By Cade Campbell
“There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, Speaking of the Gospel in his essay “On Fairy Stories”
I love a good story. I love the epic journey of the Fellowship to defeat evil in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I love the birth of the hero to defeat evil with the emergence of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. I love the magical power of sacrifice and love to defeat evil in Harry Potter. I absolutely love these tales. And you probably love them too; maybe not these particular ones (although they’re wonderful), but we all from childhood love stories where the danger is great, the stakes are high, the enemy is ruthless, the hero is an underdog, and yet evil is defeated. We love stories where the good triumphs and the bad loses. We long for stories that really do have a “happily ever after.”
This Wednesday evening at our Midweek service we’ll step into Revelation 12. This new chapter begins the second great “Act” of the drama that John’s apocalypse portrays. Following the story’s Prologue (chapters 1-3), Act I (chapters 4-11) portray believers triumphing in Christ as Christ, the sovereign ruler of all things, completes his plan, fulfills his promises, and unleashes the totality of his wrath on his enemies. We’re shown a vision of all of history (past, present, and future) in which Christ is victorious and his people triumph through the persecutions and sufferings that they endure at the hands of God’s enemies, being assured of their final victory and vindication as those same enemies endure fierce judgment at the hand of Christ.
Act II (Revelation 12-22) rewinds the story and portrays that same drama from a completely new vantage point. Readers are given special “glasses,” by which we are allowed to see the true intergalactic and cosmic expanse of the story that we find ourselves in. Reality is shown to be far deeper, far deadlier, far scarier, far larger, and far grander than anything we might have expected. The story that we’re caught up in spans all of heaven and hell, the physical and spiritual dimensions, earth and space, all creation. The veil is lifted to show us the truth about reality. We’re caught in the middle of a truly worldwide war.
That means the truest thing about your life is not necessarily what it appears to be. The most fundamental facts about who you are and why you are here is not limited to chores, deadlines, commutes, bills, school, housework, meals, and sleep. All of these parts of our lives are the environment in which and through which a much larger story is unfolding. The truth about who we really are is epic. We are real-life, living characters in a story far older, far stranger, far deadlier, far more dangerous, and with an ending far more delightful than anything we could ever imagine. Our greatest enemy is not our spouse, our boss, our job, our kids, our parents, our teachers, our coworkers, our friends, or our neighbors. Our greatest enemy is far worse than Sauron, Darth Vader, and Voldemort combined. And Revelation unmasks him. Our greatest enemy is “He Who Must Be Named.” He is the emperor of evil. He is the devilish dragon of demons. He is Satan himself.
And he wants to destroy everything good and bend it to his purpose. Allied with him is a host of forces: demonic spirits, sinful desires and rebellion, the power and prestige of the world, and the blindness that so often keeps this true story hidden from everyday view. This dragon and his allies are warring against his enemies. They have invaded God’s creation. They have flourished under creation’s curse. They are rabidly seeking to steal, kill, and destroy everything that God has created good.
But God, the good king of all that is, will not let the dragon be victorious. Standing against the dragon is a Lamb, not a small and timid farm animal, but a wild and roaring warrior, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The Lamb and his Army assemble against the forces of evil. They array themselves in bloodstained robes of Calvary’s clothing and they charge into the mighty throngs of demonic dominion.
And the Lamb wins.
That’s the story that Revelation 12-22 narrates, and that’s the story we find ourselves living in as participating characters. That is the reality behind all that lurks outside (and inside) our windows. That is the truth about who we really are and where we really are. Listen closely and you will hear the sound of tumult and feel the rumble of the battle that is raging all around us.
Awake from your drowsed stupor. Christians find themselves in the midst of what is truly the greatest story ever told. We find each day of our calendar to be just another page in the tale from this our perilous realm. We find ourselves living among forces far more powerful than comic book heroes. We are in league with a company, a community of men and women far larger and far greater and far more victorious than the Rebel Alliance or the Fellowship or Dumbledore’s Army. We find ourselves in the ranks of martyrs and missionaries, suffering saints, ordinary yet faithful believers all over the world who are allied with all creation into the Lamb’s Army.
Our universe is more compelling and more spectacular than anything Marvel or DC could ever conceive. The gospel is the heart and core of all story. In fact, all other stories (The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Avengers, etc.) are merely fictionalized and faint echoes of actual reality, reflections that point us to the True Story, the Real Story.
And that real story is no mere fiction, although it did begin “once upon a time.”
And that real story, through the Lamb’s conquering cross, will definitely have a “happily ever after.”
The epigraph of the short article above was taken from J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories.” In it he goes into great detail about the genre of fairy and fantasy, and at the end of the essay (in an epilogue) he brings the study of this literature to bear on the real world, actual history. What follows is the larger portion of that epilogue (itself only a small part of Tolkien’s full essay) from which the above quote was taken. It is worth reading in its entirety, especially for fans of fantasy literature, science-fiction, and superheroes!
Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. If he indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: “inner consistency of reality,” it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.” That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world. The use of this word gives a hint of my epilogue. It is a serious and dangerous matter. It is presumptuous of me to touch upon such a theme; but if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich: finite only because the capacity of Man for whom this was done is finite.
I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.
It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.
But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.