Thursday, January 10th, 2008

You Cannot Pass
I love to read. I have found that when the TV’s off and a book’s open, I feel so much more relaxed, and the evening goes by much slower, which is great when you’re dreading returning to work the next day. And I don’t always just read Scripture, or theology books, or “devotionals”, I read literature. I have sitting on the shelf beside my spot on the couch several books: The Holy Bible (New American Standard), An Anthology of American Literature, An Anthology of English Literature, Moby Dick, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, The Lord of The Rings, and a few more. I leave those there so that every time the tube’s on, I see them and remind myself there’s probably something better I could be doing. Is it just entertainment, or is there something else in those pages?I love fantasy literature. I recently started reading the Lord of the Rings for what is I believe the fifth time. I’ve always preferred fantasy to so-called “main stream” literature. When I discussed my love of fantasy with one of my Christian friends in college, he told me he hated fantasy because it was “just a method of escaping reality.” I thought long and hard about this statement. Was I just pouring myself into childish make-believe because I was dissatisfied with reality? After much thought and study, I’m convinced that the opposite is true. Fantasy literature (or rather good fantasy literature) actually illustrates the most important themes of life more accurately than “main-stream” literature can.

To answer the question of whether fantasy is escapism- of course it is! All literature is escapism. There is an important feature of literature (memorize this) The map is not the territory. A piece of art cannot completely contain every detail of reality. Can you imagine trying to read a book where everything about a scene had to be described? Every single detail of every leaf of every tree, every thread of every sweater, every hair on every head would have to be described completely or it would not contain full reality. We can’t read a book where every character’s thoughts are traced, or every facial expression is written down. Literature is just a map of reality, not reality itself. This is illustrated best in the short story, “On Exactitude in Science” by Jorge Louis Borjes, which I will reprint here in its entirety:

“. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.”

In this wonderful story, we see the absurdity of trying to produce a piece of art which is an exact representation of the original subject. Not only is it impossible, it is utterly useless! As a map is supposed to be a manageable and comprehendible representation of geography, so is literature to be a manageable and comprehendible representation of reality. Don’t misunderstand me, good literature does not need to be realistic, nor does it need to follow any of the conventions of modern realism, but good literature must speak to reality in some form. Where mainstream literature leaves us desiring more about our souls, fantasy literature is happy to confront us about our deepest longings. I can think of no other genre which so frequently deals with suffering, immortality, the soul, life after death, or destiny. Nor can I think of any genre that deals with man’s virtue or man’s struggles as readily and accurately as fantasy. Thinking back to The Lord of The Rings I can recall virtues and universal struggles found in all cultures of people: trust, honesty, companionship, endurance, justice, faith, courage, hope, redemption, temptation, failure.

As beings made in God’s image, we are designed with a desire to create beauty. Christians don’t have to only write cheesy allegory and bad life-lesson novels. Do you remember God’s instructions for the construction of the temple? There were objects in the temple that were only for beauty, such as the pillars which supported no weight, or the jewels which had no practical purpose other than aesthetic beauty. We have fooled ourselves into thinking that art is worldly, particularly in the area of fantasy literature. Think back to the harsh and unfounded attacks Christians made on Harry Potter and its author, J.K. Rowling. We are made in the image of the Great Storyteller. It is part of our nature to create wonderful stories for our pleasure. Those of us who love to create stories and write them down should know that God has blessed us with this ability and He is happy when we write. As creatures who have had our minds set free from the curse of sin, our imaginations should soar beyond the heavens.

    roadkill.jpgFrom a local evangelical church, I recently received, via the flag on my mailbox, a bag of information. In this little baggie were three pamphlets of religious nature. One was a generic, mass produced bi-fold concerning the family-friendly, loving, caring atmosphere of the church. The second was an interesting booklet on the seven greatest questions in life; some great questions were ignored, and some that were included were unnecessary. The third was another bi-fold, this one an evangelistic tract with a call for conversion. The first was, as I said, generic and I won’t deal with it in this post. It was the other two pamphlets that disturbed me.

    I’ll begin with the booklet. The answers to the questions were deflating to my hopes that the author and I would be engaged in a stimulating discussion on metaphysics.
    Here are the questions and their corresponding answers listed in the booklet:
    1. Why do I exist?
         Answer — You need to get saved.
    2. Is there a God?
         Answer — You need to get saved.
    3. Am I unique?
        Answer — You need to get saved.
    4. Why is life unfair?
         Answer — You need to get saved.
    5. Why do I feel so alone?
         Answer — You need to get saved.
    6. Why don’t I do what I know I should?
         Answer — You need to get saved.
    7. Is there life after death?
         Do I really need to tell you his answer?

    Why do Christians detract from intelligently answering these questions? Honestly, I’m not sure our faithful parishioners, and even worse our church leaders, know the answers to these questions! I don’t think the church as a body really understands the impact these questions have on unbelievers’ lives and the enormous stumbling block we can be if we turn their legitimate questions into a time to throw a sermon at them. Christ never dismissed an opportunity to intelligently examine a man’s worldview before speaking to him. Francis Schaeffer said if you have 1 hour with a man, spend 50 minutes asking him questions. Instead of demonstrating love and genuine interest in their fellow humans, Christians have for so long plowed over unbelievers with evangelistic Mack Trucks, leaving them suffering and dying like forgotten roadkill 

    The booklet had as its last question, “Is there life after death”- a fair question, and one that needs serious addressing in our postmodern, existential culture. The author however, instead of dealing with the question from a logical, intelligent, or even wholly Biblical stance, took the opportunity to give an answer that is not the answer to the question asked. The question asked whether an existence after physical life ceased was a reality, not whether or not we should prepare for that event. Can’t we at least agree that the church has been embarrassed enough by publicly demonstrating our ignorance?

    The other day, while at the mall, my wife and I went through an oft-repeated routine: she entered a clothing store and I took a seat on a bench outside to wait for her.  Why did I not join her?  There are many reasons actually, but I will give only two.  First – as any married man could testify – entering a clothing store with your wife can be a very hazardous experience, for at some point you are certain to be asked a terrifyingly unanswerable question: “Does this make me look fat?”  If you answer “yes”, you will be called an insensitive pig and will be treated as such for the next two weeks; if you say “no”, you will be called a liar until you say “yes” which will gain you the expanded title of a lying, insensitive pig.  And if you choose to remain silent, your silence will be taken for a “yes” and you will be accused of being unable to communicate. Thus, the wise man upon hearing this question will respond by promptly faking a heart attack.

    The second reason why I chose not to accompany my wife is that it gave me an excellent opportunity to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes: people watching.  Now, I realize that this may sound like some sort of deranged voyeurism, but I assure you that the kind of “people watching” to which I am referring is perfectly legal.  It consists in observing individuals whom you do not know and trying to guess something about them in that brief moment as they pass by.

    The mall is a veritable smorgasbord of humanity and the perfect place for a people watcher.    Take, for example, one the newest trends in parenting: the child safety leash.  I counted at least three children (two boys and one girl) who were tethered to their parents by this strange device.  One of the little boys I saw kept darting in front of his mother only to be jerked back (yo-yo like) by a flick of his mother’s wrist.  She did this nonchalantly while chatting with a friend who walked beside her.  The friend, however, was visibly disturbed and she would wince every time the child was reined in.  I’m surprised that the mother never noticed. 

    Then there was the rather large fellow wearing a denim shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots that clicked every time he took a step.  He sported a Fu Manchu and a mullet hairstyle that was billowy on top and stringy in the back.  In one of his meaty fists he clutched a tiny, pink shopping bag that he swung by his side to match his lumbering gait.  I noticed several shoppers point and snicker after passing him, and I must confess that the sight brought a smile to my own face.  Yet he was the epitome of self-confidence; wearing a silly grin as he strode by my bench.  Perhaps he had a gift for his girlfriend or wife in the bag – or maybe for his mother.

    Shortly after, a pack of teenaged boys shuffled by.  Nearly everyone of them donned a baseball cap and a polo shirt with the collar turned up in the back.  They appeared to have developed a synchronized strut and seemed to be trying very hard to exude a macho presence to everyone about them.  One of the boys caught my eye in particular; it seemed as if his every gesture was calculated to please his peers.  His eyes darted to and fro from underneath the brim of his cap until once they locked with my own, lingered there for a moment, and then turned away.  I wondered if he was happy – as happy, say, as the big man with the little, pink bag.

    All of this had taken quite a while, and I was beginning to worry about my wife (and my bank account).  A quick glance through the store window, revealed her standing at the checkout counter about to make her purchases.  I got up from the bench and strolled over to meet her at the entrance.  As I approached the store, I noticed a man and woman having a heated conversation within.  The man had his hands raised in an exasperated defense.  I smiled to myself.  Poor guy, he should have faked a heart attack.