(You Are What You Love, 181)
In his new book Heavenly Participation, Hans Boersma argues that the natural and supernatural are not separated but interwoven realities, like threads in a tapestry.
This means that a flourishing Christian life requires cultivating an ability to see how the natural world participates in heavenly realities. Boersma quotes theologian Alexander Schmemann to make an interesting point about how the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper help cultivate this vision:
Christ came not to replace ‘natural’ matter with some ‘supernatural’ and sacred matter, but to restore it and to fulfill it as the means of communication with God. The holy water in Baptism, the bread and wine in the Eucharist, stand for, i.e. represent the whole of creation, but creation as it will be at the end, when it will be consummated in God, when He will fill all things with Himself” (Of Water and the Spirit, 49).
In other words, these two special sacraments of the Church teach us to see every created thing in a sacramental way.
Thus are the church’s sacraments simply the beginning of the cosmic restoration. The entire cosmos is meant to serve as a sacrament: a material gift from God in and through which we enter into the joy of his heavenly participation” (Boersma, loc. 154).
I’ve just started Boersma’s book, but I’ve already seen a lot of resonances with C.S. Lewis and Augustine (both of whom Boersma has discussed). These quotes above remind me of how fairy tales can also reenchant our vision of the everyday world. Poetry and literature in the hands of the right author do the same thing.
Literary history makes the case that a “sacramental imagination” is essential to the Christian poetic. Seeing every created thing as itself and also pointing to deeper realities beyond itself is a poetic vision common to many of the greatest Christian authors.
Dante and George Herbert certainly had it. Gerard Manley Hopkins had it (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God”). C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien saw the world this way, as did Flannery O’Connor. Even T.S. Eliot had this vision, though mostly as a photo negative (he lamented the absence of transcendence in the modern world) until he wrote The Four Quartets.
I’ve just begun Boersma’s book, but I’m already certain that it has profound implications for Christian poetics, arts, education, and parenting.
It really is sad that Christmas comes only once a year. This holiday reminds us of many things we need to remember every day. First and foremost, Christmas reminds us of the mystery of the Incarnation, an event that theologians and poets have struggled to describe.
The Incarnation is God becoming man, the Son of God taking on flesh to dwell among us. It is the Eternal Word becoming a wordless infant; the Infinite, Limitless, Unbounded Creator became an baby in a feed trough. It is the All-Powerful Creator who set the stars spinning through space, became powerless to control the movement of his own arms.
Incarnation is a mystery in the ancient sense of the word: it is something we cannot fully understand, yet it shines bright light on the world. It teaches us how to look not just at Jesus, but also at each other and at all material things in this world. And this lesson is important because it can also keep us from making two grave mistakes–two Incarnational errors.
The phrase its fruit in its season emphasizes both the distinctiveness and the quiet growth of the product; for the tree is no mere channel, piping the water unchanged from one place to another, but a living organism which absorbs it, to produce in due course something new and delightful, proper to its kind and to its time” (Derek Kidner on Psalm 1:3).
Our culture is obsessed with beauty yet knows very little about it. We spend countless hours and dollars to acquire and maintain physical beauty. And while beauty of face and body is a true form of beauty, it is also one of the most difficult to cultivate and certainly the least fulfilling.
There are far more beneficial forms of beauty worth pursuing: one of the most rewarding is the beauty of the ordinary.
Seeing Ordinary Beauty
Ordinary beauty refers to the glory to be found in everyday things. We can see this glory in three particular aspects of ordinary things.
The beauty of the world is Christ’s tender smile for us coming through matter. He is really present in the universal beauty. The love of this beauty proceeds from God dwelling in our souls and goes out to God present in the universe. It is also like a sacrament.”
A few weeks ago, I shared a video that discussed C.S. Lewis’s two ways of seeing. Today, I want to share another video, a sequel to the first.
Closely connected to Lewis’s two ways of looking was his belief that the most essential element of a story was its atmosphere, or its general feel. More important than character and theme was whether the texture of the story was believable and cohesive enough to draw the reader fully into the story.
Entering the Atmosphere
Flaws in the character could be overlooked (since everyone has quirks), but a fault in the atmosphere would ruin its spell and sink the story. The ultimate test of a story’s atmosphere was how often the book was reread. When a reader comes to a book a second time, he or she already knows the plot, so can’t be surprised by it.
So what’s the point in reading it again?
The reader returns to a good story in order to enjoy its atmosphere again. He wants to be enchanted again by the story’s alluring texture.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know that I just finished teaching a 10-week class on the Chronicles of Narnia. And what a class it was! It was such a great experience that I want to share one of the video lessons with you in this post.
Seven incredible novels, 37 videos, and over ten hours of instruction. Throw in some enthusiastic students and enough time to prepare the lessons, and I found myself in an ideal teaching situation.
This class covered the Chronicles in depth, analyzing the symbolism, themes, and influences of each of the Narnia books. But we also learned a lot about C.S. Lewis’s remarkable Christian and refreshingly clear vision of the world.
Over the next few weeks, I want to share some different pieces from this class with you. In this post, I’ve included a video from the first lesson about the structure of the Narniad. In this video, I discuss C.S. Lewis’s two ways of seeing, or two ways of knowing: 1) contemplation and 2) enjoyment.
Lewis argued that we can come to know a thing by standing outside of it and looking at it. We can observe it the way a scientist observes a new species of animal—from a disengaged perspective.
We can also come to know a thing by entering into it, by “looking along” it. We can observe it the way a lover studies the beloved—from a perspective of full engagement.
The first way of disengaged observation is “contemplation.” The second way of enthralled study is “enjoyment.” These two ways of seeing/knowing are important because some things can only be known through “enjoyment”.
And the most important of these things is Christ. Lewis argues that the truest, deepest knowledge of Christ can only be had “from the inside”, by entering fully into Christ’s being and nature through devoted love.
This video explains all of this in much greater detail, so take a few minutes to watch it through to the end. If you have any questions when you’re done, ask them in the comments section below.
Enjoy the video!
A few weeks ago I finished reading the entire Lord of the Rings aloud to my son—all 1200 pages.
Reading this book aloud taught me many things about Tolkien’s genius as a wordsmith. Several of his sentences shocked me with their clarity of vision and depth of wisdom. I missed these sentences on earlier readings, but they grabbed me by the eyeballs this time through.
One of these sentences comes from Gandalf (who else?):
You can get a FREE copy when you subscribe to my newsletter. Enjoy!
Talk about the importance of fairy-tales to anyone in our modern world, and you are almost certain to hear your arguments rebutted with the charge of escapism: encouraging young people to read fairy-tales is encouraging them to disengage with the world, to ignore its problems by fleeing to some alternate reality.
Escapism is a refusal to obey God’s commands to rule the earth and subdue it; escapism is to love shadows more than substance, symbols more than significance, to love the art and scorn the reality. But the way we can strengthen our student’s resistance to escapism is not by keeping them from fairy-tales, but by giving them piles of fairy-tales to read–and piles of poetry, novels, plays, and every other type of imaginative literature. Let me explain.