Every Mystery is a Story

I have a guilty pleasure that I don’t think I’ve ever written about, here on my blog. Well, here goes: I’m a fan of Neil Gaiman.

Years ago somebody told me I simply had to read the Sandman comics. At the time I just filed that recommendation away for future reference (I’m slowly making my way through them now). On a trip to England about fifteen years ago now, when a friend learned that I had never read Good Omens he immediately went to a bookstore and bought a copy, which he gave to me to read on my flight home. Which I did, and I laughed all the way across the Atlantic (my apologies to whomever was sitting next to me).

Then movies like Stardust and (especially) Coraline made me pay closer attention to Gaiman and his unique blend of myth, fantasy and just a touch of horror. Normally I don’t have much taste for horror at all, but Gaiman is such a skillful storyteller that even the icky stuff in his work I find insightful and thought-provoking.

Gaiman’s writing appeals to the same part of me that loves Narnia and Hogwarts: my appreciation for stories that deal in archetypes and the imagination, that recognize there’s more to life than meets the eye even if sometimes what’s lurking in the dark is actually kinda scary.

While no one would ever mistake Gaiman for a “Christian author,” religion does crop up, but usually in a manner that many people of faith might find discomfiting. Good Omens — which you may know from the 2019 BBC/Amazon TV adaptation — is a playfully flippant, but ultimately warm-hearted, reimagining of the Christian apocalypse, replete with evil nuns, the Antichrist as a boy, and the four horseman of the apocalypse keeping up with modern times by riding motorcycles. Literal-minded Christians might look askance at the story’s central premise: that an angel and a demon might join forces to thwart the apocalypse — but beneath the story’s seeming impiety, it in fact offers some meaningful insights into religion and spirituality for those who watch with an open mind.

Perhaps more objectionable to some would be Gaiman’s short story, “The Problem of Susan” (found in his book Fragile Things), which reflects on the fate of the character from the Narnia books who is “left behind” because she preferred lipstick and nylons to the stories of Aslan. Whether Lewis was profiling the sin of vanity or displaying a subconscious misogyny is open for debate, but Gaiman caps this story with a violent/erotic dream sequence that might be too offensive — and bereft of redemption — for many Christians.

Mythology and Meaning

I read Neil Gaiman neither because of nor in spite of his irreligiosity (or irreverence), but rather because of his ability to weave imaginative dream-worlds that are neither beholden to, nor constrained by, the ordinary neoplatonic cosmology which shapes the mystical and contemplative writing I spend most of my time reading (whether such writing originated in the twelfth century or the twenty-first). As Christians we may not like to admit it, but our world-view is as “mythical” as anything found in the fantasy aisles of your neighborhood used bookstore.

In one of his letters, C. S. Lewis once said of Christianity, “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.” This was the conclusion he reached after struggling with the fact that the myth of a dying-and-rising god is found in many mythologies around the world. He wrote that letter in 1931, and many critics today might want to argue about what “really happened” means — or doesn’t mean. As I have noted elsewhere, myth has a power to influence and even transform its listeners, even when the stories of myth clearly have no foundation in history.

Good modernist that he was, for Lewis it was necessary for something to have “really happened” before he could accept its authority in his life. A postmodernist, trying to balance the authority of faith with the reality of historical criticism, might say “Can we ever truly know what ‘really’ happened? Of course not. But we can measure how whatever did happen — and certainly something did, for the followers of Christ were motivated enough to launch a worldwide spiritual movement — and, perhaps most important of all, we can enter into the story for ourselves and see what really happens to us, when we open our hearts to that story.”

J. R. R. Tolkien once noted about The Lord of Rings that “the tale grew in the telling.” Isn’t that the way of all myth? Think about how the story of Christ is more complex, more nuanced, today than it was even two hundred years ago. The foundational text (i.e., the New Testament) is the same, but we have surrounded that text with liturgy, folk customs, music, art, drama, film — just consider the story of the Nativity. Can we imagine telling that story without all the trappings of Advent and Christmas? Yet much of what we think of as “traditional” customs associated with the celebration of the nativity only go back to the Victorian age.

Or consider the concept of hell — Jon Sweeney’s insightful book Inventing Hell explores how so much of our cultural understanding of the punishment that God will mete out to the damned comes not from the Biblical, but from later sources — like Dante’s Divine Comedy.

A good story helps us to make sense of the world we live in. But our stories also shape how we relate to things, whether for good or ill. There’s a buzz among Beatles fans right now, because Peter Jackson (who directed the film version of The Lord of the Rings — man, Tolkien is all over this blog post!) has been commissioned to create a new documentary called Get Back which will be, in essence, a new version of the last Beatles film, Let it Be. Let it Be is a somber film because it zeroes in on the conflicts within the band, conflicts that would contribute to their split just a few months later. But Jackson reviewed over 50 hours of unreleased footage, and has decided to tell a different story — emphasizing that even with the tensions between the band members, there was still plenty of joy and camaraderie between them as they made music together.

Same event, same basic story, but told in two different ways. Which version is the most “true”? The answer, of course, is yes.

Imagination and Insight

All this is to say: the reason why writers like Neil Gaiman, or Tolkien, or Lewis, or J.K. Rowling, sell millions of books is the same reason why movies based on Marvel Comics continue to be blockbusters: stories that ignite the human imagination, that invite us into the mythic space where anything seems possible, help us to know who we are and how we fit in to a mysterious and sometimes challenging universe.

And while I write spiritual nonfiction and am inspired primarily by contemplatives who lived centuries ago, I like to read books by the likes of Gaiman because his stories give my imagination a workout — even when I might  forcefully disagree with the spiritual implications of what he has to say.

In the contemplative world, perhaps the best guide to encountering the Mystery of God through the stories of our imagination is St. Ignatius of Loyola, whose Spiritual Exercises is based on the idea of using your imagination to encounter Christ — here and now, in your own heart, your own mind’s eye. If our imagination can create a sense of meaning and a framework for interpreting the world as we encounter it, doesn’t it only stand to reason that the Spirit (who, after all, is in our hearts) can use our imagination to inspire us or surprise us?

In Ignatian prayer, we imagine ourselves encountering Christ during one of the stories from the Gospels. Ignatius encourages his directees to use their imagination as vividly as possible. Imagine being in Christ’s presence — and then imagine having a conversation with Jesus. What would you say to him? What questions would you ask? For that matter, what would he say to you and what questions would he pose to you?

Our imaginations are not infallible, so anything we experience in this type of prayer needs to be subject to discernment. But don’t let that caveat dissuade you from exploring the mystery of Christ through he storylines of your imagination.  You might be amazed at the unexpected insights awaiting you.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.