Fairy Tale of the Gospel

How will this age be remembered?

Will our descendants even know who the Beatles were and why they were so important to us? Will 2012 mean anything to them; will they forget what made it so important to us?

Our descendants probably will forget. Because what makes 2012 so important to us is that we’re living in it.

The way we remember the past is by fitting it in with our present.

Do you think the Middle Ages were named by the people living in them? “Our species is just biding its time til the Renaissance starts. It’s gonna take about a thousand years, so all my family and all of my kids and all of my kids’ kids are just placeholders between Rome’s fall and Michelangelo’s art.”

Nah, the jerks in the Renaissance smugly christened the previous thousand years, “The Middle Ages.” And so will our descendants organize their memories of this age.

What will the people of the future think of this age?

To answer that, you have to think about what their lives will be like. Because they’ll need to fit the record of our accomplishments and failures into their present worldview. Maybe they’ll watch historical documentaries on Space TV that detail the Computer Age or the Space Age or some other name they could give to our time.

What if what I believe is true?

What if Jesus does come back? And the world does end? What if all the Christians do live on a new and perfect earth?

What will our current age be remembered as in that case?

I’m guessing we won’t think of 2012 as the year of big summer blockbusters. “2012 was the year The Avengers movie came out.” We’ll have to organize our memories of this time according to the present situation we’d be living in.

In light of this:

…in light of this, how might this time period be remembered?

All the people that Jesus came to rescue will one day rise in the same way. And they will live in the perfect kingdom he’s built for them, with himself as king. That will be the present and so that will be the lens we use to see all the ages that preceded it.

These years before Christ’s physical reign on earth will be remembered as the Age of Salvation. This is the time that it’s possible to come into his kingdom before it’s finished. This is the time he’s set aside for all of the rebellious people to admit their rebellion against him and join him. This is the age of being rescued.

The Age of Salvation’s very title indicates that this age is marked by the possibility of being saved. Which means that there is the possibility of not being saved also. Just as fairly, this time may be remembered as the Age of Ignoring, as we’re able now to ignore the kingship of God.

When Jesus returns and claims this world as the setting for his physical kingdom, every knee will bow to him and every tongue will confess that he is lord. Not everyone will be in this kingdom as princes and princesses, but everyone will be confessing that Christ is King. Even the people outside.

The Age of Ignoring allows us to be naturalists, denying everything we don’t see. The world of the supernatural is only willfully invisible to us. We can see it if we want to. Jesus came to earth, showing us how to see his world, telling us that he’s going to let us in.

Buechner says it better:

Here and there and not just in books we catch glimpses of a world of once upon a time and they lived happily ever after, of a world where there is a wizard to give courage and a heart, an angel with a white stone that has written on it our true and secret name, and it is so easy to dismiss it all that it is hardly worth bothering to do. It is sentimentality. It is wishful thinking. It is escapism. It is dodging the issue and whistling in the dark and childish. And amen we have to say to the whole cheerless litany because there is not one of us who does not know it by heart and because there is not one of us either who does not know that all these things are part of the truth of it. But if the world of the fairy tale and our glimpses of it here and there are only a dream, they are one of the most haunting and powerful dreams that the world has ever dreamed and no world more than our twentieth-century one.”

– Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, p 84


We have these dreams of the world beyond and we’re able to ignore them. One expression of our desire to see this other world, this world of supernatural things, is by telling fairy tales.

I don’t mean only the fairy tales of the Grimm Brothers and Snow White and princesses in towers. I submit that our desire to see this other world is expressed by any fairy tales – Luke Skywalker, Superman, Captain Kirk and Mr Spock, Green Lantern, Indiana Jones, King Arthur, and Doctor Who all speak to our culture’s desire for the beyond. The just-out-of-reach. The too-good-to-be-true.

Our interest in another world is not proven only by fairy tales. Even the words we use in everyday talk reveal it. Think of adjectives we use when we want to give a positive review of something. We say, “That’s fantastic!” or “That’s amazing!”

Wonderful
Astounding
Marvelous
Awesome
Super
Incredible
Miraculous
Astonishing
Stupendous
Wondrous

Even our words reveal our desire for the above, the different, the impossible.

We don’t say, “That dinner was reasonable.” Or, “I enjoyed that hike. The view was plausible.”

No! When we enjoy something, it becomes transcendent. Movies are okay, until we see one we like and then they’re not possible. Food is okay until we enjoy a meal and then it’s described in terms so glowing it’s like it couldn’t even exist on this plane of reality.

Why the heck do we talk like that? Why do we tell these stories over and over and over and over again?!

This Age of Ignoring is also the Age of Salvation. We’re going to judge this age according to the world we’ll be living in at the time. Who’s going to win? Whose kingdom is going to reign?

The supernatural God whose gifts to his subjects are too good to be true! It will be in the world of God that we’ll judge this age. We’re going to see this age as the time that he was bringing people to himself. We’re going to see all the ways he was using to bring people to himself. He didn’t stop at coming and telling people – he died and rose again. He didn’t stop at that – he sent his people over the whole planet to tell other people about his coming. He didn’t stop at sending the church to tell people – he put a desire for the unbelievable, for the incredible, for the wonderful into all of us, by way of our stories.

And we get lost in that. We feel this pull toward the supernatural or the too-good-to-be-true and we guess that it means something else. We guess that our existence isn’t an impossible roll of the dice and therefore the product of a thinking and creating God. So we spend millions of dollars to prove it’s not God, but some one-in-a-million mutation cycle that brought us here. And we guess that it’s too prefect that the thing we need most of all is water and so it falls from the sky. So we say it’s only the natural process of fronts and air temperature. Sure it is, but why is that, of all things, the natural thing? Isn’t it just too perfect?

Why do we spend vast sums of money to go to the mooon and Mars? You hear all kinds of solemn talk about learning this and that from it, about beating the Russians to the draw, about establishing colonies for one purpose or another; but anybody who knows anything, any child, at least the child in any of us, knows that we go shooting off into space because just possibly, impossibly, the Wizard of Oz is there.”

– Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale, p. 85

It’s easy now to scoff. “Seriously? The Wizard of Oz is your best defense of the gospel?”

Well…kinda, yeah. We tell the stories of Oz and Captain Kirk and Superman to children. We stop telling them to ourselves when we’re adults because we’ve grown out of it. How exactly have we grown out of it? Is it because we’ve matured…or is it because we’ve grown tired?

A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

– GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy, chapter 4

When Jesus is asked who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven, he reaches into the crowd and pulls out a child with a cheek full of bubble gum and eyes full of whatever a child’s eyes are full of and says unless you can become like that, don’t bother to ask.” – Buechner

This Age of Salvation/Ignoring will end. The king will return to claim what is his and remove what is not. But all will see that he is the true king. All will understand why they’ve been telling these stories of heroes and villains and magic and the impossible. And they will see all the ways that the magic was inviting them. Those that believed the stories will stay and those that demanded common sense will be removed.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is too good for common sense. Common sense demands we die for our crimes. The Gospel has the One Righteous Man die for us, so we can live forever. It’s ridiculous. It’s wonderful. It’s the greatest fairy tale of them all.

But the whole point of the fairy tale of the Gospel is, of course, that he is the king in spite of everything. The frog turns out to be the prince, the ugly duckling the swan, the little gray man who asks for bread the great magician with the power of life and death in his hands, and though the steadfast tin soldier falls into the flames, his love turns out to be fireproof. There is no less danger and darkness in the Gospel than there is in the Brothers Grimm, but beyond and above all there is the joy of it, this tale of a light breaking into the world that not even the darkness can overcome…That is the Gospel, this meeting of darkness and light and the final victory of light. That is the fairy tale of the Gospel with, of course, the one crucial difference from all other fairy tales, which is that the claim made for it is that it is true, that it not only happened once upon a time but has kept on happening ever since and is happening still.

– Buechner again.


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4 thoughts on “Fairy Tale of the Gospel

  1. Nice post, and great reading list! I love Buechner’s stuff. His printed sermons were a major influence on me as I was developing as a preacher. (Somewhat disappointingly, when I once heard him in real life, I was underwhelmed – I think he may be a preacher who “reads better” – but I did get to shake his hand and tell him how much his books had meant to me; and he seemed very genuinely surprised someone would tell him that, and thanked me very humbly – even though he must hear that all the time – so it was still a nice enounter.)

    Like you (and like Buechner), I’m convinced that the “fairy tales” (in the broadest sense, as you have defined them here) we tell ourselves are expressions of our yearning for God. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” was a big part of my coming to that conclusion – are you familiar with it?

    The only wondering I’m left with is, once Christ returns and the kingdom is fully realized, whether we will spend any time thinking back on the last days at all. My hunch and hope is we’ll all be too captivated by the presence of God, going “farther up and further in,” as Lewis puts it in the Narnia books…

    Glad to now know about your blog – looking forward to following it!

    • Thanks so much for reading!
      I am aware of Tolkien’s essay, but was not able to read it in time for this post. I’ve vaguely planned on responding to it in a future post.

      That’s a good thought about our attentions being so consumed by Christ’s presence in the future kingdom that we’ll not think back on this time. I think you’re probably right about that – but I still wonder.

      Of course, the Bible is pretty mum on the topic.
      I imagine we’ll wistfully recall a time and place that was different – we won’t remember exactly how it was different or exactly what changed. But we’ll know that the scars on our King have something to do with it. And we’ll recall words like sin and death…not entirely sure of their definitions. Like children running their hands along their mother’s nose, realizing they too have a nose, just like mom’s – we’ll run our fingers along the scars on our King’s hands, wondering why hands are smooth.

      • “Like children running their hands along their mother’s nose, realizing they too have a nose, just like mom’s – we’ll run our fingers along the scars on our King’s hands, wondering why hands are smooth” – Wow, that’s a beautiful image! Amen to that!

        I am preaching on the “doubting Thomas” text next month. Maybe, with your permission and crediting you, I could use that image in my sermon somewhere?

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