Thursday, October 11, 2007

An Awefully Big Adventure

An Awefully Big Adventure

“The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have just been landed in them, usually their paths were laid that way, as you put it.”
J. R. R. Tolkien: Return of the King

”Reality, in fact, is always something you couldn't have guessed. That's one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It's a religion you couldn't have guessed."
C. S. Lewis: The Case for Christianity

Humans love stories. Scheherazade kept her lovely head on her shoulders because of them. Belle couldn’t put them down. Wendy recounts them to her brothers by the hour and eventually lands in an adventure of her own, presumably to tell stories to others. Samwise was delighted by the old tales as they were told to him. Tolkien and Lewis immersed themselves in Norse and Celtic myths before writing their epic classics.

We love mythology is because is shows us truth in a fashion that is easier to see than in dry moral tomes. Fairy tales and adventures transport us out of ourselves, resonate with something deep within us, and brush our mundane surroundings with glints of magic. Stories cross cultural and linguistic boundaries. Joseph Campbell says that “comparative cultural studies have now demonstrated beyond question that similar mythic tales are to be found in every quarter of this earth.” Every country has the same stories: the beautiful girl forced to slave for her evil stepmother; the woman who marries the hideous monster; the beggar child who maintains good character and inherits a fortune; the unlikely hero who manages to save the world from unspeakable evil; the virgin who gives birth, the god who dies and comes to life again. For millennia these stories were passed down orally around a campfire. They were performed as entertainment or moral exhortation by troupes of actors and minstrels. More recently they were written on rolls of parchment or bound between ornate covers. And now they are captures in a camera and projected on a screen, the advent of film allowing ever more variation and more impressive illusion to the same stories retold; rewritten as comedy, drama, thriller and romance.

That stories touch something deep within us can’t be doubted. Lewis says, “Good stories of this sort…are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conceptions of the range of possible experience…I’m not sure that anyone has satisfactorily explained the keen, lasting, and solemn pleasure which such stories can give.” In these stories anything seems possible. Adventure awaits us around every corner. Every choice can change the course of history. Every life that intersects yours could be someone valuable, or famously evil, or remarkably good, and you, like the hero, may never know it. We feel a passion to go and do and see and experience something greater and bigger than we’ve ever known.

The sensation quickly fades away. Work must be carried out, shopping done, things bought, food eaten, and this thing we call “real life” makes us realize that all those feelings are just a desire to escape, and quickly pass. In Screwtape Letters the fictional demon tells just how simple a task this is. “Before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man’s head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of ‘real life’ (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all ‘that sort of thing’ just couldn’t be true.” We have this dichotomy drilled into us. There’s adventure, and there’s ‘real life.’ Those that feel a longing for something more than bills and rent and forty-hours-a-week are told that those things constitute reality and must be submitted to. But is this resignation to the mundane really the way things are in this world? Does myth only serve to provide us with an escape from our normal life? We are so stirred by stories because they are a reflection of ‘real life’ far removed from the mundane. Myths are “a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”

Life on this earth is closer to the fairy tale than what we call reality. It is no accident that God is called the author of life. God is creative. The stories, adventures, and experiences are what they are because they reflect the truth of the character of God. Lewis was very right that we need to take the Bible away from its stained glass and hushed voiced mentality. We have listened to the same few chapters and few verses too many times and missed all the best parts. The academic “biblical world view” receives much opposition from those who have grown too smart themselves to see past the limited factual knowledge of the ancient writers. Joseph Campbell, a great scholar on world myths says “such claims [to a direct connection with the Creator of the Universe] can no longer be taken seriously by anyone with even a kindergarten education.” He also says that “the little toy room picture of the Bible is, in comparison [to the vast cosmos], for children.” Well Hurrah for that! The best loved, best written ‘books for children’ are still classics, while ‘adult fiction’ comes and goes before anyone notices.
In the beginning, God created. We are often so busy fighting over whether the words should be taken literally or not, that we completely miss the magic of creation. God spoke, and endless nothing became endless something. He laid the cornerstone of the earth “while the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” Then, mud churned and lava poured out of newly formed mountains, while the angels sang, God took more nothing and started life. The molecules combined, the ooze began to stir, and life began, divided; divided again. Some things began taking on different shapes. Some grew fins and tails, some crawled out of the water and their limbs lengthened. Scales hardened and became fur and feathers. The variety increased and the waters and land grew fruitful and multiplied. Some, affected by the magic, stood upright. Their brains began to grow, they used sticks and rocks to make simple tools. The predecessor to man had appeared on the scene. The rest, as they say, is history.

This account, though only a theory that seems to account for the power of God and what we know from exploring our planet, doesn’t take away from God’s power, or authority, or creativity in the least. God refers to time for our benefit. We know that he isn’t affected by it, except for once when he chose to live in it with us. That phrase from Job began my stirrings towards a life of adventure at a time when reading the Bible was hopelessly boring. The magic was gone for me, yet those words reminded me of the Creation Hymn from the Silmarillion, like a glimpse of ‘beyond.’ Now, years later, the magic has come back to the Bible through the little known stories I found, far off the path of the usual ones that make it into the Sunday-school pamphlets. Rather than discourse about them, I am simply going to recount them:

“Once upon a time, when men began to increase in number on the earth, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful and they married any of them they chose. The Nephilim were on the earth in those days – and also afterward- when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.”

“Once upon a time there was a man named Ehud, a left handed man, the son of Gera. He was sent with a tribute to King Eglon. Now Ehud had made a double edged sword...”

“Once upon a time there was a city that was completely besieged. Four lepers were trapped at the entrance to the city gate...”

These stories are often overlooked, but they come from the same place as all of the adventure stories that we’ve ever loved. We learn that once in our history the sons of God roamed the earth, spawning heroes that did brave and daring things; that a man kills a king and escapes because his servants think he is relieving himself; and reading the story of the lepers I am reminded of the hobbits and the storming of Isengard. This is only a drop in the bucket of a wealth of adventures in the Bible. Ordinary men, ordinary people are always being sent on journeys, walking on water, being magically transported from one road to another, meeting animals that talk, being swallowed by huge fish, running for their lives from evil people bent on killing them, being told messages by creatures from beyond out world, and doing and seeing amazing things. We know also that all the stories we’ve been given are only the merest drop in the bucket. “If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” Our Bible is full of magic. It is full to the brim of adventure. Why do we expect that our lives should be any different than that ones we’ve read about? God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow and we can assume the same is true about our relation to him, and life as it is related to us. That, I think, is one of the reasons that we are told to keep our possessions to a minimum. It is hard to go on the next adventure if we have to worry about putting things in storage. The early Christians realized this. They kept their possession light, gave things away easily, and were ready to go anywhere it seemed God was calling them.

Joining in the adventure of life is a choice. We must not forget that. Being too close to see the adventure happens in the best of stories. We can take heart by looking at the supporting characters. Uncle Owen in Star Wars managed to be completely oblivious to the vast cosmic war. He was both too far away to see it, and too wrapped up in his own life to notice. The Dursleys in Harry Potter refused anything that might hint of any magic, and I’d imagine there are many like that around us today. Many in Hobbitton were blissfully ignorant of the world further than the Shire, and our heroes would have been content in the same way, to stay on the same bit of earth and live out a peaceful life, had a few Dwarves and a Wizard not descended upon them. C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy begins with an ordinary walk on an ordinary holiday. Susan experienced Narnia twice for extended times and still managed to prefer her ‘grown up’ world to the magical one. In most of the great stories, if one pays attention, there are hundreds of people who never notice the adventure at all, and turn aside at a chance to join in. Like Samwise says, “they had lots of chances. Like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten.” Just because we cannot see this moment, these circumstances as part of the adventure going on all around us, doesn’t mean we aren’t in one. The danger is in losing heart and hope, deciding ‘real life’ is the solid day to day, and the adventure is only in fairy tales.

“To live would be an awfully big adventure.” So Peter Pan asserts in a recent remaking of a classic tale. This truth is often spouted, but how many of us really believe it. In the face of bills, work, obligations, responsibilities, how many of us lost sight of life as an adventure. How many of us ever saw life that way? As young adults we are encouraged to be realistic, look for good paying jobs, steady incomes, security, health benefits and retirement packages. None of these things are bad in themselves, but they mask a deeper need. Humanity has a desire to control our environment. We desire things and a place to keep them. We seek money and power in order to shape our existence to suit our desires. Our natural inclination is to possess, dictate, control, and alter our environment. The twisting of character because of a desire to control events, circumstances, and people occurs in every piece of fiction Lewis wrote. Is there any proof that Lewis actually held the view of life as an adventure? All authors reveal more of their worldview than they intend. Lewis is no different. I believe that looking throughout Lewis’ works, a common thread emerges. Lewis believed that myth reflects reality better than ‘real life’ and that adventure is there for all of us, if we only had the eyes to see it.

Lewis’ own life certainly wasn’t very ‘adventuresome.’ He hardly left England in his life, except returning to his native Ireland. Most of his adult life was spent shackled to his ailing ‘mother’ who made his home life miserable. Lewis’ brother had a drinking problem. Lewis himself had a huge drain on his time from compiling a History of English Literature which took much time away from his writing. Lewis had more correspondence than he could handle, and much more to do than he had time in which to do it. He went on a holiday to Greece, but he turned down every other invitation to travel abroad, citing either his ailing ‘mother,’ ailing wife, or his own ill health as an excuse. Yet, there is more to Lewis than a to-do list, just as what we do isn’t the extent of who we are. Lewis’ imagination, his close companionships and their writings, show that Lewis and his friends saw more in life. Lewis’ writings have an almost childlike excitement of ‘around the corner’ and ‘over the hill.’ True, his stories do take us to other worlds and other planets, but always in ways that anyone can get to by just opening the right door, or walking down the right trail. One might meet anyone; British country folk masquerading as beavers, Father Christmas, demi-gods, demons, angels, archangels, and the blessed company of all faithful people, and a bulgy bear ambling through a kitchen. This is not an escape for Lewis. This is a reflection of life as he knew it to be. Lewis’ non-fiction and letters are full of statements that at any moment God might ‘pick at his sleeve’ as it were and ask him to do something unexpected. The choice is to obey or not to obey. To obey begins the adventure.

In Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom meets for the first time rational, un-fallen creatures living in harmony. Hyoi is astonished to discover that the human practice of sexuality leads to overpopulation. The hrossa mate for life, but copulate for only one or two years, ceasing after young are born. Ransom explains human reasoning. “If the thing is a pleasure, a hman wants it again. He might want it more often than the number of young that could be fed.” Hyoi rejoins, “How could we endure to live and let time pass if we were always crying for one day or one year to come back – if we did not know that every day in a life fills the whole life with expectation and memory and that these are that day.” There is our first evidence of my hypothesis of life as an adventure. Lewis, speaking through Hyoi, sees that life cannot be lived in one is always wishing for the past to continue, for experiences to prolong, for relationships to remain the same. All of life is a free-fall of variables. In trying to control the uncontrollable, life stagnates. In embracing the unknown, the expectation, and the danger, life is truly lived. The majority of humanity does not seem to know this. Even those of us who claim to know God and his ways still hold a world view that is based on ownership, possession, responsibility, and normality. “Bad things happen,” we say, but what we mean is that sometimes our perceived control is taken away, and we are left with only the unknown. Hyoi sees the danger as the thing that makes life the sweetest. Knowing that one could die at any moment, gives each moment its poignancy.

In Perelandra, Ransom lands on an alien planet that has not suffered from the fall. He finds that the principle to possess and re-experience goes against some unwritten law on worlds that are not ‘bent.’ Ransom eats a gourd that is so delicious that, “for one draught of this on earth wars would be fought and nations betrayed.” Is natural inclination as fallen man, is to repeat the sensation. Every bit of emotion and logic, including “uncertainty of the future” was in favor of tasting the fruit again, but something held him back. Later, he encounters the bubble trees and wants to run through more of them to feel the same delicious revitalization. Again he is restrained from doing so by a feeling of wrongness. Ransom reasons that perhaps “the itch to have things over again…was the root of all evil…money itself – perhaps one valued it chiefly as a defense against chance, a security for being able to have things over again.” Finally he encounters the red hearted berries, which he wished to seek out and eat, but once more a feeling forbids him. Ransom imagines that on his own world they would be bred, and then cost a great deal more. Money, no longer the root of evil, but the means to grasp hold of an experience.

Individual human growth seems based on the ability to recognize when it is time to let go, move on. Stagnation and even the twisting of a character are the result of this desire for control. The act of clinging, mentally or otherwise changes even our good qualities to evil. Orual in Till We Have Faces clung to her sister until her love for Psyche more closely resembled hatred. Love disappeared and became a desire to possess not only Psyche, but the Fox and Bardia, her closest friends. Her selfishness destroyed both of them, and her own character hardened and contorted until she was as ugly inwardly as outwardly. Orual however, received a second chance. Once her veil was removed, and she saw herself as she truly was, she renounced it in confessing to Psyche, “never again will I call you mine…I never wished you well, never had one selfless though of you. I was a craver.” Because of this admission, she saw the gods face to face and was made beautiful. This is in stark contrast to a similar character in The Great Divorce who came into heaven determined to continue her constant agenda of improvement on poor Robert who had finally escaped her. Denied the opportunity to possess him for eternity, she vanishes back where she came from.

The entire book The Great Divorce gives us caricatures of those who cannot give up their hold on themselves, their image, other people, and their ideas. None of them can move on and become solid until they’ve released their grip on whatever sent them into the Grey Lands in the first place. One ghost continues to try to seduce the other spirits, and gives up when she finds out she cannot attract them. Another ghost comes only to be reunited to the son she lost. She has clung to the “tyranny of the past” ferociously, “keeping his room exactly as he’d left it; keeping anniversaries” and in her excessive mourning, destroyed the other lives around her. One man wants to continue thinking ill of a man on earth he considered himself better than, another wants to hold onto his ideas and pat theologies. Only those that can laugh at their own ignorance, frivolities, and being mistaken pretty much all of the time can make the journey to deep heaven. Those determined to cling to self are left behind.

There are many more examples in Lewis’ writing; the dwarfs in The Last Battle who miss the turning point of history for fear of being ‘taken in;’ Susan, in the same book, presumably misses eternity because she has thrown aside the magical for the commonplace; Jane Studdock in That Hideous Strength is very nearly destroyed because she wishes to badly to be ‘taken seriously’ and not be used by anyone. Clearly Lewis believes that the people most in danger of losing out in life, are those who a desperately trying to maintain their control on it. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose of forfeit his very self?”

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven;” A time for various emotional states; for putting down roots and tearing them up, for building and destroying, for keeping things and throwing them away, even a time for living and dying. And dying, we are told, merely acts as a doorway to continued living in the unknown. We are told that time is short, and those who buy something should act “as though it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For the world in its present form is passing away.” Most of us see the Biblical as an unreachable ideal, but we see its principles mirrored in life. We see those trapped by the past, unable to move on. We see those clinging to relationships that are destroying them, to houses that are bankrupting them, to family members they are suffocating, to past events they refuse to forgive or heal from. We all have examples around us of those trapped in high school, trying to recreate their glory days rather than continue on to new things. There is the woman so hurt from one relationship, she sabotages all the rest. Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind is an excellent fictional example of stunted growth. For fifteen years she is unable to relinquish her image of being a 16-year-old belle, and continues a one-sided love affair with a married man. She only awakens to the dangers of this after her dogged tenacity has robbed her of all that matters, and left her with exactly what she thought she wanted. “All get what they want: they do not always like it.” The Enchantress from Charn wanted eternal life, and stole from a magic garden to get it. The endless days she thought she’d wanted quickly became a ceaseless torment. The same with Voldemort, who killed, maimed, stole and shattered himself in a quest for immortality. For a brief moment he defeated death, but the things he did to maintain his life, destroyed him in the end. Dumbledore, a very wise wizard, explains many times that Voldemort’s attempt to extend his life, to control himself and others, and to defeat death defeats him. The life he attempts to save becomes a life not worth living, in a state barely recognizable as human.

This is, I think, why Lewis, the Bible, and all the other great stories advocate a certain kind of life; a life that isn’t about possessions. It isn’t about what everyone else considers normal. This is why people in Jesus’ time are admonished to give up their wealth. Not because money is an evil in itself, but money gives us an illusion of control over our existence we’re never meant to have. Possessions build up the value of this life, when we’re supposed to consider it as practice for the next. That’s the real reason why life is meant to be an adventure here – with loose holds on our things, our time, our relationships (valuable as they are) because we are always, and at all times, preparing for our next great adventure; namely death. From a worldly perspective, this might seem morbid. But Lewis himself says that everything we do here, every decision we make turns us a little either into a heavenly creature, or a diabolical one. In the same way, each thing we buy, each tie we forge, each decision we make for the safe or respectable over the unknown binds us more to the transitory world we inhabit, and makes us less fit for the heavenly that is our long-term goal. Lucy Maud Montgomery in her book Anne of the Island sums it all up thus:
“When she came to the end of one life it must not be to face the next with the shrinking terror of something wholly different -- something for which accustomed thought and ideal and aspiration had unfitted her. The little things of life, sweet and excellent in their place, must not be the things lived for; the highest must be sought and followed; the life of heaven must be begun here on earth.”

Adventure has little to do with where one goes, how much one travels, how many foreign diseases one manages to pick up. It has nothing to do with thrill seeking. In the end someone who seeks a ‘life of excitement’ will end up just as unfulfilled as the person who never sees a mile beyond where they were born. Lifting the veil is inward, not outward. It applies for career teachers as well as world travelers, doctors, secretaries, stay-at-home mothers and quadriplegics. It is a mental shift of giving over the idea of control of one’s own life and destiny, and recognizing that something bigger, and higher is at work. This someone directs our paths, brings us in contact with other lives, influencing each other even if only for a second, changing our directions, altering lives with a prayer from halfway around the world, bringing words of comfort unsought, sending us halfway around the planet to learn something or right a wrong. This type of life; Lewis’ life; the Biblical life; is full of magic, and the unknown, and the adventurous. Yet, the majority of us are not living life in that anticipation. We are trying to stave it off with all our power. Surrendering to God is like Ransom learning to ride the highest wave, and Hyoi hunting the hnakra – “the best of drinks, save one.” The Green Lady understands this once her mind is cleared of the temptation to ‘keep’ things on the fixed land. “The reason for not yet living on the fixed land is so plain. How could I wish to live there except that it was fixed? And why should I desire the fixed, except to make sure – to be able on one day to command where I should be the next and what should happen to me? It was to reject the wave- to draw my hands out of Maleldil’s…to put on our own power what times should roll towards us…that would have been cold love, and feeble trust.” By trying to control our lives, we show that we do not trust God. If we did, we would take him seriously when he tells us to sell our things, give them away, travel light, and drop everything and follow him. Yes, of course, much of this has to do with charitable giving to help others. But, like all commands God gives us, I believe that it is a two-sided benefit. By giving we relinquish our hold, not just on that item, but on all other possessions, our future, our direction, and life itself. We surrender to the not-knowing, but always at the direction of the one who knows all. Along the way our characters are molded, and in submitting to each new adventure, suggestion, and leading, we are prepared for the ultimate adventure; death. After all, J. M. Barrie, Aristotle, and Albus Dumbledore agree;

“To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”

Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By (New York: Penguin Compass, 1972), 9.
C.S. Lewis, “On Science Fiction,” Of Other Worlds (San Diego: Harcourt, Inc. 1994), 70-71.
C. S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters, (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001), 3.
C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, (London: William B Eerdmans Publishing, 1972), 29.
Campbell, Myths to Live By, 10.
Campbell, Myths to Live By, 7.
In one respect Joseph Campbell, and the rest of people who cannot bear the Bible because of some people’s dogged determination to hold on to the level of ignorance of the known world that our ancestors had to bear (keeping in mind that at each writing of the Bible, the authors were at the most advanced point that civilization had, up to that point, seen. In another millennia, will our ancestors look back at us and pity us for our limited understanding of the world? Of course they will.) We cannot look down on the writers of the Bible who used pictorial language to describe a flat world. We can, in charity, make allowances for their ignorances. That is no reason to hold on to the way God condescended to their level of understanding as the entire truth. God has allowed our scientific and medical advances, and has given us the capacity to explore and learn. We should appreciate this, not attempt to sublimate it in order to stay safely orthodox. In the other extreme, we must not go so far as to speak of the Bible as Literature. Parts of it are not even that well written. Moses’ thrice-repeated instructions to the Israelites can’t hold a candle to the elegant prose of Homer. In many cases the writers of the Bible were unskilled men trying to capture their experiences with God, and they fare no better than most of us would have done at writing a streamlined narrative. As Literature, the Bible is inconsistent. It is not a science book. In Job, it is likely not even history. But the Bible is, and is made up of great stories of an amazingly creative God. Removed from the constraints that two thousand years of religion has built up around it, and trying to read it afresh, you can see the amazing stories spring to life. God is an author. He gave words power to create. God is all about the stories.
Job 38:7 NIV (New International Version).
Genesis 6:1-2,4, NIV (New International Version).
Taken from Judges 3:15-26, NIV (New International Version).
Taken from 2 Kings 7:3-9, NIV (New International Version).
John 21:25, NIV (New International Version).
J. R. R. Tolkien, Return of the King, ( Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994),321.
Peter Pan, 2003.
C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet, (New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, Published by Simon and Schuster, 1996) 74.
C. S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, Published by Simon and Schuster, 1996), 42.
Lewis, Perelandra, p 48.
C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, (San Diego: Harcourt, Inc. 1956.) 305.
C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (San Francisco: HarperCollins Books, 1946), 101-102
Luke 9:24-25 NIV (New International Version)
Ecclesiastes 3:1 NIV (New International Version)
1 Corinthians 7:29-31 NIV (New International Version)
The Magician’s Nephew, 174.
Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (New York: Bantam Books, 1987), 109.
Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet, 75.
J. K. Rowlings, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, (New York: Scholastic, Inc, 1997), 297.