Have you ever heard believing the story of Jesus from the Bible described as being like believing in fairy stories?
It’s a common objection to the faith in the supernatural that the Christian story requires of us. This story boils down to belief that we are participants in the supernatural story that “God is with us;” and that we participate as we follow our king, Jesus.
There’s a common objection from Christians, too, that ‘fairy stories’ are a bunch of nonsense that make kids believe in magic, and evil, and that we should just focus on the facts. Christians have, in the name of our faith, sought to censor, burn, or banish fairy stories, or we’ve been quick to dismiss them as being just for children, or rather, not for our children.
But we can’t escape the sense that our story, the story of God orchestrating history so that Jesus could arrive and defeat sin, death, and Satan (who is described as a dragon), has something magical going on.
The thing is… deep down… we all want ‘fairy stories’ to be true. We all want magic to be part of the everyday, and Christianity, the Christian story, answers that longing in the way not many other stories do.
It’s very recent (and very limited to the western world) to be suspicious of the belief in magic or the supernatural. People almost everywhere, and everywhen, except here in the modern west believe existence is enchanted. Here in the west we’ve flattened our view of reality to just the natural and the catch is, we all miss magic, or enchantment. That’s the theory of a philosopher named Charles Taylor who wrote a book called The Secular Age. He says we now believe the world is a bit like a machine, that’s our ‘story’ and it has no room for magic. But we all feel like this story is missing something; he suggests that thing is ‘enchantment’ — he says the machine-story is ‘haunted’… that we want magic.
One way we try to live in this machine reality, while missing magic, is to make technology that feels magical. Technology gives us the ability to shape our world, and our existence, so that we’re in control like the sorcerers in our fairy stories. It’s a machine-like solution to the longing of our heart for reality to be something more than matter. And that’s where the new Telstra ad kicks in. An ad from a company that deals in technology, but sells technology by selling hope for a better life, and a better world. It’s worth being aware, as you watch TV (and this ad) that advertisers sell products by telling stories.
It opens with the line from science-fiction story-teller Arthur C. Clarke that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’… and the ad says:
“We live in a magical world. We never have to wake up from our dreams. Our restless minds now free to wonder at the wonder of technology; at the magic we’ve created. Possibilities are like stars now infinite constellations fuelled by pure imagination; leading to one destination – to you, to thrive.”
Telstra’s tagline on the video on YouTube says:
“The magic of technology is all around us – allowing us to do wondrous things. It can put us in two places at once. Breathe life into machines. Fueled by imagination, the magic of technology creates infinite possibilities, helping every one of us to truly thrive.”
Telstra’s story-tellers have tapped into the truth that modern-day atheists are quick to dismiss, that we want to believe in magic. That we’re wired to believe in magic; they think the answer to this hard-wired longing is wireless, where the Christian story offers a different hope. It’s a hope that says like the cosmos, we’re not a ‘machine,’ we don’t exist in a purely natural world. The natural world exists within the supernatural. Or as Paul puts it in Athens when telling the story of human existence; we ‘natural’ people don’t give breath and life to machines, the supernatural God gives life and breath to us… and it’s this breath, and this reality where God creates and holds all things together, that plants this desire for more in us, that has our hearts reaching for more (for him) because “in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28).
Our hearts long for this to be true; we are looking for a story that satisfies our longing for magic. We want fairy stories to be true; which is why we love them as kids before we’re ‘educated’ out of belief by the story that we, ourselves, are the gods who breathe life and magic into the world via our machines.
The best tellings of the secular story don’t have much room for this sort of desire, nor do they understand the story the Bible tells about God’s relationship to the natural — the supernatural and natural aren’t universes in conflict; every rock, every cell, every star, every breathe of life in this world is given by God, and the nature of natural things reflects the supernatural. That’s why the Psalmists can sing songs that talk about the natural world that say things like:
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”
“In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun. It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth.” — Psalm 19
The sun isn’t just a ball of hot stuff; a distant star; it is a thing God controls, and gives, that sustains life in this world by its warmth but also testifies to the magnitude and nature of God.
Atheist philosopher A.C Grayling is one of those who wants to dismiss belief in more than the natural world as the equivalent of belief in fairy stories as though that’s a bad thing. He sometimes calls himself an ‘a-fairyist’ because “this properly implies that there is nothing supernatural in the universe – no fairies or goblins, angels, demons, gods or goddesses.”
No magic. No enchantment. Nothing to answer the longing of our heart for something more, except, perhaps, technology and science. It’s a soul-crushing story. And man-made technology can’t deliver on the desires of our god-made hearts. Technology over-promises and under-delivers. You just have to walk into a crowded space full of people alone-together; captivated by smartphone screens and desiring to be anywhere-but-here, or look at how technology is used to make us more efficient killers, or more brain-addled addicts, to see that technology crushes hope and desire as much as it might answer them.
The story of the Gospel answers our longing for meaning beyond simply the natural; in Jesus, the fully divine, fully human, hero we our desire for life to be enchanted is met with the one who shows us how the natural and supernatural overlap and are completely inter-woven, rather than separate streams of reality. In Jesus, Immanuel, God truly is with us in our experience of life in this world (Matthew 1:; and he promises to be with us, enchanting our reality, and filling it with supernatural purpose, until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20) when our experience of the natural and supernatural as overlapping, interwoven realities will become even more real.
Two great writers of fairy stories J.R.R Tolkien, and C.S Lewis, wrote stories out of their conviction that fairy stories aren’t just for children; that they answer a deep longing of our hearts. Their works of fiction or fantasy are enduring and popular (and have become movies), but both Narnia and Middle Earth were created by men who believed that the ultimate fairy story had already been told on earth; and that this story, and its happy ending, are the answer to the deep longing of our hearts. In their writing about fairy story (Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories, and Lewis’s God In The Dock) they sum up why we, as Christians, shouldn’t fear being accused of believing in fairy stories, or magic, but should rather celebrate this, and invite others to take up the story that answers the longing of our hearts.
“The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle…”— CS Lewis, God In The Dock
“The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance… This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.” — J.R.R Tolkien, On Fairy Stories