Lego Bricks and Apologetics: Imagination, Art, and Sub-Creation – Part 3

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Lego_bricks-225x300Now that we’ve covered a fair amount of ground about the imagination and Tolkien’s idea of Sub-Creation, in this installment we’ll put Some more of the pieces together in order to form a valuable tool for tender-minded apologetics. So, what do imagination, Lego bricks, and Sub-Creation have to do with apologetics?

At first thought, the most natural place for apologists to run to would be the idea of teleology. There is a purpose, an end or goal, to the use of building toys such as Lego bricks: there is both creative imaginative play as well as instructions and design. One can see the Lego watch sitting on display and discern that there must have been a Lego watch-maker. These kinds of apologetic methods are useful tools in the apologetic task. But I think there is more to be said about imagination, sub-creation, and apologetics.

Once again, Tolkien’s writing provides a valuable insight. One of the geniuses of Tolkien’s writing is his unparalleled ability to point out the extraordinary in the ordinary. Hobbits are a perfect example of this. Tolkien is able to achieve this by means of three facets of good fantasy story telling: Recovery, Escape, and Consolation.

Gandalf-1-350x250Briefly put, Recovery is regaining a proper view of the world we live in. The potency of the written word helped Tolkien to regain a proper view of the world. In other words, literature (art) helped him to understand reality. Escapist is often the charge critics lay at the feet of those who read fantasy. Tolkien, however, saw Escape as a benefit. Why should a man who is unjustly imprisoned not want to be set free? Good fairy stories, Tolkien says, provide us with a view beyond the noise of this world, the hunger, poverty, illness, and death. They give us a glimpse of freedom. This is where Lewis and Tolkien agreed immensely; that good stories pointed them to the true story of the Gospel. Lewis’s “stabs of joy” were similar to the escape Tolkien describes. Finally, Consolation is the happy ending, or as Tolkien called it, the eucatastrophe; a good catastrophe. This was the sudden turn of events in the story, like when Gandalf reappears in Mirkwood or the Eagles rescue Frodo and Samwise from Mt. Doom.

Through his storytelling, Tolkien gives us glimpses of the Primary World within his secondary sub-created world of Middle-Earth. The connection is found in the eucatastrophe. Tolkien found similar elements of fantasy and storytelling in the true story and historical events of the Gospel. Here is how he worded it in his essay. And I quote him at length here.

Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it...The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful fantasy can be thus explained as a sudden glimpse of underlying reality or truth. It is not only a consolation for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to the question, ‘Is it true?’

...The Gospels contain...a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories. The birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the incarnation. 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 is true, and none which so many skeptical 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 wrath.

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history...the joy would have been exactly that same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy story gives: such has the very taste of primary truth. It looks forward (or backward) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused. [1]

Tolkien summarizes well the connection between his own writing, sub-creating, and the Scriptures, the overlap between his own imaginative literary world, and the historical events that happen in the Primary World in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

This is the defense of imaginative apologetics: to capture the mind, but also the heart. To testify to the truth, but also to demonstrate that it is meaningful. To teach and to delight. To give us objective hope and consolation, as well as a joy that each person can call their own as we do when we sing good hymns such as “God’s own child, I gladly say it, I am baptized into Christ.”

In other words, simply because the Gospel is a true story does not mean it cannot also be told beautifully. The imagination is a gift from God that can and should be used in service to the Gospel. Tolkien and Lewis also understood that imagination and Sub-Creation are servants, hand-maidens to the Gospel story. One can see it in their writings. Certainly, The Chronicles of Narnia is more overt at “stealing past watchful dragons.” But Tolkien is a master at the art of imagination and sub-creation nonetheless. And he uses it in service to what he called “Primary Art” or the “Primary World.”

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What Lewis and Tolkien, and others have done in the fantasy genre, and in literature on the whole, could be done elsewhere by others. Part of their success comes, of course, from their own imagination and creativity. Thankfully, their writing is contagious. When reading their works the reader’s imagination and creativity is awakened and set free as well. Those who desire to be good storytellers and good apologists of the faith should spend time reading and surrounding themselves with good books by good writers. One good story leads to another.

That’s what I was doing as a little boy playing in my room with Lego bricks. I was sub-creating. I was doing what Tolkien had done with words in the form of interlocking plastic bricks. It wasn’t, of course, the same degree or quality, but I was using the same ingredients: Imagination and Art.

Pieces led to imagination. Imagination led to building. Building led to storytelling. You see, children don’t simply build stuff and let it sit around to gather dust. No, when children build they are sub-creators. Their work is full of imagination and art. (I love watching our three-year old daughter Zoe doing this. It’s fascinating and delightful). Along with their creations, they develop a story. In fact they’ll tell you the story too, even if you’re not particularly interested in hearing it at the time. (Talk about a good lesson in evangelism and apologetics!).

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories, in Tree and Leaf. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001. p.71-73.