Demons appear on movie screens all the time, but poet Richard Rohlin is convinced that he has actually seen them at work guiding young people whose search for meaning has driven them deep into experiments with sex, drugs and the occult.
“The stories I can’t tell would curl your toenails,” he said, speaking at the Eighth Day Institute in Wichita, Kansas. “If you think that these spiritual realities are not still with us, you are deceiving yourself. … The magic is coming back into the world. Something is happening and it is not an unqualified good.”
The young people he works with in Dallas are not interested in sermons and detailed descriptions of why their lives have been broken. But they are open to fantasies, myths and stories — ancient and modern — about invisible, spiritual realities interacting with their lives.
Millions of Americans know where to find stories of angels, demons, warriors, seers, giants, demigods, and heroic kings and queens. They go straight to movie theaters and cable television, where they find entire universes of content offering visions of fantastic worlds. The last place they would look for this kind of inspiration is in churches.
The irony is that some of these works draw inspiration from the fantasy classics honored at the annual fall celebration of The Inklings, a circle of mid-20th century Christian writers in Oxford, England, including CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien. and others.
This year’s readings focused on Scottish writer George MacDonald, also known as the grandfather of the Inklings, who is best known for ‘Phantastes’, ‘The Golden Key’, ‘Lilith’ and many other works. The festival featured Celtic and folk musicians, along with workshops on topics such as ‘The Art of Making Mead’ and ‘Publishing for the Moral Imagination’.
The goal of MacDonald and the Inklings, Rohlin noted, was to reclaim an older vision of life in which physical realities matched spiritual realities and nothing was considered purely material. The real gap was between ‘the seen and the unseen’, not between the ‘spiritual and the material’.
This worldview has been lost even among many religious believers.
“Demons did not cease to exist, angels did not cease to exist, the saints did not cease to exist because the industrial revolution came,” he said. “The spiritual realities didn’t change. But we were bewitched. … Our eyes are closed and darkened as the world really is. That’s why we need fairy tales.”
For example, most modern Americans now live as secularists and materialists, even if they say they are traditional religious believers, said Geoffrey Reiter, a Mennonite who teaches literature at Lancaster Bible College in Pennsylvania. These people still believe that God can work miracles and that the spiritual world can interact with the natural world, “but in practice we don’t live like that. We have become … disenchanted.”
MacDonald, Reiter noted, was a chemist before becoming a Congregational minister and then a novelist. He embraced science, but also knew that he lived in an increasingly “disenchanted and secular world, and his fiction was part of a lifelong process of undoing that disillusionment.” He refused to see the material world as “dead atoms, pitiful particles floating about in a lonely, hopeless cosmos or crude resource to be molded at our will.”
As for the cinematic visions being marketed by Hollywood, Reiter said they “function as a factual mythology for our culture, whether their creators want to admit it or not.”
Rohlin agreed, but it remains to be seen whether the general public will continue to embrace the Marvel Cinematic Universe stories and similar epics as they evolve into morality tales of oppression, environmentalism, and gender, as opposed to old-fashioned clashes between good and evil. , featuring superheroes who make sacrifices of life and death to defend ordinary people.
Meanwhile, he said, it seems certain that the works of MacDonald, Lewis and Tolkien will stand the test of time.
“Fairy tales and fantasy literature — the good ones — are a uniquely effective way to train the eye of the heart to see and experience the enchanted world, to enhance the sacramental imagination,” Rohlin said. “Only the person whose eyes and heart have been trained in this way will be able to tell the kind of stories that will endure, stories that will endure beyond the fads of the moment.”
(Terry Mattingly runs GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.)