I know you sometimes see adults reading Harry Potter books on the train, but I must confess, they were a bit after my time, and – probably out of sheer pride, to be honest – I don’t really want people to see me reading children’s books. But one of the things I’m most enjoying about having children, as they grow up, is being able to play all those games I’m supposed to have grown out of and now, at last, as my elder daughter approaches seven, to read some of my favourite childhood books to her. Admittedly, the Hobbit didn’t make much of an impact: that’s gone away for a while, to come back out when I can persuade her she’s ready for it. But what we’re both really enjoying now is the C.S. Lewis classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
My day job is as a school chaplain, for children aged 3-18. You’d be surprised at how few have read any of the Narnia books. Some still do. But hardly any of them have clocked what’s it really all about. The Lion Aslan, whom Father Christmas calls the “True King,” who comes to bring Christmas light back to the wintery darkness of the evil queen’s dominion, the way he triumphs only by offering himself to be sacrificed on the Stone Table and rises again to defeat the Enemy once and for all, to take people who have been turned into stone and give them new life in the flesh again – it’s so obvious, if you know the Christian story, what this is all about, and who Aslan really is.
You can find hints of the story in many of the films shown around Christmas, too. Think about how Obi Wan Kenobi tells Darth Vader that killing him will only make him stronger; or Neo in the Matrix, when he comes back from the dead, brings Trinity to life and returns to the Source to restore the true nature of things; or Batman in the Dark Knight trilogy, starting with his “baptism” in the well, then his time training in the wilderness, and ultimately putting aside weapons and hiding his true identity to bring a higher justice to the world. These are all echoes of the one great story of Christ: the new Moses, the one in whom the divine presence is hidden and revealed, the one who dies to restore the fullness of life, peace and order to the world. If you know The Story, all these other stories make sense. In a conversation with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien called it the “true myth:” the really true story which lends its truth to the rest.
But there’s the problem. So many of our children don’t know much about Christianity than the baby in the stable. Their knowledge of the faith doesn’t go beyond the Nativity play they did in Reception class, and even that has been stopped in some places by some do-gooders. So when they come across the story in another form, to them, it’s just another story, disconnected from all the rest. They haven’t got the key, the one true story which lends its truth to all the others.
And so, instead, we see a new and rather different kind of story emerging, both in children’s literature and in films and TV. In the older stories, like the Narnia Chronicles, Star Wars, or Batman, you know very clearly what is good and what is bad. If something or someone looks good and kind and wise, the chances are, they are. But it seems that we are losing our connection to that goodness as quickly as we are losing our grasp of the Christian faith. Those old stories don’t entertain new generations so much any more. They don’t reflect reality as they see it, a reality where you cannot trust anything to be what it seems, where all authorities, all institutions, all claims of goodness are suspicious. The only truth in the new stories is the truth of sheer power, the world as nothing more than a warzone of conflicting interests, with no unifying, harmonising truth at all, and no goodness except what I decide is good for me. Make your own truth; make your own goodness. That’s what everybody else is doing – and they’re all trying to do you over. Tthat’s the message. You can see this in the way the newer superhero films focus more on the villains than the heroes. We’re not just talking about antiheroes, like Dirty Harry or the Man with No Name, any more: we’ve gone way past that. Take the new Joker film, or Suicide Squad, or The Boys on Amazon: it’s the villains who deserve our sympathy now, and it’s even hinted at that the old heroes, like Batman, were really the baddies all along.
The idea seems to be that you cannot tell good from evil anything like instinctively; that in fact there is no automatic, absolute good or evil, but it’s up to us to define goodness for ourselves; that all we can trust in is what we experience with our own senses, and that even our senses are not all that reliable. In the end, you’re on your own, and you’re the only one you can trust. There’s no goodness, no truth, no meaning: the world is whatever you make it.
When we profess the Word made Flesh, we are making a claim which goes entirely against this culture of meaninglessness and cynical self-definition. Here, we are not making meaning: we are discovering it. The Word, the Logos, is the Divine Reason which gives order and meaning to creation, there at the very beginning of time. Christians are those who can see that this Divine Reason became one with flesh and blood in the person of Jesus Christ. We are those who know what goodness and truth and beauty are because we recognise them in him. He has revealed what goodness is by giving himself to us, in the manger, on the Cross, and at the altar. The Way, the Life, the Truth, when He comes to us, does not close off other ways, and lives, and truths: he illumines them, brings them to light, makes the other and lesser truths true. His true story gives truth to the other stories we tell.
But a light so bright casts deep shadows, too. He shows us the dark patches where we need to steer clear. In times of despair and anxiety and isolation, they can be very tempting. Shadows of anger, lust, envy, the urge to lash out at someone, anyone, in blame; the urge to numb the loneliness or distract ourselves from pain.
Now is the time to recommit to the light of the newborn Christ child. This Christmas, seek the light, look hard for it wherever it may be found, even if it’s hard to find this year; recommit to prayer, to the mass. Consume the light, and let it consume you; become the light, the light of God’s gift to the world in love. Lose sight of love, lose trust in love, and we unravel into nothingness, conflict, enmity with each other and with God. For love is the truth which moves the planets and gives the cosmos meaning: and that love is born among us, God with us, Emmanuel, today, tomorrow, always.