by Samuel Schuldheisz
“Imagination is not to be divorced from the facts; it is a way of illuminating the facts.” – A.N. Whitehead, The Aims of Education and Other Essays
Emmet leaps off of Octan Tower in The Lego Movie to save his friends from being frozen by the Kragel at the hands of Lord Business. Harry Potter walks into the Forbidden Forest to face the evil foe, Voldemort, and free his friends, his school, and the world from certain death. Aslan allows himself to be captured, mocked, humiliated, and killed by the White Witch to redeem Narnia from her curse. These stories, and countless others, all share similar themes: good versus evil, redemption, true love, sacrifice, death and resurrection, and a happily ending.
Indeed, for Christians, it’s hard to avoid seeing the story of Jesus’ salvation for us reflected and featured so prominently in so many of our most beloved stories, films, television shows, and even music. At first this may cause panic or doubt. “Faith and fiction can’t be wedded. They’re too different to be suitable companions. We live by faith, not fiction,” many may say. Sadly, this kind of thinking has led many to wrongfully oppose many classic works (old and new) of literature or film, on moralistic or legalistic grounds. But this is a tragic misunderstanding of both the role of faith and fiction.
Christ does not call Christians to check our brains at the door of his Church. So too, Christians are not called to leave our imagination behind, but rather that it should be baptized as a servant, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis from his autobiography. Film, television, and literature, are like any other first article gift of God, when used properly, they can be of great benefit in our lives and the lives of our neighbor whom we come into contact with daily.
Certainly, Christians live by faith founded upon fact: Jesus died at a certain place, in a certain time in human history. And yet, the facts of the Christian faith are delivered to us, in large part, through means of storytelling. In his essay Storytelling and Persuasion in Apologetics for a New Generation, author Brian Godawa cites that 30% of the Biblical text contains propositional truth and the remaining 70% is conveyed in story, imagination, metaphor, symbols, poetry, and the like. Thus the Christian faith is not only historical, factual, and verifiable, but also a meaningful, beautiful, well-told story. Simply because it is true does not mean it ceases to be a good story. The Christian faith is for both left-brained and right-brained, both for the tough minded skeptic and the tender minded inquisitor.
Therefore, as C.S. Lewis writes, in his essay “Myth Became Fact”, “We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘Pagan Christs’: they ought to be there – it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.
So, how is it that these stories – each with different characters, plots, and tales to tell – all give us a glimpse of the greatest story of all time? And how can we use these common themes to communicate the great story of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection for the world? These are the questions I will address below, and in a second post to come.
Myth and Storytelling
Some have said that these similarities in stories, regardless of their medium, exist because they are simply man-made stories, nothing more, and nothing less. They might make us feel good, provide some escape or entertainment, and teach us a moral lesson, but they are not true.
And yet, the more you read fairy tales, fantasy, and fictional literature of a variety of genres, the more you find that literature (and the same is true for many good films and television shows) not only satisfies our longing, but awakens it all the more. Haven’t we all wanted to jump into our favorite book, at least for a little while? After reading about a magic wardrobe into another world with a talking Lion and fantastic adventures, who wouldn’t want to step foot into Narnia, even if we could only see the lamp post? Or, after reading the opening chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, who wouldn’t want to sit and have tea and smoke a pipe with Bilbo and spend an afternoon in the Shire?
Still the skeptic cries out all the more, So what if they are good stories, they are nothing more than myths, “lies breathed through silver,” as Lewis once said to Tolkien.
The word “myth” is tossed around lot these days in pop-culture, media, and even daily conversations. Nearly every major civilization in history has their own mythology. The Egyptians had Ra, Osiris, and Horus. Ancient Greece had Zeus, Poseidon, and the pantheon of Olympians, Titans, and Giants. Rome had their Jupiter, Mars, and Pluto. Norse mythology had Odin, Thor, and Baldr. American folklore is no different, including the likes of Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, or the Headless Horseman.
Today mythic characters continue to influence our daily lives, ranging from the complex mythic pantheon of superheroes found in Marvel or DC Comics (our modern equivalent of the Greco-Roman pantheon), to the household mythical figures known as the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, or Santa Claus. Typically when the word “myth” is invoked its intended meaning is that the subject in question is false, unreliable, fictionalized, or worse yet, intentionally deceptive.
Many skeptics go further by lumping Christianity with popular myths, past or present. The Christian faith is characterized as a fairy tale or legend, and Christians who believe in Jesus’ dying and rising are caricatured as silly or naïve at best, and deceptive and dangerous at worst. For instance, every December for the past several years now, the organization Atheists of America has posted billboards in New York City’s Times Square, and around the nation, which read: “You know it’s a myth. This season celebrate reason.” Or, “Keep the merry, dump the myth.”
According to this worldview, Christianity is just one more example in a long list of tall tales and myths. All religion is a myth, which is unreal, unreliable, and untrue. All faith is fiction, many claim. Or, in the words of Sue Sylvester on the hit show Glee “Asking someone to believe in a fantasy, no matter how comforting, is cruel.”
Now, if the Christian faith was the same thing as asking someone to believe in Prince Charming or Superman, then most Christians would agree. After all, we wouldn’t want someone believing in any number of false religions, simply because they found it comforting. And while Christianity has many similarities with other stories, it is also unlike any other story.
Horus never crawled out of the cuneiforms and walked around Egypt. Osirus never leaped off the vellum and took on human flesh. The dying gods of the cave wall were never born in a cave bearing the flesh and bone of their artists. The words of those stories never had any life beyond the page or the painted rock or the imagination. This is the sublime and unique joy of Christianity. The Author of the human story writes himself into the narrative. He jumps off the page and into human history. He is the book, the pages, the spine, the binding; he is the very Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. The God who created man becomes man to save man. And that makes the Gospel the greatest story ever told.
History and Storytelling
Christianity doesn’t take place in a galaxy far, far away, in this galaxy, in and around early first-century Jerusalem. The events of Jesus’ dying and rising did not happen once upon a time, but in the days when Caesar Augustus issued a decree, and Quirinius was governor of Syria. Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are not relics of pagan mythology, but reliable, historical accounts of eyewitness testimony.
In the words of John, one of these eyewitnesses of Jesus’ death and resurrection,
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. 1 John 1:1-4.
Christianity is a historical, verifiable (and falsifiable), and factual faith. It rests on objective grounds, yet speaks to each person subjectively with the Gospel: Jesus lived, died, and rose for you! Faith and fact are not mutually exclusive. So too, faith and storytelling are complementary, not contradictory. Christianity is the greatest story ever told precisely because it is both true and meaningful.
Though Christianity is not a myth in the modern sense of the word, it has been called myth in the older sense of the word. In this understanding of the word what is meant by “myth” is something that is not inherently false, but rather a way in which we explain the world around us. Lewis and Tolkien understood myth in such a way. Through myth, they suggested, we see fundamental things about the world around, fragments of reality, and glimpses of truth. Think of it like pieces of a broken mirror which still, though cracked, scattered, and impartial, reflect pieces of the original image. And so, many of the best and most memorable stories point to the Christian story or reflect it.
Consider Lewis’s words in his essay Myth Became Fact:
Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be a myth, comes down from heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact, it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.
Add to this Lewis’s explanation of the relationship between myth and fact in Christianity, from a letter to his friend, Arthur Greeves,
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths…
Lewis learned this way of thinking, in part, from his good friend and fellow literary scholar, J.R.R. Tolkien. The two shared their writings and thoughts with one another during their evening and late night walks together, as well as their time with fellow Inklings at the local pub, the Eagle and Child. Though closeness of their friendship waned in later years, the importance of their friendship and their influence upon one another’s work is profound. You can hear echoes of Tolkien’s words from his popular essay “On Fairy Stories” in Lewis’s previous quotations.
The Gospels contain a fairy story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories. They contain many marvels – peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance…this story has entered History and the primary world…
According to Lewis and Tolkien, Christianity is the greatest story because it is the one true myth. It is both a delightful story, and yet it really happened. It is full of meaning, beauty, artistry, and it is also objective, true, and rational. It appeals to both our reason and our emotions.
Samuel Schuldheisz is a manuscript reviewer and frequent contributor to projects, and a future Author, at Grail Quest Books. He is a Lutheran pastor in California and regular devotional writer for Higher Things. You can follow his writings and read his sermons at his blog, E-nklings.