What are we to make of the popularity of fantasy, say the huge following of The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, or the box office performance of the Hobbit? Libby Brooks in the Guardian concludes that the banality of the idea of “happily-ever-after” is rescued by the “magic that is used to get there.” [Click here to read the entire article.] What is this “magic” she speaks of?
Why are fairy tales “magical”?
It’s easy to see why young children love fairytales — they actually think there might be elves and goblins and rainbows with pots of gold. Their world isn’t yet limited by their experiences and rationality, and is filled with incredible possibilities. When they play they may actually encounter magic, and probably do, in their games, real or electronic. The more difficult question is why do adults still encounter “magic” in fantasy? We all know that The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars isn’t real — at least in the world we have fashioned for ourselves, which we call the “real world”.
The psychological experts who analyse such things say that these stories “symbolise” something for us. What does this mean? A symbol is something that contains powerful meanings beyond the surface reality. The Cross has powerful meanings for Christians far beyond being a Roman device to execute certain criminals. So what are the symbols in these modern fairy tales that carry so much meaning for the average person that they queue up to see The Hobbit or patiently plow through over 1000 pages of difficult reading in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy?
The symbols are exaggerated versions of our everyday experience — “bigger-than-life” human beings and “anything-is possible” worlds. Luke Skywalker in Star Wars was a Jedi-knight in the making, taking on an evil empire that dominated the entire universe. Frodo was a simple Hobbit who endured a very difficult journey to defeat the evil that threatened the entire world. Seen in these terms, these modern fairy tales contain symbols that trigger hope in us — that our lives might contain incredible “magical” meaning linked to saving our world from its desperate modern situation.
The Christian “fairy tale”
At the risk of offending some of my Christian readers, I would like to apply the idea of fairy tale symbolism to the story of Jesus. In no way am I suggesting that the Bible is only a fairy tale and Jesus is just a mythical character like Luke Skywalker or Frodo. I am suggesting, however, that the symbolic meaning of Jesus’ incarnation has been lost — or people would be lining up outside our churches to hear the story. The modern world is very hungry for meaning; that seems obvious. So, with that obvious hunger, why is the symbolism in Star Wars and Tolkien so popular — and the symbolism in Jesus’ story is lost? (I could say that the way churches tell the story is the problem, and that also might be the case, but that is not what I want to focus on.)
I see two difficulties with the Jesus “fairy tale” as it relates to the modern hunger for meaning. First, Jesus is presented in such a way that he seems infinitely beyond what it means to be human — God, perfect, without sin, etc. Second, the world in the Jesus story isn’t transformed; there seems to be no “lived happily-ever-after” ending to his story. In fact, in the Jesus story, Luke and Frodo die an agonizing death. Christians quickly add that Jesus rose on the third day but then we have to consider whether the world itself has been transformed in the last 2000 years. My conclusion is that the Jesus story doesn’t easily satisfy the modern hunger for meaning. I say easily because, theologically and in reality, Jesus provides incredible meaning for the human race and the ultimate transformation of creation. We Christians believe this is true but the story somehow doesn’t convey this to many people. The symbols in the Jesus story have lost their meaning for many people in the modern world.
Christians as storytellers.
Our parents were our first storytellers. They somehow knew how to repeat the fairy tales they had heard in a way that captured our interest. “Once upon a time” triggered something in them and in us — a shift in consciousness, a relaxation of “shoulds” and an emphasis on “what might be.” Our parents convinced us that they believed in Santa Clause. The world was magical; our parent wouldn’t lie to us. I am saying that the people who aren’t excited by the Jesus story have never encountered a Christian who told the story in a “magical” way. To simply read passages out of the Bible isn’t convincing. Listeners must the sense that the story arc of Jesus’s story started before the “Big Bang” and stretches far beyond Star Wars to the end of the world. They need to experience a “magical” shift in their consciousness like a child — that they too are like Jesus, and are called to great deeds in this incredible story. Not just “Christians” (who are basically storytellers as well as actors in the drama) but every human being potentially plays a starring role in the Christian fairy tale.
Becoming good storytellers is a great challenge to Christians. In another blog, I’ll cover what this entails. But accepting that we are not telling the “greatest story ever told” very well is the first step each of us needs to take. We can’t point at the “church” as the source of the problem — as the little cartoon character Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and they is us.”