Film critic Jeffrey Overstreet, in his book Through a Screen Darkly, talks about the backlash he received from concerned parents after his favorable review of the film Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. One parent wrote,
“If you think anything meaningful can be conveyed by pagan mythology, you’ve just opened up Pandora’s Box.”
She would probably be dismayed if I pointed out that she, by making reference to a pagan myth [Pandora’s Box], had conveyed something meaningful to me. (pg. 151)
This parent’s approach (and its utter contradiction) is symptomatic of many evangelicals’ approach to pagan mythology and secular art in general. Just replace her reference to “pagan myth” with any number of contemporary pagan mythologies evangelicals eschew and you’ll see what I mean.
“If you think anything meaningful can be conveyed by [secular films, non-Christian novels, worldly music], you’ve just opened up Pandora’s Box.”
Of course, this assumes a secular / sacred divide which has become part and parcel of many evangelical critiques of culture.
A recent article in The Imaginative Conservative entitled The God of Men—and of Elves: Tolkien, Lewis, and Christian Mythology describing C.S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity, notes how important his re-thinking of pagan mythology in relation to Christianity was to this conversion.
Lewis was intimately familiar with the classical mythology of Greece and Rome, and was even more enamored of the Norse myths of Scandinavia and Iceland. Lewis believed these stories he admittedly loved to be lies, he told Tolkien, albeit beautiful lies—“lies and therefore worthless,” he said, “even though breathed through silver.” He was overcome by the beauty of the stories of the ancients. They appealed to the human imagination in a way that struck squarely at the heart.
Like Lewis, many Christians approach “secular art” as lies, sometimes even “beautiful lies,” but nonetheless “worthless.” These myths, contended Lewis, while possessing beauty, were set against History, which spoke of Truth. The Historical which Lewis juxtaposed against Myth was the Gospel accounts, which he considered as historically true but lacking the “beauty” of the ancient myths. Thus, Lewis could not envision embracing the historical truth of Christianity without relinquishing the “beautiful lies” of Myth.
Enter his friend J.R.R. Tolkein who challenged Lewis’ view on the disconnect between pagan mythology and Truth.
Because man was made in the very image of God, [Tolkien] argued, man is not ultimately a liar. He may pervert the things of God for his own ends, but he can never fully efface the image of God in him. He can never really be satisfied with lies. He can never escape who he really is. And for this reason, even the pagan myths retain a semblance of eternal truth, however corrupted. Ultimately, even in his imaginative creations, man is pulled back to the truths that answer to the call of his own true nature. (bold mine)
This became a turning point for Lewis. Rather than rendering pagan mythology as lies, completely meaningless, he was forced to recognize that the Beauty which so captured him in the ancient myths had its roots in History. Even though the stories and their authors were “corrupted,” it was the image of God in Man, and his inherent gravitation toward this Truth and Beauty, that Lewis could affirm.
Chesterton once said that Christianity was the “fulfillment of paganism,” an expression which strikes the Christian ear wrong. Christianity has faced to Nemeses: the idolization of the intellect, which we see in modern secular rationalism, and the idolization of the imagination, which we see in ancient paganism.
The answer, however, is to see that Christianity is the fulfillment both of man’s intellectual and imaginative quests. The apostle John says in his Gospel that Jesus was the logos, a reference to the underlying principle of the cosmos which philosophers had been seeking since before Socrates. Lewis would realize this as well. But it was Tolkien who made him realize that, in addition to Christ’s fulfilling man’s search for the True, He was also the fulfillment of man’s search for the Beautiful—and that, in fact, they culminate in the same thing.
Christianity was a true myth—a story with all the meaning and beauty of a myth, but, unlike the other myths, it was one that had actually happened in history. The myths themselves, a testimony not to history but to human desire, were pointers to the culmination of history in the Gospel story. (bold mine)
The contemporary evangelical approach to the arts often pits Rationalism against Imagination, Beauty against History, the Sacred against the Secular. But just like Lewis, I wonder that we are in need of a new understanding, an approach to the “secular” which allows us to both acknowledge what is perverse, deceptive, or corrupt, while also affirming what is True and Beautiful. We can acknowledge the Truth as found in the great myths, and the secular arts, without condoning all their elements. Author Frederick Buechner put it this way,
“The world speaks of the holy in the only language it knows, which is a worldly language.”
Perhaps if we learned to look past the “worldly language” of our culture — the the crudeness and corruption — we would hear our culture attempting to articulate “the holy.” Unless we do, like Lewis, we may find ourselves in perpetual, albeit artificial, dichotomy.