THE STORY BEHIND ALL STORIES
The smell of cinnamon-soaked pine cones wafting through a festively decorated Dobbies Garden Centre.
The cherry pickers and council workmen, working atop their precarious perches, fastening the Christmas lights amidst shortening and darker days.
The eagerly anticipated John Lewis advert, with the introduction of Moz the Monster.
So the associations continue, as our culture gears up for the mixture of commercialism, saturnalia and religious festival that is Christmas in Scotland.
Let me add another advent association: the animated films of Walt Disney. No Christmas entertainment would be quite complete without the showing, and reshowing, of Christmas classics, masterfully retold in the world of animation: Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and a host of the more modern tales with their numerous, and relentless, sequels.
Many of these classic tales are founded on storylines which retain a magnetic hold on our imagination. Significantly, there remains in our hearts a longing for the very themes explored in many of the traditional fairy-tale stories: a longing to experience the supernatural (what child, and many an adult, does not want to be a Jedi Knight with special skills using The Force?): a desire to escape death and experience true love (as in Sleeping Beauty?): a yearning for good always to triumph over evil (as with Frodo in The Lord of the Rings).
Hollywood has not missed the fact that there is a market out there for such themes, and it is no surprise that Amazon has recently paid around $200 million for the rights to make a ‘Lord of the Rings’ TV series based on Tolkien’s books and set in the fantasy world of Middle Earth. We love stories like this because they seem to speak to those irrepressible longings that we find in ourselves to have those specific desires briefly satisfied.
Some examples: the story of Beauty and the Beast tells us that there is a love which overcomes and escapes the beastliness we can make for ourselves, amidst our failures and wrong decisions. Sleeping Beauty holds out the hope that we are in a sleeping enchantment, from which we will be liberated by a noble and loving prince. Tolkien’s fantasy speaks of evil being conquered and good being triumphed.
We read these, and many other stories, and at a deep level in our hearts we want them to be true. We have an instinctive yearning for death not to be the end, for us not to lose our loved ones and for the evil that would bomb and maim and hate to be defeated and never to win.
There is part of us, even knowing that these are just stories, which senses that they reflect a deeper reality which ought to be true, even although modern critics despise the depiction of moral absolutes and scorn hope beyond death as the refuge of the cowardly.
Consider now the Christmas story. For many people in our community, if they know it at all, it is just another fairy tale. Here is the story of someone from another world breaking into ours and demonstrating miraculous powers. He can calm storms and heal the sick and raise the dead. Sadly, his enemies turn on him and kill him, but just when all hope is lost he rises from the dead.
It looks like just another story, with many of the same themes. But when you actually read the story, you find it is presented very differently. There is no ‘one upon a time in a galaxy far away ….’. In fact the story is told as taking place at a particular time in human history (when a specific and known Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, called for a census) and in a particular place in the world (the occupied land of Israel) and the key character has a family tree that is set out in a genealogy (Matthew 1, Luke 3).
The Gospels make it clear that there IS an evil sorcerer; that we ARE under an enchantment that makes us unable to see the truth, and that there IS a noble Prince who comes to break that enchantment, and He does so with a love that can never be overcome. This is THE story, making all the others no more than pale copies.
It was one of the great insights of J.R.R. Tolkien that the best of our stories and fairy-tales are mere echoes of the TRUE story of Jesus. When he shared this insight with C.S. Lewis it had a profound effect on the young atheist. Lewis had previously argued that the world of mythology was filled with stories of death and resurrection and so he questioned why the Gospel stories should be regarded as being any different from such ancient myths. Tolkien accused him of a failure of the imagination and said:
“the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way”
One such exchange took place as Tolkien, Lewis and their friend, Hugo Dyson, walked Addison’s Walk in the grounds of Magdalen College in Oxford. It was something of a turning point in the thinking of C.S. Lewis.
There is a scene in the film ‘Hook’ in which Maggie Smith, playing an elderly Wendy, speaks to Robin Williams, a grown-up Peter Pan. He is amused by the stories Wendy tells his children but then she stares straight at him and says ‘Peter, the stories are true’.
Christmas is true. The vast commercial industry around Christmas, and the secular celebration of it as no more than a holiday, reveal the level of amnesia suffered by so many. They need to be wakened up to remember that the Gospel story is true, it really happened, and all the best stories are no more than distant echoes in our imagination.
Wishing you a blessed Christmas
Your Minister - Martin Thomson