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Franzen’s blunted edge of belief and Tolkien’s defense of fantasy

Far from being maddeningly illogical, Christianity is the most reasonable fulfillment of all fantasies tilting toward the final Eucatastrophe.

(Image: Jamie Davies/Unsplash.com)

Recently the capacious novelist Jonathan Franzen disclosed an ongoing preoccupation with “the inescapable nature of religion.” This is welcome news from unexpected quarters, proof that (as Pope Benedict XVI puts it) “men today feel the form of faith as a burden and yet at the same time are inspired by the desire to believe, otherwise they would find it quite easy simply to drop the whole thing without more ado.” But then we discover that “religion,” for Franzen, is a synonym of the “fundamentally irrational basis for everything we think and do and espouse.”

In his National Book Award-winning novel The Corrections, an allusion to that irrational fantasy of Christian salvation appeared in the form of Aslan, a drug that “exerts a remarkable blocking effect on ‘deep’ and ‘morbid’ shame.” In his new novel Crossroads, shame shows up again, and, again, an allusion to Christian fantasy reverses the assertions of the old Adam.

Marion Hildebrandt, mother of the novel’s central family, recounts the best Christmas of her life. Traumatized by a bad breakup and abortion that are for her associated with the festive season, she narrates an early holy day with her husband, Russ, when they stayed in a hotel near the Sangre de Cristos in New Mexico. Snow-bound, Marion spied another family apparently also stranded by the weather, “And it was like those little girls were the family we were going to be like.” Outside, someone artfully arranged a sleigh, rigging lights and achieving a masterful illusion: the reindeer “looked like they were flying.” A cowboy donned a Santa suit and circled the lot, waving at all comers.

Though Marion had always thought the man in red was “scary and creepy,” she was smitten with the look on the stranded girls’ faces as they stared at the sleigh: “I don’t think I’ll ever see more pure wonder and joy.” The girls linger at the window, looking out and saying “‘Oh! Oh! Oh!’ It was just pure joy and credulity. Their utter belief in what they were seeing was just the most beautiful thing . . . It was like being reborn, just by watching those girls and their reaction.”

Andrew Lang argues that fairy stories (an omniscient father figure + flying reindeer + a North pole of plentitude surely qualifies) represent “the young age of man true to his early loves, and have his unblunted edge of belief, a fresh appetite for marvels.” J.R.R. Tolkien takes this notion to task, contending that for Lang the “teller of marvelous tales to children” must “trade on their credulity”; it is as if, given their lack of experience and attendant impaired ability to distinguish fiction from fact, children fall prey to fairy stories.

On the contrary, Tolkien corrects: enraptured young believers with “the heart of a child” need not necessitate “uncritical wonder” or “uncritical tenderness”; they are keen to see that justice is done, even in the fantasyland, and attentive to the “laws of that world.” Only if the Secondary World is consistent will belief be sustained. He also mourns the relegation of fantasy to the nursery, challenging the conventional myth that as we get older we become suspicious, wary, less willing to engage in “willing suspension of disbelief” in the presence of the fantastic. Tolkien really started to “escape” into the necessary enchantments of fantasy not during nursery school but around the time he took to the trenches.

The present tense Marion “basically didn’t believe in” what Tolkien would call the “eucatastrophe” of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and Jesus’ divinity remains “something of a question mark” for her. She is disenchanted and doubtful, so that memory of the credulous children has something of the fairy tale about it: she is like the elder who reads her children fables in what Tolkien calls a “somewhat tired, shabby, or sentimental state of mind”; because she cannot become enchanted herself, she can suspend disbelief only through concerted effort. “Suspension of disbelief,” says Tolkien, is a kind of “subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make believe,” or in cases when we try to “find what virtue we can in the work of an art that has for us failed.”

Many years prior to her enchantment with the children, Marion was institutionalized on Christmas day, a painful reality she has wholly concealed from her husband Russ. Maybe in part on account of his ignorance, he voices a very different reading of the reindeer: “He said he was disgusted by the parents—that they were encouraging their children to worship a false idol. That they were lying to their kids and neglecting the true meaning of Christmas, which had nothing to do with Santa Claus.”

Stupefied by his seriousness, Marion goes out of her mind; seeing the children had been for her a “kind of magical rebirth—something truly Christian, by the way”: a vehicle for forgiveness and healing. For her, as for Franzen, Christian truths are as irrational as flying reindeer; they equivocate between what Tolkien calls Secondary Belief (when someone tells you a story which you know is made up but you temporarily believe it anyhow) and Primary Belief (when someone tells you a story and you know it really happened).

“It was only an illusion”; Marion could see that well enough, “but because it was only an illusion I could be an innocent little girl again myself.” She screamed at Russ to the point of scaring him, furious that he had arrested her fantasy. But hers was a fantasy on several levels: conscious of the illusion as illusion, she was cut off from that deep cleansing that can only come from enchanted faith. The quickness with which she loses grip on forgiveness reveal the sentimental core of her borrowed belief.

Franzen is right. Religion is natural—inescapable—for humans. Tolkien is right, too. Fantasy is a “natural human activity.” But fantasy, Tolkien tells us, “does not destroy or even insult Reason; it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity.” Rather, the “keener” the reason, the “better the fantasy will make.”

The same holds true for religion. Far from being maddeningly illogical, Christianity is the most reasonable fulfillment of all fantasies tilting toward the final Eucatastrophe. The “joy of deliverance” won by Christ’s resurrection is not a mere sentiment but the result of Primary Belief: our response to encountering a story that we know really happened. This belief bestows knowledge rather than suspending it. It is not the same as provisional knowledge, as when we say “I believe such and such to be the case, but I don’t really know.”

As Pope Benedict XVI clarifies, “when we say ‘I believe you,’ the word acquires quite another meaning,” something closer to “I trust you”’ or even “I rely on you.” This kind of belief brings with it “a certainty that is different from but no less than the certainty that comes from calculation and experiment.” This kind of belief brings with it “a disclosure of reality” rooted in the knowledge that our salvation from shame and death many times merited is eminently supra-rational.

Crossroads: A Novel
by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021
Hardcover, 592 pages


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About Joshua Hren 5 Articles
Joshua Hren is founder and editor of Wiseblood Books and co-founder of the MFA at the University of St. Thomas, Houston. He has published numerous essays and poems in such journals as First Things, America, Public Discourse and LOGOS. Joshua's books include Middle-earth and the Return of the Common Good: J.R.R. Tolkien and Political Philosophy (Cascade 2018), the story collections This Our Exile (Angelico 2018) and In the Wine Press (Angelico 2020), as well as How to Read (and Write) Like a Catholic (TAN 2021) and a book of poems First Things, Last Things, and Other Lost Causes (Little Gidding 2021). Joshua's novel, Infinite Regress, and his theological-aesthetical manifesto Contemplative Realism, are forthcoming in 2022.

7 Comments

  1. The “New Things” (rerum novarum) of socialism, modernism, and the New Age lead necessarily to the conclusion that religion is irrational because it rejects reason and the natural law, which is the starting point for all religion. As was declared by the Fathers of the First Vatican Council, stated as the first article in the Oath Against Modernism, and reiterated in §2 of Humani Generis, “Absolutely speaking, knowledge of God’s existence and of the natural law written in the hearts of all men may be known by the force and light of human reason alone.”

    With the advent of the New Things, religion became solely a matter of personal opinion, and became social rather than spiritual, as Émile Durkheim declared, turning religion into the group’s worship of itself. God became a divinized society.

    In consequence, people with a modicum of common sense see that what many people accept as “religion” is merely glorified personal opinion, and reject it as arbitrary nonsense.

  2. C.S. Lewis writes about the suspension of disbelief, in his own life, in his “Surprised by Joy.” He was reading Maeterlinck, “a responsible adult (not a Christian) who believed in a world behind, or around, the material world.” He then writes:

    “But a drop of disturbing doubt fell into my Materialism. It was merely a ‘Perhaps.’ Perhaps (oh joy!) there was, after all, ‘something else’: and (oh reassurance!) perhaps it had nothing to do with Christian Theology. And as soon as I paused on that ‘Perhaps,’ inevitably all the old Occultist lore, and all the old excitement which the Matron of Chartres had innocently aroused in me [as a child], rose out of the past. Now the fat was in the fire with a vengeance [….]” As he looked back “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.”

    And, then, after the writings of Chesterton, the discovery of Tolkien, and finally from an atheist—the relentless possibility of the Incarnation and Redemption…

    “Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. ‘Rum thing,’ he went on. ‘All that stuff of Frazer’s about a Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.’”

  3. Tolkien really started to escape into the necessary enchantments of fantasy not during nursery school but around the time he took to the trenches (Hren). Daydreaming is often an artful wish to rise above the undesirable, what doesn’t satisfy. Hren captures Tolkien’s inspirational source for myth. Isn’t a vivacious religiosity wishful? Desire has many facets, as hope a theological virtue. Frequently, there’s the imaginative render of what took place in the Gospels that never happened, found in heartfelt visions of saints. Although what may be real is the source of that inspiration mysteriously received with the gift of faith. The Apostle did say faith is the evidence of what we hope for. Augustine later Aquinas will say if we desire what can’t be seen we already possess what we desire. How so? A mystery that is loved secretly.

  4. People who think religion is irrational by definition are not very bright and I wouldn’t waste my time talking about or to them. Smile and pass by!

  5. The likeness and image of God seems to contain a marvelous portal to Eternity known as “imagination.” I for one cherish it and long for those rare gems when its “theology” is explored.

  6. What is regarded as fantasy in THE LORD OF THE RINGS must be compared to the signs, wonders and miracles that are reported to really have happened, in Scripture. I read the Douay-Rheims Bible cover-to-cover at the same time that I first read THE LORD OF THE RINGS. I read ten chapters of the Old Testament, and ten chapters of the New Testament every morning, and then twenty pages of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. I was astounded that at that rate, I completed the reading of the New Testament on the same day that I completed the first book (THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS) of the Ballantine paper back edition of Tolkien’s trilogy. Then, the same week that I completed the reading of the Old Testament, I came to complete the reading of the last book of Tolkien’s trilogy. This was at a clip of twenty chapters per day of the Old Testament, and twenty pages of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, since I had already completed my reading of the New Testament — which, of course, is shorter. The British Tolkien Society published my report of this in their bi-monthly publication, “Amon Hen.” Tolkien, whose foster father was a Catholic priest, would have used the Douay-Rheims Bible while growing up.

  7. My report appeared in “Amon Hen: The Bulletin of the Tolkien Society,” #230, July, 2011.

    There are 26O chapters in the Douay-Rheims Bible New Testament, and 509 pages of story in the Ballantine paperback edition of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. (Both texts = 26 days of reading.)

    There are 1,074 chapters in the Douay-Rheims Bible’s Old Testament. There are 433 and 37O pages of story in the second and third books of Tolkien’s trilogy, in the Ballantine edition. (Had 11 pages begun on day 26 of the second book.) 433 + 37O = 803 minus 11 pages = 792 pages. 2O x 4O days = 8OO. 1,074 chapters – 26O (while reading first book) = 814 chapters. Twenty chapters per day = 41 days.

    This involves reading the Scriptures. Is someone going to tell me that this was just a coincidence that this was revealed?

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