Apologies for the long silence of late: work has been getting in the way of life (again) and I have been PhD-ing (current idea being discussed: “If Paul Muldoon did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent him”). However, I have been tempted out of my incommunicado existence by this website: www.seekgod.ca.
It is written by one woman, Vicky Dillen, who says “I am not a professional journalist and claim no credentials, other than being a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ and a Berean” (don’t worry; I had to look it up too). Her website consists of analyses of current cultural trends, strained through her own interpretation of the Bible. It is, apparently, one of the world’s top Christian websites, according to Jesus Christ Saves Ministries (I love the semantic ambiguity here: does Jesus Christ save ministries, or are these ministries promoting the idea that Jesus Christ saves? Either way, it must be significant that their top Christian website, the most edifying, the most helpful online resource they could find, is a Christian dating site called ‘Christian Dating for Free‘) and also according to Christian Top 1000, a website that allows you to add your own site and which also features Christian Dating for Free in its #1 spot.
Nevertheless, Ms Dillen has set herself up as a teacher and interpreter of the times, and so I will treat her as such. I came to her website in the first place because I was trying to find the source of a C.S. Lewis quotation about myths, and I came to this extraordinary page, some of the comments on which so astonished me that they literally drove the breath from my body. I urge you to read it; I similarly urge you not to bounce hard off the ceiling when you have done so.
Ms Dillen makes some extraordinary claims, particularly on the nature of fantasy, myth, fiction, and Christian participation in any of these, and I want to take a long hard look at what she says. She has set herself up as a teacher of Scripture: that is her choice to make. But I will apply James 3:1-2 rigorously here, because I think a lot of what she says is palpable nonsense and because I think she is making judgements she has no right to make. If these were private opinions that would be one thing, but she is presenting them as the results of study and learning on a website available to all, and that adds a level of responsibility to which I will hold her accountable. As for my credentials enabling me to do so: like Ms Dillen, I am a Christian (and have been for a long time); unlike Ms Dillen, I do claim a level of expertise on literature, fantasy and mythopoeia (‘myth-making’). Some of my PhD work is on mythopoeia; my Masters dissertation was on “Biological Warfare explored as a metaphor for Spiritual Conflict in Dracula, The War of the Worlds and The Stand“.
And this is the first point that needs to be addressed. These are subjects on which I demonstrably know what I am talking about. We have no such reassurance forthcoming from Ms Dillen. (This is a much bigger problem than merely this example shows: if anything is likely to kill off Wikipedia, it is the decreasing numbers of experts who contribute.) Lewis, in his essay ‘Fern-seed and Elephants’ notes the same problem (though he comes at it from the opposite direction), saying:
A man who has spent his youth and manhood in the minute study of New Testament texts and of other people’s studies of them, whose literary experience of those texts lacks any standard of comparison such as can only grow from a wide and deep and genial experience of literature in general, is, I should think, very likely to miss the obvious things about them. If he tells me that something in a Gospel is a legend or romance, I want to know how many legends or romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavour; not how many years he has spent on that Gospel.
C.S. Lewis, ‘Fern-seed and Elephants’, Fount Paperbacks, London, 1998, pg 89
A little later he goes on to say:
I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like.
ibid, pg 90
So that is my first problem. Someone who declares that they have no credentials whatsoever (declares without a qualm and even with pride, which is more bizarre) chooses to raise an argument against someone who not only was supremely well qualified on the argument’s topic (myth and fantasy), but who wrote some of the primary textbooks (A Preface to Paradise Lost; The Discarded Image) for discussing these things. (They are still in use today – an achievement almost unheard of in literary academia, where theories of interpretation are more ephemeral and faddish than hemlines). Fundamentally, I do not begin the article with any confidence that the person writing it has any idea what they are talking about.
That being said, let us look at the article itself. Ms Dillen, discussing That Hideous Strength, says:
The reader is supposed to equate Merlin with Christ, who defeats Lucifer and evil. How blasphemous! That Merlin, who is revered by occultists as a druid, sorcerer, witch, wizard and every abomination thinkable, is viewed as Christ and that witchcraft and psychic powers parallel the saving power of Jesus Christ is wicked at best. For those who say children should just read Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia books, we have the same menu with witches, elves, Bacchus, false gods, and so on, all being part of the stories.
This demonstrates precisely the problem Lewis identified earlier – Ms Dillen is not equipped to offer a detailed, critical appreciation of the themes, characterisation and imagery of the novel. There is no acknowledgement, for instance, that the title is taken from a poem describing the tower of Babel, nor that the entire book reaffirms the community of Christianity as a refuge from, and defence against, the brutalities of apotheosistic, sinning man. Apart from anything else, Merlin is not compared with Christ, and his powers are Divine in origin, not diabolical. What occultists and diabolists believe is of no interest to me, as it should be of no interest to her, unless one can prove that the occultists’ interpretation of the known data is supportable by argument and evidence. That they consider Merlin a sorceror is irrelevent unless it can be proven that this consideration is correct, and then it is only important if anyone seriously believes Merlin to have been a real person in the first place. If he is merely a character then why should I, or anyone else, care if he is rehabilitated in a new guise? (For Merlin’s rehabilitation, if that is what it is, closely follows the transformation and empowering of Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White. But that is to take things out of historical context. Tempting though it is to read Lewis’s Merlin as an answer to his friend Tolkien’s Gandalf, we must remember that first and foremost Lewis was a Mediaeval scholar who knew well that this kind of rehabilitation and reinterpretation into Christian apologia had already been performed as early as the 12th Century, in the Estoire de Merlin). I have no confidence that Ms Dillen is capable of reading the book (which Lewis subtitled ‘A Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups’) because her interpretation of it is so utterly far off the mark. Were she in one of my English classes, she would have to provide an exceptionally thorough and well-supported argument in favour of her claims if she wished her remarks to be taken seriously. There is no such argument available on her site.
Having bounced out on paths where more knowledgable angels might fear to tread, Ms Dillen carries on her character assassination of Lewis in fine style:
However, no rendition of any Scripture is found in these tales [The Chronicles of Narnia] except if one compares the practices of paganism and witchcraft which God calls an abomination to Himself. Lewis could not have known Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. Of the many blasphemous statements he has made in his writings, probably one of the worst is found on page 276 of C.S. Lewis: A Biography, by Roger Lancelyn Green. Lewis stated, “I had some ado to prevent Joy and myself from relapsing into Paganism in Attica! At Daphni it was hard not to pray to Apollo the Healer. But somehow one didn’t feel it would have been very wrong – would have only been addressing Christ sub specie Apollinis.”
1 Corinthians 10:20 But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils. 21 Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.
22 Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? are we stronger than he?
One of the things I like about Wikipedia is its over-riding dictat for editorial interaction: Assume Good Faith. This is clearly a lesson that could usefully be applied to much Christian interaction as well. Let me then make the most important criticism of this segment that there is to make: Ms Dillen has no right, none whatsoever, to announce to the world who, in her estimation, is or is not a Christian. She cannot, nor is permitted to, make that judgement.
This is the beginning of Matthew 7: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
Strong words, particularly in the mouth of Jesus. And the Greek is as strong as we suspect or fear. The word for ‘judge’ in verse 1, diakrino, means to make a final evaluation, an ultimate decision. That is precisely what Ms Dillen has done, and she ought to have known better. It is God’s right to determine who are the sheep and who are the goats, not ours, because that decision requires absolute infallibility and no human being possesses such a thing. Christ was the only person in history with the requisite authority to say to someone “Your sins are forgiven”: by what right does Ms Dillen claim the privilege to say of someone else that their sins are not?
As for Lewis’s blasphemy: first of all, I want to know the context to the remark. It does not read as something intended for public consumption; the mode of address seems much more akin to a diary or letter. If that is true then we must be more lenient in our analysis: we write in shorthand what we mean when we write to ourselves or our intimates, we do not begin at first principles every time. To suggest that Lewis worships other gods, as Dillen implies, is at best silly and at worst mendacious. Note well exactly what Lewis says: he does not pray to Apollo the Healer, he acknowledges that it would have been wrong if he had done so, and he concludes that the prayer thus offered would nevertheless have been intended for Christ. Lewis’s great blasphemy, according to Ms Dillen, is that he was once tempted to pray to Christ in a pagan aspect. Hold-the-front-page stuff indeed. Equating it with devil-worship shows a remarkable ignorance of devils, Christ and pre-Christian morality all in one fell swoop. I feel I must even stress the most basic point of all: temptation to sin is not the same as sinning.
Following some long quotations from various sources concerning the nature of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Ms Dillen makes the following argument:
C.S. Lewis also stated the Word of God was full of myths–does that add credibility to anything he might say? One can’t pretend something that is real, particularly religious belief, is just a fantasy, just because someone said it was part of a story.
Proverbs 14:22 Do they not err that devise evil? but mercy and truth shall be to them that devise good.
Note the spectacularly misguided conflation of myth, fantasy and story. Story is the biggest category here: the others fit neatly within it. ‘Story’ is, in some respects, one of the biggest words in the English language: it describes almost all human experience. Indeed, to describe any experience whatsoever one must formulate a story to encapsulate it. To describe the Gospels as stories is to do neither term a disservice but merely to accurately report an incontrovertible fact. Ms Dillen’s contempt for the term signals a worrisome ignorance.
That ignorance is foregrounded by her confusion and commingling of the terms ‘myth’ and ‘fantasy’. Elsewhere on her site, Dillen marshals a superficially impressive list of dictionary definitions for the words ‘fable’, ‘myth’, ‘old wives’ tale’, etc. But while ‘fantasy’ is always ‘a story that is imagined’ (fantasies are what daydreams become when they grow up), a ‘myth’ is a much more complicated device. Even her own definitions only succeed on her terms when she highlights meanings other than the primary one. For example, her definition for myth, which comes from the Oxford Paperback Dictionary and Thesaurus, reads:
/ noun 1 traditional story usually involving supernatural or imaginary people and embodying popular ideas on natural or social phenomena. 2 such stories collectively. 3 widely held but false idea. 4 fictitious person, thing, or idea. mythic adjective. mythical adjective.
What is the Gospel for Christians if it is not a story involving supernatural people and embodying popular ideas on natural or social phenomena? The Feeding of the 5,000, for instance, is a story in which a supernatural figure uses materials to hand in order to supernaturally – but popularly – correct a social inequality. And yes, it is a story – but (as I feel I must reiterate) ‘story’ is not a synonym for ‘fiction’.
(On the same page she discusses parables and fables. With a weirdly magnificent kind of thrawn single-mindedness she draws a distinction that isn’t supported by her own references: she says “A Parable, which Jesus used frequently, is a short story of everyday life used to teach a moral by comparison or by implication.” The primary definition of fable that she provides is “A story made up to teach a lesson.” Of course Christ made things up – unless Ms Dillen is, uniquely, suggesting that there was a literal Samaritan, a literal widow who lost a coin, a literal shepherd who lost a sheep, a literal prodigal son? It is possible that this is indeed the case – but the vital point is that it doesn’t matter either way.)
There is another tremendously useful guideline for editing Wikipedia: “You Are Not A Lexicographer”. In other words, you do not know enough about words to comment authoritatively on their usage. This is as true of me as it is of Ms Dillen. It breaks down somewhat, however, in the case of Tolkien and Lewis, and particularly when we are discussing these two men’s relationship with ‘myth’. First of all, Tolkien was a lexcographer. He literally wrote the dictionary – he joined the staff of New English Dictionary in 1918. Secondly, these authors were not only world-class scholars and experts on mythology but they were both actively involved in mythopoeia. There is good reason to argue that Tolkien, in particular, was the greatest exponent of mythopoeia in English since Spenser or even Mallory. His only real competitor in the 20th Century, strangely enough, was probably H.P. Lovecraft. However, there is no one else that I can think of involved with myth who so successfully married the doing of the thing with the understanding of the thing. Tolkien not merely possessed the literary and philological ability to construct a coherent mythology (itself a much rarer gift than usually acknowledged), but also the scholarly acumen to understand and deconstruct the mythologies he encountered in other circumstances. These men are lexicographers of sufficient stature that we must pay attention to what it is that they actually say.
It is surely significant that with all the modern resources at her disposal Ms Dillen chooses to use a dictionary that predates the publishing of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s (and Lovecraft’s) myths – uses, in other words, a dictionary that was already outdated by the time Lewis and Tolkien were generating their own mythologies. It is not a reliable source in this instance, because Lewis and Tolkien had a much sharper, much more accurate, and probably much more scholarly appreciation of what it was they were actually up to. It is clear that Ms Dillen does not. She says of Lewis that he “stated the Word of God was full of myths – does that add credibility to anything he might say?”
Well yes, actually, because he deployed the word ‘myth’ with such absolute precision. First of all, I don’t know of any source in which Lewis states that the Bible is ‘full of myths’; as quoted here, Lewis once wrote “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.” Lewis states that Christianity is a myth (singular), but, crucially (and as is quoted in Dillen’s article, although it is attributed to Tolkien), it is the myth that is true. Dillen’s criticism seems to take as its basis the idea that referring to Christianity as a myth somehow devalues it. Of course the precise opposite is true. Myth was the mechanism by which men sought meaning and God: Lewis explains that Christianity is the ultimate expression of this mechanism, the occasion on which the mechanism achieves its ultimate end. Christianity is how one finds meaning, how one finds God. It is the myth that is true, the mechanism that actually works. Everything beforehand had been a dim and hazy groping after the Light of the World as yet unrevealed.”Can one believe”, he wrote, “that there was just nothing in that persistent motif of blood, death, and resurrection, which runs like a black and scarlet cord through all the greater myths—thro’ Balder & Dionysus & Adonis & the Graal too? Surely the history of the human mind hangs together better if you supposed that all this was the first shadowy approach of something whose reality came with Christ”.
Ms Dillen then goes on to talk at length about the Harry Potter instances of magic. I am not going to go over this ground again, as I have already done so here, but from there she goes on to say yet more extraordinary things. First she explains that there are, to Christians, no differences in salvation. In doing so she misreads, or at least misunderstands, her source: we are back to talking about mechanisms, not outcomes. Tolkien believed that Christ saved: it is the precise manner in which He did so that is up for discussion. This is not merely a result of Tolkien’s Catholicism. I, like Ms Dillen, am a Protestant; unlike Ms Dillen, I am loath to dismiss Catholicism in its entirity as ‘not Biblically sound’. There are, I agree, elements of Catholicism that I cannot support Biblically, but such elements seem to me to be unhelpful additions to faith rather than mortal sins imperilling it. Besides, there is plenty of debate in Protestant circles about these mechanisms too. Does Christ save because we ask Him to save us? Or are we predestined for salvation, predetermined to make the request in the first place? No answer is forthcoming from Ms Dillen’s site, but we must, apparently, rest assured that she has solved this conundrum that has defeated some of the greatest theologians of the last 2,000 years.
Dillen goes on:
Second I’ve been to Tolkien sites–and most –unless Christian already–deny that Tolkien ever intended a Christian meaning.
Ooops… Bradley Birzer, Assistant Professor of History at Hillsdale College and author of “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth” (so someone with proper credentials and demonstrable expertise, which must surely trump Ms Dillen) explained in an interview that “Tolkien wrote in an oft-quoted letter to a close friend [Jesuit priest Robert Murrey] in 1953 that “The Lord of the Rings” is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”
Finally, Ms Dillen makes the most grandiose claim of all:
Paul warned in 1 Timothy 1:4 Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do.”
We have clear Biblical instruction to not be involved with fables, myths, fiction and so on. It does not say we can read fables and be edified. It does not say we can read or write fables and learn sound doctrine from them or use them as an evangelism tool. It says to have nothing to do with fables.
This cannot be confused with Christ teaching in parables, which some have tried to say is the same thing. If it was the same thing, we would not have been given these very serious warnings and commands to have nothing to do with fables.
Her statement, “Bilbo had encouraged Jonathan to start writing again, to trust his imagination,” takes us back to the imagination and the imagination of the heart. The heart is desperately wicked, and imagination is not to be trusted. Children are just as able to think about and be part of sin as adults. Children are to be ‘trained up in the things of the Lord.’ This hardly qualifies.
What unbelievable intellectual poverty, and what an odious, noxious attempt at persuasion to an unsupportable and suffocating final position. Christians, according to Ms Dillen, ought not in the final analysis to have anything to do with fiction or the imagination. Earlier in her article she claims
it is not censorship to not read Potter or other occult focused material, myths and fables. It is being selective and discerning.
One does not choose all books in a bookstore. Why? Is it due to censorship, choice, or in the case of Christians, Biblical discernment?
– but here her final position is revealed in all its awful implications. She doesn’t want to advocate censorship: she wants to make the bookshops empty of anything other than what she alone determines to be valid. Such banned material includes all fiction and anything imagined. Children should not use their imaginations lest they be corrupted. Writing stories is wrong.
I wonder what happened in this woman’s life to make her so contemptuous of all artistic endeavour. In the end I am moved less to anger than to pity. She explains in her brief testimony that
I received Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord when I was 14. I threw out books and things that either were of the occult or obviously not honoring to God. I threw out The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because of its occult content. I saw no presentation of salvation, nor did I see a parallel to Jesus Christ in Aslan or any other claimed Christian parallels. Apparently that gospel message is so hidden, distorted or contrary to Scriptural truth, that this Christian missed it and instead found the real message of Jesus Christ and the truth of the Gospel in the Word of God.
And so we find ourselves at the moment the problems begin: a fourteen-year-old girl throws away the novels she doesn’t understand. Much of what follows makes complete sense if we start from this moment. Her ensuing crusade, though no doubt genuine and well-intentioned, is not merely sadly misinformed but tragic in its scope. Determined to prevent ‘corruption’ she instead seeks to destroy that which otherwise glorifies God in modes she does not understand. I began this article genuinely angry at Ms Dillen for peddling nonsense: I finish it actively saddened that someone has so comprehensively missed out on some of the most joyous experiences this life has to offer. She will someday realise what she has lost, and that moment will be a painful one. I feel sorry for her.
“So don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters. Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow.” – James 1:16-17
Finally, your moment of Zen: