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Now that we’ve covered a fair amount of ground on the imagination and Tolkien’s idea of Sub-Creation, in this final installment we’ll put all the pieces together in order to form a valuable tool for tender-minded apologetics.
So, what do imagination, Lego bricks, and Sub-Creation have to do with apologetics?
At first thought, the most natural place for apologists to run to would be the idea of teleology. There is a purpose, an end or goal, to the use of building toys such as Lego bricks: there is both creative imaginative play as well as instructions and design. One can see the Lego watch sitting on display and discern that there must have been a Lego watch-maker. These kinds of apologetic methods are useful tools in the apologetic task. But I think there is more to be said about imagination, sub-creation, and apologetics. Once again, Tolkien’s writing provides a valuable insight.
One of the geniuses of Tolkien’s writing is his unparalleled ability to point out the extraordinary in the ordinary. Hobbits are a perfect example of this. Tolkien is able to achieve this by means of three facets of good fantasy story telling: Recovery, Escape, and Consolation.
Briefly put, Recovery is regaining a proper view of the world we live in. The potency of the written word helped Tolkien to regain a proper view of the world. In other words, literature (art) helped him to understand reality. Escapist is often the charge critics lay at the feet of those who read fantasy. Tolkien, however, saw Escape as a benefit. Why should a man who is unjustly imprisoned not want to be set free? Good fairy stories, Tolkien says, provide us with a view beyond the noise of this world, the hunger, poverty, illness, and death. They give us a glimpse of freedom. This is where Lewis and Tolkien agreed immensely, that good stories pointed them to the true story of the Gospel. Lewis’s “stabs of joy” were similar to the escape Tolkien describes. Finally, Consolation is the happy ending, or as Tolkien called it, the eucatastrophe, a good catastrophe. This was the sudden turn of events in the story, like when Gandalf reappears in Mirkwood or the Eagles rescue Frodo and Samwise from Mt. Doom.
Through his storytelling, Tolkien gives us glimpses of the Primary World within his secondary, sub-created world of Middle-Earth. The connection is found in the eucatastrophe. Tolkien found similar elements of fantasy and storytelling in the true story and historical events of the Gospel. Here is how he worded it in his essay. And I quote him at length here.
Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it…The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful fantasy can be thus explained as a sudden glimpse of underlying reality or truth. It is not only a consolation for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to the question, ‘Is it true?’
…The Gospels contain…a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories. 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 is 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 wrath.
It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history…the joy would have been exactly that same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy story gives: such has the very taste of primary truth. It looks forward (or backward) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men – and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.
Tolkien summarizes well the connection between his own writing, sub-creating, and the Scriptures, the overlap between his own imaginative literary world, and the historical events that happen in the Primary World in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
This is the defense of imaginative apologetics: to capture the mind, but also the heart. To testify to the truth, but also to demonstrate that it is meaningful. To teach and to delight. To give us objective hope and consolation, as well as a joy that each person can call their own as we do when we sing good hymns such as “God’s own child, I gladly say it, I am baptized into Christ.”
In other words, simply because the Gospel is a true story does not mean it cannot also be told beautifully. The imagination is a gift from God that can and should be used in service to the Gospel. Tolkien and Lewis also understood that imagination and Sub-Creation are servants, hand-maidens to the Gospel story. One can certainly see it in their writings. Certainly, The Chronicles of Narnia is more overt at “stealing past watchful dragons.” But Tolkien is a master at the art of imagination and sub-creation nonetheless. And he uses it in service to what he called “Primary Art” or the “Primary World.”
What Lewis and Tolkien, and others have done in the fantasy genre, and in literature on the whole, could be done elsewhere by others. Part of their success comes, of course, from their own imagination and creativity. Thankfully, their writing is contagious. When reading their works the reader’s imagination and creativity is awakened and set free as well. Those who desire to be good storytellers and good apologists of the faith should spend time reading and surrounding themselves with good books by good writers. One good story leads to another.
That’s what I was doing as a little boy playing in my room with Lego bricks. I was sub-creating. I was doing what Tolkien had done with words in the form of interlocking plastic bricks. It wasn’t, of course, the same degree or quality, but I was using the same ingredients: Imagination and Art.
Pieces led to imagination. Imagination led to building. Building led to storytelling. You see, children don’t simply build stuff and let it sit around to gather dust. No, when children build they are sub-creators. Their work is full of imagination and art. (I love watching our three-year old daughter Zoe doing this. It’s fascinating and delightful). Along with their creations, they develop a story. In fact they’ll tell you the story too, even if you’re not particularly interested in hearing it at the time. (Talk about a good lesson in evangelism and apologetics!).
This is what children do, they build and then create a story about the train, or castle, or ship they’ve just built. This is what the young boy, Finn, did in The Lego Movie. And in the process, he unlocked not just his father’s imagination, but the viewers’ as well. But there’s more to this movie than excellent Lego graphics and artistic, in other words, imaginative storytelling. The Lego Movie had everything a good story should have: heroes and villains; a world that was in trouble and in need of rescue; a damsel and a people in distress and looking for hope and freedom; and a sacrifice that points to a greater story – to the Great Sacrifice of the one who’s name is also Truth. There was also a great resolution at the end, the happy ending that we all long for.
SPOILER ALERT!!! As it turns out, the entire movie was a sub-created world born of the mind of Finn, the young boy behind all the imagination in the movie. One of his sub-created characters in his story was Emmet, the non-descript construction worker. In an act of sacrifice, Emmet saved the world from Lord Business (played brilliantly by Will Ferrell), and even managed to free his imagination as well. As I mentioned earlier, that makes Emmet the Christ figure of this movie. But this is just one movie. There are countless other examples: Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile, Disney’s The Jungle Book, and I could go on.
Why do all these stories seem to sound the same? Why do we keep hearing and reading similar themes in movies, books, and drama? How is it that even secular stories like The Lego Movie and countless others give us fragments of the Greatest Story ever told? Because these stories are in some way, shape, or form stealing from the one great true story, the Gospel. They're intentionally or unintentionally doing what Tolkien said about good stories; they're writing about Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. They're giving us glimpses of the great eucatastrophe, Christ’s death and resurrection.
Superman. Batman the Dark Knight. Neo in the Matrix. Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan. Harry Potter’s defeat of Voldemort. Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog. Frodo and Samwise’s sacrifice to destroy the ring of power. Spock in Star Trek Two. Obi wan Kenobi’s death to save Luke. The list could go on. But the point is all the same. They're all stealing from the one great story. It sure makes for a good story, and an even better one since it is true.
And here is where the apologist can operate. Here is where imagination, Sub-Creation, and yes, even things like The Lego Movie can be useful in the field of apologetics. Christians can and should use these familiar stories to show and teach the great story. We should steal back the examples of redemption, love, and sacrifice and use it to proclaim the true sacrifice, redemption, and love of Christ. We can steal past watchful dragons. Use our imagination and Sub-Creation to point to Christ’s greater salvation for all.
Imaginative apologetics is a vital part of making a defense for the reason for the hope that is within us. Not everyone resonates with a tough-minded defense of the faith. Thankfully the Christian faith reaches both our intellect and our imagination. Christianity is both true and meaningful.
Imagination, art, and sub-creation, all used to tell us a story. And aren’t these the kinds of stories we should tell our children? I think so. Imagination leads to Art; Art leads to Sub-Creation; Sub-Creation reflect or points to the Primary World, or Primary Art. Sub-Creation also leads to a story. And the story leads to an imaginative apologetic, a defense for the tender-minded.
Everyone is a storyteller. The question is what and who will the story be about? There are plenty of stories that are not worth watching or reading. But the best ones point to the one great story; the one true story that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us (2 Corinthians 5:9).
This is the story we need to tell, write, script, paint, sing, and declare: Christ crucified and risen for you. The world needs more Christians engaged in imaginative apologetics, more men and women who see their work or their hobbies as Sub-Creations, secondary worlds based on the Primary World. We need more artists whose work points to the Lord who painted the heavens and framed the earth’s foundations, more writers who point their readers to Jesus the Author and Perfecter of our faith, more characters like Aslan who bring us into a new world for a little while so that we might know the true Lion of the Tribe of Judah better in our world.
“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret…now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”