“How come the Muggles don’t hear the bus?” said Harry.
“Them!” said Stan contemptuously. “Don’t listen properly, do they? Don’t look properly either. Never notice nuthing, they don’t. – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
When I was a kid my mom read a book on Hollywood and the Occult.
If I could change one thing about my childhood it would be to rid that book from the pages of history.
The author had painstakingly gone through every single possible allusion to anything remotely associated with paganism and had given in detail why it was Satanic.
Almost overnight, I went from having a relatively normal childhood, to being cut off from anything on television that wasn’t the Buttercream gang.
The Smurfs were forbidden because they were somehow worshipping the dead, and the author had once seen a pentagram somewhere hidden in the background.
He-Man was obviously out, there was only one Master of the Universe after all, and He always kept his shirt on.
Suddenly, to watch Saturday Morning Cartoons was to be in league with the Prince of Darkness.
If you don’t believe me watch this video of the author of that book talking with a pastor who summarizes his ideas:
Speaking of Stranger Things…
A Secular Age
So this is a short blog series on Netflix’s incredible new show that was released this summer called Stranger Things.
It is a show that is filled with all the things that book from my childhood would have denounced as dangerous: Monsters and smoking and people who disrespected authority and violence and worst of all…magic.
And I thought it was wonderful.
I’m currently working my way through Charles Taylor’s dense 850 page book A Secular Age, I don’t recommend it unless you have a penchant for philosophy, or happen to be a secular humanist who thinks that you have objectively arrived at your “non belief” by climbing up some mountain of reason and now have the ability to peer down objectively at all the world’s religions and their accumulated wisdom dismissively. (Which may not be a small number here on Patheos).
Taylor’s main point is that Protestant Christianity has disenchanted the world, and that we now live in a secular age, meaning we only give thought to now and what can be seen and measured without any notion of eternity.
We’ve created what Taylor calls “a buffered self” that is protected from any kind of external (supernatural) forces, we’ve learned how to “go meta” in our lives, and step outside of ourselves whenever things make us uncomfortable.
Today we live with the constant hum of cynicism about anything other than the here and now, so we do things ironically, take nothing serious, and suspect nothing deeper than what’s right in front of us.
We live in an age of Seinfeld not an age of Stranger Things.
But why do we love this show so much?
I think it’s because most of us have this deep suspicion that the universe isn’t just the sum of it’s subatomic parts. From the physicist who peers into Dark matter and realizes how much of the universe is still a mystery, to the author who can’t quite explain how that novel just came to her, or the person standing in front of a beautiful painting, pondering how to appreciate the transcendence of beautiful art in ways that don’t diminish it.
Because if that’s all it is, just an effective parlor trick that caused us to check out of reality for 8 episodes, than isn’t our response to it disproportional?
When I say I believe Stranger Things, I mean that I didn’t see it as a way of escaping reality, I see it as a glimpse in some small way, to an ultimate reality.
The Truth Of Fairy Tales
Earlier this year in the New York Times there was an article on J.R.R. Tolkien that gets at what I’m trying to say here.
The article was a short explanation of the life that Tolkien had lived and the faith behind it that compelled him to write the Lord of the Rings.
After fighting in World War I, Tolkien came back and began to process through the carnage and violence he had experienced, not by writing a war memoir like several of his friends, but instead by writing a fairy tale.
In a 1939 lecture, Tolkien even admits that his experience in the war awakened his love for writing fantasy, because some truths can only be reached by metaphor.
Here’s the article:
For Tolkien, there was a spiritual dimension: In the human soul’s struggle against evil, there was a force of grace and goodness stronger than the will to power. Even in a forsaken land, at the threshold of Mordor, Samwise Gamgee apprehends this: “For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: There was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.”
Good triumphs, yet Tolkien’s epic does not lapse into escapism. His protagonists are nearly overwhelmed by fear and anguish, even their own lust for power. When Frodo returns to the Shire, his quest at an end, he resembles not so much the conquering hero as a shellshocked veteran. Here is a war story, wrapped in fantasy, that delivers painful truths about the human predicament.
Tolkien used the language of myth not to escape the world, but to reveal a mythic and heroic quality in the world as we find it.
The problem with much of Protestant Christianity is that we have forgotten the power of Fairy Tales.
Because of our awareness that there are dark forces at work in the world, we have forgotten that not all magic is black magic. And in our rush to disenchant the world to rid of it of demons, we have lost our better angels.
To be fair, I get the pushback from my Christian friends who say, don’t want to celebrate Halloween. But Halloween didn’t come from the devil-worshippers, it came from a traditional Christian faith says that this is haunted and holy time of year.
It is a hallowed eve where we sense that whatever is on the other side of the curtain of death is pushing back. Where we remember that our friends and loved ones who have gone before us haven’t stopped existing.
There’s a reason that Stranger Things resonates with so many people.
And it’s not just because it’s a great story, it’s because (I think) it echoes some of our deepest hopes and desires.
We want to believe that there is a kind of friendship that will lay down it’s life for another. We want to believe that our deepest pain can somehow be redeemed into something good. We want to believe that there is a love that is stronger than death.
We want to believe that there is a good in this world and it’s worth fighting for.
And sometimes playing Dungeons and Dragons is how we keep that faith alive.