Saturday, October 30, 2010

On Killing Butterflies (Originally published 4/18/06)

An absurd concept has crept its merry way into the doors of the modern Church. A concept so perverse in nature and crippling to the Church’s ability to communicate effectively, that it needs to be done away with: The Church has somehow got into its head an idea that is as strange and peculiar as the idea that birds should live in the belly of the ocean and that fish should sleep in trees. The Church has, in fact, made an equation between truth and fact.

Once, long ago, I was having an intense late-night conversation with my brother. We were talking about the state of the world and that kind of thing, when eventually the conversation led to the place all conversations between homeschoolers ultimately led back then: Harry Potter. As I remember it, my brother and I were talking about whether or not Harry Potter was evil, and, I think, my brother was defending him (which would be just like him to do something sinful like that). As the conversation progressed, I found it necessary to deliver my basic philosophy of fairy tales, since that was clearly becoming the issue. Unfortunately, at the time, I had no such philosophy. Thankfully however, in the course of conversation, a particularly reasonably sounding philosophy presented itself to me. So as a triumphant climax to the debate I speculated that the only acceptable fairy tales are the ones which state that they are just fairy tales. That is, they don’t pretend to have taken place in the real world. Stories that pretend that the fabrics from which they are woven (whether they be elves, magical realms, genies, or talking animals) are actually a part of the real world, I speculated, lie, because such stories state the facts of human history and experience as other than they are.

This is the stance I took, and really what other stance could I, a Christian, a worshipper of the Truth, take on such an issue? I saw no way around it. So that night, standing on the cement floor of our unfinished Colorado basement, I took the ultimate stance that a homeschooler can take against anything: I stated that I would not allow my children to read these kinds of stories. Stories like Aladdin and The Lord of the Rings, even, for according to the facts there are no such things as genies in the real world, and the actual history of “Middle Earth” is not as Tolkien presented it. Don’t misunderstand me here; I certainly didn’t want to take these things away from my (nonexistent) kids, but, as I saw it, I had no choice. Anything that runs against the facts has to be a lie, I reasoned, and I wasn’t about to partake in spreading lies. Satan himself is the Father of lies and lies are opposed to God, who is the Truth. I didn’t see any way around it.

That was about five years ago. Fast-forward to my life now: As my top-twenty favorites lists stand now, almost all of the books on them are either fantasies, fairy-tales of some sort, or (though I hate the term) science-fiction. And, of course, the rest of the fiction is just that: fiction, putting forth as truth events that have never taken place. And this disregard for facts lapses into my taste in music and movies as well. So what’s changed? How can I possibly justify indulging in (and recommending!) artwork based on untruths? I can do so for this one reason only; a reason so obvious and plain that I’m ashamed not to have seen it earlier: in my philosophy I was drawing a nonexistent equation between truth and fact. For truth and fact are similar, and easily mistaken. But the difference is important: Fact is the stuff of texts books, the stuff of dead theology. Truth is what led the books to be written, and is what first sparked the fire of love within the heart of the theologian. Facts can be proved by empirical means, the five senses, but truth lies beyond the merely physical realm: Like a dissected butterfly, a fact lies dead on a table or in a jar, revealing all of the information that a scientist could want about the construction of the butterfly. Yet it seems that, in killing the butterfly, the essence of the butterfly is somehow missed. Truth, on the other hand, flits from flower to flower, never quite displaying itself fully, but always entrancing us with its mystery.

But why should we care? How can such semantics possibly affect our lives and the life of the Church? As I see it, this is an essential concept to the artist (stick with me here) because, though the artist deals in facts (events, conversations, objects, and so forth), he must see beyond these things to the Truth and do his best to point his audience beyond these things as well. It is essential to the Church in general for the same reason: the Church too must see beyond the veil of this world. For an example, let us bring this idea back to where we started with it: the realm of the fairies. In our world we are surrounded by meaninglessness; facts that, instead of pointing to the Truth (as was their original intent), distract from it. The fairy tale however, can cut through the blinding fog of empty facts by transporting us to a world without “facts”. Just as an recovering alcoholic might avoid temptation by removing all alcohol from his house, a well-constructed fairy tale allows us to be in an environment where facts of this world are removed and replaced with a new set of “facts” so that we are not tempted to worship facts as if they are truth. (A whole nother problem develops, of course, when the new "facts" themselves become objects of worship, as can be seen in many fans of science fiction.)

So the damage to the Church is this: In the name of Christ we have chosen to remain fascinated by the mists of this world and have ignored the beauties of God's Kingdom. It's said that fairy tales are bad because they’re escapist, that they take people out of the “real world”. Could it not be that fairy tales (and works of fiction in general) are good because they take us out of Satan's “real world”; a world of artifice and lies, smoke and fog? Such transportation would then be escapism in its highest form. And, if this is so, I say all the better for my children.

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