Splintered Fragments of the True Light

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For several weeks I've been intermittently reading Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach to my kids, while dabbling (as is my wont) in the news (typically the BBC), which, true to form, has generally born witness by one headline or another to the fallen estate in which we human beings find ourselves (cf. WSC 17). This strange juxtaposition of fiction and non-fiction, of myth and non-myth, in recent weeks has engendered some thoughts on the concept of fiction or myth per se, and the way that we transmit, via stories, headlines news, and other means, a concept of what's "true" about our world to our children (while simultaneously reinforcing a concept of truth to ourselves).

At one level, of course, Roald Dahl's story of James and his rather unique adventure constitutes pure fiction -- pure human invention -- in contrast to the reality comprised in historical events, whether recent or remote. And at that level, Dahl's work and other pieces of fiction might be seen as a place of retreat from reality, a place to hide from the harsh truth of human interaction, replete with wars, rumors of wars, and other episodes of violence. At another level, Dahl's story (or other stories) might be seen as its (or their) own unique source of truth, truth that is thicker and deeper than the reality that not only confronts us in human events but seeks to conscript us into a narrative of fundamental hostility and hopelessness.

In defense of the latter perspective, I'm reminded of the conversation J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis had in 1931, a conversation that proved pivotal in Lewis's conversion to orthodox Christian faith. Lewis had by that time abandoned his juvenile atheism for belief in God, but struggled, as he confessed to Tolkein, to fully embrace Christianity's account of God the Son becoming man and living, dying, rising again, and ascending to the right hand of the Father as the basis of salvation for sinners. The whole thing, Lewis explained to his friend and colleague, seemed too closely akin to the stories discovered in Greek, Roman, and Norse myths. Tolkein famously responded not by seeking to distinguish Christianity's central (and true) claim regarding Christ's person and work from (false) pagan myths, but by showing how pagan myths (and stories of human invention more broadly) themselves communicate genuine, deep truth. Myths, which Tolkein branded "splintered fragment[s] of the true light," reflect in storied form human awareness that everything made has a Maker (i.e., creation) and that everything made is not currently conforming to its original design (i.e, the fall), as well as the hope at least of rescue (i.e., redemption) from the confines of fallen and therefore miserable existence and subsequent release into the freedom of a superior eschatological state (i.e., the consummation).

Christianity, according to Tolkein's line or argument, encapsulates the truth (or truths) that pagan stories, no matter their lack of historical verity, point towards, stories that points toward ultimate truth because their authors, as divine image-bearers, cannot ultimately escape the memory of their Maker and the hope of renewed fellowship with Him, even if they lack the resources to discover their Maker's proper identity and the path to renewed fellowship with Him apart from special revelation. Tolkein's argument helped Lewis overcome his obstacle to faith in Christianity's most fundamental historical claim, and, apparently, provided impetus to Lewis's own creative efforts to communicate truth in fragmented form (the Chronicles of Narnia).

Pursuing Tolkein's logic, one might argue that Dahl's James and the Giant Peach comprises its own splintered fragments of the true light, and so stands to teach us and our kids something more significant than our modern purveyors of truth and reality. At very least, the parallels between Dahl's work and the pivotal moments (creation, fall, redemption, consummation) of Christianity's essential narrative are intriguing (albeit, I'm guessing, unintended). James Henry Trotter, Dahl's protagonist, originally inhabits an Edenic existence in a house by the sea with his parents (creation). But the coincidence of an act of consumption by his parents ("James's mother and father went to London to do some shopping") and diabolical forces at work through the medium of a creature ("both of them suddenly got eaten up... by an enormous angry rhinoceros which had escaped from the London Zoo") brings that original, Edenic existence to a crashing halt ("in full daylight, mind you"), and James is subsequently subjected to the sin and misery of his aunts Spiker and Sponge (the fall).

James longs for rescue -- his heart aches with memories of the Edenic existence forfeited by his first (and only) parents -- but he lacks within himself the resources to engineer his salvation. Simply put, he is a slave to Spiker and Sponge (cf. John 8:34), the aunts who subject him to a decidedly wretched existence. Political institutions and/or initiatives prove equally unable to achieve the salvation for which James longs. Child protective services never comes knocking, and as such, though never actually named in Dahl's work, proves a false hope for victory (Psalm 33:17). In the end, salvation comes from the most unlikely source imaginable: a magic peach. It may seem a bit far-fetched (if not something worse) to press analogies between the magic peach (James's instrument of rescue) and our own vehicle of salvation (God incarnate living and dying for us), but surely James's means of rescue and our own share this in common: they are external (salvation comes extra nos) and surprising. Indeed, who but the true, eternal God could have conceived the salvation of sinners by the means that God actually employed for the same (the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Eternal Son)? A further point of affinity arguably emerges in the effectiveness of each means of rescue. James's rescue is complete. The giant peach flattens Spiker and Sponge en route to the sea and so removes any doubt about any ongoing claims they might make upon James. Similarly, questions about sin and Satan's ongoing claims are necessarily moot by virtue of Christ's perfect salvation (Hebrews 7:25).

James's rescue is both fully realized (justification) and ongoing (sanctification). His release from the dominion of Spiker and Sponge doesn't immediately usher James into his eschatological inheritance (New York City). A trajectory towards the same is set, but the path to glory involves trials and troubles (sharks, cloud men, etc.). But there is a consummation to James's story of original Edenic bliss, enslavement to Spiker and Sponge, and salvation via an unlikely source. James's story culminates not in simple return to his original home by the sea, but the greater eschatological end of life in New York City (think the New Jerusalem in Rev. 21), a city which does not descend from the sky, but is descended to by James and his companions.

My efforts to discover analogies between Christianity's fundamental narrative and Dahl's James and the Giant Peach are admittedly a stretch. Still, I can't help feeling like Dahl's story -- and for that matter, most other stories -- constitutes a greater ally than the evening news in my efforts to shape my children's understanding of and appreciation for the pivotal moments in a true concept of this world and our place in it: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. And perhaps Tolkein's notion of "splintered fragment[s] of the true light" lends some legitimacy to my efforts to supplement more straightforward means of communicating the Gospel to my children (for instance, catachesis) with creative interpretations of the stories they (and I) love.

Posted March 8, 2018 @ 7:23 AM by Aaron Denlinger

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