Tag Archives: theological nerd

The Ethics of Elfland

What role do fairy tales play in the lives of grown ups?

Last week I had the surprising privilege of seeing Disney’s adaptation of Into the Woods and reading G.K. Chesterton’s chapter The Ethics of Elfland on the same day.

I know, I know that the stage musical is better. Certainly the film of Into the Woods lost out by downplaying the infidelity and not killing off the narrator and not drawing as much attention to our fear of death. But they only had so much time and the story is still so good and it was beautifully filmed. I really enjoyed it.

Mostly I think I enjoyed it because I have been reading G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and I finished reading his chapter The Ethics of Elfland right before I walked into the cinema. I was not expecting to read an extensive exploration of how fairy tales connect with grown up thought that day. It definitely put me in an unusual frame of mind to see Stephen Sondheim’s take on all these fairy tales and how they speak to grown ups today.

There are many interesting themes in Into the Woods but one of the biggest overarching themes is that nothing is black and white. The message takes on so many forms in the story. There is confusion about how to seek justice in the middle of chaos; characters learn to be content with a not-as-happy ending; there is the powerful line in ‘You are not alone’: ‘you decide what’s right, you decide what’s good’. G.K. Chesterton, on the other hand, seems pretty sure that objective morality exists. He has been convinced – by fairy tales no less! – that there is some kind limit or rule imposed on us that we do well to keep, even if we don’t understand why.

This princess lives in a glass castle, that princess on a glass hill; this one sees all things in a mirror; they may all live in glass houses if they will not throw stones. For this thin glitter of glass everywhere is the expression of the fact that the happiness is bright but brittle, like the substance most easily smashed by a housemaid or a cat.

And this fairy-tale sentiment also sank into me and became my sentiment towards the whole world. I felt and feel that life itself is as bright as the diamond, but as brittle as the window-pane ; and when the heavens were compared to the terrible crystal I can remember a shudder. I was afraid that God would drop the cosmos with a smash.

Remember, however, that to be breakable is not the same as to be perishable. Strike a glass, and it will not endure an instant; simply do not strike it and it will endure a thousand years. Such, it seemed, was the joy of man, either in elfland or on earth ; the happiness depended on not doing something which you could at any moment do and which, very often, it was not obvious why you should not do.

Now, the point here is that to me this did not seem unjust. If the miller’s third son said to the fairy, “Explain to me why I must not stand on my head in the fairy palace,” the other might fairly reply, “Well, if it comes to that, explain the fairy palace.” If Cinderella says, “How is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?” her godmother might answer, “How is it that you are going there till twelve?” If I leave a man in my will ten talking elephants and a hundred winged horses, he cannot complain if the conditions partake of the slight eccentricity of the gift. He must not look a winged horse in the mouth.

And it seemed to me that existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when I did not understand the vision they limited. The frame was no stranger than the picture. The veto might be as wild as the vision ; it might be as startling as the sun, as elusive as the waters, as fantastic and terrible as the towering trees.

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G.K. Chesterton on Mysticism

Mysticism keeps men sane.

As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them.

He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight : he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that.

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908)

The Lost History of Christianity

Over the last few years I have felt compelled to brush up on my church history – not because of my history-loving husband, or because of a subject I took at college, but because I have spent most of my adult life talking to Chinese people about Jesus. A lot of those Chinese people are interested in Jesus because they are curious about Western religion. And more and more I am discovering that Christianity is not actually a Western religion. I thought it might be a good thing to so some more research on how the global church has grown and changed over the last two and bit thousand years.

Cue the holidays and time to read!

My holiday reading time so far has mostly been spent in The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins. It’s been blowing my mind, and driving me to distraction. Thanks to all those friends who have patiently listened to me process this book over the last week!

Despite what the title might suggest, this is not a book of conspiracy theories. It’s not one of those books where someone discovers some secret lost manuscript that changes the face of Christian history forever.

The reason this book has taken me through such excited highs and concerned lows is the way it has collected non-Western historical data that, up until now, I had never really understood the context of. It’s full of Syrians, Copts and Nestorians, it’s the story of the Silk Road, it’s story of the Armenian Genocide. It places all these moments into a narrative I have never heard before.

It’s a history of the church, a history of God working through his people, but it’s completely different to the church history I have been taught and retold over the years.

Continue reading

Apocalyptic words

I think I just read one of the most helpful explanations of what biblical apocalyptic language was used for:

If you had been a journalist in AD69, what language owuld you have used to describe the Year of the Four Emperors? Probably the same kind of cosmic, apocalyptic language that was used after September 11, 2001. ‘The End of the World’? Well, naturally. But it wasn’t of course. It was simply the end of a world order in which certain things had been assumed to be fixed and unalterable, and which were now discovered to be frail and vulnerable. Of course, highly charged metaphors about the sun, the moon and the stars invest such events with a particular significance, just as journalist language does when it speaks of an election in terms of a ‘landslide’ or of a new campaigning politician as a ‘tornado’.
– N.T. Wright (2013), Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p165-6.
Emphasis in the original.

Controversial, I know, but I’m adding it to the pile of ideas anyway!