“What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.”
The words of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 1:9 are perhaps never as true as when one applies them to modern Christian storytelling, whether in fiction or the movies. The same stories are being told over and over again, often with little imagination and less quality. Certainly one can find a few exceptions, but overall Christian art, especially storytelling, is not as compelling as its non-Christian competitors. And I really do mean competitors. Every book, every movie, and every television show is competing for our attention, our loyalty, and our soul because every story shapes a world (and therefore a worldview) in which it urges, encourages, or commands that we live. When the best art is birthed out of non-Christian worldviews, we and the students we teach (not to mention the rest of the world) are being shaped by that universe. The effects are alarming, its impact swift, and its influence pervasive. For those who are skeptical, spend some time watching the habits of students the moment they leave school (yes, even many of our students). They are being profoundly shaped by an anti-Christian world because it tells a compelling story in an impressive way.
But what if we took seriously not only truth and goodness in our education, but beauty. What if, as the title of Stratford Caldecott’s excellent book conveys, we captured “beauty for truth’s sake.” Or what if we told stories that, before readers ever knew that they were true and good, were admired because they were beautiful, and through that beauty they came to be shaped into that which is true and good. This beauty that shapes us into the true and the good seems to be at the heart of my favorite Narnian tale, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
As the children prepare to leave Narnia, Lucy and Edmund learn that they will not return again. What follows is one of the most moving and beautiful passages in literature, but it also conveys a profound truth. Lucy tells Aslan that it is not Narnia, but him, that she will miss by not returning. Aslan replies that he is in Lucy’s world as well, but there he is known by another name; Lucy must learn to know him by that name. And then Aslan tells them the purpose for which they have come to Narnia—that by knowing him in Narnia, they may know him better in their own world. What strikes the reader, I think, as so profound and moving, is that we, too, have journeyed into Narnia. We, too, have learned to love Aslan. We, too, fear the end of the series when we will no longer get to meet Aslan, when we will no longer return to Narnia. And yet, by knowing Aslan there, we might learn to know him better here.
The simple yet stunning beauty of the Narnia stories draws us to the true and the good. For many believers, however, we can become so focused on the true and the good that we not only miss the beauty, but we perhaps even pervert the true and the good into something ugly. The truth of Jesus, the Son of God, becomes little more than a set of propositional truths to be believed, or else…!
Instead, our goal as educators must be to teach students the true, the good, and the beautiful, and this may best be done by starting with the beautiful before moving to the true and the good. Wasn’t this Lewis’ experience as well? He learned to admire the story (the myth) of Christ before he ever believed that it was the myth that became true. How many Christians know the truth about Jesus but have never been moved by his beauty? I fear the number is alarmingly high. As an educator, I want to see my students delight in beauty, bask in wonder, and soar with imagination. I want to see my students become shapers of stories for our culture instead of shaped by stories from our culture. I want to see my students create, invent, and fashion their own beautiful stories only to find that they all, at their core, find their truth, their goodness, and their beauty in the One True Story that God has already told us in his Son. There may be nothing new under the sun, but God is making all things new in and through the Son. Let’s join him in that new creation.
For similar thoughts and how I try to explore this more specifically, check out my series, “Theology through the Eyes of Fiction.”