Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Moving Past Narnia

Flannery O’Connor, in her essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer” begins by referring to Graham Greene being too often the reference point of the Catholic novelist.[1] I would like to say something similar, that is: regarding the question of the ‘Christian writer’ we cannot always point to the C.S. Lewis among us. The Narnia books hold a dear place in my heart—especially The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe—they served as an early on ramp by which I merged into the lanes leading to that vast city where literature and faith intersect. But it is my fear that Lewis and Tolkien have become an off ramp leading to a cul-de-sac, rather than an on-ramp leading to a city[2]. The intent then in this paper is corrective. I will argue that the fiction of Lewis and Tolkien is at times both literarily and theologically suspect.[3] If this sounds at all iconoclastic it might be fitting due to the hagiography which has ensued recently[4]. I will end by offering other possible options for the Christian interested in the contemporary literary landscape.

Even as young child I remember understanding that Narnia’s Aslan wasn’t just Aslan. When looking back or rereading The Chronicles of Narnia it is hard to miss the myriad biblical allusions and hidden homiletic points. For all this it would seem that Narnia, theologically speaking, is beyond reproach. However this is not entirely[5] the case. Fundamental to the fantasy of Tolkien and Lewis is a notion of ‘escape’ and it is this motif which, I contend, is literarily and theologically suspect. For instance, Christianity naturally has an outward impulse clearly articulated by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit […].”[6] While this outward impulse must be tempered with renewal and rest, to escape is not only to flee an enemy but also the great commission. This escape impulse was defended by Tolkien in his work “On Fairy Stories” he writes, “Escape is, evidently, as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic,”[7] In my mind Tolkien’s position rings more of a Stoic’s suicide than a Christian renewing in rest. The notion of escape also comes across in a few senses in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Not only do the children escape London during the blitzkrieg but they also escape the boredom of earth for the glories of Narnia. Greg Wolfe articulates this method of escape as rooted in the Inklings project of encouraging a renewed “sacramental vision”[8] for their larger culture. So we might say the impetus of this escape into fantasy is quixotically outward. However, the Christian writer, in my estimate, is most in sync with her outward impulse when she writes to this world with a narrative that stays on earth. Simply put, positing other worlds in times of trouble is not Christian it’s Stoicism. For instance, compare Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear with Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe while the children escape to the country and then to Narnia, Greene’s protagonist Arthur Rowe is left to piece together his life amongst amnesia, murderous pursuers and the very same blitzkrieg that propels Peter, Susan, Edmond and Lucy to safety[9]. While The Ministry of Fear isn’t one of Greene’s Catholic novels the plot still carries with it many theological themes, more importantly for my present purposes is, rather than hiding from the terrors of war it confesses the horrors of them. For example, the following quote confesses to the falleness of this world without deserting it, “They were quite accustomed to sleeping underground: it had become as much part of life as the Saturday night film or the Sunday service had ever been. This is the world they knew[10].” Though one could discuss the state of Greene’s faith at the end of his life, or dispute his theology, I would argue, he sets a biblical trajectory by remaining on earth and confronting its realities, all the while critiquing what he saw as lacking in contemporary fiction[11].

Regarding the literary merit of the Inklings we might learn something from T.S. Eliot who in writing on the various types of “religious literature” quickly passes over Chesterton, because his “literary works […] are sincerely desirous of forwarding the cause of religion: that which may come under the heading of Propaganda[12].” One cannot help but think he was also alluding to his contemporaries: the Inklings. Eliot favors those whose writing illustrates the “relation between Religion and all Literature,” not merely “religious literature”[13]. That aside, we can clearly say that the Inklings were intelligent and able writers but it is bad logic to then move to accrediting the Inklings with endless literary merit. Surely Tolkien and Lewis were able writers but as Christina Brooke-Rose has argued “the techniques of realism […] invading the marvelous […] push the genre into allegory,”[14] a genre that is not only worn thin but denies personhood in favor of ideas. I can already hear the voices resounding like gongs, “But who cares what some lit critic says anyway, shouldn’t we take our cues from Christian authors?” Perhaps; so in a similar vein Flannery O’Connor writes:

The world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process […].[15]

Also Greg Wolfe, a man who currently has the best handle on the nexus of faith and literature, has written a landmark essay titled “The Christian Writer in a Fragmented Culture”[16] without mentioning a single Inkling. Blasphemous? I’d say no, Wolfe has a crystalline vision of writers working prophetically in a growing secular culture. His genealogy goes: Nathaniel Hawthorne, T.S. Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy.

The question remains: What would a contemporary Christian project look like? In partial answer to this question I submit the genre of magical realism (MR). This genre, including such prominent and diverse names as: Thomas Pynchon, Salmon Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, blends supernatural elements within an otherwise realist narrative. Rather than creating another world and importing realist strategy there (e.g. Middle Earth and Narnia) these writers are including the miraculous within the ordinary. Rushdie offers us a fine summation when he says, “You must use language in a manner which permits God to exist—the divine to be as real as the divan I am sitting on.”[17] With a statement such as this, one wonders whatever happened to the tight secular knots naturalism had once tied us in. John A. McClure, in his essay titled “Postmodern/Post-Secular: Contemporary Fiction and Spirituality”[18] describes the contemporary literary landscape as favorable to spirituality. He even considers MR in terms of a “post-secular project of resacralization”.[19] He is correct in asserting the ‘project’ nature of MR. Many have noted that MR as a genre confronts cultural imperialism and western secularism. Wendy Faris, perhaps the most important scholar of MR, writes, “irreducible elements of magic question post-Enlightenment science’s empirical definition of the world.”[20] Furthermore, it seems that people have been longing for this reintegration of the miraculous and the mundane, Faris quotes John Updike as referring to MR as “a now widely available elixir.”[21] And the Christian cannot help but agree, with its subversion of western dualisms and its “resacralization” project.[22] So while MR is not a ‘Christian’ genre it does give a voice to the marginalized while sharing in fundamental Christian projects (e.g. a distrust of western secularism). Because of this, MR--I’d like to believe-- could be understood as one venue through which literary Christians (and would-be literary Christians) can engage with the current literary landscape. Here there is no escapism; the Christian engaging with MR can freely assert the reality of God in a post-secular climate. This project would not be a superficial; Christians have authentic voices to add to the genre, voices that offer an honest narrative and a forceful worldview which, like the rest of MR, confronts western secularism. While to some having such a strong philosophical under-girding might make us ripe for the same critique Eliot offered Chesterton, that of being propagandist. However, I’d argue that all the great writers—those who are certainly not propagandist--have been conscious of their philosophical/theological assumptions, certainly Eliot was among them[23].

In the beginning of this essay I lamented that the Inklings were becoming an off-ramp by which Christians exit into a comfortable cul-de-sac; my intent is that this same phenomenon will not happen with MR. The Christian’s responsibility is to stand firm in Christ, not in a literary genre; things change with time so just as we should not exit off to the Inklings we shouldn’t fall into the same trap with MR. This city where literature and faith meet is too diverse for a ghetto. For instance there are many other writers not engaged in MR but wildly committed to the nexus of faith and literature. MR is therefore an opening, a way past the escapism of fantasy and the secularity of naturalism; it presents promise for the writer who is both committed to Christ’s kingdom and the contemporary literary landscape.

[1] Flannery O’Connor, “The Church and the Fiction Writer” O’Connor. (Literary Classics: New York, United States, 1988).

[2] Miriam Hendrix describes this situation by saying the following: “In recent years we have seen people who are more familiar with the geography of Tolkien’s Middle Earth than with that of their own country or state; we have known adults who would rather reflect on Christian truth in Lewis’s Narnia books than read his or anyone else’s theological works.” (Miriam Hendrix The Christian Imagination “Why Fantasy Appeals” ed. Leland Ryken 358 Shaw Books 2002 Colorado Springs, CO).

[3] In no way will I, nor do I intend to even allude to the possibility of, questioning either Lewis’ or Tolkien’s faith.

[4] I think the C.S. Lewis and Tolkien book industry is evidence of at least some hagiography.

[5] Entirely is an important word here.

[6] Matthew 28:19 NRSV Renovare Study Bible 1989

[7] J.R.R. Tolkien. “On Fairy Stories”. The Tolkien Reader 1966.

[8] Greg Wolfe. “Why the Inklings Aren’t Enough” 2006 Image Seattle SPU

[9] In no way do I intend to advocate the Narnia children should be sent to London to endure the bombings, my argument is more of under-girding philosophies.

[10] Graham Greene. The Ministry of Fear. 56 Penguin Classics New York, NY: 1943.

[11] Thomas Wendorf. “Greene, Tolkien, and the Mysterious Relations of Realism and Fantasy. 2002. Renascence. 79-100. Fall 2002.

[12] T.S. Eliot. Ed. Leland Ryken. “Religion and Literature”. Shaw Books Colorado Springs, CO. 2002.

[13] Ibid 201.

[14] Quoted in Wendy Ferris pg. 95-96

[15] Flannery O’Connor. Ed. Leland Ryken. “The Novelist as Believer”. The Christian Imagination. Shaw Books Colorado Springs, Co. 2002

[16] Greg Wolfe, ed. Greg Wolfe. “The Christian Writer in a Fragmented Culture” The New Religious Humanists 1997 Free Press New York, NY.

[17] quoted in Wendy Farris 98 Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative.

[18] John A. McClure “Postmodern/Post-secular: Contemporary Fiction and Spirituality. 141-163

[19] Ibid pg. 144

[20] Wendy Faris pg. 23. Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville TN. 2004.

[21] Quoted in Ibid pg. 29.

[22] While looking somewhat similar to the Inklings project magical realism is fundamentally simply because while the inklings export the supernatural to a sub-creation magical realists reintegrate the supernatural in the world.

[23] Greg Wolfe, ed. Greg Wolfe. “The Christian Writer in a Fragmented Culture” The New Religious Humanists 1997 Free Press New York, NY. pg. 206