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Tuesday, November 08, 2011  

Realism is Also a Genre of Christianity

How have we managed to let a circle of English faery enthusiasts define our religion? I don't know, and nothing against C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton, but I must object. In a short essay ominously entitled "Fantasy is a Genre of Christianity" (via Sullivan), Commentary's D.G. Myers explains:

Speaking as both an author and scholar of fantasy, Lewis said in a 1947 essay that “To construct plausible and moving ‘other worlds’ you must draw upon the only real ‘other world’ we know, that of the spirit.” No statement about the genre has ever been more definitive. The bedrock premise of fantasy, which cannot be waived without voiding the genre, is the existence of a spirit realm. Lewis’s Narnia, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Rowling’s “wizarding world,” parallel universes of all kind are imaginative reconstructions of Christianity’s first principle: namely, that the “kingdom of heaven” is the only true world.

Oy. Granting that plenty of perfectly adequate Christians have believed in something that you might call "a spirit realm," its existence is hardly among Christianity's principles, much less its first. The existence of the Holy Spirit, and later the co-equality of this Person with the Father and the Son, is certainly a foundational point, and like other people of their age the earliest Christians believed in the reality of non-corporeal essences that could influence human life. But if Christianity has a "first principle" it would be something like the opposite of a belief in the Kingdom of God (let's use the right phrase while we're at it; "heaven" is Matthew the Evangelist's pious Jewish euphemism for God) as a disembodied and "spiritual" realm. On the contrary, it's the humanity of Christ as the bearer of the divine Word, imprint, or form (leaving aside the precise dogmatic formulae for this idea) that is most consistently stressed in the New Testament and to no small extent beyond. You could just as well argue that Christianity's most startling contribution to the world was its intense focus on the worldly, quotidian, and human. Mystery religions, as Bonhoeffer wrote, address human beings at the limits of experience, while Christ claims the whole man.

So the quotes from Lewis and Chesterton in this unfortunate essay capture only a slice of what Christianity has been about over the centuries, and perhaps not the greatest portion. I'm reading Charles Taylor's A Secular Age right now, and among other things it's a reminder that the worldview of European medieval people was in many ways similar to any other pre-modern civilization. The first Saxon and German converts were, it is said, impressed by the wonder-working missionaries, whose apparent mastery of the spirit world was the sort of thing they were primed by their ancestral religions to admire. So when Lewis wrote that he felt like a converted pagan among apostate puritans, he spoke more truly than he may have intended. What is most striking to me in much of Lewis's work is not its Christianity but its paganism (and not in a pejorative sense). The same is true of Chesterton and Tolkein in their own ways. This nostalgia merged with English common sense in ways that become unbearable. Consider Lewis's bizarre statement quoted about the "only real 'other world' we know." It's the worst of rationalism and superstition put together in one statement, as if an actuary were trying to convince you that UFOs are real.

But, you know, that was just Lewis doing his thing. He liked what he liked and he wrote what he wrote and if it was a whole lot more idiosyncratic in terms of mainstream Christianity than he let on, well who can blame him? But there's more to the story than spirits and fantasy. There are whole theological schools that make no reference to parallel realities. You might try Augustine, for whom there was a single reality ordered all the way from the Trinity on down. Or Calvin, whose particular emphasis on the expression of God's providence through the material world and daily life helped foster a huge amount of our literary and artistic heritage. Or Barth or Bonhoeffer, who took a "high" view of Christ and of Biblical revelation while basically stiff-arming all the spirit-world stuff. Don't let the Englishmen tell the whole story.

(Including Sullivan himself, by the way, who at one point defined Christianity as the faith that liberates one from "the illusion of worldliness" or words to that effect. That's a fine and noble thing for a religion to do, but the religion that does it, or seeks to, is Buddhism. With all credit to the mystical traditions, what is distinctive about Christianity is the way in which it sends us more deeply into worldliness, the way in which it dignifies our struggles for love and justice as more than just the elaboration of an illusion).

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:15 PM
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