Morals? Absolutely! (2 of 2)

I have a four year old boy and a two year old girl. My son loves pirates and my daughter loves to dump water on the floor–at any given point of the day I feel like I am on the high seas (and usually it’s not in the role of the captain).

puzzlesPuzzles are an important part of my children’s lives. For my son, he prides himself on completing 40-piece floor puzzles with mom. My daughter? she prides herself on dumping as many puzzles on the floor as possible…all by herself.

This use to frustrate me.

Now, I do something that I defines me as a parent: I time myself putting the puzzles back together. These four puzzles took me 36 seconds! For those of you without kids–that’s pretty good. Trust me, it’s because I practice.

The last time I was training–I mean picking up–I was struck by something. A wooden cow. My daughter had learned that if she dumped the puzzle that daddy would gather all the pieces together and busily put them together again. Apparently, this brought her great joy.  My obsession with speed blinded me from the fact that I was missing a piece. Thankfully, my daughter helped remedy that.

I’s sure if you read the teaser from my last blog you are probably already onto the analogy that I am about to make. When it comes to puzzles, there’s a reason why two year olds start with the ones that have the shapes already cut out of them. If my daughter puts the ship puzzle piece into the ship cut-out on the board, I clap. If she does all 6 pieces of the puzzle I cheer and give her a hug. One piece for one shape–straightforward. This is special because my daughter is just learning the art of the puzzle. No one cheers when I finish; in fact, most of you are still getting over the fact that I time myself when I put multiple puzzles together. Don’t worry, I’m not offended.

Maybe it was the cow to the side of the head, but I started seeing a connection between puzzles and teaching children morals. As I touched on in the first instalment of this topic, there are situations in our adult lives that cloud our ability to make moral decisions. This isn’t to say that there is no foundation for moral decisions to be made–I believe there is–but decisions can be difficult even with these foundations. Sometimes, we make villains and enemies out of the ‘Other’ in order to justify our own decisions. Sometimes we are the villains.

My faith directs me to an understanding of humanity that is sinful, thus believing that all humanity is capable of villainy. So, when it comes to stories like “Flags of Our Fathers,” I appreciate the picture of a complex human nature. Unfortunately, if we try to communicate the moral complexities of our humanity to children before their moral foundations are laid, then I think we raise children who are morally ambiguous at best and morally bereft at worst.

This is why fairy tales can be such a helpful tool for teaching children morality. They serve as a kind of cutout wood puzzle. The hero and villain are defined and the virtues are often clear (although not always). Unfortunately, adults sometimes forgo these seemingly static stories in order to give their children a more complex view of the world.

Storytellers do this all the time. Writers subvert the roles of villain and hero to show depth of character and to provide suspense. One of the clearest pictures I can think of is with the movie “Shrek.” The writers take an ogre, traditionally endowed with all the nasty traits of fairy tales, and make him the hero of the story. This is great storytelling in my opinion, but one of the reasons the subversion works so well is because it plays off of a foundational understanding that ogres are bad.

The child physiologist Bruno Bettleheim writes about danger teaching children moral ambivalence before having a solid moral foundation:

“Ambiguities must wait until a relatively firm personality has been established on the basis of positive identifications. Then the child has a basis for understanding that there are great differences between people and that therefore one has to make choices about who one wants to be.”

Likewise, Vigen Guroian in his book Tending the Heart of Virtue, writes

“Children need guidance and moral road maps and they benefit immensely with the example of adults who speak truthfully and act from moral strength.”

Children need to “see” what a world of goodness looks like, and then see the negative affects of our actions (sin) within that world. The enchantment of fantasy is that it draws its readers into a world of “what if” where children can safely see archetypes of good and evil, read about their virtues or lack of, and then use those lessons to build their own moral foundations.

In his book Education of Character, Martin Burber recalls an anecdote from one of his early teaching experiences in University.

“[I tried] to explain that lying destroys life, and something frightening happened: the worst habitual liar of the class produced a brilliant essay on the destructive power of lying…Instead, a compelling vision of the goodness of goodness itself needs to be presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination.” 

Burber, like numerous others, argue that fairy tales offer a safe environment to explore the positive and negative examples needed in moral development. It is much safer (and I would also argue much more affective) to have a child read “Snow White” and say, “the step-mother is wicked because she has allowed jealousy to rule her” than to point to your neighbour who just purchased a new boat and say, “see, he is evil.” Children who are steeped in fairy tales learn to recognize the evil ogre in their neighbours (and hopefully themselves) without claiming that their neighbours are wholly ogres. Likewise, children who read “The Goose Girl” will be able to recognize humility and hopefully be able to recognize that virtue in their neighbours as well.

In the end, children who are not trained will learn a self-serving type of morality. This is no task for the human nature. But a child with strong moral formations (inward beliefs) will undoubtedly have a greater chance of recognizing and exhibiting virtues (outward actions from beliefs) that show an imbued sense of love for his or her neighbour.

And if not, maybe we need a little more practice with the beginners puzzles.

 

Villians

Artwork by Terra Grasser

A light read about fairy tales and villains: http://verilymag.com/how-to-survive-a-fairytale/ 

 

 

 

 

 

Morals? Absolutely! (1 of 2)

A few years ago I watched the movie Flags of our Fathers. The film, directed by Clint Eastwood, shows the  bitter reality of WWII through the life stories of the six men who raised the flag at The Battle of Iwo Jima. I think the movie does a brilliant job of examining the delicate balance between truth and propaganda in a time of war as well as gently deconstructing the American hero. Through a combination of real-life interviews and dramatic interpretation, Eastwood challenges his viewers to look at this iconic American picture from the perspective of the Japanese people who were also fighting (without villainizing the American soldiers).

Growing up in America, and continuing to enjoy my American citizenship while in Canada, I was always taught the incomprehensible evil that was Japan. Pearl Harbour after all. Now, I don’t want to descend into a political argument of war; unfortunately, because of human sin, it is and will continue to be part of our existence,  but, I believe the nature of war–that of human destruction–is grievous. Tolkien addresses the issue of war in The Two Towers when he writes

“War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”

Unfortunately, with war comes enemies. No doubt, like Tolkien writes, there are times that “war must be,” but the issue of creating enemies is an interesting one. As I’ve mentioned, I grew up learning about WWII, and I learned about the atrocities of the Japanese kamikazes at Pearl Harbour. Unfortunately, what started as a lesson about the atrocities of the bombing by the Japanese pilots quickly turned into lessons about the overall atrocities of the Japanese people.

I grew up learning that Japan was the enemy of the United States, and this is why Flags of our Fathers had such an impact on me. I hate to admit it, but I was a 27 year old educated man who had never really thought about the flag of Iwo Jima from any other perspective but the American one. The concept of the ‘Other’ was illustrated right before my eyes.

This concept–introduced by Hegel and later made popular by Edward Said’s Orientalism–is a process of self-identity by means of constructing roles for yourselves based on the roles of other people or groups (often the roles for the ‘Others’ are dehumanizing or demonizing).

Because I love the NFL, a simple example can be made between cheering for my beloved Seahawks or rooting against the villainies of the 49ers. It was fun to watch the Seahawks throttle the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, but it was even sweeter to watch Richard Sherman tip the Colin Kapernick pass in the end zone to secure a win in the NFC Championship against the San Francisco 49ers.  In sports this is nothing more than simple rivalry; and they abound in every sport and in every country.  Fans are, in essence, defining their identities by drawing a line in the sand (or on the field as the case may be) and saying: “You are either for us or against us.”

No doubt this is a rudimentary example, but hopefully the point is made.

In war, it’s a bit more complicated.

After watching The Flags of Our Fathers, I was reminded of the difficulty of finding truth when you allow personal perspective into the picture–when you understand that history is written from personal perspective. Years later I was once again reminded of this difficulty when I took a graduate level history class where the teacher expressed that because history is all written from personal perspective, then we may never be able to understand reality.

“The difference between treason and patriotism is only a matter of dates,” Alexandre Dumas writes in The Count of Monte Cristo.

No doubt relativism has broken open many boxes that have long been nailed shut by dogma. Unfortunately, here in lies the problem.

The reason that I was able to navigate the themes of The Flags of Our Fathers is because I understood the tension of right and wrong. I already had a foundation of morality by which I could filter the information from the movie, think about the content, and decide what bits I should keep and what bits I should send down the garbage disposal. Children do not posses this skill, so to teach them moral complexities before having moral absolutes is very problematic.

In my next post, I want to explore why fairy tales are a fantastic genre to use to teach children moral absolutes while giving credence to the reality of moral complexity.

Stay tuned!

 

 

Why We Still Need “Happily Ever After” (2 of 2)

I tell a lot of stories to my classes–it is one of the ways that I feel like I connect with my students. They write me their stories, I tell them my stories, and by the end of the year we know each other pretty well. One of the stories I enjoy telling is about a time that I was coaching a junior high basketball team when I was still teaching in Seattle.

The story goes that my team and I were away at a basketball game one afternoon. The final few minutes of the end of the game were a back and forth battle with the other team. They would go up by one and then they would go up by one. Up by two. Down by one. Tied. Back and forth for a solid five minutes–an ulcer the size of a grapefruit growing in my stomach the entire time.

With 9 seconds left, we were down by one and our team had the ball on the opposite end of the court. 9 seconds is a lifetime in basketball. Peace treaties have been signed and government handbooks have been rewritten in those 9 seconds. Unfortunately as a coach, 9 seconds doesn’t seem nearly long enough when you are down by one point.

We inbounded the ball, passed the ball up to half court on the right side, and then proceeded to pass it back and forth looking for an open shot. Finally, right before the buzzer rang and my heart burst open, one of the players “chucked” up a three point shot…and it went it!

The crowd went wild, the players celebrated, and I downed two Zantac.

When we got back to the school everyone was still excited. I made sure all the players were picked up by their parents, and then I went to park the 15 passenger van. As I walked back to the school, I realized that I had left my car keys (and subsequently, my school keys) in my classroom. It was February…it was cold…and I was hungry. After a full hour of banging on the windows and doors to get the janitors attention–who happened to be listening to AC/DC–I got my keys and was headed home. Needless to say, I was no longer excited about the win. My mountaintop experience had been drowned out by an Angus Young riff from Hell’s Bells–except my temperature wasn’t so hot.

This story is the opposite of “Happily Ever After,” but their are some similarities. Instead of ending well, my story started well and ended hungry…I mean poorly.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, some people don’t like the fairy tale ending. Whether for overuse or abstractness, they just don’t like it. Now, far be it from me to infringe upon individual tastes. I can’t give you a reason why I don’t like brussel sprouts, but I still don’t like them. I do know that they are the devil’s vegetable, so I’m assuming that’s reason enough. Possibly disliking “happily ever after” doesn’t need an explanation…possibly.

The reason that I write about this though is far beyond personal taste. I do believe that to dislike “happily every after,” and probably disliking fairy tales as a whole, leads to cynicism and a stout case of narcism. Now, I’m not saying that every Cinderella-loving child will grow up to be a compassionate philanthropist because of the ending, but I do believe that by accepting this style of ending in a fairy tale ultimately shows a person more open to transcendence than not. In fact, liking “happily ever after” has less to do with the genre of fairy tales and more to do with understanding that the world is greater than we are. Let me explain.

Many of the oppositions that I hear are based on readers being dissatisfied because the actions of the happily ever after fairy tale don’t come to fruition in their own lives (i.e. “Prince Charming is not coming to sweep me off my feet”). Many notable authors (Tolkien, Lewis, L’Engle, Le Guin) have written about the universal truths should be followed in fantasy and fairy tales, but none of them have every advocated (as far as I know) selling your last cow to get some magic beans. It is the virtues of characters-not the actions of the characters–that should be emulated. The fantastical land of fairy tales operates on a completely different set of principles, so we simply can’t determine these stories to be true based on the principles of our world. Instead, we must insert ourselves into these stories to look around–to feel what is true and just and right. Happily ever after isn’t wrong just because it doesn’t work in the real world. Or does it?

Tolkien called the Gospel (literally the “God Spell”) of the Bible the great Eucatastrophe; in other words, the great Happily Every After. “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history,” Tolkien writes. The “turn” at the end of a story, the happy ending of a fairy tale, if written well, is the great Christian joy according to Tolkien; a “sudden and miraculous grace.” Tolkien believed that fairy tales are able to both fully understand the “dycatastrophe of sorrow and failure,” but not be overcome with cynicism because they also embrace the “joy of deliverance.”

To believe in happily ever after means to believe that there is someone or something that will come to your rescue. That even in the darkest of nights and the bleakest of situations, not to grow bitter and hopeless, because there will be salvation. I know no better explanation of the Gospel.

I want to end with a scene from The Two Towers that I think epitomizes the concept of Eucatastrophe. Enjoy!

Why We Still Need “Happily Ever After” (1 of 2)

Cinderella…Snow White….Fairy Tale Ending:”Happily Ever After.” There have been a number of recent articles that I’ve come across and conversations that I’ve had that seem displeased with the “happily ever after” made popular by fairy tales.  Of course, it gets me wondering why. In fact, some of these conversations are almost hostile to the notion that any movies or books should end this way. The more I read and the more I listen to these arguments, it becomes clear that there are two major oppositions against these type of ending:  they are overused and they aren’t realistic. Both points are valid, but I don’t think that both points should make us distain the happily ever after ending and more than we should distain the cold porridge in the Three Little Bears. Let me explain.

I’ve seen my fair share of romcoms. My confession is that I don’t actually hate them (probably shouldn’t tell that to my wife), but there are definitely better romcoms than others. The ones I don’t like are the ones that seem like the writers purchased a script from a grade 9 girl right before prom and then replaced the names.

Here’s an example. When was the last time you say this movie?

Boy A meets girl B and are initially attracted to each other through a series of seemingly random events. Unfortunately, Boy A is seriously dating Girl C who just so happens to not be so good for Boy A. Girl B is busy dating Boy D who also turns out to be kind of a jerk. Boy A and Girl B go on with their lives after the meeting, but they occasionally flashback to the magical moment when they met. Time passes, leaves fall, and both relationships press

forward like the rising sun–nothing special. Then, one day, Boy A and Girl B are surprised by another moment of happenstance when they bump into each other again and are shaken from their relationship slumber. Sparks fly, fireworks burst, and their shrivelled love lives grow like the Grinch’s heart after saving Christmas in Whoville.

Boy A and Girl B share a coffee, find a random carnival to win a stuffed animal, and generally have the deep emotional-connected time that they both so desperately crave. Then at the peak of the night, when the music softens, they kiss. Cue crescendo, close up that draws back to an aerial shot and then pulls back in for the hallowed whisper”I love you” moment. Tears fall, hearts break, and we have the moment that we have been waiting for from the opening scene (you can grab a Kleenex here if you need to).

Now Boy A and Girl B are faced with difficult decisions–leave what they know for an uncertain but exciting future, or slide back into their complacent relationships.  After a mild bit of tension, Boy A and Girl B break it off with with their respective partners and come together for the grand final scene that fades to black with the new couple smiling and embracing, with the maxim “happily ever after” written all across their faces. And scene

I get it–this type of happily ever after is overused, but we live in 2014 and that ending is so 1995. Flash forward.

The couple still kisses, still says “I love you,” but goes back to their perspective relationships to stay. The movie goes black leaving its viewers with an uncanny sense of “WTF.”

Now I am the last person to condone leaving a relationship to pursue “true love” with someone you hardily know, but I do promote something in the 1995 romcom that seems to have been edited out of the modern scripts–the happy part.

Now, I am not a movie critic, nor have I seen every romcom (this is where you roll your eyes and say “sure”), but I have noticed a trend in a number of newer romantic comedies/dramas. I have found that these movies are either littered with obscene attempts at humour while taking a few stabs at what happily ever after might be, or portray an overwhelming nihility as we watch the gritty and harsh underbelly of relationships and lead to conclude: “hey, were all screwed up, so the best thing that you can do is find another screw up like you to live life with, and then things might work out.”

I take no issue with romantic movies showing reality: whether it be the light-hearted banter of When Harry Met Sally or the harsh yet surprisingly  hopefully Silver Lining Playbook. Both stories exaggerate some aspect of relationships and magnify it to evoke laughter or tears. This is good storytelling. But, both of those stories are “unrealistic” in the sense that they only portray a small aspect of relationships.

I do take issue when readers or viewers apply the overused or unrealistic argument to stories that have an altogether different purpose than romantic comedies or dramas; namely those of fairy stories.

Problems abound when we take a fairy tale and try to smash it into the mold of a realistic romance. Inevitable, corners of the original story break off and break on the ground when this happens. I think this comes from a confounded and shallow misunderstanding of romance–and more importantly–love. There are so many distorted examples of romance that many people have been convinced that a story with a boy and a girl must be about love; and not just love as one theme, but love as the only theme. To read Cinderella as a “love story” with Prince Charming is ridiculous! Maybe we are trying to push a square peg through a round hole…or trying to shove a size 13 foot into a size 10 shoe:

cinderella

“the older one took the shoe into her bedroom to try it on. She could not get her big toe into it, for the shoe was too small for her. Then her mother gave her a knife and said, ‘Cut off your toe. When you are queen you will no longer have to go on foot’…the other sister should try on the shoe. She went into her bedroom, and got her toes into the shoe all right, but her heel was too large. Then her mother gave her a knife, and said, ‘Cut a piece off your heel. When you are queen you will no longer have to go on foot.’ The girl cut a piece off her heel, forced her foot into the shoe, swallowed the pain, and went out to the prince.”

It’s understandable why people might find distain in fairy tale endings if they expect them to come true in real life. For where a romantic comedy or drama may zoom in to magnify a certain aspect of how life is, the lens of the fairy tale pulls far back to a picture of something entirely different in order to give us a glimpse of what life might be. To disregard this transcendent picture leaves us only with the gritty underbelly or the candy-coated shell of love.

In the end, I think we must accept the “happily every after ending” for what they are–a bigger picture of a different world. Instead of trying to emulate the actions of the fairy tale characters–which we can never do–we should imitate the morals and values taught in these tales. From there, we might find the happily that everyone is always after.

But the prince insisted on it, and they had to call Cinderella. She first washed her hands and face clean, and then went and bowed down before the prince, who gave her the golden shoe. She sat down on a stool, pulled her foot out of the heavy wooden shoe, and put it into the slipper, and it fitted her perfectly.

When she stood up the prince looked into her face, and he recognized the beautiful girl who had danced with him. He cried out, “She is my true bride.”

A Lighter Tale: In Defence of

Ask my students, and I’m sure they will readily admit that I have two sides to my teaching personality. One side of my personality is The Empowerer–The Inner-City-in-the-Suburbs educator who is passionate about raising the bar for his students. The teacher who compassionately yet truthfully reads over a student’s paper, looks her in the eyes, and says, “this has some fantastic qualities, but I think you can do better. You use a few great adjectives, but why don’t you try to join a few of those short sentences together for a more rhythmic flow?” Then folds his arms and watches the joyful wheels of rewriting commence.

The other side of my teaching personality is The Comedian–The story-telling, laughter-seeking, Jerry Seinfeld-esk observationist who enjoys teaching his students how to bob and weave through cliches and puns while sucking the marrow from every brilliantly placed sarcastic remark. Then sits back and watches the entire class guffaw.

Of course, most days I fluctuate between both of these: sometimes feeling slightly grumpy from students’ missing work and sometimes feeling old because my reference to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is met with very confused looks. This is a dilemma of teaching: you’re always adjusting to what is current without forsaking the traditional skills that hopefully will help the students read, write, add, laugh, pray, love, and live better.

Meme

I also often find this tension when I read. Some days I want to dig in deep to Karl Barth; and other days I want to get lost trying to find the perfect meme to express my “complex” emotions. With that said, here are two very good reasons to read fairy tales. Both are concise and well-written, but the first one is a bit on the lighter side.

Go ahead, you decided what kind of day it is for you!

In Defense of Real Fairy Tales–Adam Gidwitz

In Defense of the Fairy Tale: C.S. Lewis’s Argument for the Value and Importance of the Fairy Tale

What is “Good” Fantasy? (3 of 3)

When the Fellowship of the Ring first came out in 2001, I grabbed my best friend at the time, and we drove down to the local theatre to watch what has now become one of Peter Jackson’s greatest movies. I had read all of the Lord of the Rings books when I was young, and I had anticipated the movie for well over a year. When the movie ended, and we left the theatre on that cold December night, something inside of me came alive–apparently, I wasn’t the only one. Driving home, Sam and I made a pact that we would see the next movie together. Indeed, the next December came, and Sam and I were once again watching Tolkien’s work come to life. And once again, I left that theatre with a strange life in my imagination. Then there was Return to the King. The glory of Aragorn, the friendship of Sam, and the devastation of Sauron. Aside from the deletion of Sharky and the scourging of the Shire, I was pleased with the movie, but I felt different that night as I left the theatre.

elves

Truthfully, I felt like I had ended a three year relationship! I was disappointed, and a little hopeless, but I couldn’t shake a strange yearning that was connected to the last scenes of the movie. Like Sam, Pippin, and Merry, I felt like I was watching all of the magic of the elves leave Middle Earth. Every part of me wanted the magic to stay, and every part of me wanted 

to be part of that magic. Something inside of me had come awake, and it felt like it was now leaving me. This, in my opinion, is one of the greatest manifestations of truly great fantasy. And like Tolkien, his predecessor of fantasy George MacDonald, is a master at awakening the moral imaginations of his readers. 

One of the fundamental ways that George MacDonald awakens the moral imagination of his readers is through the use of symbolism.  As the author Rolland Hein explains, MacDonald uses symbolism to create a reality that is “more ideal and more unified than that of daily life” (Harmony 57).  MacDonald believes that a person who imagines the world rightly is imagining God.  “Our imagination is made to mirror truth,” MacDonald writes in his Unspoken Sermons series, “and when we are true it will mirror nothing but truth” (Series Two 113).  Hein aptly notes that MacDonald “imaginatively created fictional worlds in which moral and spiritual realities were accentuated” (55).  MacDonald’s more virtuous characters show the benefits of a well- developed moral imagination, while his less virtuous characters portray the effects of a lack of moral imagination.  Ultimately, MacDonald’s characters direct readers to a greater understanding of the human struggle to regain harmony with a transcendent God.  Hein argues that MacDonald uses the fairy tale form to best achieve this purpose. For MacDonald, symbols portray spiritual truths, and his “images function as symbols when they convey divine meaning and grace to the sensitive reader” (Christian Mythmakers 59).  Vigen Guroian also comments on our participation with these symbols:

If a symbol is real and belongs to the ontology of being, though the mystery remains, the fact is that children belong to that ontology and are participants in the symbolical, semiotic, and sacramental universe that God has brought into existence and sustains from “moment” to “moment.”   Children are already “literate,” which is to say equipped to read out the meaning in a meaningful world. [The] [t]rouble is we neither trust in this nor attend to introducing them to the world properly. Imaginative powers are innate. But they must be exercised properly, like muscles in the body, lest they either atrophy or grow grotesquely.

MacDonald situates his characters as participants in a greater story, and allows his readers to use their innate imaginative powers to understand the symbols embedded in a microcosmic story that direct them to a macrocosmic story. Ultimately, MacDonald’s fairy tales employ the symbolic to mimic the grand creativity of Nature and of God.

Like many authors, MacDonald found the fairy tale to be the “perfect vehicle for exploring our confrontment with the unknown” (Mendelson 33).  And through the exploration of this unknown, MacDonald’s stories continue to inspire a sense of awe in his readers that allows them to participate in their own childlikeness so that they may struggle with the mystery of their own reality—and be amazed.  The rationalism of MacDonald’s day relegate the imagination to the furthest corners of acceptable means of knowing, but George MacDonald diverged from this worldview to instruct his readers to marry both reason and imagination so that the grandeur of God is fully realized.

Although this may seem very nebulous, it can be achieved by looking at a piece of fantasy with a different perspective. As an example, I want to explore the Grimm’s version of Snow White by using a moral reading.

Snow White often gets criticized for being discriminatory towards women (to be honest, I can see why a story about one woman doing chores for seven small men while evading a jealous step-mother might lead people towards this conclusion), but a closer look at the Grimm’s Snow White from outside a feminist perspective reveals a virtuous, not passive, Snow White.  If the use of the words “fairness” and “beauty” are extended beyond their physical meaning, a different Snow White is revealed.  For example, Snow White’s physical countenance is unaffected by the perceived death brought on after eating the queen’s poison apple.  Snow White’s “fresh and alive” appearance after death draws Christ-like comparisons with the Pauline references to Christ’s resurrection: “Death has been swallowed up in victory,” and, “Oh, death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54-55).

Comparing Snow White’s awakening to Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection gives Snow White’s “passivity” a greater power than any other character in the story: power over death.  And while it is noted that Snow White never truly dies, the symbol of her fairness being upheld in her supposed death is enough to make the Christ-like comparison; for it is her fairness that prompts the dwarves to honor her with a glass coffin, and by her loveliness the prince pledges an eternal vow to “honor and cherish” the seemingly deceased princess.  Honor, love, and devotion are precipitated through Snow White’s fairness, even in death. This fairness does not suggest a passive woman; instead, it reveals a woman whose post-mortem virtue actively affects those who are in contact with her.  Ultimately, while a feminist reading of Snow White provides insight into a possible patriarchal and matriarchal imbalance, this kind of reading hinders one’s ability to interpret virtue—even possible virtues like humility and service.

This fairy tale is just one example of how looking for “good” fantasy can help sharpen our eyes to the goodness and wisdom that can be found withing fantasy.

Obviously, not all fantasy is created equal. There is no doubt that our relativistic view of truth and goodness has

gandalf

distorted what we need from a fantasy story. I believe that our modern fascination with fantasy (from Marvel to Middle Earth) is really just an echo of a greater need to belong to a world that transcends ourselves. Although we do not have the advantage of having a Gandalf or Aslan to physically guide us through our perils, we can take the truths that burst forth from these stories to better see the world the surrounds all of us.

What is “Good” Fantasy? (2 of 3)

Jeffrey Overstreet is one my favourite film critics. Along with being the author of Through a Screen Darkly and the fantasy series Auralia’s Colors, he writes extensively for Patheos. com. Ever year when the Academy Awards rolls around, he has a few disparaging words for one or two of the movies that are chosen as the “Best of” for the year. Some people disagree with his critique of certain popular movies based on the fact that the movies are popular and did well in the box office. One of the reasons I trust Overstreet’s movie judgement is because he doesn’t shy away from these comments by trying to convince people that he isn’t some stuffy movie critic. The truth is: he isn’t a stuffy movie critic. But, he is a critic that enjoys movies and enjoys writing about them. When he responds to the “this movie is popular so it must be good” comments of his readers, he often uses the analogy of a restaurant critic. He goes on to describe how much money McDonalds makes every single day around the world, and then ask

s the rhetorical question: “does that make them the best restaurant in the world?” Of course not. Likewise, the numbers at the box office aren’t always a true litmus test to a good movie. Granted, movies, like books, are art (or at least they should be), and art is viewed or read by the public, which means that it must connect with people. But, box office totals should not be the test for greatness…or even goodness for that matter.

My other favourite film critic is  Steven D. Greydanus. His blog, Decent Films Guide,  strives to look at movies as both art and a vehicle of moral understanding. Like Overstreet, Greydanus often critiques movies for their artistic qualities along with their virtuous ones. Greydanus even goes as far as to assign movies a moral and spiritual value(link to explanation). Fortunately, these values are based on more than just how many swear words, deaths, or nude moments there are in the movie.

In fact, Greydanus and Overstreet alike attempt to do what I am attempting to do with fantasy: define what is “good” in terms of goodness and not just popularity.

I would like to offer up two major road signs to look for when trying to decipher the goodness of a fantasy story: symbolism and transcendence.

1. Symbolism

GMD

As quoted in my previous post, George MacDonald used the phrase “wise imagination” to describe what he saw as the product of fantasy that abides by a higher calling. MacDonald believed the imagination could be used to direct people to understand more about God and stressed the use of symbolism

 because it refutes the reductive nature of rationalism by asking readers to look beyond the materialistic world. For MacDonald, imagination serves as a conduit of spiritual truths: his most important message is that imagination is something that allows humanity to approach a loving God for the purpose of having a relationship with Him. MacDonald uses symbols in his fantasy as a way to demonstrate the spiritual growth of his characters, and in turn, uses these symbols to foster the moral imagination of his readers. MacDonald trusts the symbolic to carry his message of the moral imagination, and he believes that some truth that comes from intuitive experiences cannot be grasped by mere rationalism. In contrast to rationalism, with its wariness of emotional and experiential understanding, MacDonald regards the wise imagination as the primary means to wisdom.  He thinks of the wise imagination as being open to the divine: “The imagination is the light which redeems from the darkness for the eyes of understanding” (Dish of Orts 14).

Symbolism, then, is critical for fantasy because fantasy deals in the fantastic; therefore it must use the imagination, and the imagination requires a person to accept certain truths without relying on a materialistic explanation. In essence, when we allow ourselves to look for truth outside of rationalistic thought, then we open ourselves up to the possibility of transcendence.

 2. Transcendence

I often say to my students that we do not want to become narcissistic readers. By that I mean we don’t want to judge the truths of a book based solely on our own experiences. Indeed, we want to have our minds expanded by the truths of a book and not have the truths of a book rejected because we don’t understand them. It reminds me of the Aesop’s fable of The Fox and the Grapes. As the story goes, the fox sees some tasty grapes handing overhead and he makes several attempts to reach them. After a number failed attempts, the Fox proclaims that the grapes must be sour. Understandably, we all read with certain presumptions about life and the world around us–there really is no getting around this–but, if we reject material solely based on whether we understand it or not, then we surely have a very small view of the world. This is why transcendence is so important in fantasy.

Romantic thinkers such as Coleridge and Wordsworth helped MacDonald form his belief that Nature is a transcendent symbol that points people to the divine, and that these symbols are understandable with the help of the imagination. This view of Nature is most often attributed to Wordsworth whom MacDonald lauds as “the high priest of nature” who “saw God present everywhere” (Orts 246).   MacDonald understands Nature as a divine revelation that can be recognized through the imagination, and writes that “the human imagination has no choice but to make use of the forms already prepared for it, its operation is the same as that of the divine inasmuch as it does put thought into form” (Orts 7). Nature then, according to MacDonald, carries with it the inherent symbolism of transcendence.

The wise imagination therefore is the ability to see our position in a transcendent world where we concede that there is knowledge and experience outside our own rational understanding.  This is an imagination that enables us to acknowledge that true wisdom is a combination of experience of the mind and purity of the heart.

I think the goodness of a story comes from its ability to help us become not only better readers, and better thinkers, but ultimately better people. In a world that is very skeptical of moral absolutes, I think it is important to approach stories with joyful anticipation and critical minds. In essence, like Jeffrey Overstreet, we must not be afraid to determine “good” fantasy based on criteria other than popularity.

 

What Is “Good” Fantasy? (1 of 3)

From the start, I admit that I am a little leery of answering this question. Qualifying something by using the word good is similar to saying a building is strong because it’s dog–to most people it doesn’t mean anything. Or if it does mean something, then it probably means something different to you than to me. This is the reality of our relativistic worldview. In a response to the question of moral relativism, G.K. Chesterton uses an reductio ad absurdum to illustrate the limitations of moral relativism:

“Whatever we may think of the merits of torturing children for pleasure, and no doubt there is much to be said on both sides, I am sure we all agree that it should be done with sterilized instruments.” 

Absurd? Yes. Brilliant? I think, once again–Yes. Whether we want to admit it or not, people live and move and breathe based on the conclusions that we make.  To lean on Chesterton once again, I believe that “the human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions,” and that:

“In truth, there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don’t know it.”

Now, believe it or not, the point I am trying to make is actually not solely philosophical. In truth, the point I am trying to make comes more or less from a simple pragmatic question that many people ask before cracking the cover of a book: “is this book going to be any good?”

I don’t know about you, but I’m a busy person. I have a wife, two active kids, I teach, volunteer at church, and try to keep up to date on other important matters (like finishing the 3rd season of Sherlock). Safe to say, I, like you, probably don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to poor literature. On top of that, I believe that a good book is a piece of art; and like a piece of art, that book can change or solidify my worldview–help me see the world from a different perspective. Or maybe just give me a good laugh. Either way, I want to share good books with other people hoping that it will also change how they see the world.

We all have an understanding of the word good. All of our minds have come to a conclusion of what constitutes the qualities of good. Let’s just say that when I first meet my wife my idea of a good valentine’s dinner was a little different than my wife’s  idea of a good valentine’s dinner. Fortunately, with a little discussion, we have arrived (okay, I have arrived) at the understanding that Shake ‘n Bake Chicken and hard French Bread does not constitute a good Valentine’s Day dinner. In fact, I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say that this understanding has probably contributed to a much happier marriage! 

With all of this said, I want to spend the next few posts explaining what I see as good fantasy using the following definition that is in large part borrowed from George MacDonald:

Good fantasy is such that uses the readers imagination to help recognize the wonder and mystery of our world which draws us to a higher law than the one which we create ourselves—MacDonald refers to this as the “wise imagination.” In Dish of Orts, he writes:

In very truth, a wise imagination, which is the presence of the spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have; for it is not the things we see the most clearly that influence us the most powerfully; undefined, yet vivid visions of something beyond, something which eye has not seen nor ear heard, have far more influence than any logical sequences whereby the same things may be demonstrated to the intellect).

shake 'n bake

Say no to shake’n bake