Monday, April 28, 2008

Colin Duriez: A Theology of Fantasy and the Legacy of Tolkien and Lewis

As his website states, "Colin Duriez is based in Keswick in north-west England, and writes books, edits and lectures. He has appeared as a commentator on extended version film DVDs of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, the 'Royal' 4 DVD set of Walden/Disney's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the Sony DVD Ringers about Tolkien's fandom and the impact of Tolkien on popular culture. He is also a part-time tutor at Lancaster University.

"His books include The C.S. Lewis Encyclopedia (Crossway/SPCK), J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Story of Their Friendship (HiddenSpring/Sutton Publishing), Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings (Paulist Press), A Field Guide to Narnia (Sutton/InterVarsity), The C.S. Lewis Chronicles (Bluebridge/DLT), A.D. 33: The Year that Changed the World (The History Press/InterVarsity), and a guide to the Harry Potter books for The History Press and InterVarsity."

I first became aware of Colin's work through my research on fantasy and theology in a journal article, and this stimulated my interest in not only exploring the topic further, but also in talking to Colin to probe his thinking further on these issues. He graciously carved out time in a very busy writing schedule to discuss fantasy, the imagination, theology and popular culture.

Morehead's Musings: Colin, thank you for carving out some time in the midst of a busy schedule to touch on fantasy and theology. On a personal note, how did you become interested in fantasy, and how did you combine this with your Christian faith?

Colin Duriez: My reflective interest in fantasy goes back to my discovery of C. S. Lewis’s writings when I was seventeen or eighteen. These provided a key for me as an adult to the stories I had enjoyed as a child and adolescent. He along with his friend Tolkien (to whom Lewis led me through his writings) rehabilitated fantasy for adults, which had become associated with childhood in the nineteenth century. I learnt from Lewis and Tolkien that literary fantasy has its roots in storytelling, which is as old as language itself. Studying literature and philosophy at university heightened rather than diminished my interest in fantasy. It is in connection with storytelling that fantasy coheres for me with my Christian faith and thinking. Storytelling has a fascinating link with history telling. Christianity is rooted in real history. The Bible celebrates God’s hand in history. The shaping of events by God, a person, turns human history – the contingency of human actions – into story, while remaining history. For Lewis and Tolkien myth (i.e. story) became fact (or, to put it another way, fact become story) with the incarnation of Christ. This pivotal event marked the fulfilment and completion of human storytelling. My own view is that human history from the very beginning has had a story shape, as revealed in Scripture. Thus I see the Bible as historical from the first chapter of Genesis, though it is not revealed in a way that conforms to an Enlightenment mode, which dictates in a very narrow manner what is possible—that mode, I feel, is fatally crippled by a dualism of fact and meaning. I’m always fascinated by the manner in which Jesus taught so much by way of story—though it must be stressed that he was teaching in the context of a rich understanding on the part of his audiences of Scriptural history. Though story is a form of magic, casting a spell, it obeys strict rules. It is not an easy option in evangelism.

Morehead's Musings: I know you have written quite a bit on the topic of fantasy, and one article you wrote in 1998 for Themelios caught my attention titled "The Theology of Fantasy in Lewis and Tolkien." In my view, a theology of fantasy has great potential to inform the Christian faith, particularly in the West which is now seeking re-enchantment in the wake of modernity. Early on in this article you note that evangelicals tend to view the Bible from a framework of propositional truth "looking at reality in a theoretical, systematic way." But you go on and write that, "the Bible encourages, in a very basic, straightforward way, what might be called a symbolic perception of reality." How might engagement with fantasy help us regain a sense of balance between "the poetic and the prosaic, the symbolic and the literal" in not only biblical interpretation, but Christian theology and imagination as well?

Colin Duriez: The predominance in contemporary fantasy of Christians with global appeal (Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling) should provide the clue that imaginative engagement with our culture is possible. We have to remember, however, that the imagination has a very different job to do than that of theoretical argument and persuasion, though they are complementary. Would-be evangelists and apologists must know the tools in their toolboxes. The task is too important to countenance carelessness. I despaired when the first Narnia movie from Disney was due to appear and well-meaning Christians were circulating the slogan, “Aslan is Christ.” This was undoing Lewis’s careful imaginative work—that of preparing the way for the evangelist, getting past, as Lewis put it, the “watchful dragons.”

It is interesting how much of the orientation of Tolkien and Lewis, and even J. K. Rowling, is to the pre-modern. Tolkien and Lewis rehabilitated a medieval world-picture, and Rowling drew inspiration from sixteenth century alchemy, which had a vital rather than mechanistic view of nature. Tolkien and Lewis were fascinated by what they saw as a kind of enlightened paganism. They were caught up in how far the pagan imagination could go in its insights into reality without the aid of special revelation, especially the revelation embodied in Christ. Tolkien and Lewis have struck a chord with twenty-first century culture in making imaginative use of pagan insights. Similarly, in a playful way, Rowling draws upon sixteenth century alchemy—or rather the view of the world it exemplified.

These big names aside, there has been an inspiring growth in Christians involved in the mainstream arts and media, frequently in humble roles — film, television, radio, painting, architecture, sculpture, etc — very often with little encouragement from their churches. As well as more of this hands-on engagement, we need to think through the link in many people’s consciousness between interest in fantasy and the subjectivizing and privatization of faith. Responding to this unhelpful link requires hard, careful thinking and a quality of creativity in making fantasy. Francis Schaeffer’s talk of a desperate mystical leap away from the rational in modern culture remains prophetic, as does his portrayal of the rational in the modern world as leading to death and despair. He saw the modern dilemma, whereby people are equally caught by their reasoning and by their imagination. For Christians, working with the imagination is an essential task, and so is engaging in thinking and ideas. The imagination is sexy at the moment but we shall fail if we seize its opportunities but fail to think, and to call people to heed the demands of Christianity’s truth claims.

By speaking of the Bible encouraging a “symbolic perception of reality” (i.e. a seeing that is shaped by symbol) I’m drawing upon the insights of Hans Rookmaaker, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield and others that our very experience of reality as human beings changes at different periods of history. (It even changes during one’s life—compare, if you can, your memory of how you perceived life as a child and as an adult.) Our very sensations, consciousness, and possibly our emotions are shaped by our cultural participation. This shaping is of course complex and multifaceted, but includes our moulding by the language we speak, art forms, literature, and the myths and stories that are part of our lives, as comfortable as old shoes. History-telling, I believe, is very important in perpetuating a society and its culture. A society that is soaked in [Christian] Scripture will perceive reality in a different way from a secular one, or an Islamic or Hindu community. The belief structures of a culture are the most important condition of its makeup. The very common view of progress and evolution in human history is only an example of a conditioning belief. This is not to deny the importance of development and growth in a culture. (There is all the difference in the world between a closed, static culture and one that opens up and develops because its core beliefs are full of possibilities for enriching human life and well-being.)

In reading the Bible we begin to see the world in a new way, as we internalize its narratives, poetry and didactic sections. The Bible as The Book has an overarching metaphorical quality that gripped the West for an enormous period, and still influences the post-Christian West (you could argue that many modern ideas, e.g. ideological individualism and socialism, are Christian heresies). The Book continues to grip very many people – billions – in the developing world. The Bible engenders a way of seeing that does not prescribe a theocracy or a totalitarian fundamentalism. Rather it expresses itself in myriad forms in human societies and cultures, while meriting a genus description like “basic Christianity,” “historic Christianity” or “Judeo-Christianity” or the label C. S. Lewis brilliantly borrowed from the Puritan Divine Richard Baxter, “mere Christianity.”

We need, I think, to rehabilitate the idea (which goes back to Samuel Taylor Coleridge) that imagination is integral to our mental processes, and thus to truth-gaining. Fantasy is a power and product of the imagination, as thinking is a product and power of the intellect. While imagination and reason have distinct and differing roles in truth-gaining, their integration is essential in knowing. In my view, the sciences in practice rely enormously on imagination (e.g. in modelling) whether they are the hard sciences or cosmology. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, the sciences are often concerned with realities that cannot be touched, smelt or otherwise experienced with our normal repertoire of physical senses—we rely on metaphor to conceive of unseen realities.

Morehead's Musings: In your article you also state that now that we are in a post-modern culture, the “character and social role of fantasy might change and become more central, as it was before the Enlightenment became dominant." Can you discuss how you see this taking place in Western culture since you wrote this article ten years ago, and suggest areas in which the church needs more imaginative engagement?

Colin Duriez: There is no doubt that fantasy has returned to a central place in our culture. Even in academic literary circles it has become acceptable to take writers like Lewis and Tolkien seriously, even though I come across the occasional academic who still complains that Tolkien only appeals to people who have not progressed past adolescence (rather like atheists who claim that belief in God is for people who haven’t grown up). As well as the globally popular filming of works by Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling and Pullman, there has been a plethora of popular TV series like Lost, Heroes, Dr Who and Pushing the Daisies. The Church needs to support believing filmmakers, writers, artists, dancers, who are working in mainstream culture. This must include a rigorous intellectual underpinning of creative work, as for instance Tolkien and Lewis had in Oxford in the thirties and forties in their friendship, and their wider friendships through the Inklings, their club of literary and like-minded people. We have two thousand years of Christian thinking to get us started! The nearest thing I’ve seen in the recent evangelical world is L’Abri, founded by Francis Schaeffer and in several countries, providing a spiritual Shelter, not as a retreat from the world but as a place to be nurtured and enabled to survive in and contribute to the seasoning and redemption of the world. There are other groups as well. They can be as small as where two or three are gathered.

Morehead's Musings: As the title of your article indicates, it addresses a theology of imaginative fantasy as it relates to the writings of Lewis and Tolkien. Can you touch on Lewis's notion of imagination as "meaning making," and Tolkien's concept of the imagination as "sub-creation" and how these ideas might inform a contemporary theology of fantasy and post-modern cultural engagement?

Colin Duriez: Imaginative work results in the making of meaning. Human history itself, as I mentioned earlier, can be seen as creation of meaning, as it is shaped by human beings and ultimately by the Divine hand, who is the Lord of history. Tolkien (and Lewis was influenced him in this) followed the logic of the imagination as making (poema) with his distinctive idea of “sub-creation”—creating in the image of God’s creation, primary reality. God has established primary reality as full of, indeed overflowing with, meaning. In their view imagined worlds by necessity capture knowledge of and insights into the very nature of reality. Lewis was undoubtedly more aware than Tolkien of the apologetic potential of imaginative work. He believed that stories and the making of myths for a contemporary audience could prepare the ground for the gospel. Stories and parables and other imaginative work can help to create a climate favourable to understanding the evangelist’s message. They can get past those “watchful dragons.” They aid the creation of a context within which the Christian claims and dogmas are meaningful and thus effectively communicated; in a sense, given the post-Christian character of the modern world, the Christian message is translated. As medieval scholars, they realized that the human imagination, unlike God’s, does not start with nothing. They picked up upon the symbolism, iconography, and archetypes of what they saw as an enlightened paganism, which in its patterning over time had captured insights congenial to the embodying of Christian meaning, where Christ is the fulfilment of pagan dreams. Similarly J. K. Rowling appropriated imaginative patterns from sixteenth century alchemy and a neo-platonic and Romantic view of nature as vital rather than mechanistic to incarnate what are also essentially Christian meanings.

There are of course many ways in which Christians can make meaning imaginatively today, building “secondary worlds” that through their large metaphors and narratives help contemporary people to see in a restored and re-enchanted way—through story, through social structures (like Schaeffer’s L’Abri experiment), through cinema, art, architecture, a life that expresses what being human is, building and restoring relationships, through loving, through churches that demonstrate the healing of barriers of race, poverty, age, and sex. As Schaeffer remarked: “The Christian is the really free person . . . whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.”

Morehead's Musings: In your Themelios article you discuss a number of facets of the "implied theology" of Lewis and Tolkien, two of which stuck out for me, that of otherness and the numinous. Can you flesh these out a little and touch on why they might be significant for our theology today?

Colin Duriez: Lewis picked up upon what might be called a phenomenology of human experience. In The Problem of Pain he makes use of Otto’s study The Idea of the Holy, which highlighted an aspect of human experience which for Lewis went beyond “the walls of the world”—the numinous, which is part of our experience of the “other.” Lewis’s view of otherness is exceedingly rich, and tied in with his constant, hallmark quest for the real. He was totally counter to the incipient narcissism of our day. As a writer and storyteller he struggled to capture the real in words, which by their nature generalize and universalize. His guiding pattern, I think, was the Incarnation of Christ, where, as he put it, “myth became fact.” For Lewis, the “other” could range from our experience of the spirit (evidenced for him even when we think) to the encounter of man and woman. There is a beautiful passage in his science-fiction Out of the Silent Planet about the first encounter of alien rational species: “Neither dared let the other approach, yet each repeatedly felt the impulse to do so himself, and yielded to it. It was foolish, frightening, ecstatic and unbearable all in one moment. It was more than curiosity. It was like a courtship—like the meeting of the first man and the first woman in the world; it was like something beyond that …”

For Lewis experiences of the “other” (for instance, in tasting other worlds in fantasy) are pointers to the fact that reality is created by God, imprinted with his presence. He saw his task as storyteller (and, I think, as scholar) to remove “the veil of familiarity” so that our perception of reality is restored, in order that we begin to see things as they really are, lit up with their full meaning. Such a re-enchanted view helps provide a context for meaningful communication of Christian truth claims.

Morehead's Musings: With our culture's continued interest in fantasy, and the church in the West scrambling to adjust to cultural changes in living in this environment and communicating the story of Jesus in this context, do you think that Lewis and Tolkien will continue to provide a stimulation for the theological imagination into the foreseeable future?

Colin Duriez: It is remarkable that two scholars within the closeted world of Oxford in the thirties and forties, who talked, drank and socialized in smoky pubs, were thinking and writing in a way which was to grip hearts and minds across the globe in the twenty-first century. Their popularity and appeal was not created by the blockbuster movies of Middle-earth and Narnia—it was established before then, though of course on a smaller scale. But cinema is one of the most powerful and distinctly our-age art forms—and this in itself tells us something of the relevance of their concerns with imagination that is connected into deep and thorough thinking and theology. They understood who the human being is, and this, I think, explains their global appeal.

Morehead's Musings: Colin, thank you again. This was fascinating, and it points me once again to continued reflection upon myth, imagination, fantasy, and the contributions of Lewis and Tolkien to these areas.

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