Can we harmonise our popular films, TV shows and novels with Christ?
There’s a touching story about a letter C.S. Lewis received from a mother with a worried child called Laurence. Laurence was worried because he felt that he loved Aslan (a fictional representation of Jesus in Lewis’ Narnia stories) more than the real Jesus. In his reply, Lewis said: “Laurence can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before.” This is the consequence of the patristic attitude to secular literature we discussed in Part 1. When someone encounters Christ in another form, the Church’s job is not to tear down and condemn that apprehension because it is ‘pagan’ or ‘secular’; it is rather to build on that link, and to declare to them the true name of ‘the One whom they worship without knowing’ (Acts 17:22). There are few people nowadays who cannot point to a favourite movie or novel; we should never underestimate the power (and the sheer, humble honesty) of acknowledging that even though a work might not be produced by the Church, it still reflects Christ Himself in its own way. And maybe, just maybe, the things which a person loves about that work, are features of Christ Himself.
A sceptical reader might be wondering how popular culture, with all its violent special effects and promiscuity, could possibly reflect anything of true spiritual worth. Granted, as the fathers advised, we’ll have to do a lot of ‘pruning’ and ‘culling’ to get at the spiritual truth in popular culture. But a basic understanding of the universal structure of narratives (especially as it’s revealed in modern movies and books) reveals some surprising things. The mythologist Joseph Campbell (in The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler (in The Writer’s Journey) are the two authors most responsible for promoting the idea of a ‘mythic structure’ or ‘monomyth’: a core structure which is present in almost all works of fiction in human history. Let me present a summarised version of this structure; as you read, think of your favourite movies or novels and see whether you can detect the same pattern in them. In brackets next to each stage, I’ve put the corresponding part of the Christian story of salvation:
- The Ordinary World: the hero’s homeland, where all is well. (Eden)
- Call to Adventure: the ordinary world is threatened by an evil force. (‘Death enters into the world by the envy of the Devil’)
- The Journey: the hero embarks on a quest to save what is threatened; he encounters many trials along the way. (The Incarnation)
- The Trial: the hero makes a terrible sacrifice or comes into extreme personal danger at the hands of the enemy. All seems lost. (The Cross)
- Resurrection: the hero’s sacrifice pays off. He is not killed, but ‘rises’ with new and greater power to defeat the evil force. (The Resurrection of Christ and the founding of the Church on His Blood)
- Return: the evil force is defeated and the hero returns to his homeland (the Second Coming and Heaven) Continue reading
Most pagan cultures worshipped some sort of ‘underworld god’ – the Greco-Romans had Hades and Pluto, the Egyptians had Osiris, and later Serapis. These were gods that lived ‘under’ the Earth; they were thought to rule the realm of the dead. Such gods were called ‘chthonic gods’ (kuh-thon-ik’), from the Greek word χθών (gen. χθονός), meaning ‘earth’. This isn’t particularly surprising; death is a powerful force, and it makes sense that pagans, who loved to ‘deify’ everything from sounds to trees to places would include in their pantheon a god who personified death.
Serapis, with a ‘modius’ on his head, symbolising the bounty he is able to give those who sacrifice to him.
It does strike me as odd though, that pagans thought of these chthonic gods as having the power to bestow fruitfulness and prosperity upon their followers. I could understand why a farmer, anxiously hoping for a good harvest, might make sacrifices the gods of rain, sun and agriculture … but the god of death? The god of Hell? And yet, look at the image of Serapis on the right. That oddly shaped hat is a ‘calathos’ or ‘modius’ – a symbol of prosperity. In every day life, it was a receptacle for fruits and goods, but when depicted with a god, it was a symbol of the god’s ability to bestow wealth and prosperity on those who sacrificed to him or her. A modern historian (Turcan) describes Serapis as having:
“the majestic and fearsome [iconographic] aspect of a Pluto, king of Hell and the underworld … his head crowned with a receptacle overflowing with fruit, which symbolises his chthonian omnipotence.”
I cannot be the only one to find this puzzling. Why should the king of the dead, whose cavernous, dark realm was home only to the disembodied, sorrowful shades of the living, have a crown ‘overflowing with fruit?’ What sort of ‘omnipotence’ rightly belongs to a king of such a dark and (for lack of less ironic word) godforsaken place? Continue reading
There’s an ancient scriptural tradition (in both Judaism and Christianity) that a three day period of darkness and suffering must be endured before salvation can come. The most obvious example is of course, Christ’s three day internment in the tomb, but there are many Old Testament examples as well: Jonah’s three days in the fish’s belly, Joshua’s spies who hid for three days while the enemy searched for them (Joshua 2).
There are some schools of Christian thought which argue that Christ’s death means that we need do absolutely nothing but accept Him in order to partake of His life. To most Orthodox-Catholics (and many Protestants also), such an idea seems radically unscriptural. Christ was very clear that He could bestow life only on those who ‘took up their Cross’ (Mt 16:25-25). To say so does not contradict the ‘grace’ of Christ’s gift – eternal life is given freely to all those who are willing to receive it. And receiving it, Christ makes very clear, is going to hurt.
Regardless of their theological positions, all true Christians know that following Christ means the death of something within them. Their pride, anger, selfish ambition and lust all have to be slain. And that process hurts. It’s easy to forget that this is what being a Christian means – Christ doesn’t beat around the bush. If we hang around Him, perhaps content to simply say a few meagre prayers every night and show up to Church on Sundays, He will quickly make us aware that He has far bigger plans for us. Plans to turn us into radiant, glorious, immortal angels of light (Wis. of Sol 3:7, Matt 13:43, Dan 12:3). But he can only give us life if we agree to die for Him. Not all of us have the strength to be physically tortured and killed for Christ, but all of us will certainly physically die, and Christian living requires us to become living sacrifices (Rom 12:1) to God.
But here is the stunning thing. The amazing, paradoxical, wondrous, world-shattering fact of it all: there is something glorious hidden in our sacrificial death. Christians who fall to the ground, broken and bleeding at the hands of kings and emperors, or those who pour out every inch of their being in service of Christ, have a stunningly consistent habit of not staying dead. They certainly appear weak, when they lie on the ground, utterly spent. But something unbelievable lies shrouded in their weakness … something deeper, older and truer than whatever dark power tears them down; something invincible.