Monday, May 20, 2019

Evangelizing the imagination

1. This is Bishop Barron doing what he does best. He presents a very winsome version of Catholicism, albeit a Catholicism that in key respects didn't exist until about the mid-20C or so. 

In his interpretation, fiction writers like Lewis were literary evangelists proselytizing the imagination. They realized the need to express the old faith in a new way if they hoped to reach an increasingly secularized audience. Tolkien's fiction is a Catholic pill. An exercise in pre-evangelization. That's an interesting thesis, but I find it questionable:

2. I think it's more likely that, first and foremost, they were evangelizing themselves. Their allegorical fiction creates theological analogues for traditional Christian doctrine. It's a of making traditional Christian theology more believable for themselves (i.e. Lewis, Tolkien). They translate some core doctrines and biblical accounts into fictional analogues that that they find more credible than the original accounts. 

3. There are roughly three ways you can view biblical narratives:

i) They are imaginary, like Alice in Wonderland.

ii) There's a real event that lies behind the account, but the account itself is a fictional analogue of what happened, like Godspell.

iii) The narratives provide realistic descriptions of real events.

4. I think in some cases their position corresponds to (ii). If so, one basic problem is that we lose touch with the truth that (on this view) lies behind the account. If the original account isn't a realistic description of what happened, but just an allegory of what happened, then we have no frame of reference to determine what parts of the analogy correspond to the underlying event. We can't say which analogies are closer to the event than others. We're just left with variations on some archetypal motifs, stock characters, and type-scenes. The specific setting, characters, dialogue, and plot are imaginary.   

5. On this view, allegories may replace the original account, because the original account is in itself a fictional analogue for whatever really happened. The theological allegories of Tolkien and Lewis are just as legitimate as the original, and have the added benefit (on their view) of being more believable than the original. 

(I realize they resist the classification of their fiction as allegorical. I'm not going to get hung-up on a pedantic or idiosyncratic definition of allegory.) 


  1. What is the evidence for this way of reading the motivations of Lewis/Tolkien?

    1. Not sure if you mean evidence for Bishop Barron's reading and/or Steve's reading of Lewis & Tolkien.

    2. I think they probably regard Gen 2-3 as "myth", although a myth that encodes a truth. In the case of the Incarnation, they think that's a myth that became fact.

    3. For example, Tolkien's "On fairy-stories" is a seminal piece of writing in understanding Tolkien's thinking on myth made fact, man as sub-creator, etc.