Glimpses of the Great Story

I was 7 years old when I first tasted transcendence in any way I can remember. I’m not sure of much that happened that year, but the most significant event was going to see a certain movie with my parents. Yes, one of the first markers in my spiritual journey was Return Of The Jedi.

What I remember about that night was having no idea it was a Star Wars movie. We got there a few minutes late, so all I saw was a huge slug-like creature who spoke in a strange language, surrounded by some of the most menacing freaks of nature my young eyes had ever gazed upon. To my 7 year old mind, Jabba’s Palace was a never-ending terror. All I remember about that first viewing was that I hid my face for most of the sequence that took place in Jabba’s Palace because for me at age 7, it was the heart of darkness. Yet I do remember one by one, the characters of Star Wars being revealed; Chewbacca brought in my a bounty hunter that turned out to be Leia, Lando revealed as one of the palace guards, Han Solo released from carbonite and finally Luke Skywalker entered the heart of darkness and set the captives free. Something in me thrilled at this turn of events. What seemed like an unfamiliar tale of terror turned suddenly into exactly what I had been wanting to see but didn’t know to ask for: a Star Wars movie!

I had my parents take me back to see it probably around 7 times. Movies stayed in the theater for almost a year back then, there was no video release in the early 80’s. Why did I beg to go see it that many times? (My poor parents; I seriously doubt they were as excited about seeing it that many times, but they took me.) It spoke to me. It said something to me and my 7 year old heart received it. It tols me that life is a great story and there are great adventures to be had. It showed me that there is a battle between good and evil and none of us are allowed the luxury of being neutral. It tapped into the deep longing embedded in my heart to be one of those swashbuckling rebels, sticking it to the heart of darkness. And there was something unexplainable about seeing Darth Vader’s mask come off, revealing a pathetic, enslaved man driven to self-destruction. There was a profound truth revealed to me in that unmasking scene, even though I may have been unaware of it then. In the flurry of images and the regality of the robust musical score, I caught a vision of a life beyond merely existing and that vision has stayed with me ever since. I was “taken up,” you might say. That is the earliest experience I can remember of the power of the arts influencing my spiritual journey.

Yes, I know that Star Wars has more in common with Buddhism than with Christianity, and that’s why I think the preachy prequels fell so flat. The Jedi in those films were Buddhist monks, emotionless and humorless; detached. But young George Lucas got something right, in spite of himself. The idea of open rebellion on a dark empire in the universe and including just the right kind of humor, not to mention a likeable scalawag as one of the heroes (something missing entirely in the prequels; there are no scalawags or likeable characters). I would say the original Trilogy worked for one reason: it drew from the Great Story and delved deeply into it. When I say “the Great Story,” I am referring to what is actually happening in the cosmos, and has been happening since the dawn of time. It is revealed most fully and accurately in the Bible and most definitively in the life of Christ, the Author who became a character. There may be scraps of it flung around in other cultures and mythologies (as Paul attested to on Mars Hill in Acts 17), but our hearts instinctively know when it is being invoked. That’s why certain films are runaway hits though the critics can’t say why and others flop even though they were expected to be blockbusters. Some tap into the Great Story and others don’t. Return of the Jedi exposed me to the Great Story. War in the universe, good rebelling against evil, unlikely heroes rising up along the way and the redemption of the man encaged in the black suit.

My second glimpse of the Great Story was intentional by the author. I had a “book and tape” of Rankin-Bass’ production of The Hobbit and I don’t know how it came about, but I went through it so much I eventually memorized not only the words but the music and sound effects. On long trips my parents would have me perform it, no doubt for their amusement. But even that shoddy retelling of The Hobbit awakened a longing in me that only stumbling across the Great Story would later satisfy. I was delighted to find out in my early-twenties that J.R.R. Tolkien was a Christian and was purposefully tapping into the Story, which again, is why the Lord Of The Rings continues to win Greatest Book in contests year after year, much to the critics’ repeated chagrin. Of course, I also remember a viewing of an animated television special of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe that similarly affected me. When Aslan was killed, I ran from the room in tears, much like the disciples on Good Friday. Thankfully, I had only to wait about 10 minutes for my Easter morning, unlike the disciples, who had 2 nights and a day. I heard my parents saying, “Come back! Aslan’s alive!” A strange thrill ran through me and I believe even at that young age, I felt a numinous joy of the prospect of resurrection. I’m sure Lewis meant that deliberately. When I go back and re-watch these horrible depictions of the Hobbit and Narnia, it’s amazing to me that the power of the story was not dismantled entirely by the adaption of lesser storytellers. There was something about the way they tapped into the Great Story that could not be deconstructed. It came with those stories, even in spite of their handlers.

When I became a Christian in my early twenties and began reading great Christian authors veraciously, I was stunned to realize my childhood experiences were not unique in the slightest. G.K. Chesterton, the great Christian wit of the early 20th century, spoke of a similar experience while watching a puppet show as a child. When he recounted the episode in his autobiography, he couldn’t remember the story or the context, but he remembered seeing the image of a princess locked in a palace and a prince approaching the palace with a golden key to free her. That image made a profound impression on Chesterton, and gave him a glimpse of what he called “the white light of wonder.” In some way, he knew at a very deep level that this image was a picture of reality but it took him until adulthood to find the Prince of the Universe who entered our world with His golden key to set us free. C.S. Lewis also had what he called “stabs of joy” as a child. Once, while reading a book of Norse mythology, he came across the couplet:

Baldar the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead

The Norse myth of Baldar had the same effect on him that his story of the Dying and Rising Lion had on me. It pierced him with a sort of bittersweet ache that he later came to call “the inconsolable longing.” It is interesting that C.S. Lewis came to faith in Christ by reading mythology. At first, he believed that since so many elements of the Christ story were also scattered throughout the world’s mythology, it must have simply been invented as a new myth, no more substantial than any other mythology. It was Tolkien, that fateful night on Addison’s walk, who helped Lewis to see that Christ’s life was the “true myth” (another way of saying the “Great Story”) that all other myths tapped into. But the one unique factor about the life of Christ was that it actually happened in history. All other mythologies (even the mythology of Star Wars) are potent because they tap into the “true myth” that has been revealed in Jesus. C.S. Lewis wrapped his mind around that, and never looked back. He crossed over from atheism to Christianity in the next year or so and was able to communicate the Great Story so vividly, thanks to his having been brought to the understanding of it so early on in his Christian life.

I mention these childhood experiences of mine because I believe they are not unique or original. I believe as children we are less guarded and more able to see truth. As we grow up and find out “how the world really works,” we snuff out “the white light of wonder” in our hearts. But the good news is, the gospel of Jesus Christ; the Great Story, re-ignites that beautiful flame. This is also why I believe my vocation involves a Christian engagement with the arts and culture. Because the Great Story is no less loose in the world now as it ever was. You can see a strand of it here and a sliver of it there. It is only completely revealed in Christ, who is the exact image of the invisible God (Col. 1). But our hearts can catch glimpses of it in the strangest places, and only God knows where it will turn up next to be spotted by the trained adult eye or the unsuspecting child.

For me, there’s something special about the smell of popcorn, the synthy sounds and the dated effects of early 80’s movies, especially sci-fi and fantasy. Those dimly-lit theaters were the first place I experienced pieces of the Great Story and though I’ve gone on to find more of it in other places and the whole of it in the life of that Galilean carpenter, the memory of first finding it where I did will always occupy a certain prominent place in my memory.

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~ by shardsofeternity on October 6, 2011.

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