The Real Drama
I finished the last post with the idea that the physical world can serve as a doorway, a wardrobe, a railway station to the world beyond us--the supernatural world. Flannery O’Connor explains that “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is…the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery” (79). Both Christian faith and imagination propel us to see our present world as a shadow. I’m not saying the shadow isn’t important or valuable, but that despite its beauty we must not forget what lives beyond it.
Consider an important passage in the final installment of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle. The final battle has concluded, Narnia is worn, and the children are dismayed, but Digory calms them.
Listen, Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is a dream. (759)
Digory explains there are two Narnias: a real Narnia and a Narnia which is but a shadow-like copy. This idea of our world being a shadow or copy is not new to Lewis, nor even the Christian thinkers; we even see it rooted in Judaism, specifically in the concept of the tabernacle.
In the book of Hebrews, the author writes to a Christian audience who is both persecuted and tempted to return to Judaism. The author warns them that Christ is the fulfillment of the Jewish faith; to return to Judaism is to return to a shadow when the reality is available. Who would choose a shadow over the reality?
Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is...in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. (Hebrews 8:5b)
God designed the tabernacle, organizing its layout and furniture with great precision, as it is modeled after the heavenly tabernacle. The earthly tent of worship is but a copy.
Narnia and Middle Earth and the tabernacle systems are metaphors to help us understand our shadow-like reality better. There are perspectives of the world that say this world is it: what you touch and feel is all that exists. I never could accept that thinking, even as a child. The vast, fearful, and beautiful world always seemed to propel my imagination to what lies beyond it.
There are many reasons why I’ve never had difficulty believing in God and the spiritual reality, but one reason is because my family always valued the imagination. They told stories at bedtime, in the car, and the dinner table.
In seminary, I started thinking more philosophically about my love for stories, asking the simple question “why”? I know we all love stories, and we can’t stop using them. But why?
Dorothy Sayers in her work Creed or Chaos offered one of the first clues:
The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man….That drama is summarized quite clearly in the Creeds of the Church….The plot pivots upon a single character, and the whole action is the answer to a single central problem: What think ye of Christ? (5)
Pastors and teachers often have their favorite metaphors to help people understand the world we live in, but this image made the most sense: human history is God’s drama centered on the lead actor, God’s Son.
The basis of this metaphor is that Scripture is offering highlights of what is a sweeping, unified story of God’s work in human history. Though I had sat in church since I was little, sadly, it wasn’t until seminary that someone finally explained to me how the many books in the Bible fit together in a manner that tells one story. This was the seed of Stage & Story: educate artists about God and his universe in images that already reside in these artists’ imaginations.
I now can’t help but share with my students, whether in Bible, literature, or theatre classes the breathtaking way in which the Bible is sharing that we are characters and performers in God’s Cosmic Drama.
Understanding this Drama and our place in it is the foundation of what I call the Christian imagination. It is the Christian Imagination that allows us to look at the drama around us -- so often chaotic, playing like a Greek tragedy -- and understand it is but a shadow of the Cosmic Drama in which God is the dramatist, director, and lead actor.
We are but actors in a stage play that is open now, but will close soon. Macbeth beautifully phrases it this way:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. (V.V)
But as Digory counsels, you need not mourn over this stage, it will pass away only to unveil what it has shadowed all along: the Cosmic Drama of Jesus the Christ.
May all the lights turn toward him!