Friday, 4 April 2008

Catechumen Trevor

We have received the following comment on our post ‘Fantasy’ from someone who identifies himself as ‘Catechumen Trevor’. We do not know Trevor but we think that his comment is well worth discussing. Here it is in full, slightly edited (the original text of the comment can be found at the post):

Perhaps you could comment on this. I definitely get your point about fantasy. Personally, I still struggle with the temptation to imagine various scenarios and discussions when I'm bored. Practising more constant prayer is helping in this regard.

But, looking back at my life before discovering Orthodoxy, I grew up in a very anti-traditional form of Evangelicalism. Of course, like anything, we had our traditions. But the liturgy was minimalist, there was no sacramental concept, and theology was mostly in the eye of the beholder. I eventually grew dissatisfied with this void and went searching for something with more depth. I didn't know exactly what I was looking for when I started, but eventually I found Orthodoxy and have been pursuing it ever since. (I also learned plenty about the right reasons and wrong reasons I had for looking in the first place.)

In hindsight, I've seen something interesting about my earlier life. I used to be an avid reader of fantasy books. I had some pretty strong convictions about Christianity (in a certain form, at least), so I never drifted into more secular/new age based literature. I stuck to authors like J. R. R. Tolkien (Roman Catholic) and C. S. Lewis (Anglican), both of whom lived and wrote in an era that was already dying or perhaps dead (they were both students of medieval literature), when the Christian world-view had not yet completely departed from the West.

I also enjoyed books by Stephen Lawhead, who is somewhat less well-known. He is, or at least was, an Evangelical, who took a distinct interest in ancient Celtic culture. In his books, he reconstructs Celtic Christianity in the image of his own Evangelical faith, but with a mystical edge to it that Evangelicalism normally lacks. His stories are populated with priests and monks and hermits and mystics. There is something at least marginally sacramental going on, and even relics make a positive appearance. But at the same time, there is a negative cast to the institutional Church of the period, whether Latin or Greek (some of his books deal with the Crusades, which is when the Greeks are encountered).

In reflecting on my affinity for this literature, I can see where it fed my own fantasies, but it also seems to have expressed some longings that were perhaps not altogether bad. Looking at Lawhead's writings now, I see a man who feels something lacking in his own Evangelical religion but maintains too much bias against the ‘institutional’ Church to allow that it was the true Church all along. At the same time, he can't admit that Evangelical Christianity was absent for so many centuries, so he reconstructs a form of it in places where he thinks he has sufficient historical latitude. (He portrays Coptic Christianity very much like he does Celtic Christianity--I suppose the idea is that no one knows enough about either one to say otherwise.) I had the same kind of bias against Roman Catholicism (and by extension, against Orthodoxy, though I knew almost nothing about it), but I seem to have had some similar longings for "something more" in my Evangelical faith. I can't say whether these books awakened this longing, or it was already there and the books merely resonated with it. I also can't point to any tangible way in which this longing led me in the end to Orthodoxy. Perhaps it only looks in hindsight like it was part of the journey.

Now, coming back to C. S. Lewis, it seems to me even now that among Evangelicals he articulated some of the most Orthodox ideas. For instance, the notion that we create hell for ourselves when we refuse to see God's grace. I have heard that C. S. Lewis was an avid reader of patristic writings, so perhaps that had an influence on his own thinking and writing. At the time, I wouldn't have known an Orthodox idea from any other, but it may be that reading Lewis planted some seeds that sprouted only years later.

So perhaps you could comment on whether there can be any useful function to fantasy literature. (I don't know anything about fantasy games, so I'll stay away from that issue.) Particularly, can it communicate truth or awaken a desire for something that is truly missing in a watered-down form of Christianity? I realize, of course, that even if these good things are possible, an unhealthy preoccupation with any form of entertainment is best avoided. As I say, that's something I've dealt with and am dealing with in my own life. But as I look back on how things worked together to lead me where I am now, I have to wonder.


Catechumen Trevor

There are a number of issues here. The first issue is that we are not in a position to give Trevor personal counsel or advice: to the extent that the questions he is raising pertain to him personally, he should discuss them with his priest, the one that is preparing him for baptism.

In this regard, the key issue that Trevor presents is this:

...[P]erhaps you could comment on whether there can be any useful function to fantasy literature. ... Particularly, can it communicate truth or awaken a desire for something that is truly missing in a watered-down form of Christianity?

This is a very difficult psychological issue because it has to do with the actual psychological evolution of Trevor in a particular time and place. Who Trevor is, what his family life is and was, even his age. But these are things we know nothing about. Hence, we really are not in a position to evaluate just what was going on in Trevor’s life when he was reading the fantasy literature and what spiritual effect it was having on him.

That in an American middle class household with a Protestant orientation there might be an emotional or even spiritual desert seems plausible to us. That a child would escape into fantasy is expected by all child psychologists. That an adolescent would escape into fantasy literature—if that is what was going on—would suggest that something is missing.

Would the fantasy literature awaken a desire for the truly spiritual? Well that would seem to depend on the fantasy literature that the adolescent was reading. For we think that the adolescent might be directed in ways that he might later come to regret depending on the intentions of the author.

These things having been said, let us look at some general issues. First of all, we have read Lord of the Rings and one or two books by C. S. Lewis. We liked Lord of the Rings, although we didn’t think that it was terribly profound or had all sorts of hidden messages. It was enjoyable. We didn’t think that Gandalf’s ‘resurrection’ was all that successful literarily. This probably has to do with the fact that in the Christian Resurrection it is the Word of God made flesh who is resurrected, not a simple creature. A narrative of the resurrection of a creature necessarily lacks the cosmic significance of the Resurrection of the Word of God made flesh, with the result that such a creaturely resurrection might fall flat. But our reservations about Tolkien’s handling of the theme of Gandalf’s resurrection are not something that we would want to insist on. Moreover, it is clear that since Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, he would not in his work mock or question the Resurrection of Christ.

In the case of C S Lewis, we did read a couple of his books in College because a Jewish friend was reading them (he remained a secular Jew) but we did not find Lewis’ works attractive. This is a matter of personal taste. We understand that Lewis was a serious Christian and that his works were in the nature of allegory. We understand that learned people write learned articles about Lewis’ corpus. That doesn’t bother us but we don’t run out to read those articles, or Lewis’ other works.

We had never heard of Stephen R. Lawhead before reading Trevor’s comment and we looked around the Internet a little to see what we could see. The best way to put it is that he and his wife, Alice Sleikau Lawhead, have together penned a book called Pilgrim’s Guide to the New Age. We had to do a little looking to figure out if the ‘New Age’ in the title is the New Age. It is. This leads us to a question to Trevor: did you not realize that Mr. Lawhead was an exponent of New Age and no longer Evangelical? Why is it that you presented him in your comment as writing fantasy works from a slightly modified Evangelical point of view?

On the fan-forum that Mr Lawhead runs, we noted that someone was posting about the relationship between England and Atlantis. You don’t find learned discussions of Atlantis in geography courses at Wheaton College or even in Evangelical theology courses there. You find them in occult and New-Age circles.

It should be said that we have never read any of Lawhead’s work, or that of his wife, so the only things we are basing ourselves on is what Trevor wrote and a brief journey through Lawhead links produced by Google. We might have it wrong.

If we suppose that Lawhead is promoting a New-Age point of view in his fantasy works—and this would be consistent with his opposition to the institutional Church—then we have a good example of the sort of thing that we were warning against in the post ‘Fantasy’. An adolescent who is taken by the fantasy world created by Lawhead could very easily be affected by the poison of New Age that might be embedded in Lawhead’s writing. He could then go to the fan-forum and learn all sorts of things against institutional Christianity and in favour of New-Age or even occult interpretations of Christianity. This might have a serious and direct effect on his spiritual evolution, and in non-Christian directions.

We spoke in the post of someone measuring Christianity as encountered in his real life against a criterion established perhaps unconsciously in something like ‘World of Warcraft’, and here we have a very similar sort of thing in book form as supplemented by the Internet. Indeed, we wonder whether the narrative embedded in ‘World of Warcraft’ might not also be New-Age. We don’t know. But it seems clear that someone who was unhappy with his personal reality might very well ‘escape’ into the world of Lawhead and thereby be led to New Age. This does not seem to be an overdrawn connection or exaggerated fear.

Next, we have read in our earlier life a number of books in the Dune series, and a number of Frank Herbert’s other works. It is clear that Mr Herbert is creating an alternative reality. It is also clear that he deals explicitly with religious themes but not from any point of view that could be considered Christian. He deals with messianic figures in what could only be considered a non-Christian way. In general, he deals with religious themes in a way that would suggest to us that he is trying to create a personal alternative to the Roman Catholicism that he encountered as a child, as is often the case with Roman Catholic authors who have an intense religious influence in their childhood but who do not feel at ease with their religion once they enter adulthood. Were we adversely influenced spiritually by reading the Dune series? We think that our confessor would have told us that we were escaping from reality.

Let us consider the case of E R Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. When we read the book many years ago we were amused by Eddison’s hifalutin style—a friend we showed it to scorned both it and us on account of the Eddison’s fakery of style, although evidently Eddison was an expert on Jacobian literature—but we really did wonder just what Eddison believed personally. That he might be an occultist after the manner of Yeats did not seem far-fetched to us, although the biographies on the Internet either ignore the issue or skate around it.

Let us consider the case of Bob Dylan. Certainly a talented man with a chequered history. He converted to a Pentecostal form of Christianity before returning, it seems, to Judaism. We say ‘it seems’ because the man delights in ambiguity. Is listening to Bob Dylan dangerous spiritually? Good question. This question can be extended to the whole of the ‘rock music’ scene, especially when it is connected to drug use. We do not need to emphasize the dangers. Drugs are obviously a classic way of coming into contact with the demons. Moreover, there are various bands which are consciously occult or anti-Christian or whatever.

Would it be better to read W B Yeats than listen to Bob Dylan? Yeats was an out-and-out occultist.

Finally, we think that Graham Greene, especially in his late work, is a world-class author. Was he a Roman Catholic writer? We really don’t understand the nature of Greene’s relation to the Roman Catholic Church, not having studied his life, but we think that in his late works he has penetrated deeply into the human heart. His portraits in The Human Factor are psychologically profound and stylistically deft. It also seems that Greene might have maintained a life-long relationship with MI6, the British espionage service. This might raise moral issues among some of his readers.

What can we conclude from all this?

Much depends on the intentions of the author. Is he a devout Roman Catholic as Tolkien was? Chances are his work will show a Roman Catholic orientation. Is he a devout Anglican as C. S. Lewis was? Chances are his work will show an Anglican orientation. Is he New-Age as Lawhead evidently is? Chances are his work will show a New-Age orientation. Result? Obviously, from a Christian point of view, the first two authors are somewhat less dangerous than the third—we say ‘somewhat’ since the Orthodox do not agree theologically with the Roman Catholics and Anglicans on all points.

Next, to an extent all art is fantasy. We are not Savanarola nor are we Puritan. Trevor’s catechist can easily discuss with him the norms of the Orthodox Church concerning the uses of art and entertainment.

It is certainly true that the norms are somewhat different for a monk or nun than for a lay person. No one would take the position, we think, that all entertainment—all escape from reality for a limited period of time—is for the lay person in the Orthodox Church intrinsically wrong. The Church does discourage recourse to entertainment during the fasts of the Church.

There is something more to consider here. Let us take the case of Tolstoy. Tolstoy was a great artist, as Picasso was. Neither was a sound Orthodox Christian. Picasso was a communist. Tolstoy was excommunicated. Does that mean that we cannot look at Picasso’s paintings or sculptures? That we cannot read Tolstoy? We do not think that that is a mature Orthodox doctrine.

We read somewhere that the late Fr Alexander Schmemann used to re-read Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina once a year. Now one might say that that was not a very devout thing to do. Fr Alexander should have been reading or writing Orthodox theology, not secular literature. But the fact is that Anna Karenina is one of the greatest novels ever written. Fr Alexander was on vacation. He needed some relaxation. One imagines that he was at an age when there was no danger of his losing his faith.

We do not think, however, that because Anna Karenina was ‘high culture’ it was better than Lord of the Rings, which isn’t. In other words, we would be uneasy with a criterion of ‘good Orthodox entertainment’ that depended on a notion of ‘high culture’. We do not think that ‘high culture’ is more spiritual than ‘low culture’.

That is not to say that ‘anything goes’. Much depends on the intrinsic moral and spiritual depth of the author. Here we would place Greene, even if his formal relation to the Roman Catholic Church was quite troubled.

The problem, Trevor, is not that we might be unhappy with our present life and escape into entertainment for a greater or lesser period of time, although this clearly can be a dangerous road to take psychologically. The problem is that we might give ourselves over to the fantasy world. Here, if the author is not Christian in any real way, this could lead us away from Christ, even and especially if the author’s work resonates in some way with our ‘hidden aspirations’ that are not being fulfilled in the aridity of our everyday life. This would seem to be the danger with Lawhead’s work.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for taking the time to respond. I understand your remarks, though I think perhaps you have derived too much about Lawhead in particular from a couple of bits of evidence that you found online. I have not read his book about the New Age, but given the time when it was written, I have every expectation that it was a book written against the New Age, perhaps presented as a helpful, unbiased guide for someone interested in the movement, but written from a decidedly negative standpoint. (In exactly the same respect, though of course from a more Orthodox perspective, Fr. Seraphim Rose could be said to have written guides to the New Age--he talked about it, explained it, answered questions for the inquirer, but clearly did not advocate it.) I cannot say for sure, since I haven't read the book; but based on what I know of the content of his early fiction (much more overtly Evangelical, even allegorical) and the acceptance of his work among Evangelicals, I would be truly surprised if he promoted the New Age in this book.

    Second, Lawhead deals with Atlantis in some of his books as a popular mythological theme. As far as I know, he does not take too seriously the notion that it really existed. Tolkien also includes Atlantis mythology in his literature. It is certainly possible that some readers take such things more seriously than they should. (I suppose I probably did when I was a young and avid fan.) And perhaps the author can be faulted for allowing this sort of thing by raising the issue in the first place. But I guess you'd have to read how he treats these things to know specifics.

    I can certainly understand your misgivings on the assumption that Lawhead espouses some sort of New Age viewpoint. And certainly if things had gone otherwise in my own life, I could have moved in a different direction than I did. As I said earlier, I don't think these books ever would have brought me to Orthodoxy on their own. Perhaps I read too much into the experience by looking backward and expecting to see common threads. (I think this all came to mind at a point when someone had asked me to think about what might be my underlying reasons for wanting to become Orthodox.) But it does seem like there was a desire back then for something that I could not find in my "real" life--for a mystical and sacramental dimension that I now know should be part of Christian faith, even though my Evangelical religion had no place for it. On the assumption that Orthodoxy is the Truth, it seems that probably everyone has some hidden longing for this dimension. Some simply ignore it, telling themselves that it is foolishness; some find it in other places--fantasy, false religions, New Age, etc. As we know, from St. Paul to the apologists, this element of grasping for truth was present in the ancient paganism to which Christianity came in those early centuries. That doesn't make the other things right or wholly true, but it seems like sometimes it prepares the way at least.