Friday, May 18, 2018

The Gospel and the Fairy Tale

Frederick Buechner wrote an essay entitled, The Gospel as Fairy Tale. [1] Buechner was a Pulitzer Prize nominee, a Princeton graduate, and holder of the Bachelor of Divinity (nowadays, Master of Divinity) from Union Theological Seminary among whose esteemed faculty were Paul Tillich (existentialism), Reinhold Niebuhr (neo-orthodoxy), and James Muilenberg (Old Testament rhetorical criticism). Please note I have little to no sympathy for their theology. In his essay, Buechner does not define what the Gospel is. The redemptive element that the reformed theologian ascribes to the gospel is clearly missing.

Buechner draws from L. Frank Baum's, The Wizard of Oz, a picture of how things supposedly really are. That we all - like the scarecrow, tin woodman, cowardly lion, and even Dorothy herself (in her shoes) - think that we are helpless and incapable of gaining our deepest desire or most urgent need except through the magical help of the Great Wizard, only to find out he's a fraud and that, all along, we had in ourselves the stuff to do it.

Buechner writes of Baum's fantasy:

"The book was published in 1900, and maybe it is not stretching things too far to say that in a way it foreshadows something of what became of the fairy tale of the Gospel in the century it ushered in. The magic and the mystery fade. Like the Emerald City, the city whose gates are pearl and whose walls are adorned with jasper and onyx and sapphire turns out to be too good to be true for all except those who see it through stained glass; and just as for Dorothy home is finally not the Land of Oz, where all things are possible, but Kansas, where never yet has a camel managed to squeeze through the eye of a needle, so for us home is not that country that Gideon and Barak, Samson and Jeptha, glimpsed from afar, but rather just home, just here, where there are few surprises. As for the one who promises to save the world, he is in the richest sense a good man to be sure, but like the little bald man behind the screen, when you come right down to it [he is] not all that much of a wizard. His goodness, his love, his simple eloquence, touch our hearts and illuminate our darkness across the centuries, but for all of that, both we and our world remain basically untransformed. Though he is wizard enough to set us dreaming sometimes of a world of joy more poignant than grief, we tend to believe in our hearts, that, however holy and precious, it is only a dream" (The Christian Imagination, 333-334).

If I understand Buechner, he implies that the myth and make believe of the Wizard of Oz, in particular, and by broad extension, the Fairy Tale in general, has a debilitating influence on how one may perceive the gospel, even tempting one to treat it as belonging to the same level of absurd, even mythical or fantastical, reality. As such, the sacred words of the sacred Wizard turn out to be hollow, and their promises, wishful thinking.

This disparages the gospel. Perhaps Baum was indeed trying to make the point that we can do what needs to be done on our own without the help of the extraordinary and magical. Even so, to place gospel under the same construct, as Buechner does and the way he does, is entirely unwarranted and demeaning. It betrays a very low view of the book that reveals it and misconstrues the person and work of its central figure, Jesus Christ.

That aside, if it were Baum's intention to make the point that we actually do have great potential ability, and we do not really need help from an other-worldly figure, he succeeds. He does so in a way that he may not have in any other genre for children. The fairy tale has its advantages. It can be a vehicle of great ideas (however right or wrong they may be). It captures the child's imagination in a way that the mundane does not. If I may slightly twist a threadbare witticism - it paints truths in pictures, albeit fantastical, that speak louder than the words of a story set in this humdrum world.

Obviously, I am critiquing Buechner from a conservative theological point of view. However, as a writer of Christian fantasy, neither can I let Baum slip away easily. While Buechner demeans and reinterprets the gospel, Baum ignores it because there is no sense at all that the scarecrow's brains, the tin woodman's sensitive heart, the lion's courage, and Dorothy's magical shoes are the result of common grace and providence. This is not to say that every tale of fantasy must be written from a conservative biblical worldview, but it is to say that without writing from that perspective, the truth can be marred or incomplete.

The author of a truly Christian fantasy-world, whether it be a retelling of a classic such as Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, or the Frog and the Prince, or whether it be a tale that has not yet been told, must redeem the genre for the sake of the kingdom and the glory of God. As such, it must reflect truth as it really is, as God tells us what it is.

[1] Appearing in The Christian Imagination, ed. by Leland Ryken.

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