Tim Keller discusses J.R.R. Tolkien’s view of the power of fiction and Christianity and Tolkien’s impact on the beliefs of his atheist friend, C.S. Lewis.
I have always been so impressed with how J.R.R Tolkien led his atheist friend, C.S. Lewis, toward faith and Christianity. You know Tolkien and Lewis were both teachers at oxford. Lewis was a lecturer, Tolkien was a full professor who was older. Tolkien was a very devour catholic christian believer, Lewis was an atheist and one day walking on Addison’s Walk, round all along the river Cherwell by Lewis’s rooms, Tolkien made an evangelistic move that basically laid the foundation for that atheist becoming a believer and I’ve always been amazed, you want to know what it is? To understand it you’ve got to go to Tolkien’s -not that easy to read but absolutely crucial to read- essay called On Fairy-stories.
One of the things that he says On Fairy-stories, that I think is amazing to me, is what he calls secondary belief. He says when somebody tells you a story and you know it really happened that’s primary belief, but when someone tells you a story that you know is fictional, you know it’s fiction, but it’s so well told and the characters are so well developed and the plot is so well developed too that even though you might sit there at the movie or listen or read the book you really kind of been different and you get drawn in, you get scared, you get happy. Because if the story is well told, Tolkien said, then the story commands what he calls secondary belief, it draws you in, it makes you have the feelings as if, to some degree, it was true. You get just as scared even though you know it’s not true, but you are scared for that character and you care about that character and you are excited when you see the resolution, he calls that secondary belief, first thing, that’s very important. Then he goes along and says, there’s a kind of story that human beings, even today, even today we live in a secular realm, a secular time, a scientific time and the leading lights of modern literature have been telling us, life is meaningless then you die, and yet Tolkien says we still crave a certain kind of story, we crave it in movies, we crave it in books and these are stories that depict a supernatural world -we’re fascinated by those stories- that depict being able to cheat death, escape death, escape aging in time. Stories that show us a love that is eternal, a love without parting, a love that overcomes death.
We want stories about good absolutely triumphing over evil, destroying evil. We love stories about victory snatch from the jaws of defeat, or sacrificial heroism that brings life out of certain death, and we pay money to watch those movies and we pay money to read about those stories. The modern literati hate those. They’re myths, they’re legends, they’re fairy stories they’re fairy tales basically. And modern people say, ‘life is not like that’ but Tolkien points out the fact that these are deep human longings and for some reason human beings, even in our day and time, want the kind of stories that are very, very well told, that evoke secondary belief, that catch you up in them, that tell you that good will triumph over evil, that there is a supernatural world, that you are not stuck in time, that there is love without parting, that there is a way escaping death.
Now Tolkien said why would people still fell this way? Now what Tolkien is about to say here I can’t prove from the Bible, but it fits in with the Bible. He says, we are made the image of God but were fallen, and therefore weirdly enough human beings knows at the defact level, we all do have to die, that evil often triumphs, that no matter how much you love somebody, eventually you’re going to lose that person, or they’re going to lose you. And we know at the factual level and we also are told at the factual level there is no supernatural. So at the factual level there is no supernatural, we’re gonna die, there is no escape, good is not gonna triumph, at the factual level, and yet underneath almost, he says, for all human beings feel, but they shouldn’t be death. We’re not meant to die, we’re not meant to lose our loved ones, good should be triumphing over evil. There ought to be a supernatural world, we shouldn’t be just stuck in time and then were dead, that at a deeper level we feel like this is how reality ought to be, in fact this is, that’s the reason why Tolkien believed that even when fairy stories at a factual level aren’t true, most people feel in some ways they are true. They point to an underline reality that’s almost more true than the way life is actually being lived in this world.
That’s the reason we still pay the good money to see the kind, that’s the reason why the happy endings, the heroic sacrifices that bring good, triumph out of defeat and all that, that’s what we still want to watch. We don’t want to read Ulysses. We don’t want to read high literature that’s nice and nihilistic, because that’s the way life really is. We say well maybe it is, but it shouldn’t be. And that’s the reason why the popular stories tend to be like fairy stories.
And so, C.S. Lewis, though he was an atheist, really really really felt the power of the myths and the legends and the fairy tales, and he loved them. But he said, even though they point to a kind of what life ought to be like, they’re really not, they’re not true. And as he was walking with Tolkien that day, he said something like this, ‘yes, but myths, fairy tales are lies though breathed through silver. Myths are lies even though they’re breathed through silver, as beautiful as they are, as much as they point to the way I think the life really ought to be, they’re just lies. And Tolkien said, no they’re not, and here’s why I say they’re not. Look at the Gospel, look at the story of Jesus. Do you realizes what you have there? Everything that moves you about a story. Escape from death, a love that conquers death, good triumphing over evil, heroic self-sacrifice and when everything looks the darkest, life out of death triumph out victory, of defeat, everything you wanted in a story. Lewis said yes is true, but he (Tolkien) say I want you to see something, the Gospel story of Jesus is not one more wonderful story pointing to the underlying reality, rather Jesus is the underlying reality to which all the stories point and the reason we can know that, is because of the resurrection.
Tolkien says the resurrection is what happened, the resurrection was, was this underlying reality breaking into this world, and the way life ought to be and the way life is, Jesus Christ is our great captain he’s opened up cleft in the pitiless walls of the world, he’s opened, he punched a hole through that concrete slab between life as it is and life as it ought to be, between the ideal and the real, and now, because of the resurrection, the resurrection proves that the cross was not a defeat, it was a triumph. It proves that Jesus made satisfaction for sins, it proves it now God can come into your life, it proves that now Jesus can come into your life, because he is alive.
He says take a look at the evidence for the resurrection, basically he said that. The resurrection means that Jesus is not one more beautiful story that makes your feel good for a while and then the lights dim and you walk out into the real world. Jesus Christ is the underlying reality to which all the stories point, breaking into our world. And that’s the reason why there is a place where, in the fairy tale and in On Fairy-stories Tolkien says this, he says “the peculiar quality of the joy in a successful fairy tale can be explained as a sudden glimpse of an underlying reality, but the Gospels contain a story of a larger kind, which embraces all the essence of those wonderful fairy stories. The Gospels contain the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe, which is the good catastrophe. He says the story of the Gospel has entered history and the primary world, the birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history, the resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the incarnation. The whole story ends in joy. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true than Jesus life, and none which so many skeptical men who have accepted as true on its own merits.
There was a Emil Caleay was a professor of philosophy at Princeton seminary and he tells the story how he actually found faith. He was an agnostic, he went off to World War I. He was an agnostic, he didn’t really believe in God, he was into philosophy, he was kind of skeptical about the whole idea of religion. But during World War I he had an experience like a lot of other World War I people. He actually, one of his best friends was talking to him, right next to him, about his mother, died like that with a bullet in his chest. Later on, a bullet hit him too, he was in the hospital for a while and he realized, even though he was an agnostic and he still wasn’t sure if he believed in God, he realized that to really make sense of this world, in this life, he was going to need more help than just his skeptical philosophy.
So he started reading poetry, he started reading books, he started reading things and every so often he would find a passage in this book or this writer or this author, that really seemed to make sense to him. And he said in his account, I began to long for a book that understood me, I began to long for a book that understood me. And he came up with an idea, he bought a leather-bound little dairy, blank. Every single time he read something that seemed to make sense to him and helped him, he was going to copy it down. And after about a year he hoped, that he would someday sit down and open it up and read page after page and I would finally have a book that made sense of my life, and made sense of the world, and gave me the joy I was looking for. After he worked on it for a year or two, one day he went out and sat under a tree and got his book out and as he read it for the first time he was deeply disappointed. He realized he had already changed and so some of the things that really hit him a year ago didn’t really hit him any more. He realized that he himself was a moving target, that any book he compiled or any book he wrote, would be sort of like a gun pointed here and then he would move. And he said I realized I was never, I was never going to find a book that understood me.
That very day, as he was sitting under the tree, his wife was out walking their little infant child and along the way had talked to a french Huguenot pastor who had given her a Bible in French. And they didn’t have a Bible in the house and she thought it would be a good idea, and brought it back. He saw it and he said, ‘give that to me’, and began reading the Gospels. He said, I read all night, almost all night, and I actually realized, as he was looking at the one the Gospel was written about, that here finally I had a book that’s alive, and a book that understands me. But its not just a book that understands me, he went into the Word of Lord to find the Lord of the Word, Jesus Christ, the true story of Jesus, that’s what the world needs, that’s what you need.