The Portrait of a Graduate series aims to publish pieces by recent graduates of classical Christian schools. Not only do we hope to encourage these students in future writing endeavors by publishing their pieces, but we also hope that the excellence shown in these pieces serves as a small portrait of what classical Christian schools hope their students will be able to do with a classical Christian education.
“By Knowing Me Here”: Why Fiction is Essential to the Christian Life
by Coby Dolloff, School of the Ozarks, Class of 2016
With recent advances in filmmaking, one does not have to look far to find people who are fully immersed in the world of one film or another. We have all seen them – “Trekkies,” “Whovians,” that guy at the office who can speak fluent Elvish, or that girl who fixes her hair like Leia Skywalker every fourth of May. The mainstream culture sometimes considers these extreme fanatics odd or delusional, but even most of these critics would admit that they enjoy getting lost in the world of a movie every now and again. To many, the day-to-day grind of our world seems monotonous and bland, so a trip to the movies is often a search for action, purpose, and adventure. The desire for another world, it seems, is deeply engrained in the human spirit. Many times, the thematic truths they see in the setting of these adventurous tales inspire them to act differently once they leave the theatre. This, I believe, has led to the recent rise in popularity of superhero, fantasy, and science fiction movies.
One such movie that has drawn interest, discussion, and debate among fans is Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi drama, Interstellar. The movie itself presents an interesting microcosm of human desire for otherworldly adventure. It tells the story of Cooper, a former fighter pilot who leaves his family for an epic, mysterious journey into outer space in hopes to find a way to save them and the rest of the human race from a dying, post-apocalyptic world. His thinking, along with that of his NASA counterparts, is in direct opposition with most of the population. One character chastises Cooper, remarking, “If we don’t want a repeat of the excess and wastefulness of the 20th Century then we need to teach our kids about this planet, not tales of leaving it” (Obst, Thomas, & Nolan, 2014). Unfortunately, this seems to summarize the attitude of many in the American Church today (unless, of course, they are talking about the “rapture”). Most conversations with Christians about works of fiction tend to end with comments such as, “I like to focus on the real world,” or “the only stories I need are in the Bible.” This is tragic, both for the life of the individual Christian, and for the influence of the Church. Such an attitude deprives the Christian of the deep spiritual truths to be found in fiction and the Church of its role as engager of the culture. Christian opinion must remain relevant to movie theatre conversation in order to retain our cultural influence. While this is true of movies and television shows, it is even more vital in the realm of literary fiction.
There are countless benefits to the reading of fiction. First of all, it is a plainly enjoyable experience. There are few things more relaxing than a free afternoon immersed in a good book. Secondly, it is educational. The best readers are the best writers, and the best writers influence the culture. The old saying, “readers make leaders” rings true even today. Therefore, for the church to regain its already diminishing impact on culture, we must return to reading. Most importantly, though, great literature teaches timeless truths about ourselves, the world, and God. Great fiction changes our perceptions and can help us to view the world in a more Christ-like manner. I hope to convince you, through personal reading experience, of the value of fiction in three areas of worldview.
Any psychologist would assert that self-knowledge is a quintessential aspect of healthy living. In the Christian life, self-knowledge is a prerequisite to repentance: we realize our own depravity, our struggles, and our need for grace, causing us to humbly submit to God. Without accurate self-knowledge, self-improvement is nearly impossible. Great fiction uses its characters and events to cause readers to examine themselves. This is certainly the case in C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces: a Myth Retold.
In this work, Lewis rewrites the classic myth of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of Orual, Psyche’s eldest half-sister. Orual writes her tale to accuse the gods of their injustice in taking Psyche and giving Orual no answer to explain themselves. Orual, ugly from birth, grows up in the beautiful Psyche’s shadow, but claims to love Psyche above all else in her life. This “love,” however, is distorted, jealous, and possessive. Psyche is sacrificed to the gods on the mountain, serving as scapegoat for the people of Glome. Afterward, Orual goes to the mountain to bury her, but finds her alive. Psyche is elated, telling Orual of her new life as the wife of a god. This god, according to Psyche, has provided for all her needs and given her only one request: that she never look upon his face. Orual is skeptical, however, and suspects that this “god” is either a monster or an imposter. She does the “loving” thing, therefore, and forces Psyche to expose her captor with the light of a candle while he sleeps. What Psyche finds is the glorious face of a god. He banishes Psyche to exile and leaves Orual with a mysterious consequence: “You, woman, shall know yourself and your work. You also shall be Psyche” (Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 2012, p. 130). Even after this, although Orual regrets what took place, she does not regret her own actions, because she believes herself to have acted in love.
Growing older, Orual becomes queen of Glome, and wears a veil to hide her ugliness. She is considered a good and wise queen, doing whatever necessary to ensure the prosperity of Glome. Her world is greatly shaken, however, when in a vision she and her late father dig through multiple layers of the palace pillar room. He leads her to his great mirror, where she looks at herself and sees the very face she fears most, the very face she could not forget on the bloody rock she once saw at the temple. “I am Ungit,” she states. Ungit, the goddess of Glome. Ungit, the cause of Psyche’s sacrifice and so many others. Ungit, whom Orual hates and fears most. In that chilling moment, she realizes her depravity. She sees that she is as hideous in soul as in face: “That ruinous face was mine. I was that Batta-thing, that all-devouring, womblike, yet barren thing. Glome was a web – I the swollen spider, squat at its center, gorged with men’s lives” (Lewis, 2012, p. 276). In all her honorable work as queen, she had been using up the lives of men just as Ungit used up temple prostitutes. She completes the quest to find her inner self, but it is not a self worth finding. She even finds a god, but the god within herself is not one worthy of worship; it is one that is depraved, ravenous, and bloodthirsty. Still, her only consolation about her personal character remains: “I had at least loved Psyche truly. There, if nowhere else, I had the right of it and the gods were in the wrong” (Lewis, 2012, p. 119). This too soon comes crashing down. Nearing death, she envisions journeying to the land of the dead. She finally gets to make her complaint against the gods, but her veil is torn away, she is stripped of her facades, and her real self is revealed. She attempts to read her complaint, but what comes out is really a confession. Her love for Psyche was really a jealous, perverted desire for ownership. Her hatred for the gods was not for their lack of answer, but for their very existence. She sees her true self, as do all assembled before her. Her question serves as its own answer. Just as the god prophesied, she knows herself.
In this amazing work of literature, readers take this self-searching journey right alongside Orual. In reading Till We Have Faces, we discover truths about ourselves in a whole new light. We see that many times our “love” towards others is not really love at all. If it is not infused with divine, sacrificial love, it becomes demonic. We realize that the complaints we have about others, or even God, are often at heart based on our own selfishness, our own desire to be uninhibited god of our lives. We are confronted, just like Orual, with the scathing fact that we are all Ungit. We all hide behind veils and facades, but behind this we are all depraved. We are all uglier in heart than in face. We are all in need of a new face and a new heart, which we can receive only through an encounter with the Christ such as Orual later has. Although we can learn these spiritual truths through other means, such as scripture reading or deep thought, the long, emotional journey of self-knowledge we get to take through reading Till We Have Faces brings them to light in a personal manner otherwise impossible. By reading fiction, we meet characters that painstakingly remind us of ourselves and inspire us to change.
Just as it allows us to look inward at our true selves, great literature allows us to look outward and changes our perceptions of the world around us. Just as the plot of Interstellar involves exploring other worlds, so many works of fiction are built around journeys to Fairyland, Wonderland, Neverland, or other imaginary countries. The goal of these fanciful, fictional quests, however, is not that we should long for or love other lands above our own. On the contrary, these works teach us truths about our own world. Moreover, they should teach us to appreciate it all the more by making it again unfamiliar, just as world travel incites deeper love for our home country. In the words of Chesterton, “the whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land” (Chesterton, 2009, p. 99). This is precisely the goal of literary fairyland. Chesterton expounds upon this idea in Orthodoxy chapter four, “The Ethics of Elfland.” In this passage, he argues that fairytales are more rational than scientific fact because they show us that the world is not how it is by necessity. Essentially, he asserts that green grass on earth should be just as astonishing to us as pink grass in fairyland, that our world is a place filled with awe and wonder and so should be wondered at just as any mystical land of lore. According to Chesterton, the monotony we see in the world is not a result of a mindless machine, but rather that “God is strong enough to exult in monotony. […] He has the eternal appetite of infancy. For we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1908, pp. 30-40). Interestingly, this concept of growing older than one’s father is powerfully illustrated in our earlier example, Interstellar, as the effects of relativity cause Cooper to be outgrown by his own daughter. Chesterton goes on to argue that tales of fairyland help us to understand such truths about our world; furthermore, he states that our world is itself a type of fairyland. He concludes, therefore, that the only correct response to the amazing world in which we live is to attempt a paradox: to “contrive to be astonished at the world and yet at home in it” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1908, p. 9). In reading fiction, we discover how truly amazing is the home we have. This concept is beautifully illustrated in one of Chesterton’s own ingenious works of fiction, Manalive.
Manalive tells the story of Innocent Smith, a character who some scholars claim to be Chesterton’s most autobiographical fictional character. He is the embodiment of childlike joy and wonder in a giant adult’s body. He is dropped by a great wind into a boarding house of everyday Londoners and their lives are forever changed. To make a long, wild, up-and-down, Chesterton-at-his-finest story short, Smith brings new life into Beacon House and begins to change it for the better. Soon, however, other characters become skeptical and accusations are made about his past. He is accused of burglary, polygamy, murder, and even insanity. It is in the following informal trial, however, that the remarkable truth of Innocent Smith is revealed.
Chesterton portrays Innocent Smith as the very essence of his astonished-at, and yet at-home-in-the-world paradox. Where it seemed that he was breaking into another man’s home, he was breaking into his own in order to value his own blessings just as those of another. Where it seemed that he was marrying dozens of innocent young women only to leave each behind for the next one, he was courting perpetually his own wife, constantly rediscovering the woman he loved and the passion he had for her. Where it seemed that he was attempting to shoot men to death, he was instead proving to morbid philosophers how truly great of a thing it is to be alive. When they would begin to reason that death is the only escape from the cruel joke of living, he would offer to aid their escape, whizzing bullets past their head from his revolver. Each time, these great thinkers would look around and see the world in a whole new light; they would decide that the world is a pretty swell place to be, and that life is worth living after all. In his own words, “I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him–only to bring him to life” (Chesterton, 1912, p. 181). Where it seemed at first that he was insane, he turns out to be the most sane man in the world. All this is true because “he has broken the conventions, but he has kept the commandments” (Chesterton, 1912, p. 301). In other words, Innocent Smith is Chesterton’s picture of retaining childlike awe at the world. Because he is in a continual love affair with his own wife, he need not seek another. Because he covets his own goods, he need not covet his neighbor’s. Because he loves his own home, he searches the world over to find paradise, only to find it right back at his own mailbox. Because he is astonished at the world and yet at home in it, he is able to appreciate the beauty of being alive. As the title suggests, that is exactly what he is: Man Alive.
Though we may come to love the world by exploring it (which Chesterton would approve of), or by learning the science it possesses, nothing gives you a new perspective like a giant, lumbering infant who steals from his own house and fires life out of a six-shooter. Great works of fiction such as Manalive confront the reader with a blatant need for a change in worldview. This is the power of literature.
Though learning truths about ourselves and the world is vital, the most important reason for Christians to read fiction is that it allows us to experience God in a new light. In nearly all great literature, God’s attributes, such as truth, goodness, and beauty are revealed through the characters and events. Some works, however, explicitly testify to the character of God and the message of the Gospel. Against the backdrop of an unfamiliar world, truths about God are seen in a fresh way that is able to pierce hearts which have become callous to them in everyday life. A classic example of such a work is C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia.
The Chronicles of Narnia, in short, is the story of the Pevensie children, four British youths who pass through a magical wardrobe into the wondrous land of Narnia. In Narnia they meet talking animals, dwarves, and even an evil white witch. Most importantly, though, they meet Aslan, a lion, who is said to be prince of Narnia and son of the Emperor beyond the Sea. To the Christian reader, it is somewhat obvious that Aslan parallels Christ. Lewis himself declared that Aslan was not an allegory of Christ, but rather what the Son of God would look like incarnate in the world of Narnia. In the world of Narnia, the reader is given a firsthand account of the story of Aslan in a way that affects one’s emotions and conveys truths about Christ. This is a concept which Louis Markos refers to as “felt theology.”
The most powerful example of such theology comes in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. The younger male Pevensie, Edmund, betrays Aslan and deceives his siblings, siding with the White Witch simply for the offer of a bit of candy. He gets more than he bargained for, however. In a scheme to defeat Aslan, the evil witch claims she has the right to the life of Edmond, citing the deep magic from the dawn of time, which states: “You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to kill […] And so that human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property” (Lewis, 1950, p. 128). Aslan, who himself is even subject to the deep magic, offers himself as a substitute for the traitor Edmond. The reader, alongside Edmond, feels the sacrificial, unconditional love of Christ through the character of Aslan. On the night Aslan is to be sacrificed, Susan and Lucy Pevensie follow Aslan on his walk to the Stone Table, the set place of his execution. The girls feel the strength and love of Aslan as they run their fingers through his golden mane one last time. The reader feels the compassion of Christ as Aslan loves even in proceeding unto his death. He scales the hill to the stone table and the parallels with the Passion account become striking. He is whipped, tied, beaten, spat on, mocked, and finally killed, all to save the life of a traitor. The reader feels the suffering of Christ through that of Aslan. When the horrors finally end, the girls walk up the hill to view Aslan’s body. They are drowned in sorrow and weep bitterly into his shorn mane as a clan of mice eat away at the cords that bind the body. The reader joins them in their sorrow, in their feeling of injustice done to Aslan, and in their realization of the depravity of creation. Narnians have murdered Aslan. Mankind has crucified God. They begin the journey home, still unimaginably depressed, when suddenly all begins to change. The sun begins to rise, night turns to day, and a thunderous “crack” sounds from the stone table. Aslan is alive! Susan and Lucy are incomprehensibly overjoyed. Evil has lost. Death has been defeated. The deep magic has succumbed to the deeper magic from before the dawn of time, that “when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward” (Lewis, 1950, p. 148). Aslan now exists in resurrected form, and the rest of Narnia is soon to follow as the Pevensies join Aslan in restoring Narnia to its intended glory. In the resurrection of Aslan, the reader marvels at and glories in the resurrection of Christ, feeling the power of His victory over death and being inspired to join in his restorative mission.
In reading Narnia, we meet the character of Christ in a much different setting than we are used to. This new setting prevents the awe-inspiring, impassioning truths of the Gospel from being tamed by our human incapacity for monotony. We cannot yawn or ignore the Gospel this time because we have never seen it like this before. The story of Aslan reawakens our amazement at the story of Christ. In fact, Lewis hoped in writing Narnia that readers would fall in love with the character of Aslan, and therefore the person of Jesus Christ. Personally and statistically speaking, he has been very successful in this endeavor, and what is categorized as a children’s book has now become one of the most influential Christian works of all time.
Despite many examples of fictional works which convey factual truths, some still maintain that such works are neutral, if not detrimental, to Christian living. Some assert that reading fiction is a waste of time when we could be doing useful work in the real world, such as helping the poor. Fortunately, these two are not mutually exclusive. Many Christians, including myself, often find it difficult, however, to love others because we cannot empathize with them. We often find it much easier to judge them because we have never seen the world through their eyes. Fiction is notorious for cultivating empathy, because it allows us to do just that. In the words of Lewis, “in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself […] Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do” (Lewis, 1961, pp. 140-141). By reading great works such as To Kill a Mockingbird or Les Miserables, I can empathize with those less fortunate than I. Perhaps, then, reading fiction can allow us to love and serve others more purely and heartily than otherwise possible.
Others contend that reading fiction is detrimental because it exposes the reader to evil. Unfortunately, if total retreat from evil is your criterion for all life choices, I would advise you not to watch any movie, step out your front door, or look in the mirror. And above all else, do not open your Bible. While discernment is an absolute necessity in choosing which books one should read, it is extremely fallacious to state that because a work portrays evil, the work itself is evil. Therefore, the proper response to fiction is not to flee from it, but to engage it through the lens of a Christian worldview.
Still others maintain that fiction is detrimental because it is in its very nature a lie, and therefore not of God. This proceeds from a deeply flawed definition of deceit. Obviously, the goal of a great fiction work is not to deceive anyone into believing the story to be historically true; rather, it is to use an admittedly imaginary story to convey a point which is true in the real world. Those who argue against fiction in this manner would not care much for the teachings of Jesus, as he often used fictional parables to convey essential truths about the Kingdom of Heaven. Christians should not be afraid of fiction, or any other realm of the arts, for that matter. God created all truth, goodness, and beauty, and therefore any that is found in a human work ultimately belongs to and glorifies Him.
A quick glance down the “Now Showing” list on your local movie theatre’s website will prove that the desire for other worlds is prevalent in modern culture. Looking towards the future, I believe that this innate human desire will be finally satisfied at the inauguration of the New Jerusalem. In the present, this desire is expressed through the creation and exploration of new worlds through various types of fiction. In Interstellar, Cooper’s exploration of new worlds for humanity provides a helpful analogy to our purpose in making fictional explorations. Near the end of the movie, his quest to save humanity seems hopeless, as the gravitational information needed to get humans off the earth can only be found at the center of a black hole. In an incredible act of self-sacrifice, he leaves his ship and crew (thereby giving them sufficient food for survival), and launches himself into a black hole. To avoid spoilers, it will suffice to say that “in a classic science fiction twist” he is able to survive at the black hole’s center. Once there, he communicates from another dimension back to earth the truths necessary for humanity’s survival. Something very similar takes place when we read fiction. Authors of great literature convey truths to us which, although set in another world, are true and necessary for human flourishing in the real world. These truths help shape our thoughts and actions toward ourselves, others, and the world to those of Christ Jesus.
Let us return to Narnia one final time. Edmund and Lucy’s final stay in Narnia comes in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Once they have completed their voyage to world’s end, Aslan informs them that they will not be returning. The children are distraught, and sob that they cannot bear the fact that they will never see him again. Aslan informs them otherwise, however. He ensures them that they will know him back on earth. Then, in one of the most beautiful passages in the series, he reveals their purpose in coming to Narnia, and our purpose in reading fiction: “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there” (Lewis, 1955, p. 188) By meeting Christ in strange, imaginary lands, we come to know Him better in our own lives. This is why I implore you to read fiction. Not just for enjoyment. Not to escape our world. But to encounter Jesus. That is my plea for you today. Open up a book. Step into the wardrobe. Go through the looking glass. Grab some pixie dust, or a magic ring, or the controls of a spaceship. Meet Christ in Narnia, or Fairyland, or Neverland, and know Him better in the beautiful, magical world called Earth.
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Chesterton, G. (1912). Manalive. New York, NY, United States: John Lane Company.
Chesterton, G. (2009). The Riddle of the Ivy. In Tremendous Trifles (pp. 99-102). A.L. Coble.
Lewis, C. (1950). The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. London, England: Geoffrey Bles .
Lewis, C. (1955). The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. London, England: Geoffrey Bles.
Lewis, C. (1961). An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Lewis, C. (2012). Till We Have Faces. Boston, Massachusetts, United States: Mariner Books.
Obst, L., Thomas, E., Nolan, C. (Producers), Nolan, J., Nolan, C. (Writers), & Nolan, C. (Director). (2014). Interstellar [Motion Picture].