Sometime ago I heard a distinguished lecturer address an audience of home-schooling parents on nonconformity to the world. Much of what he said was worthwhile, but at one point he launched into an attack against fictional children’s literature, especially storylines that were impossible in real life. he especially seemed to have it in for such “escapist” literature as the writings of C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald, two of my favorite authors. (In fact, while I’m at it, let me recommend two of MacDonald’s very best books, which should change any grump’s outlook on life: The Princess and the Goblin and At the Back of the North Wind; and two of his best short stories: “The Golden Key,” and “Cross Purposes.”)
I approached him later and asked what he thought of the fiction in the Bible. He stared at me in disbelief. I mentioned the parables of Jesus. Were all of them literally “true”? Or could our Lord have just been making up an illustration to fit the occasion?
Well, he allowed that Jesus might have just made them up. But he protested that all of the parables could have happened in real life. Okay, I said, but what about Biblical stories that couldn’t have happened in real life? He stared at me as if all the rumors about Chilton being “brain dead” were true after all. I hastened to assure him that I believe the whole Bible, cover to cover. But there are examples of the Bible telling stories that aren’t literally “true.” The Book of Revelation, for example, is full of stories that no one believes could really take place. No one teaches that the symbols in the Book of Revelation are really “literal,” regardless of “literalist” claims. No one believes that the Beast (Rev. 13) is really an animal; no one thinks there ever has been or will be a pregnant lady standing on the moon and clothed with the sun (12:1-2); no one understands Satan to be actually “a great red dragon with seven heads” (12:3).
Even according to “literalists,” the sword coming from Christ’s mouth (Rev. 1:16; 19:15) is not literally a sword; Satan’s throne (2:13) is not really a throne; Christ is not literally selling gold, clothing and eyesalve (3:18); and the door at which He is standing and knocking (3:20) is not literally a door!
I could go on and on (and I have, as the author of a 700-page commentary on the book), but most people will acknowledge that Revelation is rather unusual, even for the Bible, and is virtually peppered with symbols. Strange, unearthly creatures appear; a Harlot sits on a scarlet beast getting nations drunk; a King leads an army in striking down the nations of the earth, calling the birds of the air to feast on human flesh.
Well, let’s skip the Book of Revelation; after all, there are whole denominations that specifically prohibit its being read in a formal worship service (even though its author specifically encouraged his recipients to read it in church). The noted lecturer acknowledged that Revelation was a “special case.” But he assured me that never would the Bible countenance the telling of a story such as J.R.R. Tolkien might use, of, say, talking trees. On extremely rare occasions, possibly, an animal might talk (see Numbers 22)—but trees, never. Such a story, therefore, represents dissatisfaction with God’s wise design: a rebellious attempt to overthrow God’s created order.
Pontificating is always dangerous, especially if you don’t know your Bible well enough to pull it off convincingly. I stopped him cold with one of my favorite Bible passages, Judges 9:7-15, Jotham’s parable of the trees, where all the trees of the forest gather together to elect a king—and, in true democratic fashion, they choose the least qualified, most unproductive candidate, who ends up tyrannizing them. The parable is actually a rather Libertarian exhortation for free, responsible self-government, couched in patently ridiculous terms if taken literally—which, clearly, it is not meant to be.
My point in all this is not to suggest that all fairy tales are suitable for children. Some fairy tales, especially modern ones, are unsuitable for anybody. But most classical fairy tales have in common a sense of wonder at the world, a conviction that the universe is really made of breathtaking, eye-popping wonders, throbbing and teeming with miraculous life in every aspect of its being. They also point to the fundamental Truth that underlies all reality, expressed in the blind, human gropings for our Creator (Acts 17:27), stemming from all men’s sense that God has placed “eternity in their hearts” (Ecc. 3:11).
At root, the Christian Story is the true fairy tale: the greatest bedtime story, the ultimate Happy Ending, where the Champion overcomes and the poor peasant girl, rescued by the handsome Prince, is taken to His kingdom to live happily ever after.
[Archive Note from contributor Carmon Friedrich: More which is not original from me, but excellent reading. It was written by our friend David Chilton. This is a draft of an article which David gave us, which was later published (many years ago) in World Magazine. Steve had taken David to a homeschool conference in Fremont, to see his friend Gary DeMar who was the keynote speaker. David wrote this in response to another speaker there, who didn’t realize that David Chilton with half his brain tied behind his back (because of anoxia from his heart attack) was still quite a force to be reckoned with. And I end this post with one of David’s favorite verses, the signature to this article he printed out for us to read, the ultimate Happy Ending: “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My Holy Mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea!” ~Isaiah 11:9]