Tag Archives: architecture

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What might a ‘Christian aesthetic’ look like? And why bother?

Late last year I was listening to the podcast Cultivated (one of my favourites), and about halfway through this episode the panelists started talking about what a ‘Christian aesthetic’ might look like.

“That makes me think of a question that I’ve been thinking about a lot, that I’d love to talk about and explore, is: what would a Christian aesthetic look like, if you go beyond the content level, which is often how we talk about these things, right? Something is Christian if it tells a story from the Bible, or has a Christian theme or message. Protestants are prone to that kind of word/propositional orientation anyway, less than Catholics, who are oriented more towards the visual. What would it look like to think about an aesthetic, a form, that’s ‘Christian’, certainly in architecture there are certain forms or styles that we could point to and say ‘that’s a  ‘Christian’ aesthetic,’ that’s a form that has been created and has always been associated with Christianity …” — Brett McCracken, Cultivated Podcast

It’s been something of an ‘earworm’ or a ‘brainworm’ for me since, coupled with my love of the idea that when Christians did start building their own buildings, they incorporated the cross into the floor plan, and put the highest point of the ceiling above the intersection, so that the space itself represented the story of the Gospel, and that Jesus death serves as the bridge between earth and heavens, that will ultimately bring heaven to earth. That’s a ‘certain’ sort of form — a provision of a habitat that helps us embody the Christian story from the ground up (though for most of us, who are architecturally illiterate, and textually literate, this sort of thing might be meaningless — greater actual literacy is not a reason to be illiterate when it comes to aesthetic stuff though). I love that idea — while also pondering if the very decision to own public buildings, rather than meeting in homes, was a good move (aesthetically or ‘formally’). I say this having been pastoring a church for four years that has now met in a rented public theatre, an empty ‘box-like’ room, and now a church auditorium with all the modern bells, whistles, screens and lighting — each ‘space’ has shaped the life and experiences of our community and our gatherings in profound ways.

The Cultivated conversation explores questions of form, or a Christian ‘aesthetic’ when it comes to Christians making art, I’m interested in considering what it looks like to ask these forms in our architecture — our use of space both public and private, and social architecture. How we create a ‘stage’ or a habitat where we embody the Gospel story as ‘characters’ and form habits.

One of the ‘modernist’ assumptions that ends up shaping ethics (how we live) is that we are consumers in a machine-like environment, that things have utility, which led to a corresponding rise in utilitarian ethics and pragmatism, and through all this, we Christians in our modernist framework have tended towards making pragmatic rather than aesthetic choices about space (and even art). Here’s a cracking quote from Karen Swallow Prior, from that same Cultivated podcast episode.

“We’ve inherited a lot from the Victorian age and we don’t even realise it. We often don’t even distinguish between Victorianism and Biblical Christianity. And one of them is utilitarianism. And so we have undue emphasis on the idea that things must be useful, that they must have a purpose, in order to be valuable, of course, you know, when we apply that to human lives we know what that results in, but I think that’s part of what makes us uneasy with art, that, you know, as Oscar Wilde said, ‘all art is utterly useless’ right, and what he meant by that is it’s just there to be enjoyed, it doesn’t have to fulfil a purpose, which of course is a sort of a purpose. Modern Christianity is uncomfortable with something that is just there to be enjoyed and take pleasure in… we think we have to be on mission all the time and fulfil some sort of purpose” — Karen Swallow Prior, Cultivated Podcast

Here’s the thing though; art does ‘serve a purpose’ — it is part of the ‘backcloth’ of life, part of the ‘environment’ we live in or the habitat we inhabit, art-as-artefacts are part of what forms a ‘culture’, and so art shapes our seeing of the world both directly as we engage with it, and subtly (by being part of our ‘environment’). And if we bring in my favourite academic discipline — media ecology — and one of its maxims: the medium is the message, then we start to see that forms do inherently communicate something along with content. To keep ‘ecology’ on the table — think about the relationship between the words ‘habitat’ and ‘habit’. If we want to be creatures of habit — those who habitually live out the Christian story because we are formed as characters within God’s story — not our own consumer-driven stories with us as the hero, but as disciples — maybe we should consider our habitats — how we structure and design space, including what it looks and feels like — an application of a ‘Christian aesthetic’ to how and where we meet and live…

I’ve been challenged to re-imagine how we approach church as Aussies who believe the Bible is the word of God, and that the Gospel is the story of Jesus arriving in this world as the king who conquers sin, satan, and death and who launches a kingdom — his people, to live a life, for eternity (but starting now) where these enemies have been destroyed, so that we’re free from their grip, and he is victorious.

I’m struck by how many of our practices as Christians are adopted from a modernist world with modernist assumptions — a couple in particular, that the world is ‘disenchanted’ (thanks Charles Taylor) and that we are simply ‘brains on a stick’ who need logic and facts to make good ‘rational’ decisions (thanks James K.A Smith). I’m simultaneously struck by the way this adoption of a ‘modernist framework’ as ‘the Christian frame’ has us reeling because we now live in a post-modern, post-Christian, environment and our practices aren’t keeping people (humanly speaking) or persuading people, and how much this framework has shaped our understanding of making disciples or Christian formation, and in this post, I’m particularly considering how that approach to formation has de-emphasised embodiment, and so de-emphasised our ‘environment’ and the arts. So that the idea of a ‘Christian aesthetic’ seems a bit wanky — we’ve lost a sense of deliberately Christian architecture or art, whether within the life of the church or in the witness of the church to the world (or both).

“I want there to be a place for evangelistic art, really, really, really good evangelistic art. I want there to be a place for art that has very obvious utility. I don’t have a problem with that. But once you get in the field of the Terence Mallicks, and he’s making a movie about creation, and dinosaurs, and trees and light. You’re asking yourself a really important theological question: How does God perceive light, and sound, and texture, and scent? Because that’s what he’s talking about. Because if we have a theological way to frame God’s care of those things in creation, then Terrence Mallick is a profoundly Christian artist…” — David Taylor, Cultivated Podcast

We reformed evangelicals in reacting against worldly idolatry of beauty (too high a view of creation), and the way we’ve seen that play out in the Catholic Church with its iconography and expensive cathedrals, have tended to over-correct, adopting and almost ‘dis-embodied’ approach to life in the world — so we think less about space, and place, and beauty than other streams of Christianity (including the Pentecostal stream, who have a different ‘frame’ but, perhaps, are more likely to uncritically adopt the forms that are popular in our world).

There’s been a recent pushback against modernity (and post-modernity) by people who realise we’ve been breathing the air for so long that it has become normal — that perhaps, to quote another podcast I’ve listened to quite a bit lately — Mark Sayers in This Cultural Moment — we’ve been colonised by our culture, rather than ‘colonising our culture’ with the Gospel. Sayers argues you should understand the west in three eras — pre-Christian, Christian, and post-Christian; that missionaries have often come from the ‘second culture’ — one shaped by the Gospel into the pre-Christian world (think Africa, or the world the early church operated in), and that the ‘third culture’ — the ‘post-Christian’ culture lives off the fruits of Christianity but ‘wants the kingdom, without the king’ — it has moved on to a new story about what human flourishing looks like.  In episode 2, After discussing Leslie Newbigin’s return from the mission field in India to ‘post-modern’ England, and his realisation that the ground had shifted such that the west is now a post-Christian mission field, not “Christian” or “pre-Christian.” Sayers talks about some of the misfires of the early ‘missional’ church (including his early attempts at a missional church), which adopted secular forms, or aesthetics, to shape the teaching of the content of the Christian story. He said his question was: “how do you do a kind of church that incarnates into the culture of my friends?”

“Gen-X culture was hitting… post-modern culture was hitting… so the question was how do we incarnate into post-modern or Gen-X culture. I planted this congregation. We didn’t have singing. We didn’t have sermons. It was conversation, you know, clips from the Simpsons, we didn’t have a “front”… I was very much influenced by some of the alternative worship stuff that was happening in the UK. It was an attempt to use the cultural forms, it was the framework of missiology, but there was a thing that I missed was that there was an assumption that if you did this and you just did mission, then it would re-energise Christians, it would bring alive their faith, it would bring the church back to its core purpose… the model then of the three cultures is the idea that the third culture is not a ‘pre-Christian culture’… it’s not a return back to culture one, we’re turning to culture three… what it is, is a culture that is defining itself against Christianity, wants some of the fruits of Christianity whether it knows it or not, consciously, and therefore has a corrosive and caustic effect. The science of missiology taught people in Christian culture not to colonise people in culture one, when they’re communicating the Gospel to them, but what I realised was happening was that when I was in culture two incarnating and using cultural forms to speak to culture three, a post-Christian culture, that it was colonising us.”

John Mark Comer, the co-host of This Cultural Moment, sums this up as ‘you go out with the Gospel of Jesus, and instead of influence, you are influenced. Instead of shaping, you are shaped.” You uncritically take on the aesthetics of the world, and they start to shape how you see the world.

James K.A Smith puts it this way, in a series of paragraphs from chapter 3 of his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit:

“In our desire to embed the gospel content into forms that are attractional, accessible, and not off-putting, we look around for contemporary cultural forms that are more familiar. Instead of asking contemporary seekers and Christians to inhabit old, stodgy medieval practices that are foreign and strange, we re-tool worship by adopting contemporary practices that can be easily entered precisely because they are so familiar… confident of the form/content distinction, we believe we can distill the gospel content and embed it in these new forms…” — James K.A Smith, You Are What You Love

He says this ends up with us saying “come meet Jesus in the sanctified experience of a coffee shop; come hear the gospel in a place that should feel familiar because we’ve modelled it after the mall”…

“”Forms” are not just neutral containers or discardable conduits for a message… what are embraced as merely fresh forms are in fact practices that are already oriented to a certain telos, a tacit vision of the good life.”

“When we believe that worship is about formation, we will begin to appreciate why ‘form’ matters. The practices we submit ourselves to in Christian worship are God’s way of rehabituating our loves towards the kingdom, so we need to be intentional about the story that is carried in those practices. By the form of worship, I mean two things: (1) the overall narrative arc of a service of Christian worship and (2) the concrete, received practices that constitute the elements of that enacted narrative.”

“Only worship that is oriented by the Biblical story and suffused with the Spirit will be a counterformative practice that can undo the habituation of rival, secular liturgies.” — James K.A Smith, You Are What You Love

Sayers and Smith are essentially pointing to the same truth, through different (though related) paradigms. If our forms or aesthetics are predominantly derived from the world around us (not that this is always terrible) there is a risk that we will be shaped by the world, rather than the forms or aesthetics that are predominantly derived from our story, and the practices of Jesus and teachings of the New Testament. Both Smith and Sayers/Comer land in the same place — spiritual habits — or ‘disciplines,’ shaped by the Gospel story, which include coming to terms with our embodiment as the key for transformation. Smith, for mine, leans too heavily into the medieval practices that developed as the church moved into ‘institution’

Now. I’ve written quite a bit about where I depart from Smith’s proposed embodiment of these insights (that I love), I think he ultimately picks the medieval, or pre-enlightenment (or Augustinian), church as a particular point in time disconnected from our modernist assumptions so that its practices will be counter-formative… while I think much older (pre-Constantine) practices of the New Testament and early church — forms and practices specifically developed in the Christian story — are both more disconnected from modernism, and from Christendom and its ‘forms’ — such the backdrop is more like ours, and the practices Christians adopted against that backdrop are more likely to be helpfully counter-formative for us. It’s not that everything between then and now is wrong, or that we shouldn’t be progressing in our telling of the story of God working through history to bring about his kingdom, it’s just that I’m not sure the practices produced by Christians when we were in the cultural ascendency are the ones we should pin ourselves to when trying to rehabituate and rehabilitate the church. I’m not sure it’s enough to say our post-Christian inclination to adopt the forms of our culture wasn’t at the heart of the church when it built cathedrals that looked a lot like castles (Solomon had a similar issue here); even though I’m prepared to cede that the medieval church, at times, might have had a less sinister approach to aesthetics and practices than it did when Luther kickstarted the Reformation (using popular forms from outside the church), and Calvin adopted a particular sort of iconoclasm that went far beyond doing away with inappropriate and idolatrous aesthetic practices. Anybody trying to learn from history inevitably goes back into the annals to find some point where they think the church departed from a faithful model, and to find faithful counter-examples; this is inevitably an inexact science built around drawing analogies (see Dreher and the Benedict Option for another example of this phenomenon).

I think we’ve often made the distinction Smith points to between form and content when it comes to the Gospel — being flexible on form and firm on the Gospel as an expression of the sort of ‘contextualisation’ Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 9. And it’s not that we shouldn’t play with expressing the Gospel in different forms — that’s part of being human and forms being cultural expressions — but I do wonder if we’ve been deliberate enough in developing a particularly Christian culture, or forms, or aesthetic that might pair with the Gospel content as we adapt our engagement with a variety of cultures so that our ‘medium’ and ‘message’ work together to disrupt and challenge idolatrous status quos (which are often packaged aesthetically). I wonder if we’ve created a universal flexibility on forms without grappling with the idea that ‘the medium is the message’ — and without critically asking what forms or mediums undermine our preaching and living of the counter-cultural, subversive, aspect of the Gospel.

Social architecture and how the habitat of the home shaped a new habit for the early church

Paul is able to both understand and embody a culture and challenge it in the way he does so — it’s what I think he does in Athens — and to do it in a way that doesn’t challenge the way we Christians operate in our own spaces, where he’s one of the architects (divinely inspired) of a radically different aesthetic, or form. A totally new use of space that is utterly subversive.

Paul’s treatment of eating immediately after he talks about his adaptability in 1 Corinthians 9 is interesting. Eating with people is a ‘form’ now (see anthropologist Mary Douglas’ fascinating essay ‘Deciphering a Meal’) and was a ‘form’ that had a particular meaning in the ancient world in both Jewish and Graeco-Roman culture. There are ancient records from the Roman world observing the dining habits of the Jewish people.

Living in their peculiar exclusiveness, and having neither their food, nor their libations, nor their sacrifices in common with men.” – Philostratus, Life of Apollonius V.33

“They sit apart at meals, they sleep apart…” – Tacitus, Histories 5.5.2

The Jews had a particular practice — not becoming impure by eating with gentiles. This form had a meaning — the Jews saw this as something of an aesthetic practice, a thing that made their eating more beautiful (and this is apart from the dining program aligned with their calendar of festivals).

The Romans had their own forms, or aesthetic, when it came to dining, Pliny the Younger describes a meal around the table of an acquaintance (and again, there’s a certain sort of ‘physical space’ required for this, and an ‘aesthetic’ created by that space, check out the adjectives attached to the content).

“I happened to be dining with a man, though no particular friend of his, whose elegant economy, as he called it, seemed to me a sort of stingy extravagance. The best dishes were in front of himself and a select few, and cheap scraps of food put before the rest of the company… One lot was intended for himself, and for us, another for his lesser friends (all his friends are graded), and the third for his and our freedmen.” — Pliny the Younger, Letters, 2.6

Paul takes that form and, with Jesus, talks about three particular forms — eating at ‘the table of demons’ (1 Corinthians 10:18-21), eating with non-Christians in their homes as an act of love and mission (1 Corinthians 10:27-33), and eating together as the church (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). The act of eating together as a church required a particular sort of space — a home, organised in a particular sort of way that created a form — and this form might be part of a sort of aesthetic framework that transcends time and place.

What he describes in chapter 11 is a new and subversive form of eating; a new aesthetic; where people of different ethnic backgrounds and social class were to meet together around a table as equals, united as one by and in Jesus. This unity was a certain sort of aesthetic. A beautiful, embodied, picture of the Gospel. Part of a Christian aesthetic must grapple with the idea that as ‘images’ we humans are a certain sort of divine art (we are God’s handiwork, ala Ephesians 2). Part of our forms will include the way we inhabit space together. This form of eating together communicated the message — and it still does. What we eat — the content — around that form might change from culture to culture, across time and space (apart from the bread and wine), but the habit of gathering around a table might actually be at the heart of a Christian use of space — our social architecture in our public spaces and our homes. It creates, or assumes, a certain sort of habitat.

Sketching an aesthetic for Christian habitats — homes and church owned buildings

Let me unpack this a bit specifically as it relates to aesthetics and our how our ‘habitats’ shape our habits and our character, and how we might shape our ‘form’ or aesthetic, or architecture, in a way that is both adaptive to different cultures, or ethnicities, while simultaneously challenging where those cultures or ethnicities are affected by sin.

What would happen if we designed our spaces — be it home or church owned buildings — with some attention paid to architecture not just for utility’s sake, but with an eye to how aesthetics at a level not simply of ‘content’ (eg obvious pictures, or the colour of the carpet)  but also of ‘form’ — in such a way that the form helps us inhabit and retell the story of the Bible in such a way that it shapes our habits. We already do a bit of this when it comes to acoustics, and the ability for people to move through various stages of a church gathering in a functional sense (that supports the ‘habituation’ of good things). I was struck by something one of the pastors of the church whose venue we hire said about how deliberately they’ve designed their facility so that the space for the ‘service’ (the auditorium) is the same size as the space for eating and talking together as a community (the cafe area). It’s a great facility with an eye to a certain sort of aesthetic and attention to detail I’m not used to in the Presbyterian scene… but part of me wonders how much artificial lighting, smoke machines, and big speakers form the backbone of a Christian aesthetic (I’m not opposed to the idea that the development of technology is part of humanity’s role in God’s story, see John Dyer’s book From the Garden to the City for a nice balanced account of this). I’m also struck by how a poorly designed house (like ours) in terms of living, kitchen, and dining, space limits our ability to participate in the sort of eating together that happens in the early church; and my dreams about an ideal home or ‘church building’ are concepts with a certain sort of ‘social architecture’ underpinning them.

I’m not naively suggesting that this sort of focus on space or ‘the aesthetic’ will magically transform us — that we’re exclusively products of our environment such that the right habitat will automatically fix our nature; and I’m totally aware of our tendency to idolatry — that our default response to beauty is to objectify it and seek to make it our own — but I feel like instead of cultivating an appropriate approach to beauty, or aesthetics, to counteract our sinful hearts, we’ve uncritically adopted an almost negative view of beauty and baptised that as ‘utilitarian’ and so we’ve treated this as the Christian norm.

Here are some of my early thoughts, or ‘sketches’ about some elements (a certain sort of ‘content’ geared towards the ‘aesthetic’) and ‘forms’ (a certain sort of delivery of that content) that might be part of how we structure our spaces to be both beautiful and formative habitats that orient our habits around the story of the Bible as they act as spaces that help re-tell that story…

  1. Light and life.
    Natural light. I’ve been pondering how often we have church in dark rooms (for the purposes of projection and managing lighting), where there’s something from start to finish in the Christian story about God being ‘light and life’ — and some part of that is him being the creator of light. There’s something to the idea that the introduction of electric lighting has ‘deformed’ us in all sorts of ways (including the way the screens of our smart devices do things to our eyes and brains when, prior to their development, we’d have been sleeping). The use and availability of light shapes our practices. The Gospel is a movement from darkness to light, and we’re not meant to fear it. Do our spaces communicate something else, even if subliminally? Is projection (and lighting) a case of harnessing this good gift from God?
  2. Water.
    There’s something about how there are rivers running through the garden in the beginning, and the end, of the story (and, for instance, in Psalm 23) — and that it’s involved in baptism, that means some sort of refreshing, flowing, presence of life-giving water works nicely in telling the story. Plus, you know, that stuff about Jesus at the well and him being living water…
  3. Trees and fruit.
    The trees in the garden are a picture of God’s provision and hospitality, fruit his initial gift of miraculously sweet, juicy and sustaining produce (both on normal trees and the tree of life), which is also a metaphor for the ‘good’ or ‘flourishing life’ for Christians (think the parable of the sower, the ‘true vine’, the fruit of the Spirit). Tree imagery also features prominently in the design of the fittings for the tabernacle and temple, Ezekiel’s vision of the new creation, and the new creation described in Revelation 21-22. And of course, there’s the tree at the heart of the Christian story — the cross. I’m struck by how churches in the past put lots of emphasis on flowers, and how little I thought of that at the time, but how an experience of stepping in to a sort of ‘oasis’ when you gather with Christians — a space trying to capture something of the gardens at the beginning, middle (Gethsemane) and end of the Christian story might help the idea that we are an alternative kingdom — and this might spill out into a world (an environment) desperately in need of a better picture of relating to the natural world. I love the idea of a massive table laden with fruit being part of our experience of eating together — a recognition that for all our technological processing of food to make it more convenient and desirable (with sugars and fats), we can’t compete with what’s on offer in nature.
  4. Table/feasting.
    God shows hospitality to his first image bearing priestly people — with a garden full of good things to eat, and then Israel, his renewed image bearing priestly people are promised a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’; Israel marks its story with feasting (and fasting), with festivals tied to its life together. Sharing the passover, in particular, was a chance for the retelling of their story of creation/salvation through Egypt — and for Christians that’s the feast that became the first Lord’s Supper. I can’t help but feel we’ve been a bit reductionist and utilitarian with a move to individualised portions handed out during a service, formalising the ‘teaching function’ of the meal to what the priestly-pastor says during the carefully ‘demarcated’ time in our week, rather than this being something to do whenever we eat together. There’s an aesthetic element to the reduction of this practice (or its re-imagination). When Robyn and I have spoken about how we’d redesign our home, particular with hospitality being at the heart of our ministry philosophy, I’ve had this romantic idea of the kitchen and dining room being at the literal centre of our house, in a way that communicates something and also sets our rhythms for family (and guest-as-family) life together. We already have an obscenely big table that doesn’t really fit in the space allocated, but this is tucked in the back corner of the house. If the early church meeting in houses was a deliberate sociological and aesthetic practice — where our group identity and character were shaped by architecture — maybe we should consider how much our church buildings should take the shape of houses rather than auditoriums, concert halls, or whatever other space we uncritically adopt; or if we do start running spaces that look like public meeting halls, how we make them truly public not just big private spaces outside the home for us to use in ways that mirror the use of other private spaces that aren’t homes…
  5. The Cross.
    I do love the idea of the ‘cruciform’ church even as I’m subtly challenging the approach to space that began around the time we Christians moved out of homes and into cathedrals… but something of the ugliness of the cross and the utility it represented for the Roman empire being subverted and made beautiful in Jesus’ death is compelling to me in some way, and something about the reminder that at the heart of all the beauty in the world God chose this ugliness to shame our worldliness and to build something new needs to be at the heart of our theological approach to ‘aesthetics’ — if there’s no sense that the cross has challenged and overturned our appreciation of and use of beauty and creation then we’re trying to run ‘creation’ and ‘redemption’ as two separate poles in our framework rather than grappling with how those poles come together in Jesus’ death and resurrection. I’m not entirely sure what this looks like, but part of our thinking must surely be asking ‘how does this experience of beauty prompt me to sacrifice my desire to grasp hold of beauty for myself by connecting me to its maker and redeemer?’ Maybe it’s that things are sweeter without the fear of death and decay — the promise that ‘all things will be made new’ — and part of an ‘aesthetic’ is the reminder that even the good things we have now are not yet perfected.
  6. Gold.
    This one has been historically controversial because churches have lined themselves with expensive gold while neglecting the poor; but there’s something in the way gold is threaded from being ‘good’ around the garden (Genesis 2:11-12), to plundered from Egypt, to used for the tabernacle, priestly vestments, and the golden calf — then in the gifts laid before Jesus, and prominently featured in the new creation. There’s an aesthetic quality to Gold — an inherent beauty — that explains its value, and there is something to an appropriate not using gold for our own ends but to glorify God that expresses a refusal to try to serve both God and money. I’m not suggesting that our use of ‘gold’ — aesthetically — be at the expense of the poor, or in any way idolatrous; in fact if the poor aren’t being included and welcomed into our ‘richness’ then we’re doing it wrong (and maybe that’s part of the historical issues with the church and wealth). I wonder if somehow it’s more about the way that gold reflects the light than about it being exceptionally valuable, and there are plenty of gold coloured things that aren’t made of gold. I’m also sympathetic to the idea that gold serves as something of a metaphor for the inherent goodness of creation, that can be used to glorify God or idols. I have some thoughts about how this might be approached aesthetically, in both church and home, that doesn’t require much more than a trip to Kmart.
  7. White.
    Part of a tendency towards dark colours in buildings has been a focus on a certain sort of aesthetic, but I wonder how much we’ve balanced light and dark in our approach. There’s a bit to be said for the idea that being ‘clothed in white’ is a bold and stark statement in a world where mess is everywhere, and as much as gold might be part of our aesthetic because of how it reflects and amplifies light, white does this too.

Exactly what ‘forms’ these different elements take could vary greatly, and so my sense is that an approach to the ‘aesthetic’ is descriptive rather than a one size fits all ‘prescriptivity’ — which means the quote from the podcast I opened with, the idea that part of an historic definition of a particularly Christian aesthetic is that people might say “that’s a form that has been created and has always been associated with Christianity” is maybe not where I’m landing with this — and these forms aren’t distinctively Christian, you’ll find them in modern architecture, in Kmart, and in my favourite cafes. The extent that these are elements of a “Christian aesthetic” and not simply ‘beautiful’ is caught up with how the form/content stuff plays out in each place, and our creative intent as we carve out spaces that carry this aesthetic… but to want this to always be explicit is to fall into a certain sort of utilitarianism that kills art. Perhaps the thing that actually does away with the ‘Christian’ part of a ‘Christian aesthetic’ is when these things that are inherently beautiful are co-opted for idolatry or the service of self, not God. Part of a Christian aesthetic is recognising that Christians don’t have exclusive access to knowing what is beautiful in our world; we all innately recognise beauty. The problem with our use of worldly beauty or aesthetics has often been that it’s derivative, that we’ve simply tried to imitate cultural forms common around us, rather than creating our own cultural forms within our cultures built from our story. What we do have is the ability to connect what is true and beautiful to its source, God, and see it as the backcloth to his story — the redemption and renewal of the world in and through Jesus.

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Re-Enchanting the World: Episode 1 — Heroic Space: DC’s Gotham v Marvel’s New York; Or, things I thought about while playing Spider-Man 2 with my son

In which I ask why Marvel Comics sets its stories in real cities, while DC creates anonymous every-cities. And consider what this does to us as participants in the narrative.

Spiderman
Image Credit: Screenshot from Amazing Spider-Man 2, US Gamer, Amazing Spider-Man 2 Review

I’ve somehow managed to get my 2 year old son obsessed with Spider-Man. It wasn’t hard. I’ve always loved Spider-Man’s off-the-wall (or on-the-wall) antics, and there’s something about the playful red/blue/web aesthetic that I just enjoy. I also love that clichéd line “with great power comes great responsibility”… I was never all that into Spider-Man myself. I was an avid reader of The Phantom as a kid.

Xavi and I have been watching The Ultimate Spider-Man together. A pretty fun cartoon. Mostly it’s fun for me. He has a Spider-Man figurine that he takes to bed. And so, I thought it’d be fun for me to grab a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on the PS4. And it has been fun. Though mostly for me.

In the last few years I’ve enjoyed the resurgence of comic book worlds in TV and Cinema. I love the Marvel Universe (except for the relatively insipid Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D). I thought Nolan’s Batman trilogy was great, and Arrow and The Flash are TV favourites in our household. Robyn isn’t so sure about Gotham. But I like its gritty gangster vibe, and its introductions of villains from Batman’s world have drawn me back into the Batman mythos a bit.

As I was swinging from building to building as New York’s friendly, neighbourhood, Spider-Man, it got me wondering — why is it that Marvel’s universe co-opts real world cities as a back-drop for its stories, while DC has invented the likes of Gotham, Metropolis, Central City and Starling City? What is gained through this decision? What is lost?

I’ve been thinking a bit about questions of place and story lately. And I’ll get to a bit of theological unpacking of these questions in some subsequent posts.

I while back I posted a bunch of lectures from TV show-runner extraordinaire Dan Harmon (of Community fame) about how stories work (and some stuff from Ira Glass and Kurt Vonnegut). The shape of stories Harmon talks about in those lectures is pretty much the shape of every comic book story ever created (and every story ever told), and he said this, which I think is true:

“Sooner or later, we need to be someone, because if we are not inside a character, then we are not inside the story.” — Dan Harmon

Video games obviously make this process easier by giving you a character to play. Eyes to see through. An avatar. They bring us into the story via a character — other stories through other mediums have to do this in other ways, and as a result of web-slinging my way around New York, I’m wondering what role place plays in getting us inside a character. Do we get into a story, and into a character, quicker if the setting is one we know, or one that exists in our world, or does an ‘every-city’ do the job faster?

I’m also wondering what role comic books — or fantasy in general — plays in giving us a picture of a re-enchanted world. A world where good and evil are locked in a battle, not just in a natural sense, but supernaturally. I’m wondering how they might teach us something about compelling story-telling that helps us help people see the world truly.

All this. Just as a result of playing a video game about a comic book character…

Our Disenchanted world

I’ve been reading quite a bit of James K.A Smith lately. One of the ideas at the heart of much of his writing is that our modernist, ‘secular,’ world is a disenchanted world. A flat world that has lost a sense of meaning beyond the physical reality. He suggests that in moving to an epistemology (method of knowing stuff), ontology (understanding of what stuff ‘being’ ‘stuff’ is), and a philosophy (materialism, the way we bring these two together), that emphasises the material world above all else we’ve collapsed any transcendent (stuff beyond us, and our senses, and ‘ultimate’ stuff) reality into an immanent (stuff around us, that we experience and observe) reality. That is: we don’t ask questions about supernatural stuff. About magic. About God or gods — because all that really matters is what we (collectively, and individually) see, hear, feel, and experience.

The effect of this has been to disenchant the world — which has an impact on our art and culture as much as it does on the way we think about knowing, and the sciences. Our art becomes less enchanting. Our stories, even our ‘myths’ — not untrue stories, but the stories we live by — become more worried about the immanent.

But. Maybe the world isn’t as disenchanted as it appears to be. And maybe superhero stories are an invitation for us to consider our desire to be enchanted. One of Smith’s books I’ve been reading is How (Not) To Be Secular its a short commentary on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. in it, Smith says:

Taylor names and identifies what some of our best novelists, poets, and artists attest to: that our age is haunted. On the one hand, we live under a brass heaven, ensconced in immanence. We live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once in a while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted by belief, by intimations of transcendence. Even what Taylor calls the “immanent frame” is haunted.

One of the ways out of a disenchanted world, via these haunted remains, is through the arts — and — specifically, through stories. Comic books are a type of art (even if high art types might criticise them as being ‘pop’ culture). They’re also a type of story particularly given to doing this work because they’re visual stories, not just words on a page. They’re also, often, an ‘epic’ sort of story capable of functioning as myth, and with a hero designed for us to care about, and identify with (but more on heroes in the next episode). Both the Marvel and DC universes, via their comic books, but also their multimedia platforms represent a billion dollar sector churning out stories people want to immerse themselves in as they read, watch, and play.

“The cinema has never before seen anything quite like the “Marvel cinematic universe”. This sometimes tightly, sometimes loosely connected skein of films and television shows draw on characters the comic-book publisher (now also a movie company owned by Disney) has been developing for decades. Begun in 2008 with “Iron Man”, its exercise in extended mythopoeia now consists of 11 feature films and three television shows, with many more to come… The studio has successfully explored a range of trappings and stylings for its superheroes, putting them in character pieces and ensembles, setting their stories in outer space and in congressional hearings, playing them for thrills, or laughs, or both. There has, though, been something of an amped-up sameiness to the recent offerings, with third acts dominated by variations on the theme of a large-flying-object-laying-waste-to-a-city-with-possible-world-changing-conseqences.” — Ant Man: The Smaller Picture, Economist

These stories matter. The settings matter — these cities that are laid waste matter. The ‘laying waste’ matters within those worlds, it has potential consequences that we largely ignore as viewers, but the authors are no longer interested in letting us ignore, nor are they interested in ignoring them as storytellers who are world building — that’s what that word ‘mythopoeia’ means in the quote above.

These stories are also a window into the way people experience the haunting of our ‘immanent’ world at a ‘pop’ level. They are art. Pop art. I don’t think ‘pop’ should carry any sense of snobbery, because what this really means is that its a popular way that people in western society get their little taste of enchantment. Even if the way these comic universes are set up (as we’ll see) are often products of an immanent view of the world.

Just briefly, as a bit of an answer for anyone who has bothered to read this far who is still thinking “what’s the point” of all this — the point is this. Too often our methodologies as Christians, the way we speak the Gospel and live it — buys into this immanent frame, and produces a sort of immanent Christianity that never touches the transcendent, or gets close to this haunting sense people have. One of our goals, as Christians who believe in a supernatural — something beyond our senses — and an archetypal hero — must surely be to give people a new vocabulary, and a new way of seeing the world. Our task in speaking into the secular world — the stories we tell — are stories, or ‘myths’ that are ‘enchanted’ and true.

Now. Back to the question at hand. What difference does it make to the story if its set in the “real” world, or in a created world? Are we most likely to see the world as enchanted if the ‘myths’ or stories we live by that give us models for action, and help us think through meaning are set in the real world, in real cities, or in fictional every-cities? What is more relatable?

It turns out this is a debate that goes as far back as CS Lewis and Tolkien, who both wrote about the importance of ‘faery stories’ and creating worlds shot through with meaning. Worlds where the transcendent was not collapsed into the immanent. Worlds where magic still happened. Enchanted worlds. Worlds that could speak to those haunted parts of our minds and help us see meaning in our own world. So we’ll unpack that a bit too. My basic thesis is that Tolkien advocates a DC approach to story telling, while Lewis would adopt Marvel’s approach. So, for example, the humans in Narnia are citizens of earth who arrive in the enchanted world of Narnia through a wardrobe, while the humans of Middle Earth are natives of this alternative, still overtly enchanted, world.

Although, Lewis understood that enchanted stories needed to take place a little beyond our little immanent bubbles of reality. Beyond our own place — our own city.

“It is not difficult to see why those who wish to visit strange regions in search of such beauty, awe, or terror as the actual world does not supply have increasingly been driven to other planets or stars. It is the result of increasing geographical knowledge. The less known the real world is, the more plausibly your marvels can be located near at hand.” — CS Lewis, On Science Fiction

The effect of dislocation into these enchanted places was meant, for Lewis, to help people carry that experience into their everyday reality. To re-enchant the world.

“He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” — CS Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children

But are comic books really the equivalent of the Lewis/Tolkien approach to faery stories? Can we really think these forms of pop culture can do what the literary work of two of the 20th century’s most prodigious literary geniuses were able to do? Is there any comparison between DC’s Gotham and Tolkien’s Middle Earth? Or Marvel’s New York and Lewis’ London? Or even perhaps Marvel’s Asgard and Lewis’ Narnia?

In the next couple of posts I’ll unpack what Tolkien and Lewis teach us about building worlds embedded with meaning, and I’ll consider the role of heroes within these world building stories. Who knows when those posts will be finished. For now lets continue on this question of what sort of place, or setting, provides the quickest path to re-enchantment. A real city, enchanted, or an ‘enchanted’ city we’re invited to see as a city we belong to…

Comics and the “real” world

Comics, as stories, are an interesting lens through which to unpack the values of the world that produces them, and they also play a part in shaping the world we live in. Comic book characters are no longer reduced to two dimensional avatars that move through panel by panel, they’re now brought to life in TV shows, Movies, and video games. We can, as I’ve experienced this week, see the world — our world — through their eyes, and so seeing, can be invited to re-see our world differently through our own eyes.

It’s interesting that in their current iterations the significant difference between DC and Marvel is that, thanks to the aesthetic of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight, DC products tend to be darker, and grittier than Marvel’s, and ultimately, despite Superman coming from another planet, I think they’re somewhat less overtly enchanted or magical than Marvel. Marvel’s cinematic universe — with the exception of the new Netflix Daredevil series (and we’ll discuss it in a subsequent post) operates in a world soaked in vivid colour. Neither comic universe really engages in the magical realm quite so much as Lewis or Tolkien. Whether its New York or Gotham or Metropolis, these stories still occur in something close to the real world. And yet the ‘enchantment’ of the superhero still needs to be explained, this is truer in Marvel’s universe — Batman (DC) and Ironman (Marvel) both operate as functions of their wealth, and the opportunity created by such wealth, Superman (DC) and Thor (Marvel) are both ‘out of this world’ heroes from above, bringing a sense of enchantment to earth, while the rest of Marvel’s heroes are essentially ‘enchanted’ when the immanent world backfires, or, when science misfires. The ‘enchantments’ are largely not enchantments at all, but products of immanence (the question of whether God/gods exists in these universes is an interesting one that I’ll unpack a bit later too). As my friend Craig Hamilton put it when I asked him (and others) the question that drove this investigation:

“The DC universe is about the ideal whereas Marvel is about struggling to live up to an ideal. DC heroes are almost pure archetypes while Marvel are heroes with feet of clay. Even Batman isn’t a brooding vigilante he’s The World’s Greatest Detective. Marvel has a fearful, suspicious stance towards technology and science that DC doesn’t have. Most of Marvel’s heroes and villains are the result of science gone wrong. The Fantastic Four, Spider-man, Hulk. It’s fear of radiation that creates all these heroes. And they’re fundamentally flawed characters in a way that DC heroes aren’t. Sure Superman has kryptonite and Green Lantern’s ring didn’t work on yellow for a while, but that’s totally different to Tony Stark being an alcoholic weapons manufacturer or Peter Parker being responsible for his Uncle’s murder and being driven by that guilt forever while continuing to make stupid decisions and needing to fix his mistakes.” — Craig Hamilton

The X-Men, a Marvel franchise, are another example of enchantment via immanence — super powers developed via mutation, rather than enchantment being a natural product of a world that includes an accepted, and largely unquestioned, transcendent reality (ala Gandalf and Aslan).

Regardless of the origin of the powers of the hero, these stories have always had a mythic quality, the ability, via a sort of enchantment, to function as myth and cause us to understand our ‘immanent’ reality differently.They’ve always had this sort of power. Regardless of their setting — but a really interesting example of the differences between Marvel’s real world stories and DC’s stories that come from fictional cities set within the real world, came in World War II.

While being perennially dismissed as juvenile, comic books functioned as powerful propaganda in World War II, which took place just as superheroes were emerging as icons. DC Comics Superman and Batman, who existed in their own fictional ‘every-cities’ took part in the war effort by modelling an ideal citizenship — a citizenship of responsible consumption — cracking down on petty crime and irresponsible use of resources back home, while Marvel’s characters, especially Captain America, coming as they did from real cities, were able to participate in the war effort.

The question of setting is already playing a part in the way comic book stories function as ‘myth’ stories that shape us. Stories that use a sense of enchantment to reshape the lives of the people and cultures who both read them and produce them. What’s interesting in the question of setting, is that regardless of universe, all the action is really taking place in one city. Vancouver.

Or, rather, New York. “Every City” or not, comic book drama takes place in that great city.

That great city: Gotham, Metropolis and New York

“Originally I was going to call Gotham City “Civic City.” Then I tried “Capital City,” then “Coast City.” Then I flipped through the New York City phone book and spotted the name “Gotham Jewelers” and said, “That’s it,” Gotham City. We didn’t call it New York because we wanted anybody in any city to identify with it. Of course, Gotham is another name for New York.” — Batman Writer/Co-creator, Bill Finger

“The difference between Gotham and Metropolis succinctly summarizes the differences between the two superheroes. As current Batman editor Dennis O’Neil put it: ‘Gotham is Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at 3 a.m., November 28 in a cold year. Metropolis is Manhattan between Fourteenth and One Hundred and Tenth Streets on the brightest, sunniest July day of the year'” — Dennis O’Neil, Batman Writer, cited in ‘Metropolis is New York by Day, Gotham City is New York by Night,’ BarryPopkik.com

The locus of superhero comics was then, as it largely remains, New York. Writers and artists living in the city depict it in their work — so successfully that superhero stories set in any other city may require a certain degree of justification for their choice of locale.” — Richard Reynolds, ‘Masked Heroes,’ The Superhero Reader

But why New York? Making an ‘every-city’ based on New York is interesting, because it’s already an every-city.

“The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss described his reactions on arriving in the city in the essay ‘New York in 1941’: “…New York (and this is the source of its charm and its peculiar fascination) was then a city where anything seemed possible. Like the urban fabric, the social and cultural fabric was riddled with holes. All you had to do was pick one and slip through if, like Alice, you wanted to get to the other side of the looking glass and find worlds so enchanting that they seemed unreal.” This is the New York (or Gotham City, or Metropolis) that dominates the superhero story and has become its almost inevitable milieu. New York draws together an impressive wealth of signs, all of which the comic-reader is adept at deciphering. It is a city that signifies all cities, and, more specifically, all modern cities, since the city itself is one of the signs of modernity… New York is a sign in fictional discourse for the imminence of such possibilities — simultaneously a forest of urban signs and an endlessly wiped slate on which unlimited designs can be inscribed — cop shows, thrillers, comedies, “ethnic” movies… and cyclical adventures of costumed heroes as diverse as Bob Kane’s Batman and Alan Moore’s Watchmen.” — Richard Reynolds, ‘Masked Heroes,’ The Superhero Reader

What’s interesting is that these comic universes — even these comic New Yorks — have to grapple with questions of the relationship between people and place. Both people in these worlds — and the impact they have on the places they occupy, and the impact these places have on the people who occupy them, and the people and events outside the world and the impacts these people have on the fictional, enchanted universe of these stories. A question that flows from this is what do these ‘enchanted’ places do to people in the real world — via the power of story.

What places do to people, what people do to places

“Batman is integrally linked to his city, the city he has sworn to protect. In every sense of the word, he is a true avatar of Gotham. And Gotham City itself is an avatar, not only of the dreams of its fictional architects, but of our collective urban paranoia.” — Jimmy Stamp, ‘Batman, Gotham City, and an Overzealous Architecture Historian With a Working Knowledge of Explosives,’ Life Without Buildings

There’s a sense amongst the literature on Batman, especially the Dark Knight Batman, that Gotham’s dysfunctionality is, at least in part, due to the sort of person, or sort of hero, he is. His ‘myth’ — his power as a symbol — is built on fear. He wears a mask. He strikes fear into the hearts of those who do wrong in the city, and yet, this perpetuates a kind of criminal in Gotham who needs to be fearless (or insane) to operate. It’s a vicious cycle. Batman is shaped by his city, and thereafter he shapes his city.

In the real world, as readers or viewers visiting Gotham, the city has the capacity to both embody our fears about criminals unchecked by conscience, and the ‘worst’ of city life. If the writers of Batman have quite deliberately based their ‘enchanted’ city on New York’s worst districts, at night, then this fictional place starts to reinforce certain fears in us, as we read. The Dark Knight is a certain sort of post-modern hero who turns the table on the way this ‘enchantment’ works from being light and magical to being dark, if not a dark art, or sorcery, at the very least a sort of defence against the dark arts that comes from us seeing humanity reflected at its worst through the magic mirror, rather than at its best in the, albeit masked, visage of the superhero.

“Since its inception, Gotham City has been presented as the embodiment of the urban fears that helped give rise to the American suburbs, the safe havens from the city that they are. Gotham City has always been a dark place, full of steam and rats and crime. A city of graveyards and gargoyles; alleys and asylums. Gotham is a nightmare, a distorted metropolis that corrupts the souls of good men.”— Jimmy Stamp, ‘Batman, Gotham City, and an Overzealous Architecture Historian With a Working Knowledge of Explosives,’ Life Without Buildings

Architecture, real or enchanted, shapes the people who ‘live’ in it. It makes us feel. It’s a form of art, and thus, able to enchant. Or haunt. As my web-slinging avatar flew through the streets of New York, and as the impressively animated city was corrupted, burned, and blown up by bad guys, and an hyper-vigilant anti-hero agency, I felt things about the destruction of the city. I don’t know if this felt ‘realer’ because it was New York, a city I’ve never visited, but the setting was part of the story. It helped it touch some haunted part of me, or put me in touch with something enchanting. It got me asking the sort of questions that led me to read a bunch of stuff and write these posts.

“Architecture influences the lives of human beings. City dwellers react to the architectural forms and spaces which they encounter: specific consequences may be looked for in their thoughts, feelings and actions. Their response to Architecture is usually subconscious. Designers themselves are usually unconscious of the effects which their creations will produce.” — Hugh Ferris, An Architect/deliniator from New York from his book, The Metropolis of Tomorrow

Comic book architecture also reacts and responds to the real world. It has to, to keep us engaged. This becomes part of the motivation (apart from a desire to do-over a stupid plot line) for a comic book trope called retconning. The “retcon” is a portmanteau of retroactive continuity. It’s a sort of on the fly editing of a back story to account for a change in the present. From what I’ve read in the last couple of days, Frank Miller’s introduction of the Dark Knight version of Batman was an incredibly powerful and effective retcon, with a fitting story. It was a retcon that took place because of a cultural shift. It enabled Batman to be interestingly post-modern, asking new questions in storylines and for us as readers (but more on this in a future episode). Apparently Superman started off as something of a Robin Hood, who robbed from the rich and was a little anti-establishment, but as soon as World War II kicked off he became the face of the ideal American. These retcons seem necessary. But some are dumb. Other retcons, or changes, are forced because of physical changes in the real world — like the 9-11 destruction of the Twin Towers. There are other changes that are less retconny and more trendy.

“Miller’s revisionary realism is only another version of what comic books often accomplish in the narrative, a literal revising of the facts of a comic book character’s history on the basis of recent interpretation. Take, for example, the design of Superman’s home planet, Krypton. The rendering of a “futuristic” world looks very different today than the rendering done in 1938. Today, however, Krypton is portrayed anew and is expected to be understood by readers as the true rendition of how Krypton has always looked. — Geoff Klock, The Revisionary Superhero Narrative

But places are also, increasingly, affected by the events that take place inside the comic book universe. This is interesting because it makes the stories set therein simultaneously ‘realer’ in that there is an effect following a cause, and less real, in that the ‘real’ version of the city is increasingly removed from the story version. A story-teller particularly committed to their craft would have to start literally blowing up cityscapes to keep a continuity between the real world and the story world. Over time, the change inflicted on the physical landscape in the story could make the events more distant from us, if they didn’t become opportunities to present us with new questions. It’s funny that in one sense, Marvel’s New York is moving closer to DC’s, especially Dark Knight DC’s, Gotham.

One of the profoundly cool things about Netflix’s version of Daredevil is that it happens in the same Marvel universe as the films. And this becomes part of the story. The events shape the people. There’s continuity — which according to Reynold’s in a book called Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths  — is a thing that Marvel’s Stan Lee introduced into the world of comics as a key innovation in what he identifies as the Silver Age of Comics (these ‘ages’ are contested a bit). So it’s true to Marvel’s DNA. This continuity is interesting because Daredevil, via Netflix, has a sort of gritty aesthetic more at home in Gotham. Daredevil’s New York is gritty. And its grittiness is a result — a direct result — of the wanton destruction of New York in The Avengers. Daredevil confronts the fallout of the destruction of this city so prominently featured as the landscape for Marvel’s epic cinematic universe. This universe, a universe grappling with the destruction wrought upon it by these conflicts, and changing as our real world changes too, becomes the backdrop for increasingly complex stories, stories where we’re haunted by both our very immanent reality, and the real, physical, consequences of decisions made in the real world, but where we’re also haunted by a lingering sense of the transcendent, and the idea that even now, though we might deny it, our world is shot through with meaning. The Marvel Universe is becoming even more ‘fallen’ in a Biblical sense, as the impact of human, and super-human, failings are felt at an environmental level. Marvel’s universe, like DC’s, and like our own, is frustrated and groaning as a result of sin. But this makes the world meaningful, and real.

CS Lewis wrote a book called The Discarded Image in which he explores how our modern approach to knowledge displaced the idea that there is meaning beyond the material. He writes about the medieval model of the world, a world imbued with all sorts of meaning. A world which functions as a backdrop for stories — art — that is more enchanting than the art we produce as a result. We start handicapped, like a runner 20 metres behind the start line, because we’ve lost our sense that the everyday forest is enchanted already. Our fictional forests are as bland as the run of the mill forest of the medieval model. Our comic book villains are less magical, and our heroes are the product of science experiments gone wrong. They’re not the sorts about whom bards might sing.

In every period the Model of the Universe which is accepted by the great thinkers helps to provide what we may call a backcloth for the arts. But this backcloth is highly selective. It takes over from the total Model only what is intelligible to a layman and only what makes some appeal to imagination and emotion. Thus our own backcloth contains plenty of Freud and little of Einstein. The medieval backcloth contains the order and influences of the planets, but not much about epicycles and eccentrics. Nor does the backcloth always respond very quickly to great changes in the scientific and philosophical level. Furthermore, and apart from actual omissions in the backcloth version of the Model, there will usually be a difference of another kind. We may call it a difference of status. The great masters do not take any Model quite so seriously as the rest of us. They know that it is, after all, only a model, possibly replaceable. — CS Lewis, The Discarded Image

Romans 1 suggests we suppress the transcendent reality of our world, and exchange the transcendent supernatural God, in whom we exist, for a bunch of immanent gods — worshipping created things. Romans 1 shows that the world, as it was intended to be, is an enchanted space where we should be coming face to face with the divine, and its only our deliberate blinkers, our wilful intent to not see, to not be enchanted, that leaves our world more two dimensional than a comic strip universe (a world where meaning and enchantment still exist).

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. — Romans 1:18-23

Enchanting stories: Stories that bridge the gap between the immanent and transcendent

The contemplation of the actual Metropolis as a whole cannot but lead us at last to the realization of a human population unconsciously reacting to forms which came into existence without conscious design. A hope, however, may begin to define itself in our minds. May there not yet arise, perhaps in another generation, architects who, appreciating the influence unconsciously received, will learn consciously to direct it?” — Hugh Ferris, from The Metropolis of Tomorrow

Breaking this ‘suppression’ and the blindness that comes with it requires the world to become enchanted again, in some sense this requires the enchanted worlds that teach us that our world, too, is enchanted, to become more compellingly enchanted. That’ll help. It also involves us shifting our model for understanding the real world, to include the transcendant. This is another one of those vicious cycles. Our models are influenced by art and story, just as they influence art and story. Paul’s answer to the world broken by our fascination with the immanent in Romans 1 is a story, the story about how the transcendent one broke through. How God took the first step. How he provided a hero. Here’s a spoiler. The answer at the end of this series, wherever it leads, is going to be Jesus, because Jesus, in the incarnation, is the perfect character (a character almost every superhero, but especially Superman, rips off in some way). This isn’t your typical Jesus juke. I think it’s true in a profound and enchanting way.

But the answer is also us telling better, more enchanting, stories. Learning something from DC and Marvel, sure, but looking back to times when the world was more enchanted, or to those who engaged, deliberately, in the construction of enchanted worlds. Whose approach to ‘architecture’ or to world-building was an intentional attempt to direct us not just to something enchanting, but something truer than true about our own world. Stories require people (heroes) doing things in places, over time. So the next two episodes will explore that. But now. Some James K.A Smith on why we need stories.

“So what does this have to do with stories? Well, our hearts traffic in stories. Not only are we lovers, we are also story-tellers (and story-listeners). As the novelist David Foster Wallace once put it, “We need narrative like we need space-time; it’s a built-in thing”. We are narrative animals whose very orientation to the world is most fundamentally shaped by stories. Indeed, it tends to be stories that capture our imagination—stories that seep into our heart and aim our love. We’re less convinced by arguments than moved by stories… The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that stories are so fundamental to our identity that we don’t know what to do without one. As he puts it, I can’t answer the question, “What ought I to do?” unless I have already answered aprior question, “Of which story am I a part?” It is a story that provides the moral map of our universe…

Stories, then, are not just nice little entertainments to jazz up the material; stories are not just some supplementary way of making content “interesting.” No, we learn through stories because we know by stories. Indeed, we know things in stories that we couldn’t know any other way: there is an irreducibility of narrative knowledge that eludes translation and paraphrase…

So it is crucial that the task of Christian schooling is nested in a story—in the narrative arc of the biblical drama of God’s faithfulness to creation and to his people. It is crucial that the story of God in Christ redeeming the world be the very air we breathe, the scaffolding around us… we constantly need to look for ways to tell that story, and to teach in stories, because story is the first language of love. If hearts are going to be aimed toward God’s kingdom, they’ll be won over by good storytellers.” — James K.A Smith, Learning (by) Stories

So. What difference does it make if the story is set in real New York or New York in a mask? Perhaps not much. What matters is how enchanting the story is, or how much the use of the city is able to haunt us by pointing us to some truth beyond ourselves. To get us to remove the mask, or the blinkers, we wear that stop us truly seeing the world around us as enchanted, and shot through with meaning. A place where we might meet real heroes, and even behold the divine.