Sunday, September 09, 2007

Fairy Tale Apologetics

"What I am concerned with is our apologetics, and that great work of apologetic, some day to be written, which shall suggest to the reader that in approaching
Christian theology he is approaching something that is alive, not a series of diagrams. The hardest part of the author's task, as I see it, will be to introduce some human element into natural theology; to prove that God is, and what God is, not merely with the effect of intellectual satisfaction, but with a glow of assent that springs from the whole being: "Did not our hearts burn within us when He talked to us by the way?"

– Ronald Knox
I quote Knox because I think his assessment is correct. I have had further proof of his correctness after seeing a book by Peter Kreeft, called Handbook of Christian Apologetics, which is lousy with charts and diagrams. Ugh. That type of apologetics, also championed by F. J. Sheed and Arnold Lunn, must be kept on a small shelf in the church basement. When given too prominent a place, such over-intellectualizing of Christianity can send the potential convert into a downward spiral, ending in the Slough of Despair.

I think Knox would have approved of a new apologetics that is a very old form of apologetics: the apologetics of our Lord. His apologetics consisted of a story about a hero (our Lord was the star of His story), woven around dogmas that were illustrated by stories.

Why does the use of stories and parables mark a work as inferior apologetics and lacking in serious moral purpose? In Catholic circles such a work is labeled "natural" and thus inferior to the supernatural works of the Doctors of Theology. But by such a standard, the Gospels would be considered inferior apologetics, and Christ a second-rate theologian.

The false assumption of the Catholic apologist is that reason alone stands unpolluted by original sin. This is false. Our reasoning faculty is not less tainted than our intuitive or our imaginative faculties. It is by incorporating all our faculties into a vision that we can overcome the taint of original sin enough to say that now we at least "see through a glass darkly."

The new apologetics then must be like the old apologetics, showing us a vision of the true God through the use of parable, story, and the image of the hero. When the central dogma of Christ incarnate, Christ crucified, Christ risen is still strongly present in the consciousness of the reader, the story of the Christ-like hero (such as Zorro or the Scarlet Pimpernel) is sufficient without the dogma. But when the central dogma of Western civilization has receded from the consciousness of men, the dogma must be more explicit. C. S. Lewis, in his Chronicles of Narnia series, gives us the new-old apologetics for the 21st century. He makes explicit what writers such as Kenneth Grahame, Charles Dickens, Walter Scott, and John Buchan had said implicitly.

There will be many who will quarrel over the artistic merits of a work of literature that makes such an explicit case for the Christian Faith. But such individuals do not understand that all art is religious. There is no such thing as a work of art without a religious vision. The vision is the work of art. What makes a work of art didactic in the pejorative sense is the nature of the religious vision conveyed. Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel, The Secret Garden, isn't offensive because she writes about God; her novel is offensive because her god is a pantheistic, Buddha-type god.

Catholics are particularly hostile to the new apologetics. The reason Tolkien thought Narnia childish and vulgar was because he was raised in the "old" Catholic school (which was, of course, really a very modern school), which taught that art and religion were in separate categories, the one in the natural order and the other in the supernatural order. But that is a false division. God does not only exist on the Mt. Sinai of the theologians, nor should apologetics be left only to the professionals.

C. S. Lewis was a pioneer in the field of apologetics. After discovering the limitations of the more traditional apologetics, which he did quite well, he wrote his great of work of apologetics in Narnia. He broke through the Thomistic separation of the natural and the supernatural and told us a really true fairy tale, of how we can learn to love God in this world and live happily ever after with Him in the next. He kept it simple for the peasants like me, without compromising the dogma.

There is nothing written in stone that says apologetics must be dull, mathematical, unmetaphorical, unimaginative, and unintelligible. The use of parables and stories in one's apologetics should not disqualify a work from the ranks of "serious" apologetics. In fact, it is my contention that a really effective apologia for the Faith should incorporate the heroic fairy-tale traditions of Europe and the Gospels. And because our current anti-civilization does not consciously recognize the central dogma of our old civilization, the new apologetics will make it clear for whom the cross on the knight's breastplate stands.

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