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Escaping To Inspiration

I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord. Be strong and let your heart take courage. Yes, wait for the Lord. […]
| Jul 18, 2011 | No comments |

I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord. Be strong and let your heart take courage. Yes, wait for the Lord.

So says King David in Psalm 27:14. It’s a statement of hope. With enemies encircling him and war rising against him, in the face of abandonment, David turned to God and found hope.

Another term might be inspiration, the courage to go on. I’ve thought about this subject recently because of a post Mike Duran wrote at Decompose regarding inspirational fiction. [Please note, Mike’s article was the catalyst for my thoughts. I am in no way attempting to write a rebuttal or a critique or a spin off of his thoughts. I am merely crediting him with the inspiration — pun intended — for this article. 😀 ]

When all seems darkest, who thinks turning out the lights will help? Who wants to snuff out the last candle or throw away the flashlight?

Instead, when darkness surrounds us, our instinct is to search for some source of light, even the brief flicker of a match. We want to be oriented aright. We want to be assured of our path. We want to be warned of the obstacles in front of us. Most of all, we want a glimpse of our destination.

J. R. R. Tolkien famously expressed the role of fantasy in serving as a light in the dark in his essay, “On Fairy-Stories”:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?

The question that comes to my mind, however, is whether or not people in western society today are escaping, not to home as Tolkien stated in his metaphor, but to inspiration, or hope, itself. Has the end destination become the land of escape?

Fantasy — stories exploring the struggle between good and evil — has the framework in place to show readers “home.” But if, instead, its stories do not deliver truth, I suggest they merely offer hope in hope.

Further, I believe that fantasies delivering false hope are worse than those offering no hope — true dystopian stories.

Fantasies need to tell the truth about both good and evil. What would The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe be without the witch?

The White Witch was important because she showed evil on many levels. She showed the seduction of power and pleasure in her relationship with Edmund. She showed how the grip of fear and suspicion could lead to compromise when she intimidated Mr. Tumnus the Fawn. She showed how forestalling Christmas forestalled the coming of new life and the renewal of the world. She showed how her own desire for personal power led to a disregard for life.

In other words, she was an accurate portrayal of evil.

Enter the Lion.

Aslan was equally an accurate portrayal of good. He the self-sacrificing forgiver who had power to save was the hero who brought life from death.

In these accurate portrayals, C. S. Lewis created true inspiration. He painted the home to which we must escape if we are truly to come free of prison.

Inspiration was an important aspect of fantasy for Tolkien as well. As N. Lund stated in his essay “How to Read Tolkien: For Enjoyment, Escape or Edification? Or perhaps all of the above?”:

Tolkien asserted that fairy tales (fantasy) depend upon “consolation,” which he defined as “the happy ending.” Tolkien and Lewis coined their own term for this: “eucatastrophe” (literally, the “happy disaster” or “happy sudden turn”). Tolkien stated that the greatest eucatastrophe, and the model for all eucatastrophes, was the resurrection of Christ from the dead. It is the moment of joyful surprise at unexpected deliverance from evil. In attempting to explain this critical element in fantasy, Tolkien then employed the New Testament term “evangelium,” which means “the Gospel.” Tolkien asserted: “in the ‘eucatastrophe’ we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater — it may be a far-off gleam or echo or evangelium in the real world.” He concluded: “The Christian may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.”

As I see it, few people today deny that the world is dark. Consequently, many writers offer hope. The problem is, believing harder doesn’t change the dark. Believing that the dark isn’t actually dark doesn’t change the dark. Believing that I can see in the dark, doesn’t change the fact that I can’t. Only one thing can deal with the dark, and that’s light.

Christian fantasy is situated to offer true hope, real inspiration, not false or pretend or temporary escape that leaves us still imprisoned.

I embrace inspiration because I agree with Tolkien: even the small inspiration of fiction points to the ultimate inspiration of the resurrection, the means to the ultimate escape to the ultimate Home.

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Galadriel
Guest

That’s so true–and with people today, it may not seem to make sense, but it does.

Bruce Hennigan
Guest

I’m sitting here looking out my window at vultures soaring over the savannah. Something is dead. Not sure what, but they are certainly interested. Someone told me that vultures have specific tasks in breaking down a carcass. One vulture, for instance, has a beak specifically shaped to eat the intercostal muscles. That would be the muscles in between the ribs. You’ve eaten ribs, right? Same thing. Only, fresher.
 
I was thinking that one of the vultures must be the head vulture, the captain of the enterprise, scoping out the grasslands for dead meat. Does he or she do so through smell? Sight? Billboard? Not sure. And, who decides who gets the rib meat beak? I guess God does. Unless you don’t believe in God and then Chance decides.
 
I read where the Captain America movie coming out next weekend has very few scenes of Captain America taking out Nazis. Specifically, no scenes where he gets to knock out Hitler. The reason? Someone might be offended if we portrayed Nazis as evil. What? Someone would be offended if we portrayed Nazis as evil? Did I miss something? Didn’t they kill millions underneath the leadership of a deranged megalomaniac whose ultimate solution was to gas and fry 6 million Jews and 1 million Christians? And, somehow in today’s society we are supposed to rationalize that behavior away as acceptable under post modern thought?
 
I’d rather eat rotten rib meat!

The point of my comments is that modern day fantasies can point to hope but in a post modern world where there is no such thing as good or evil; where there is not such thing as truth; where all is relative and we live on a slippery slope then what is there to aspire to? What is there to hope for? Ultimate good cannot exist in our culture. Neither can ultimate evil. Like the misguided concept of having sympathy for the Nazi cause in World War II, we tend to avoid pegging anyone with a “bad” image.

But, can we have hope without truth and goodness? Ultimately, can we have hope without God? Paul said that if there is no resurrection then our faith is empty and pointless. As a writer of speculative fiction, I will always strive to show hope in my stories. For to not do so is to deny the very existence of God. What I must be careful with, in my  own writings, is to make sure that hope is not open ended and abstract but rooted very clearly in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That hope doesn’t have to be expressed in a way that “preaches” to the reader. But, that hope, as Lewis did with Aslan, can be a symbol of that sacrificial love only Christ demonstrated.

Mike’s post and your post are very important. Can we ever inspire separate from the truth of the Gospel? 

Michelle R. Wood
Member

Bruce and others, please see this link for a detailed explanation from the movie’s producers as to why Cap isn’t hitting Hit. There are fairly good reasons they outline, both from a storytelling and franchise angle. Actually, I don’t personally care about seeing yet another hate-the-Nazis flick. As Stephen points out, they’re really the onlyvillains left to Hollywood, and have been abused accordingly. I personally find the overuse of Nazis as villains to be a form of minimalizing real evil: once you have an absolute evil people that can be totally dehumanied, you don’t have to “worry” about what’s good and what’s evil (reminds me of the conversation we had regarding the movie Serenity a while back). Ergo, the US and its allies are always good and the Nazis (and the Italians to some extent) are always evil. This logic particularly explains why the Western theatre of WWII is more popular for movies while the Eastern theatre (which is actually the reason the US got involved in the war in the first place) is largely ignored.
 
OK, end of hijaking the thread rant.
 
To Becky’s point: I think the main problem with many fantastical narratives espousing hope as the ultimate saving force is that many storytellers eschew sacrifice of any kind. I do not necessarily mean presenting an Aslan sacrificed on the stone table, but the idea that if the character truly loves another he or she is willing to sacrifice personal happiness/glory/fame/success in order for others to advance. (note: this problem plagues romance as well, as our conversation about the difference between love/lust pointed out). Some of the most beloved characters in fiction have espoused the belief that “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” (including the one who said that, Trekkies will note).
 
I’d point out that we don’t like characters who pointlessly sacrifice their lives or needs out of madness or delusions of grandeur. If toward the end of New Hope Luke had crashed his fighter into the Death Star rather than simply step out on faith to take the shot, I doubt few would have found that a satisfying ending (even if it had worked). But it is incredibly moving at the end of Return of the Jedi how Luke finds internal peace by seeming to give up his life (which, ironically and Scripturally, gains it for him), and how Darth Vader then (spoiler alert!) gains his life by sacrificing it on behalf of his son.
 
When characters and plots work only through characters ruthlessly achieving their goals in a form of reality show, winnter-takes-all mentality, something important is lost from the story. As Christians we recognize the need for the ultimate Sacrifice. As people we all yearn for sacrifice, even if we do not recognize what that need is. Whether it’s Spock, Darth Vader, Kosh (“Babylon 5” reference), or even the Beast choosing to allow Belle to leave rather than force her to stay, we find character capable of such exterme generosity breathtaking. Then, later, when the fight begins or the struggles continue, we know absolutely why we are fighting and what is at stake: not hope, not even faith, but love, the greatest of these.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

I read where the Captain America movie coming out next weekend has very few scenes of Captain America taking out Nazis. Specifically, no scenes where he gets to knock out Hitler. The reason? Someone might be offended if we portrayed Nazis as evil. What? Someone would be offended if we portrayed Nazis as evil? Did I miss something?

If that’s indeed the case (source?), then that would not only be postmodernism-absurd, but ridiculous given the fact that even in pop-culture storytelling, Nazis are almost the only acceptable villains left.

Indiana Jones villains? Nazis.

Captain America villains, even partly? Nazis.

Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters? Nazi-esque.

Modern-day racists / politicians you personally dislike? They’re like Nazis!

… And so on. I believe it was in a Simpsons episode that Bart Simpson gave a very serious post-program reminder that although the story had just seemed to glorify war, war is in fact bad, and the only acceptable wars are the Revolutionary War, World War II, and the Star Wars trilogy.

Whereas for other infamous villains like militant Islam, you get straight-faced op-eds claiming that everyone but militant Islamists are responsible for their evils; even the BBC TV series Robin Hood (which I’ve overall enjoyed) makes up hilarious details about how all Crusade-era Muslims are/were Misunderstood and just want peace in the Holy Land along with the Jews, if it weren’t for the evil white medieval Brits who came along to spoil the Middle East peace plan. And for other terror groups, they get turned, in the movie versions anyway, into “Serbians,” or are secretly funded by White Warmongers. (Even the awesome Iron Man film fell into this trope trap.)

So far, then, I don’t think Nazis are in danger of being postmodernized on a mass scale. Instead, and despite their horrific evils, they seem to be the scapegoat for all sin. As long as we know the Nazis were evil, then everyone else is okay and we needn’t worry!

Hm. Saying it like that almost makes this sound positive. But oddly enough, I disagree.

From Becky:

Fantasy — stories exploring the struggle between good and evil — has the framework in place to show readers “home.” But if, instead, its stories do not deliver truth, I suggest they merely offer hope in hope.

Further, I believe that fantasies delivering false hope are worse than those offering no hope — true dystopian stories.

Fantasies need to tell the truth about both good and evil.

Amen to that. I wonder, though: what specific examples might we find, and might arise in our own critiques, that overcorrect for either set of false-hope offers?

Yes, it seems you’re saying there are two sets of false-hope in Christian fiction and even teaching. One says just get your hands in the dirt more and find out what it’s Really Like, and that will fix Christianitiy! Another says: Just make Inspirational Material, ignore the bad stuff and “discern,” and that will fix Christianity!

But I think either set of critiques has a flawed goal: reacting to wrongs and fix Christianity, instead of desiring to fix our eyes on Christ and the Kingdom.

 

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Bruce and others, please see this link for a detailed explanation from the movie’s producers as to why Cap isn’t hitting Hit. There are fairly good reasons they outline, both from a storytelling and franchise angle.

I’d already heard (though I wish I hadn’t, because it’s a spoiler!) that the film contrasts the showmanship of a USO performance with the Captain really wanting to actually fight. And in the show they reference Captain American punching Hitler, which is a tribute to the original comic book covers. Actually if I recall right, there were multiple such covers like that, which had little to do with the actual story within but everything to do with wartime propaganda.

Ergo, the US and its allies are always good and the Nazis (and the Italians to some extent) are always evil. This logic particularly explains why the Western theatre of WWII is more popular for movies while the Eastern theatre (which is actually the reason the US got involved in the war in the first place) is largely ignored.

Yep, Michelle, though I would hasten to add that of course the Nazis were evil; no one’s trying to make them into a nuanced or sympathetic villain. The problem, as you said, comes on the flip side: assuming that they’re the only evil villain out there, and as far as we’ve determined that, we’re safe. But that’s naive. The National Socialist party and all the associated hoopla looked completely progressive and righteous at the time. And people simply excused the really horrible stuff as excesses or simple propaganda — the same way they do now with actual eugenics-related evils that continue to this day.

It does come to the point where Nazis-as-villains, yet again, bore me. They’re too easy a target. Let’s have more stories and films with villains who aren’t Just Another Evil Nazi.