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Finding Truth in “Pagan” Art

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.”

Overstreet responded,

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.

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Kessie December 11, 2014, 9:21 AM

    Ah, the sacred/secular split. I’ve grappled with this, myself–how do we be in the world but not of it? Does it have to do with the renewing of the mind?

  • Nathan December 12, 2014, 2:57 PM

    Even though the parent did inadvertently reference pagan mythology to express her concerns to Mr. Overstreet, I can’t help but wonder whether she may have a point. Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is to love God with ALL our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and Paul himself taught to “hate what is evil; cling to what is good.” (Romans 12:9).

    As attractive as stories and art based on pagan mythology can be (I should know; I grew up on fantasy fiction!), this mythology was viewed as truth and practiced as religion by ancient people–and is today making a comeback. Additionally, Paul spent much of Romans 1 exposing the folly of these very religions because they prevented the peoples from worshiping the Living God. Moreover, God expressly commanded the Israelites to destroy all the peoples in the land of Canaan so that their beliefs would not become a snare on down the road.

    And so if we are called to “hate what is evil,” shouldn’t that apply to the mythologies/religions that would have led people astray in the past–and that are doing so today as well?

  • Iola December 14, 2014, 3:16 PM

    We Christians must have a small God if He can only work through the narrow and potentially controversial definition of “sacred”.

    I prefer to serve a God who can work though His entire creation, regardless of whether or not they believe in Him, serve Him, or realise He is working through them.

  • DD January 1, 2015, 10:33 PM

    I think we forget Christianity has a history of finding truth in nonchristian realms, even outside of art. Think Christmas trees or All Hallow’s Eve. The Hebrews did the same: The Ark of the Covenant was patterned after a popular Egyptian archetype. And it has been argued that truths in these other beliefs have, as historian Rodney Stark wrote, been “God’s final revelation [that] had seeped into human awareness to help prepare the way” for belief in Christ.

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