C. S. Lewis engaged in a life-changing conversation with Hugo Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien on Saturday, September 19, 1931. The conversation took place on Addison’s Walk, a footpath around a small island in the River Cherwell on the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford, England.
As a boy, Lewis loved the Norse tales of a dying god. As a man, he grew to love and appreciate the power of myth throughout the history of literature. But he didn’t believe them. Beautiful and stirring though they may be, they were, he concluded, ultimately untrue. As he famously said to Tolkien, myths are “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”
“No,” said Tolkien. “They are not lies.” His point was that the great myths reflect a fractal of the true light. They derive from “primary art,” and they come from creators who themselves were created. In other words, within any good myth lies a glimpse of eternal truth, the Christian Story. They talked on, and Lewis became convinced of the merit of Tolkien’s argument.
I pulled out my phone and watched the following video clip while walking the same path in the spring of 2019. Knowing the far-reaching impact this conversation has had—including on me—I prayed a simple prayer of thanksgiving—through tears, of course—for how God used this conversation to change the course of history. Including mine.
“The show was dazzling and majestic in every way imaginable. The score, the voices, the lights, the scenery, the costumes, the special effects, and the sheer creativity of it all were unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a live performance. Can the stage get any better than this? With the exception of a few secondary cast members, this was as close to theatrical perfection as one can get. Love wins in the end. The curse is lifted from the castle, and happily we’re ever aftering.”
Such was my impression after seeing Broadway’s version of Beauty and the Beast about a decade ago. Superlatives failed to capture the excellence of the production and the inspiration of the moment. But what struck me most—again—was the prominence of biblical themes contained in a secular work, and the resolution of the foundational human dilemma in ways that come close to what the Bible indicates happened in Christ. These kinds of correspondences in literature are never exact, but they often come strikingly close to the biblical narrative.
I see these kinds of correspondences quite often, and sometimes it gets me into trouble. When my kids were young, they laughed at me mercilessly while I sobbed my way through Finding Nemo. But I teared up because that silly cartoon is the compelling story of a loving father who will stop at nothing to find his lost son and return him safely home. Sounds a lot like Luke 15 to me, and if Disney is the one to show it to me better than the preacher, who am I to object? We believers don’t need to get nervous at such an admission, for surely the grace of God cannot be upstaged by a cartoon, even if a preacher’s sermon can be.
But here’s the question that intrigues me: How did the unbelieving author of Finding Nemo—who rejects Luke 15 as being authoritative—wind up writing his own version of it? From our theological perspective, the answer goes something like this: What fallen humanity yearns for most, as reflected in our stories, literature, poetry, and music, God has provided for us in Jesus Christ, his only Son, and it’s only spiritual blindness that prevents us from seeing it. Alas, too often we prefer our own stories to God’s, so we write him out of the script. Or so we think.
The fact is, we may go off and draft our own stories without God, but we still write as people made in the image of God, even if we refuse to acknowledge the fact. But denying God doesn’t erase the image of God inside the denier, which means, of course, that we can’t even be good skeptics without God’s help. The clenched fist we wave in his face is from the hand he gave us in the first place. Ditto the minds he gave us—with which we pen our stories.
Writing through Rebels
The basic plot of Beauty and the Beast is well known. A curse renders the young prince and his whole castle disfigured, jaded, unkind, and less than human. But there’s an intense longing by these distorted people to have the curse reversed and become “normal” again. Significantly, the rules of the game in this fictional world insist that only a true and sacrificial love can serve as the means by which the curse is lifted and restoration can take place. As is the case in all fairy tales, this true and sacrificial love is finally realized, along with the happy resolution to which the whole plot moves. There’s even a song called “Human Again,” which talks about being reborn. Reborn? Where does that language come from?
I see this so often in good literature that I have to recognize something bigger is going on here than meets the eye. Is it possible that God can witness to himself even on Broadway during a musical production based on a fairy tale—or at least prepare people’s hearts for eventually hearing his own version of the Story? Is it possible for a believer like me to actually worship God in the theater during such a play?
Well, I did, right there in Seat J-9 of the center section. And I worshipped because of what I’m convinced is true of the irreligious authors who wrote this show, and is true of me, too: When fallen people reject God’s story and run off to write their own, they wind up writing God’s story anyway, even if they do mangle the script a bit. Image bearers write after their own image. Broken image bearers miss the target, even if they’re firing the right arrows.
Now, that should cause us to ponder the greatness of God. Has the Almighty really made us in such a way that even our rebellion can serve to providentially boomerang us back to himself? Luke 15 would seem to suggest so. Every time that smelly pig rubbed its muddy snout against the prodigal son’s leg, it was actually pushing the boy closer to home, where a gracious father stood ready to throw a feast upon his return.
The Original Storyteller
Such a God would indeed be awesome and worthy of our worship. And such a God would vindicate Qoheleth (the Teacher) who wrote, “God has set eternity in the heart” (Eccl 3:11b). In other words, wherever we go, there we are, imago Dei and all. Surely, we can never find our way back to God’s Narrative without divine assistance, but we can yearn in the right direction for the inconceivably good climax he’s already penned. Indeed, it’s precisely because we’re made in his image that we can write something approximating his script. But because we’re also fallen, we can never get it exactly right. We need a critic or an editor who knows the original storyline to help us get it right. The prophets are God’s critics, and the priests are God’s editors. We need their voices because we tend to botch the story without them. But the underlying truth is that we ashuman beings tell stories because God is the original Storyteller.
Our stories, then, consist of faded glory yearning for Eden, and the implications for outreach are profound. Maybe God is greater than we had ever imagined, and maybe the gospel is far better news than we had ever thought. Should we not be more hopeful, knowing that God is always at work? (Cf. John 5:17.) Should we not love people more, even unbelievers who don’t agree with our theology? They dohave a theology; it’s just not complete yet. The boomerang hasn’t come all the way back yet to the hand that threw it. Patience is required. So is perseverance.
Lost and Found
That’s why we share the gospel in places we think it might not prevail. The Parable of the Sower teaches, among other things, the need for liberality (to the point of carelessness) in spreading the Word. Why? Because good soil—life-sustaining soil—can be found in some pretty surprising places. The cracks in my driveway bear witness to that. Surely the hearts of many in our day have been paved over by the cares of this world, but there are many cracks out there desperately waiting to be seeded.
For the most part, Jesus called people who were far from God “lost,” which invites genuine compassion, not self-righteous condemnation. To be lost implies the possibility of being found, and this dynamic is a universal tug of the heart. Miners trapped in a shaft. Hikers buried beneath an avalanche of snow. Children plunged to the bottom of an uncovered well. Astronauts locked inside a hobbled space craft. We want them back. We want them to be rescued. We want a happy ending to the story. And we want a savior who can make it happen. We want a champion who will set things right again. Such yearnings and resolutions are ubiquitous in literature.
The Little Mermaid
The Wizard of Oz
Phantom of the Opera
Lord of the Rings
The Chronicles of Narnia
Beauty and the Beast
Lifting the Curse
In Beauty and the Beast, all the members of the castle staff are under a spell that renders them less than human. They’ve all become “things”— household objects, dishes, kitchenware, furniture, and the like. They’ve been objectified and dehumanized, and they’re demoralized because of it. But word is out that someone has come to the castle who might be able to break the spell. They long for that moment. And as they see their day of redemption coming, they burst into jubilant song:
Human again! Think of what that means! We’ll be dancing again, we’ll be twirling again We’ll be whirling around with such ease When we’re human again, only human again
We’ll go waltzing those old one-two-threes We’ll be floating again, we’ll be gliding again Stepping, striding as fine as you please Like a real human does, I’ll be all that I was
On the glorious morn, when we’re finally re-born And we’re—all of us—human again
Re-born? That’s our word. A Christian word. A Jesus word (John 3:3). And to that I can only say, God is beautifully sneaky. He’ll give a whole theatre audience an echo of his gospel in a dazzling, captivating production. It’s not the gospel, but it’s a half-decent echo of the gospel. Are we listening? God is always speaking. History (“his story”) is the stage. We might mess up our lines from time to time, but the playwright gets his way in the end. So, the tales are true after all. The God of Scripture is the God who lifts curses, turning beasts into humans, even today.
Tale as old as time Song as old as rhyme Beauty and the Beast
The True Myth
The gospel according to Broadway. They almost get it right, but they’re far enough away from it to be dangerous. That’s why they need a prophet and a priest to connect the dots and finish the story. Christ is the beauty, and I am the beast. The spiritual spell I’m under needs to be broken, and by the sacrificial love of Christ crucified, it is. Moreover, by his resurrection from the dead, the curse is finally lifted, and I can be reborn.
C. S. Lewis was on to something when he considered the possibility that all our stories, myths, and aspirations down through history came to fullest expression in the actual Christ of history. (And for that insight, we have J. R. R. Tolkien to thank; see below.)
If that’s the case, then let the Church continue to sing—on behalf of others as well as herself—“Come, Desire of nations come, fix in us thy humble home.”
VIDEO: “Lewis and Tolkien Debate Myths and Lies” on Addison’s Walk, a footpath around a small island in the River Cherwell on the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford, England. I watched this video clip on my phone while walking the same path in the spring of 2019. Knowing the far-reaching impact this conversation has had, I prayed a simple prayer of thanksgiving—through tears, of course—for the lives of these two men.