. The goal was no longer to understand nature, it was to conquer and rule nature. This philosophy tended to reject formal and and final causes, and insisted that efficient causes, and especially material causes, should be the primary locus of investigation. This meant that not much care went into understanding the purpose of something, or understanding its essential nature, but, instead, went into understanding things on a surface level. This resulted in modern science, which has done tremendous good for humanity, but has also placed artificial limits on knowledge in being solely concerned with facts and deductions about material and efficient causes from facts. . . . Truth is ultimately concerned with reality. The fundamental misunderstanding of modern science is that the totality of reality is somehow bound up in fact, that somehow I can perceive with my senses, or with my senses through the aid of technology or science, all there is to Truth. This is a fundamental mistake. Even if all the readily observed facts about me were listed off, the fundamental question of the why of my existence would not be answered. We are more than the sum of our parts. The scientific method is exclusively concerned with knowing what and how, but hardly ever asks why. The result is that, now, most people don’t ask why in the grand sense of purpose and reason, but only ask why when they actually mean how. (Final paper for a class on non-fiction I took in the Fall of 2011)
Tolkien believed that the materialists propagated the biggest lie of all: that what is real is what can be sensed with the five senses—that all things are contained within four walls. He argued that our ability to imagine dragons and elves and gods meant that there must be something beyond the material world. Moreover, he believed that our ability to create imaginary worlds—this is why fantasy is so important to Tolkien—connected us to God in that we become sub-creators. God created ex nihilo—enfleshing the myth that sprang from his head with material—while we sub-create, building worlds out of words, images, and ideas. All of history, Tolkien believed, was God’s myth unfolding (check out the beginning of Tolkien’s Silmarillion sometime).
In that conversation with Lewis, Tolkien argues that there is really only one story—one myth—and it happens to be true. And this is, of course, the story of Jesus: his birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming. Tolkien asserts that the story is historically true (I happen to agree, see N.T. Wright‘s The Resurrection of the Son of God), but his argument for its truth is that it is beautiful. That is, he argues for faith in the story of Jesus because of the aesthetics of the Christ event, as I’ve written about here. Or, as Simone Weil puts it, “If they ask: ‘Is it true?’, we should answer: ‘It is so beautiful that it must certainly contain a lot of truth.’” (from her book The Need for Roots)
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The above might seem like a digression, but how we view myth and story is absolutely central to this particular undertaking. Along with Tolkien, I believe there is only one story, but I believe that the story is told in many ways over and over again in different places with different emphases. In some theological circles, there is a drive to read scripture as the Heilgeschichte (salvation history) rather than as the location of deposits of truth, doctrine, and morals. This has led many theologians to argue for using the story of Jesus as the hermeneutical grid with which to interpret the rest of the bible. That is, they advocate what is called a “christocentric” reading.
This reading is, of necessity, not all that interested in historical or scientific reality, and it is clearly revisionist on occasion, but that is how myths work. Mythologies are contradictory and complicated. And, depending on who is doing the telling, there will be different emphases.
Thus, when it comes to reading stories in the Old Testament or the parables of Jesus as fairytales, I will be doing so as a twenty-first century American Christian, not as an ancient Jew.
Finally, then, I will be focusing on the way the bible and portions of the bible serve as myth, legend, and fairytale for us today—its current readers—rather than how it functioned in the past or how it was meant to function historically.
I’m going to talk about beauty as truth.
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Next week, I am going to talk about the story of Samson—my favorite bible story as a kid. Using Bettelheim and Tolkien, I will discuss how this story functions like a fairytale.