Last year, in preparation for the “Abide” retreat we were working on for our church, our pastor’s wife, Barbara Juliani, gave us each a copy of Rankin Wilbourne’s book, Union with Christ. In this book, Rankin says we need to have a big imagination to comprehend who God is. I love that. Our biggest takeaway from this book was this idea of thinking of our Christian lives as enchanted.
What exactly does this mean? We often view fairy tales as magic, myths as alternative to truth, and our Christian beliefs we are forever defending as the ultimate Truth. As C.S. Lewis says, “Christianity is both a myth and a fact. It’s unique. It’s the true myth.”
In an interview, Rankin Wilbourne expands on this idea,
“Union with Christ is an enchanted reality that displaces us from the center of our lives, but we live in a disenchanted, self-centered world. By “enchanted” I don’t mean anything too different than what J.R.R. Tolkien was getting at in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” Tolkien wonders why these stories continue to have such a hold over us, even in our increasingly secular and supposedly sophisticated age. (Today, we could ask, “Why is Harry Potter so popular?”)
Tolkien suggests that we love these stories because they point to an underlying invisible reality, “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world,” that we feel in our bones must be true, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. We love these stories because they are hints and echoes of the one true story we were made to hear: the Gospel, the most magical story of all.
Where, once upon a time, the King of the universe disguised Himself as a baby. He grew up and did wonderful, beautiful things: fed thousands of people from one small lunchbox, calmed a storm by speaking to it, made sick and broken people well, and brought the dead back to life. Then, in an act of heroic self-sacrifice, He let Himself be killed. He died a gruesome death on a cross.
The Gospel is an enchanted story — hence our need for imagination. But it’s not just a story. We love redemption stories because we were created to inhabit such a story. It is enchanted, but it is real, this story Jesus is writing as He makes all things new and invites us to see the world with new eyes (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).”
This is pretty helpful when we need to be encouraged, filled with hope, or gripped with wonder and awe. These ideas led us into reading more about fairy tales. My mom actually found this book while on a silent retreat. It’s not Christian or religious, nor is it an easy read, but Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales speaks directly to how we are hardwired for fairy tales. This is nothing new to fans of Tolkien and Lewis. In his essay, On Fairy Stories, Tolkien writes,
“The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality’. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.”
This is again why story, specifically fairy tales, are important as we make sense of our stories and develop a bigger imagination for the Gospel story. Tolkien himself created a framework for himself to have this larger scope of the Gospel in his own stories. The story of the Gospel would not work in another form. As Lewis writes in his essay Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said,
“I wrote fairy tales because the Fairy Tale seemed the ideal Form for the stuff I had to say. Then of course the Man in me began to have his turn. I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. As obligation to feel can freeze feelings. “
To be clear, this is not to live in a fantasy world of a fairy tale, but to use the fairy tale as framework to better see and know our story in Christ. We should aim to see the magic in the gospel story, not replace the gospel with magic. No quote fest is complete without Madeleine L’Engle, (our patron saint of Wondern Awe). She writes in A Circle of Quiet ,
“Our children… have a passionate need for the dimension of transcendence, mysticism, way-outness. We’re not offering it to them legitimately. The tendency of the churches to be relevant and more-secular-than-thou does not answer our need for the transcendent. As George Tyrrell wrote about a hundred years ago, “If a [man’s] craving for the mysterious, the wonderful, the supernatural, be not fed on true religion, it will feed itself on the garbage of any superstition that is offered to it.”
I believe L’Engle answers her own charge in her work and even in the mere title Glorious Impossible, her Christmas story book where she writes the gospel story along side of Giotto’s enchanting frescos.
As the famous Chesterton quote points out, we know there are dragons, so the fairy tale does not create the fear of big bad things. Rather the fairy tale structure gives the thread that leads through the battle with the dragon and leads to the hope of returning home safely. And this is a hope that does not disappoint because this
Paul Miller writes of this journey as a “J curve”: gotta go down (death) before you go up (resurrection). Brene Brown writes of this as a 3-day story telling process (“The Reckoning, The Rumbling, and the Revolution”).
Is not the basic formula for a fairy tale what Romans 5 lays out for us?
Enchanted Reality Reading List:
- Union with Christ by Rankin Wilbourne
- The Lion of Judah in Never-Never Land: God, Man & Mature in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Tales by Kathryn Lindskoog
- Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle
- Glorious Impossible by Madeleine L’Engle
- The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim
- Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale by Fredrick Buechner
- The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers
- Awe: Why It Matters for Everything We Think, Say, and Do by Paul Tripp