A Box of Fairy Tales for Christmas

A few years ago, I came in from the cold to discover my mother making her way down the staircase of the new house with a large box in her hands. She set the box – marked in bold lettering of a red Sharpie with the word TRASH – by the door.

Just outside, the snow had begun to fall silently down over the world, blanketing everything in a soft white layer of frosting. I brushed what snow had started to pile up on my shoulders and hair off as I began to feel the warmth of the place once more. Placing my hands over my nose, I could feel the chill from outside still lingered a few moments more.

I glanced over as I hung up my coat. Matching worn maroon spines peeked out from their cardboard frame. Books. Old ones, too, by the amount of wear they had on them.

Erasmus once wrote, “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” And while I am nowhere near as noble as Erasmus, I will scrounge for a good book from time to time.

“What do you have there?” I asked, poking my head around the corner.

“Oh, those?” My mother pointed to the box as she walked back upstairs, “Those are some collections of fairy tales that I’ve held onto for a while. Nobody’s read them in quite some time.”

I picked one up to weigh it in my hand. I remembered in grade school sitting in the old family rocking chair or my bunk as I imagined the worlds of Robin Hood and Arabian Nights. The book was lighter – or I larger – than I last remembered.

Time was not kind to these books. I imagined it to be partially my fault as well. As I flipped through the pages of the books which kept me company in my younger days, the motion kicked up some dust which had been resting on the edges of pages. The pages smelled of vanilla and almond, faintly, as if someone had been baking sugar cookies in this very same space not too long ago.

I slid the book back in its place along with its siblings. Something about these meant more to me than just entertainment.

I leaned on the banister to shout up the stairs.

“Would you mind me taking them, then?”

“As long as you have space for fairy tales in your life, I don’t see why not.”

It’s funny how the stories we are told as children often hold more truth and life than we are led to believe. G. K. Chesterton once wrote in one of his better-known works that the things he believed most in his childhood and the thing he most believed as an adult are the things called fairy tales. Little wonder that, when taken seriously, a fairy tale is a tool by which we learn to come to grips with the world.

The child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim pointed out that when it comes to fairy tales, the genius behind it is that “the message is effective as long as it is delivered not as a moral or demand, but in a casual way which indicates that this is how life is.” In Bettelheim’s understanding, the beauty of a fairy tale is that it leaves room for the gray, suggesting at possible solutions while never casting judgment on others. Instead of painting the world in shades of good or bad, the fairy tale rather asks the listener which character they want to be most like.

I’ve been wrestling with Old Testament texts and the degree to which they are historical in the way we understand it to mean today. In particular, I wonder what that might mean for my faith. Mixed in with these troubling texts, the Gospel of John finds rest in the canon. In it, there’s a small epilogue which closes out the book where the narrator confirms that he was the disciple that Jesus loved. However, I cannot remember whether he ever pointed out that he himself was John or if tradition dictated it was so. Either way, the narrator’s choice to leave their name out can serve the purpose of inviting others listening to project themselves into the role of the narrator him- or herself, to taste and see whether a playing the role of someone following Christ is something worth doing themselves.

By reading ourselves into the story, we take the message that the Gospel has for ourselves, placing ourselves in the shoes -err, sandals- of the characters. Bettelheim mentions that this is one of the main orienting factors of fairy tales – they give us a frame through which to describe, but not prescribe, the world.

Just like in the example within John where the audience is invited into that role based on the anonymity (and universality) of the disciple, we are offered to evaluate our options. This, he hints at in the opening paragraph of his work when he states that “if we hope to live not just moment to moment, but in true consciousness of our existence, then our greatest need and most difficult achievement is to find meaning in our lives.” We need narratives to find meaning, so we have to remind ourselves of them – both fictitious and not – constantly.

In terms of deciding who we want to be in the story being told within the Gospel, I’m becoming pretty sure that Jesus would be fine with a person taking the time to weigh which character we think is best to be most like. I don’t think Christ is always forthcoming with the answers to every problem a person will face. He never really was when he was asked a question, instead responding to their inquiries by inviting them to come and see how life is with him in the lead.

With that in mind, it’s interesting to see how Advent takes on a renewed significance within this light. In this upcoming season of Advent, people are asked to reflect upon what it means to wait for the coming Messiah.

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, the story begins, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world… and everyone went to their own town to register.

It is in these unremarkable circumstances that the story starts, and the audience begins to settle in to hear where they might be in this story. The story of a baby who also is Christ the King. God become human.

Admittedly, faith in a god-man may sound like something belonging between the pages of the Odyssey – and to a certain extent, I think it does. Don’t get me wrong – I am still troubled and wrestle with the implications of such a position. How can a simple fairy tale ever correlate to ultimate reality? And yet, I think part of my fear is from feeling that I have begun to lose a sense of control or order which underlaid my belief. I think that many of us want to be totally, empirically certain of the events described in Scripture. We don’t want to be wrong.

We don’t want to be stumbling around in the dark, with all that we might encounter there.

I, for one, am afraid of that darkness.

What if there’s nothing?

We – err, I am guilty of seeking certainty that I forget that I’ve got this whole faith the other way around. Instead of understanding so that I might believe, I must believe so that I might understand.

In the moment when that a god-man entered human experience some two thousand years ago, the myth became more like a fairy tale. And this story gathered a community of people over the course of thousands of years all attesting that something about this story is true, going back to the disciples who died for telling such a tale. That it’s real. That even in the middle of the dark, there’s something there that lasts beyond.

The people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.

In his taking on human nature and flesh, Christ took on each one of ourselves. In dying, he accomplished something which affected all of us. And yet, before we can get to Good Friday and Easter, we must first wait on the King to arrive, to show up in each one of our lives now. Sometimes in something as small and precious and fragile and seemingly universally insignificant in the middle of such a great darkness as a baby in a manger.

The stuff of fairy tales. The stuff of Good News.

A myth is a once-occurring thing for the sake of emulation. But a fairy tale is a perpetual truth central to the human condition. It need not have a defense, but rather motions others toward what might be, and what ought to be in the first place. I find it interesting then, especially after studying a bit of modern and postmodern thought, that fairy tales have become for me what they were for Chesterton. As I sit in front of texts which I once thought had a historicity and accuracy to them in the same manner that one might expect of a documentary in the twenty-first century, the thought which comforts me is the notion that these stories which I hold dear to me can be just like a fairy tale and still be real and true.

For believers, the incarnation isn’t so much an example to embody for the sake of forcing one’s set of beliefs and behaviors on others but can also be a mentality to adopt as a way of simply being with the other, whether that’s in a swaddling cloth in a manger of the first century BCE or in the DMV of the CE. It’s also a truth that something transcendent can take on flesh and move into the neighborhood. That we’re not stumbling around in the dark as much as we think we are.

I think my pastor put it best in a sermon he delivered the other day, that these stories we tell, that we remind ourselves of, kindle in us the conviction that:

At the end of it all, at the end of all things, we find that there is a King. And if there is a king, an everlasting and eternal king in charge of all things, there are answers. There is justice. All these things we seek aren’t just abstractions, distractions from reality, or baseless hopes. It’s something more.

Just because a story has the trappings of a fairy tale does not discredit its realness at the end of the day.

Advent invites us into a fairy tale different from the ones we tell ourselves day after day. The ones which culture substitutes in its stead. The ones which seem useful and attractive at first but leave us hollow in the end.

Advent is a fairy tale of a people waiting for the one who can honestly offer them an invitation they’ve been waiting for: “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves.”

Advent invites us into a fairy tale that, for once, is real.

I wound up taking the box of worn fairy tales and sliding them underneath my bed. I wonder when I’ll tell these tales to others. Maybe to myself. Some truths come to us over time. But some present themselves early on, and we just don’t realize their presence until later – especially after we live them.

And those, I think, make some of the best stories.

Traditioned Notes in the Dark

I’ve been restless lately. Some nights, I would find myself unable to sleep for hours on end. On others, I would wake hours before the sunrise, unable to go back to sleep. On those nights, I would get out of bed and find somewhere to sit on the floor of my apartment. And every time, as I tried to reach the door of the bedroom, I would always stub my toe on the corner of my roommate’s desk. Every time.

The reason why I can’t sleep is because of the doubts I have. To be honest, I sometimes doubt whether God’s out there – wherever that ‘there’ is. Or if he is, if we can reach him or know him. Sometimes, I doubt whether what I’m studying is worthwhile or some joke whose punchline ran out long ago. And sometimes, as I sit in the dark, I doubt whether the person I’ve become is worth anyone’s time.

Last night, I had written a question on a mirror I have in my office. It’s kept me up for several nights now. It’s still there: Christians hold that Scripture is infallible and authoritative, but which interpretation is that which lends itself to being infallible and authoritative? Why do we have so many denominations with different readings of the same text? Who is right at the end of the day?

Below the first question, I wrote, what if how I interpret Scripture is completely off-base from what the biblical authors intended? What God desires? What if I’m wrong? What if I am leading people astray when I speak?

It’s one game to say that a collection of writings is inspired, but another altogether to interpret it responsibly. What if I’m wrong? What if I just wasted three, going on four, years of education? 

I wrestle with the notion that all of us stumble around in the dark when it comes to truth. But I know in the back of my head that we do. We throw out notions of what truth, goodness, and beauty are, hoping we’re close with our estimations and definitions. And then people structure their lives around our approximations.

But still, it doesn’t help when I stub my toe on every expectation I come across. I’m supposed to be a youth pastor after I graduate. I’m supposed to know answers to people’s questions about life. I’m supposed to be assured that the source that I’m taking truth from is solid, that it reveals special revelation and that I can access it in a straightforward manner.

And yet, in my time studying theology and the humanities, I have become much more aware of how tenuous truth claims can be.

What if my human, American, middle class, (etc.) lens skews the ultimate truth which the authors of Scripture into my smaller, culturally-bound, limited version of the gospel?

I am left with the notion that God has the truth at the end of a fishing line and holding just out of reach, out of reach because we can’t escape our own humanness to see the world outside ourselves.

I attended the recital of a friend of mine recently. He plays the cello, you see, and has been for much of his life. And it shows. That evening, he sat, for much of the performance, alone on stage. After being accompanied by a pianist for Charles-Camille Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, she promptly left him to continue.

The room was silent as he picked up his bow and placed it in its starting position. As he started to play, his right arm directed the bow one way, then another; his left flicked up and down the fingerboard and neck. He swayed in time as if directed by some unseen conductor. And occasionally, I noticed he closed his eyes, a smile resting on his face as if he, too, had come to listen to the piece.

When I was younger, I wondered why classical music has remained so popular considering all the other genres offered nowadays. I must admit, I’ve grown to appreciate it over the years since then. But as I saw my friend perform J.S. Bach’s Suite No 2 in D Minor, I realized that it’s not that the innovative newer genres take away from classical music’s significance or effectiveness. Instead, Bach, Saint-Saens, and others have expressed some element of the human experience that resonated with people in such a way that it still connects to audiences to this day.

The new stuff we hear on the radio we might hear for a while, but soon, it’s something else. A catchy tune or attractive lifestyle might be appealing for a little while, but after a little bit, it’s gone, replaced with something else. And we move on because it all tends to be empty. The innovators stab in the dark trying to create something relevant or new in the moment. But it tends to be just that, a moment kind of thing. Some do stick around, too. But who’s to judge what will last and what will fade?

A professor of mine remarked that a text that outgrows its context loses all meaning altogether.[1] For a text to have nothing to frame it is to render it ultimately meaningless. This, he remarked, is the problem that atheists have with stating that the universe has no context outside itself.

But the same could be said for Scripture. Scholars all over the spectrum have argued for their own position as correct using the same text. For every theologian, there is an equal and opposite theologian. But if they come up with radically different notions of what is true, good, and beautiful, what hope do we have for knowing who is correct?

I rested against a cabinet in the kitchen of my apartment, feeling the coolness of the night air flow in from a window a roommate of mine had propped open. The room was still dark. I had not seen it fit in lighting it. Off to my left, my hand traced the pattern of the kitchen tiles, my mind still full of questions, doubts, and fears.

Somewhere outside, a bird began to warble out a tune. I found out the other day that birds inherit the songs that their parents sang, appropriating it for its own use. [2]

Well, why not? If it worked for them, it might just work for the bird now, too.

I thought back to my friend and his recital. The songs he played were not his own, but in a way, they still were. Even though he had no hand in its creation, in that moment, he entered a larger community of people who had performed and found a piece of their own story in the traditioned notes. Tradition, G.K. Chesterton once suggested, is the living faith of dead people. [3] It’s a way that has worked well in bringing about a well-lived life–if nothing else. And right now, it’s all I can really ask for.

I blinked. “At least it’s something. And something is better than nothing.”

Pausing, I turned to look at the window. “At least, I think…”

I moved to get up and return to my bed for a few more hours of sleep. Closing my eyes, I whispered. “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

I was out in moments.

 

[1] Michael Bruner, Ph.D., (Lecture, Communicating the Gospel Through Film, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA, March 22, 2017).

[2] Skyla Herod, Ph.D., “Harlowe and Skinner: Behaviorism Colloquy.” (Lecture, Nature, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA, March 30, 2017).

[3] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 53.