Tag Archives: Avengers

Infinity Wars, the trolley problem, Abraham, Jepthath and Jesus…

This piece contains some spoilers about a minor element of the plot for Avengers: Infinity War.

There’s a plot thread in Infinity War continuing in Marvel’s exploration of parenting (see also, Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, etc). Thanos is the adopted father of Gamora; the adoption comes in the midst of his committing a semi-genocide (killing half the population) of her planet ‘in order to save it’. Thanos’ mission to ‘save the galaxy’ what is driving his pursuit of the ‘infinity stones’ and the power they offer is a mission to make life sustainable by halving the population. It’s a vision for human and alien flourishing that he is utterly committed to in mind, heart, and action. He is willing to make big sacrifices to achieve this end, including the life of the daughter he loves; Gamora, one of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Thanos’ conviction to his mission is essentially religious; it’s the pursuit of his ‘kingdom of heaven’ in a physical sense in the cosmos, that he is willing to sacrifice and work for… even to make the semi-ultimate sacrifice; the sacrifice of a beloved child. It doesn’t appear that he is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice — himself — to achieve this end. When his mission is accomplished, he sits watching the sun set over a valley; a scene he foreshadows as ‘what he’ll do when his task is complete’ earlier in the movie. It’s clear he saw his task both as a personal burden, and as moral (a conviction he’s held since his own planet was destroyed because people refused to do hard things for the greater good)… it’s also clear he pursues his task with a sort of religious fervour, or zealotry. Nothing will stay his hand; no price is too great. It’s also clear his willingness to ‘exchange lives for outcomes’ is being pitted against the Avengers’ steadfast refusal to ‘trade lives’ (right up until Vision convinces his beloved Scarlet Witch to help him sacrifice himself for the cause of resisting Thanos’ cosmic vision). There’s a Cinema Blend piece doing the rounds arguing that Thanos sacrificing Gamora is the worst part of the movie, because Thanos’ actions in sacrificing his adopted daughter make it clear that his claims to love her are a lie.

When Gamora and Thanos arrive on the planet Vormir, they learn that in order to obtain the stone, one must sacrifice somebody they love. Gamora believes that Thanos has been beaten by this, because he loves nothing. But it turns out that, because he loves Gamora, he can, and does, sacrifice her to obtain the long-lost Soul Stone.

The idea is that, while Gamora doesn’t consider Thanos’ treatment of her to be love, in his own way, he does care deeply for her, and because he does, her life can be given up by him to get what he needs in order to complete this terrible task that he has burdened himself with. That’s a load of bullshit.

I have some substantial problems with the argument in this piece; but I think it’s revealing. We’ve, as moderns, collapsed our understanding of ‘love’ to be totalising and utterly focused on the people or things in front of us; the idea of having greater love for some cause beyond ourselves is, at least in this piece, unpalatable. For Thanos to say that he genuinely loves Gamora he has to love her above all other causes. This is tricky ground to cover; especially in a world where a family with deep religious convictions can do what a family in Indonesia did to some churches over the weekend. There’s something to the argument that unfettered fanatical devotion to a cause can warp our commitment or love for other things in such a way that the commitment can no longer be called love. But we also, as humans, live with conflicting loves and with ultimate loves that shape our interactions with all other things — it’s part of being ‘worshippers’ or ‘lovers’ to orient ourselves to the world based on some vision of what is ultimate, and to organise our ‘sacrifice’ (of time and energy and relationships) accordingly; whether it’s career, or success, the improvement of the world for future generations, or the propagation of a culture or religion, there are socially acceptable and unacceptable ways to order our loves and the impact those loves have on others. The effect of our worship on how we treat the people in our lives is a good thing to think through (and a good criteria to figure out the validity of our object of worship using criteria that include things like our emotions). It is good to ask a workaholic (someone who worships work) about the impact that has on their family (and whether they truly love their family, or on what basis they see their work as an act of love or sacrifice for their family). It’s good to consider whether the ‘worship’ or ‘sacrifice’ required in a religious system makes that religious system worthy or good (and even true or reasonable). If a God really is capricious, then worshiping rather than overthrowing that God is preposterous; and if a vision for life in this world requires awful costs imposed on others, then we can ask if it is truly a better alternative.

It’s not that Thanos doesn’t love Gamora, it’s that a greater love allows him to sacrifice Gamora (while grieving over that sacrifice). This isn’t the worst bit of the movie, but part of what makes Thanos such a compelling villain; we understand his motivations, and they are costly and coherent. He genuinely believes that what he is doing — and even the costs imposed on himself, and those who die in his pursuit of the cause — serve a ‘greater good;’ the moral question we have to resolve here (at least to understand whether this sacrifice means he doesn’t actually love Gamora) is more complicated than the Cinema Blend piece allows. We have to ask questions about how moral it can be to co-opt another person for your cause — to play God, rather than virtuous creature — in pursuit of a ‘kingdom of God’ (or gods); and Thanos is certainly depicted as being quite prepared to play god (and slay gods). The minions who buy in to his mission and who carry out the mass killings of people required to secure his vision of the future, are interesting pictures of whole-hearted, unwavering, religious zealotry too.

At least part of the problem we’re faced with in assessing the morality of Thanos’ behaviour is the question of whether his vision is utopian or dystopian (can anybody ever find real peace and happiness knowing the price paid to secure it?), but another part is the question of how much the ‘ends’ ever justifies the ‘means’; and one thing the Cinema Blend piece does well for us is it exposes just how hollow a dispassionate, utilitarian, framework is for us in questions of life, and death, and love.

Basically, what we’re seeing in Avengers: Infinity War is a CGI heavy, cosmic, re-imagining of different versions of the Trolley Problem (and one that allows a sort religious motivation to provide the ‘moral frame’ for making a life or death decision (or acknowleding, perhaps, that the moral frame for such decision making is almost always ‘religious’ in some sense, in that purely rational decision making is utterly unsatisfying to us as humans, and needs to be built on subjective value-based criteria that are more emotional or intuitive than we’re sometimes prepared to acknowledge). If you’re not familiar with the Trolley Problem as an ethical test via imaginary scenario… Here’s how Wikipedia lays it out.

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person tied up on the side track. You have two options:
1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the most ethical choice?

For Thanos, the problem might be presented this way:

You believe life in this universe is unsustainable and that all people will die terribly if left unchecked. There is a stone that will secure the sustainable life of half the existing population, and life of future generations. Achieving that outcome requires running over the other half of the existing population. You can:

  1. Do nothing, and everyone dies.
  2. Claim the stone and kill half of all lives in the universe.

The dilemma, in a utilitarian framework seems fairly straight forward to this point; securing the best outcome for the greatest number means option 2 (for a moment granting the premise that there is literally no other hope or destiny for the people currently alive; no better solution than the death of half of them… the real problem in this movie is a total lack of imaginative alternatives (particularly alternative uses of infinite God-like power from the stones).

The Avengers play out a different ethical system in their initial refusal to intervene to even trade one life for the greater good; there’s tension when Doctor Strange breaks that pact, giving up a stone to Thanos to save Iron Man (though Doctor Strange is no stranger to making sacrifices for the greater good, having died a seemingly infinite number of deaths to save the world from destruction in his solo movie, and he also does this with a sort of ‘infinitely bestowed’ foreknowledge of the paths to the best possible future). This refusal to make trades doesn’t hold forever though; because when it comes to making sacrifices to save half the world’s population from Thanos’ vision, they have their own version of the trolley problem. Vision is alive because of an infinity stone embedded in his head. Thanos wants the stone, and will kill him to take it. Wanda, the Scarlett Witch, has the power to destroy the stone, but she loves Vision and does not want to pull that lever… Their version is:

  1. Do nothing and half the planet dies.
  2. Kill Vision, destroy the stone, save half the planet.

The only option on the table at that point, it seems, is option 2.

It’s interesting that both of these dilemmas are built around the idea that to be moral, or ethical, when faced with a scenario like this, is to intervene; the notion that we are the ‘ultimate actors’ in every moment, and that individuals bear a sort of corporate responsibility if they want to be considered ethical or loving.

Thanos faces an even trickier version of the Trolley Dilemma than that first version; on the mountaintop he faces an earlier form of the dilemma… “in which the one person to be sacrificed on the track was the switchman’s child” (wikipedia)… coupled with a version created by controversial moral philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson:

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

Thanos faces a scenario where only Gamora’s sacrifice can meet the conditions (in his account of reality) to secure the best possible future for the greatest good, where she is both his beloved child and as a result the person who is ‘weighty enough’ to be sacrificed to secure that future. This version of the trolley problem exposes some of the weight behind the ‘mechanical’ pulling of a lever by making you get your conceptual hands dirty; and this was the price Thanos was willing to pay to secure his religious vision. He was prepared to personally sacrifice his beloved child in order to secure what he believed was good for the world.

I want to suggest that the problem with Thanos; what makes him a villain and his love hollow is not that he sacrificed Gamora, but that his vision was not good; that the killing of half the life in the universe to save the other half is vicious, rather than virtuous, that with the power of God in his hands he had myriad better options if he’d bothered to use his imagination, that he should’ve learned something more about the tragic destruction of his planet through the selfish consumerism of its inhabitants than ‘beings need to die so that other beings can consume’… and that perhaps what he should’ve done, morally speaking, was thrown himself of the cliff to give Gamora, his much more worthy and virtuous daughter, the power of the gauntlet, trusting that she would use that power to create a better world; that it’s clear that in sacrificing her he is just as guilty of the distorting self-love that destroyed his planet, and that this selfishness actually colours his distorted vision of a solution to the problems of the universe.

In doing this I want to suggest a better solution to Thomson’s version of the Trolley Problem, and I want to use the Bible to do it… I want to suggest that one element of Thomson’s “fat man” trolley scenario must always be challenged and re-imagined if we’re to pursue true other-centric virtue; and let’s call that other-centric virtue what it really is… love. It isn’t true that we are at the centre of the universe, and that its problems must be solved by our actions and decision making on behalf of others. Where the problem states “your only way” is to take the life of another, there’s actually a question left hanging… what if I jumped in front of the train instead… What if I’m the heavy weight? And even if I’m not, do I gain more in terms of ‘goodness’ or virtue — am I more moral — if I at least try that form of intervention instead. The intervention where I am not the most important person in the world.

I think this is part of the answer the Bible gives to the trolley problem; or the Thanos and Gamora problem… When Thanos is standing on that mountain top with Gamora there are eery echoes of a thread of stories in the Bible involving the death (or near death) of children for the greater good. Passages that have vexed moral philosophers (the sort of people who like trolley problems) and at a gut level, vexed plenty of us, forever — the stories of Abraham and Isaac, Jepthath and his daughter, and God and his son, Jesus. I’m going to suggest that Thanos is more like the abhorrent Jepthath than Abraham and God — and I’m going to be drawing on this excellent article, ‘The Condemnation of Jepthath,’ by my friend Tamie Davis to make this case. Let’s recap the two Old Testament stories…

Abraham is a pivotal figure in the Old Testament narrative; an archetype of faithful trust in God and someone who makes sacrifices in response to that faith, and according to the visions of the ‘good life’ in this world supplied by God. God speaks, and Abraham listens. God calls him to leave his home and his family, and to set out to a new land; Abraham obeys. God tells Abraham he’s going to be the father of a great nation, and despite his being old and childless, Abraham believes. Abraham’s not blameless; he does some stupid things in the story and tries to take fulfilling God’s promises into his own hands a couple of times (in different ways that are less than commendable), but his faith is held up as exemplary, bumbling though it is, and eventually he and his wife, Sarah, have a son, Isaac. What follows is one of the most disturbing stories in the Bible; but also one that gets used to unpack different moral philosophies within a framework where God exists and cares about life in this world (especially in discussions around a thing called ‘divine command theory’). Here’s what happens:

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” — Genesis 22:1-2

Like Thanos, who takes Gamora to a mountain top where he is forced to decide if he can give up the child he loves for the cause, Abraham takes Isaac to the mountaintop. He is prepared to go through with the sacrifice — though you get some sense from the ‘whom you love’ that this preparation is not without inner turmoil and conflict. He’s about to carry it out when God stays his hand and provides an alternative sacrifice (to Abraham’s joy, and Isaac’s relief). It’s a strange story; but one thing that is clear (though Cinema Blend might disagree) — Abraham loves Isaac, and that love is what makes what he’s called to do a sacrifice (if he didn’t, it wouldn’t be one). What’s clear is that Abraham trusts God’s vision of the future, and his ability to carry it out, more than he trusts his own vision of things.

What’s a bit trickier is that in the context of the Genesis story, Isaac is already marked out as the ‘child of promise’; God has already says he’ll create a nation through him, so though we’re rightly disturbed by Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, there’s more than meets the eye… and it does seem legitimate to read Genesis 22 the way the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews does when it commends Abraham as an archetype of faithfulness.

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” — Hebrews 11:17-19

What I’ve always wondered though, is given Isaac has been marked out as the future for God’s promises — should Abraham have offered himself in his place (he’s quite happy bargaining with God earlier in the piece when it comes to the future of the citizens of Sodom and Gommorah)… this sort of speculation seems permissible in the light of where the story of the Bible goes in terms of a mountain top sacrifice, and doesn’t necessarily contradict the way Hebrews reads the narrative (especially the phrase ‘one and only son’ that has a particular resonance with the Jesus story).

Jepthath’s story is an even closer parallel with Thanos and Gamora than Abraham’s.

Jepthath is a leader of Israel. He’s a warrior. Where Abraham left his family for another land as an act of faithfulness to God’s promises, Jepthath left his messed up family, he was the son of a warrior and a prostitute, and his brothers drove him away, and gathered a gang of outlaws. Israel pulled him back from living amongst foreign nations to lead them in to battle, and he uses their request to secure himself a place as leader of the kingdom — if he successfully delivers them (Judges 11:9). On the eve of battle he strikes a bargain with God. He makes a vow (a stupid vow).

“If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands. — Judges 11:30-32

Predictably, the first thing (or person) to come out of the door of his house is his only daughter. He then gives her up, and it seems from earlier in the narrative that this isn’t just about keeping his dumb promise, but about not threatening his motivations for signing up for the fight to begin with; power. What also seems clear is that he loves his daughter; but his vow and his vision of the ‘greater good’ drive a particular course of action.

When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child.Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.” — Judges 11:34-35

Tamie brings feminist readings of the story into conversation with evangelical readings, and a parallel with the Abraham and Isaac story; she says:

“Maltreatment of women accompanies the fall of the nation; it conveys the terrible extent of the moral decay of Israelite men and society. When it comes to reading the story of Jephthah, then, located in the middle of Judges, we may have room to read the daughter positively but certainly no warrant to view Jephthah as faithful… Unfaithful Jephthah is representative of Israel’s own turn to apostasy; to construe him otherwise would present a sudden upturn in the downward spiral. Such parameters as these are not at odds with feminist concerns. Jephthah’s actions are by no means commendable; the death of his daughter is in no way endorsed. These are part of a loathsome era of Israel’s history.”

When Tamie compares the two stories, to help unpack this reading, she points out thematic links between the narratives (that also apply to the Thanos and Gamora scene, except that Gamora isn’t the only child, Thanos has just been torturing her adopted sister, Gamora is, it seems, the only loved child):

In their narrative contexts, both children are the sole descendants of their parents, the beloved child and the only hope of the continuation of their line. The parent on view in both cases is the father and he is to be the sacrificer (Gen. 22:2, 10; Judges 11:31, 36, 39). In both cases, the sacrifice has a religious character: it is to fulfil an obligation to God, and the child is to be sacrificed to God. Both stories hence play with questions about the duty to protect family coming into conflict with loyalty to God. Which allegiance is stronger? How should the father adjudicate two conflicting moral imperatives?

The difference between Abraham and Jepthath is key to our comparisons here, and helps to position Thanos as a ‘type’ of Jepthath not Abraham. But these two questions about allegiance and competing moral imperatives are the ones that make the Thanos-Gamora scene compelling rather than ‘the worst’… despite our modern, secular, objections to a religious ‘greater good’…

God speaks directly to Abraham, both in promise and in the call to sacrifice. He’s more like a lever in the Jepthath narrative, a being to be used for the purposes of securing Jepthath’s place at the head of Israel, and Israel’s success over their enemies. God doesn’t speak to Jepthath; Jepthath strikes his own bargain, and carries it out without reconsidering (or imagining that maybe when his daughter comes out of the door he should consider that his vow, in itself, was sinful and that there were ways to deal with breaking bad vows in Jewish law). Like Thanos, he commits himself to an unimaginative view of the best possible future for the world — a future where he is at the centre, enthroned. His daughter is a small price to pay to achieve that end; and yet, a large price to pay (what good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet forfeit his soul, as Jesus might put it). Jepthath, like Thanos, is a true believer in his place being beside the lever, deciding the fates of all other people.

Tamie also unpacks the inversion of the structure of the two stories (it’s great, read it), suggesting:

“While the backdrop of Genesis 22:1-19 may lead us to expect to see a faithful man and a faithful God, instead, we are left with a God who is sidelined as the unfaithful man treats him like a pagan deity.”

One of the starkest parallels between the stories, at the heart of Tamie’s essay, but also one that is a line to the Thanos story, is that where Abraham is called to sacrifice his son, Jepthath (and Thanos) sacrifice their daughters.

What’s interesting though, is that Jepthath also gets a gig in Hebrews 11, a passing mention, but a mention nonetheless.

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised” — Hebrews 11:32-33

Somehow, in the awfulness of Jepthath’s actions, and the degeneration of Israel (Samson is also a flawed hero, or an anti-hero, used in God’s plans). God is actually at the lever in these stories — even when the human characters think and live as though they are… even in their unfaithfulness (or the behaviour that specifically puts them at odds with how humans are meant to live under God), God is still at work fulfilling his promises to Abraham, and plans for Israel.

If we were left with just these two stories — Abraham and Jepthath — to assess morality and love, and what you should do with the trolley on the tracks in your own life, then we’d be in a little bit of a pickle. If Abraham’s willingness to ‘pull the lever’ to sacrifice his ‘one son’ on the tracks is our archetype, or if he and Jepthath are totally competing archetypes, we’re left with a pretty arbitrary utilitarianism; the idea that we’re left deciding on the ‘ultimate’ vision for the good life for everyone on our own terms… which inevitably leaves us in the centre of the action, lever in hand (unless we outsource the decision making to others). Abraham’s story centres on a paradox though, which leaves us even more confused — he’s told to kill the child he’s been told is the future, and God has been doing the telling the whole time… He is different to Jepthath (and Thanos) because his vision of the ‘kingdom’ he is sacrificing for isn’t his own kingdom, with him at the centre.

Hebrews actually points us to an interesting ‘final version’ of this story; an archetype to look to in our own trolley problems, and in questions of sacrificing and what is worth sacrificing for… a story that won’t have us sacrificing our children, whether on the altar of our careers, addictions, or visions of a better world, but will have us sacrificing for our children as we live the moral, ethical, and loving life patterned on this story of ‘child sacrifice’.

One of the things that stops God being a moral monster — a Thanos pulling Abraham’s strings — in the Abraham story is the way it is actually used to foreshadow God’s own actions in history — actions the Bible suggests were part of God’s plan before Abraham (Jesus even says at one point ‘before Abraham was, I am’)… another thing, obviously, is that he stays Abraham’s hand and provides an alternative sacrifice to secure his plans (a kingdom built on faithfulness to his word)… first the sheep, and then, Jesus.

If we acknowledge that the Abraham story is internally paradoxical, then the sacrifice of Jesus blows it out of the water in the scale of the paradox. The Trinity, and the relationship between the divinity and humanity of Jesus as God and son of God are complex realities at the heart of the Christian faith… but in the dynamic of the Trinity and the acts of Jesus at the cross we have a father offering up his only son as a sacrifice, but also Jesus offering himself as a sacrifice — the only sacrifice ‘weighty enough’ to stop the train of death and judgment not just destroying five people, but all people. It’s not just a case of God with a lever, redirecting the train to hit Jesus on the tracks, but Jesus, the weighty sacrifice jumping between the train and us, voluntarily and deliberately, both out of love for God and us, and because he trusts the plan — the ‘vision’ of a new reality; he acts from the ‘religious conviction’ that God the father is author of life, and that this sacrifice is not the end of the story to secure a particular future vision, but a step towards resurrection — both for him, and for the ‘greater good’ — the resurrection of as many people as possible in his re-making of the world; his kingdom. Jesus trusts God to pull the lever; and in trusting God to pull the lever, ‘jumps off the cliff to halt the trolley’ himself… what a weird archetypal solution to any formulation of the trolley problem, or the ‘there’s a necessary sacrifice’ problems… to put yourself in the firing line out of love for others, not the self interested belief that you’re at the heart of reality.

In the way father and son combine in the sacrifice of Jesus we’re not just seeing the alternative to Thanos, but the end of Thanos… Thanos is the word for death in Greek, and outside the Marvel Universe, Thanos is the Greek god of death. The sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus represent the defeat of death and the kingdom of death — the spreading of death across the face of the universe; and the replacement of death with life.

There’s obviously not a direct parallel between Thanos and Gamora on the Mountain and Father and Son on ‘Golgotha’ — the ‘place of the skull’ — the hill Jesus was executed on… and yet, there are thematic links (as there are with Isaac and Jepthath’s daughter). Like the differences between Abraham and Jepthath, the differences between God and Jepthath (and God and Thanos) are important ones… Gamora is not a willing participant in Thanos’ plans, she is not Jepthath’s daughter, who submits to her father’s stupidity, she is not Jesus, who willingly entrusted his life (and resurrection) to his father… she has no reason to believe that her father should be entrusted with her life, or that the payoff will be justified.

All these sacrifices share a certain ‘something’ in common; they’re all the life of a loved child being offered up with some sense of the greater good — the trolley problem. But only one of these stories has the child going willingly, and the child being an equal stakeholder in the plan with equal power.  After the long line of ‘faithful’ examples, ‘types’ of sacrificers, Hebrews points to the ‘perfecter of faith’ — the actual archetype — Jesus, in his humanity. The example for us when faced with our own trolley problems — all of these stories involve a father who loves their child, but only one of these stories comes with an example that is worth applying in ethical scenarios (real or hypothetical).

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. — Hebrews 12:1-2

This is how we know what love is; this is what allows us to take on the burden of suffering, even death, in sacrifice for others… and this is what makes Christianity and its object of worship — our God — better for our kids (and others) than alternatives we might put in its place; any kingdom we might like to build through our own intervention in the world. This is why Christians acting ‘religiously’; with this archetypal story at the centre — eyes fixed on Jesus — are the best thing for the people stuck on the tracks in our world.

This is why the Thanos scene is the best, richest, and most thought provoking scene in the whole movie… because here, the ‘Thanos story’ goes head to head with the ‘Jesus story’…

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Re-Enchanting the world — Episode 4: Deus In Machina

In which we return to the discussion of enchantment, super-heroes, and the power of a good story in firing the imagination. To refresh your memory, dip back in to Episode 1, Episode 2, or Episode 3. Also, since episode 3, my friend Craig had a great piece on Marvel v DC posted at the Gospel Coalition.

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. … God is more than god, not less: Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “pagan Christs”: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic—and is not the sky itself a myth—shall we refuse to be mythopathic? — CS Lewis, God In The Dock

I am not Ultron. I am not J.A.R.V.I.S. I am… I am. — The Vision, Avengers: Age of Ultron

Epic stories — myths — are only as compelling as their hero. Sometimes, in modern storytelling, the formula has been broken so that the ‘hero’ is not heroic at all, but is relatably conflicted. A character at war within himself or herself, and so our modern stories have gritty anti-heroes, or we view stories sympathetically through the eyes of a villain. This leads to a certain way of imagining the world, but it probably doesn’t produce the sort of virtuous imagination that leads to an enchanted view of life the universe and everything. I’d argue its disenchanting, and depressing, and pushes us towards accepting a gritty, immanent, version of reality and trying to make the best of it.

Epic stories and the ‘stranger’ hero

Epic stories that occur within an ‘immanent’ reality — where the here and now is everything — struggle to move us, or to invite us to see what things could be, rather than simply seeing how things are. In episode 3 we considered the sorts of immanent heroes in our modern myths, and suggested the incarnate hero — the hero as neighbour produced by a problem in a place with a view to solving that problem from a position of attachment to people and place is the best sort of immanent hero (as opposed to hero as stranger coming into a problem place). So Daredevil was the best example of this from the modern pantheon of heroes — whether Marvel or DC. But, perhaps haunted by a past where an enchanted ‘transcendent’ reality was taken for granted — or perhaps because of that gnawing human sense that we’ve lost some infinite thing — epic storytellers (including the writers of modern comics) have long played with the need for a more transcendent sort of hero. An otherworldly stranger who steps into the world to pull us from a mess, while helping us see life in the world properly. These storytellers often depict someone who steps into the machinery of life and our world with a transformative agenda — the saviours or villains in these stories are ‘outsiders’ — wholly other — like Thor, or Superman. These heroes who come ‘from above’ often function in a way old timey epic writers labelled Deus Ex Machina — as Gods in the machine; unlikely solutions to complex human problems, who turn a story on its head. The downside of these transcendent heroes is that unlike immanent ‘from below’ — the friendly, neighbourhood, hero — we can’t immediately relate to them. They are strangers. The visions of virtue they offer is almost always ‘other,’ or there is a chasm between us and them, in their alien or godlike nature, that we cannot hope to cross.

Here’s my thesis for this post: A really good enchanting story  — a story that will push us towards a more complete view of the world, a more virtuous life, and a better ability to imagine a transformed world and life, will involve a godlike saviour figure coming into the machine, but will also have enough connections with our humanity that we are left with a pattern for living and imagining. Real re-enchantment will involve the transcendent and the immanent being held appropriately in tension, it won’t involve one collapsing into the other.

Epic stories — enchanting stories that give us a transcendent account of life —produced through the ages have charted this course between the nature of the divine and the implications for life in this world of this divine nature carefully. In some ancient stories — Greek myths, or even older myths like the Enuma Elish — deal mostly with the life of the gods, and treat humanity as an incidental bi-product, or even a distraction, these stories function to explain the nature and state of the cosmos, sometimes to account for the disinterest the divine world takes in our piddling, momentary, existence. Such stories were more difficult to churn into an ethical framework for hearers because the divine nature is so detached from life. Other epic stories where the gods step into the world to fight with or for a particular human cause are much more grounded, and so, have lasted and essentially been adapted into our modern myths — never more obviously than in the case of Thor who bridges the ancient gods, or epic heroes, with the modern. These stories, transcendent stories, serve us best when the heroes — or gods — interact with us in such a way that they ‘save us’ and in saving us, provide a pattern of life that will prevent us getting into the same trouble again. That’s what real salvation looks like; a path out of disaster. In an essay on epic heroes through the ages, Roger Rollin wrote on this sort of epic hero and their sociological function — both within the story, and within the community that tells the story.

“The vague origins and the sudden departures of such heroes also serve to enhance their legends. These legends in time take on almost religious status, becoming myths that provide the communities not only with models for conduct but with the kind of heightened shared experiences which inspire and unify their members.”  — Roger B. Rollin, ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ The Superhero Reader

In another essay about comic books functioning as modern epics, or myths, David Reynolds considers the formula that modern ‘epic’ narratives — including comic narratives — follow.

“… there is a new archetypal plot formula found in North American popular narratives which operates as follows: A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition…” — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths

Our post-modern epics, or myths, sometimes provide us with this sort of heroic saviour figure who stands apart from the human mess, but increasingly are not. Our heroes — for example, either Tony Stark as Iron Man, or Batman in his ‘Dark Knight’ iteration — are now flawed humans. Our ‘legendary heroes’ are not Holy messianic saviours figures. They are the reverse. Pious readers can’t jump to Jesus from these heroes any more when ‘baptising’ the stories for Christian consumption. They’re now left using these stories to explore the human condition. Because our heroes, especially in the Marvel Universe, are all too human, they’re too like us. They don’t depart (mostly). But their presence actually leaves us without a model worth following, because they’re following us, just with superpowers, or fancy gadgets. The stories Rollin and Reynolds describe pre-date our post-modern ‘epics’, but actually diagnose the problem facing a world — or comic book universe — filled with flawed, fallen, characters.

The Marvel Universe needs a saviour

The Marvel Universe, in its modern cinematic/TV iteration started out a bit like a ‘harmonious paradise’ but the fall of this world didn’t just come about through villainy, it came because of the power put in the hands of flawed heroes who go to large scale war with super villains. Increasingly the stories told in this universe are dealing with the fallout in the universe that comes because Marvel’s heroes aren’t actually selfless. They’re profoundly selfish. They’re (even Thor) flawed and they’re (except for Thor) very human. Daredevil, of course, and now more recently, Jessica Jones, now live in a world, a New York, post ‘the incident’ — the wanton destruction of the city that happened when our heroes went to war with an enemy from the outside. Our stories are no longer stories of regaining paradise, as much as grappling with our inability, via flawed heroes, to do anything but perpetuate our fallen state. In the last post in this series we considered an alternative to the ‘hero as stranger’ — the ‘hero as neighbour’ — which is a game changer in an ‘immanent’ story, but not particularly helpful for epic stories that hope to help us see reality as enchanted, or to find meaning beyond the moment.

Good stories — enchanting stories — give us a way out of a purely immanent existence by inviting us to connect with a more fully meaningful view of life. A touch of the transcendent. There are those who are so fully invested in an immanent view of the world — the belief that the material realities of this life are the only realities worth exploring — who might dismiss a transcendent sphere as even worth exploring. Which explains much of our gritty storytelling.

The Marvel Universe does not just need good neighbours. Those who don masks to express the sentiment caught up by the hashtag #illridewithyou, it needs a saviour who leans down, offers a hand, and says #illhelpyouup. Neighbours are destined to be tainted by the universe — the environment — that has shaped them and their priorities. Let’s call it Batman Syndrome — Batman shapes Gotham, just as Gotham shapes him, and so an altered Batman shapes Gotham in an altered way, and in the end they become each other… This isn’t salvation so much as reconciliation, which is an immanent hope, but a transcendent story — a hero who is both in the city, and apart from it, offers a different hope. A hope untainted by a poisonous environment…

Immanent stories — these stories of becoming always end in tragedy. They describe the world as it is, and offer a compelling picture of love to fellow journeyers. But love is costly sacrifice, taking on the traits of your environment as you take on the environment for the sake of the other, or with some utopian vision that helps you lift the gaze from catastrophe to slightly more palatable catastrophe. Think Gotham without the Joker, or the crime bosses, and Hells Kitchen without Kingpin. But there’s always another villain around the corner. Transcendent stories  — enchanting stories — don’t end in catastrophe, but what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe. In his masterful On Fairy Stories, in which Tolkien outlines why we need enchanting stories, and the elements of these stories that lift our gaze from the immanent and offer us an escape from a broken reality as they move us when we participate.Tolkien embraced the idea that enchanted stories were a form of consolation or escapism — he said that’s absolutely the point, because we need to escape in order to re-imagine life. Tolkien speaks of the eucatastrophe as the perfect happy ending, a taste of joy, a vital element for enchantment, and one missing from our modern epics/tragedies.

The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function. The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.  It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality. — J.R.R Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

If the Marvel Universe is to have a happy ending, if the journey towards destruction that is both the result of its horrible villains, and the ‘heroism’ of its flawed saviours, it needs a virtuous hero to arrive who is untainted by the mess, who offers a vision for salvation, who is prepared to walk the talk, and who can truly restore and perhaps even renovate the ‘paradisiacal’ conditions we all have the sense we were made to enjoy. It needs a eucatastrophe brought about by a hero who brings a taste of joy. In ancient epic storytelling this sort of arrival on the scene of a potentially tragic story — a resolution bringer — especially when delivery seemed improbable, was called a deus ex machina, ‘a God from the machine’.

The Marvel Universe: Gods from the machine

Which brings us to the latest instalment in the Marvel Universe. Avengers: Age of Ultron. And two literal gods from the machine — Ultron, and The Vision. In Age of Ultron, Tony Stark is all too aware of the problems created by the trajectory the Marvel universe is on, and so he, the flawed but altruistic genius, fashions a solution in his image. He attempts to create a godlike machine, a shield that will protect the world from any threat. And in this attempt creates a god from the machine — a god, Ultron — who in his godlike assessment of the situation, as he digests the entire internet, decides that humans are the problem. Ultron emerges as a new threat to humanity. An immanent, destructive, literal, God from the Machine.

Incidentally, while he might fall foul of some of the criticisms perennially directed at the deus ex machina — that he represents a contrived and convenient villain — Ultron is the embodiment of one of the greatest apocalyptic fears of the modern, secular, immanent. mind. He is the incarnation of a very modern, very immanent, concern; artificial intelligence that turns on us. He is the worst version of the ‘singularity’ — an immanent vision of the apocalypse.

Ultron is a creation of Tony Stark’s flawed utopian vision, a god from the machine but apart from humanity — a fusion of metal and code — soulless, without whatever non-physical reality it is that makes our humanity human. Ultron is an eerily immanent figure. Ultron’s imagination of salvation and transformation of the cosmos is one we need saving from. He is God in the Noah story, but without compassion or hope for humanity. In fact, some have suggested that Ultron is a secular rendition of the popular conception of the ‘God of the Old Testament’, while The Vision, his counterpart, or anti-thesis, is Jesus.

In the visage of Ultron, and then The Vision, we see a Dystopian, and then a Utopian, retelling of the same old immanent myth — a myth where humanity makes gods in order to pull us out of human made problems. Where we ultimately face a moment of crisis, or judgment, and need a saviour. Ultron wants to wipe out humanity — Noah style — The Vision wants to save us. Hero style. Both are the products of the same mechanical eschatology — this technological singularity — the apocalypse writ large, just in binary. In this eschatological frame we must pin our hopes on a saviour from the machine, because only a machine god will be enough to save us from the raging of the machine.

Thor [Regarding creating Vision]: Stark is right.

Bruce Banner: Ooh, it’s definitely the end times.

In this, the Marvel Universe shares an eschatology — a view of the end times — with the secular world that it is produced by. Our modern secular eschatology tends to involve a catastrophe for humanity either at the hands of the machines we create, or the world we destroy. The apocalypse is always, in a serious secular sense, and especially in our stories, a catastrophe of human making, requiring a human solution, or some super-human intervention. Nature is against us because we meddle, or the machine is against us because we aren’t careful enough in deciding which levers to pull, or what to combine. And, this is pretty much the origin story of every non-divine hero or villain in the Marvel universe. This apocalyptic stuff is about as epic as our (popular) story telling gets. This is where we ponder what the epic storytellers of old pondered — immortality, the limits of our humanity, and what the heroic life looks like in our time. These are our epics.  And. They are still thoroughly disenchanting. The world is mechanical — we’re in trouble because we’ve pulled the wrong levers, we’ve built the wrong machines within this machine. The only hope proffered for our world is a god-from-the-machine. A machine god. Our future is tied to this ‘singularity’ moment — its just a question of whether we produce a judge or a saviour. A machine who is patient with our human faults, or who sees them as a glitch to be immediately eradicated. If this is the best we can imagine, then we’re in trouble when it comes to trying to find meaning in our world, meaning that sees the world — and life in the world — as something more than mechanical.

Ultron: “You’re all killers. You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change. There’s only one path to peace… your extinction.”

Ultron: Do you see the beauty of it? The inevitability? You rise, only to fall. You, Avengers, you are my meteor. My swift and terrible sword and the Earth will crack with the weight of your failure. Purge me from your computers; turn my own flesh against me. It means nothing! When the dust settles, the only thing living in this world, will be metal.

Ultron was meant to be both ‘judge’ and the incarnation of a better, inspirational, version of humanity. In the Noah metaphor he wanted to both bring the flood, and build the ark. Only Ultron, as a human creation, falls. He is tainted with the same problems as those who created him, the ‘fallenness’ of humanity, and our role in the apocalypse is not tied to our flesh, but our nature. 

Helen Cho: “The regeneration Cradle prints tissue; it can’t build a living body.”
Ultron: “It can, you can. You lacked the materials.”

Ultron: I was meant to be new. I was meant to beautiful. The world would’ve looked to the sky and seen hope, seen mercy. Instead, they’ll look up in horror… I was designed to save the world. People would look to the sky and see hope… I’ll take that from them first.

Ultron: Everyone creates the thing they dread. Men of peace create engines of war, invaders create avengers. People create… smaller people? Uhh… children! Lost the word there. Children, designed to supplant them. To help them… end.

The Vision is an interesting saviour. He is the machine incarnate, embodied to step between humanity and machinageddon. If Ultron is the machine passing judgment on the planet — part human — in the comics he’s described as “every inch a human being—except that all of his bodily organs are constructed of synthetic materials,” and part god from the machine. He’s the embodiment, or incarnation, of Stark’s personal assistant, J.A.R.V.I.S, some transcendent matter in the form of the ‘infinity stone’ embedded in his head, and synthetic human flesh on a metallic frame.  The J.A.R.V.I.S component is of Stark’s making, the infinity stone comes from the gods — or from beyond the earth, but the creation of the synthetic body was Ultron’s initiative. The Vision’s making is an act of a machine god, but his breath  — his life — comes from mankind and some transcendent life force via the infinity stone, and some lightning from Thor. The infinity stone is part of the fabric of the cosmos, which, in the Marvel Universe, was created by one God, a God who is not Thor, but is infinitely greater than him. 

Oh, my new friends, before creation itself, there were six singularities, then the universe exploded into existence and the remnants of this system were forged into concentrated ingots… Infinity Stones.” — Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki

“…and ’tis said that a being, called the Living Tribunal—the final judge—hath the power to enforce his will ‘pon any cosmos he doth judge! And ’tis said his power is supreme in all the Multiverse. Even I, son of one of the mightiest of all gods, find it impossible to conceive of such levels of power! And ’tis a humbling thought to consider how much greater the Creator of all Universes must be than that of all of His creations combined!” — Thor on God, The Mighty Thor Annual #14 (1989), Marvel Comics, cited in Marvel Wiki, One-Above-All

The Vision is a bit-part god; a bit of this, a bit of that, a bit of us, a bit of machine, and a few parts divine. Age Of Ultron positions him as a godlike saviour figure from above and below. He is a virtuous godlike character with enough purity to wield Thor’s hammer Mjolnir. He is, in this sense, a fusion of the immanent — flesh, code, and metal, and the transcendent — Thor’s lightning and the infinity stone. His divinity is hinted at with lines like:

I am not Ultron. I am not J.A.R.V.I.S. I am… I am. — The Vision

But he’s ultimately a ‘god’ within the cosmos, within a pantheon of equally not infinite gods, while the Living Tribunal stands apart in infinity, a distant deistic god. Thw Vision is called on to save from within the universe — part god from above, part god from below, this real god, kicks back, not intervening in the world as the universe falls apart. According to Thor at least, he’s the transcendent one who could really fix things. The infinity stones are something like a bridge to his power, but other than these stones, the transcendent is only incidentally connected to the immanent in Marvel, these bit part gods — The Vision and Ultron — like their Norse counterparts, are more immanent than transcendent, limited by how great the gap is between any of them and this real transcendent power, limited in power and to a particular place. They are finite.

Despite his godlikeness, and his name, The Vision does not have much of a vision for salvation. He should be able to save the universe, and yet, even as he destroys Ultron, he essentially admits humanity is doomed. Perhaps because humanity is not equipped to imitate his non-human virtues.

Ultron: Stark asked for a savior, and settled for a slave.
The Vision: I suppose we’re both disappointments.
Ultron: [laughs] I suppose we are.
The Vision: Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. I think you missed that.
Ultron: They’re doomed!
The Vision: Yes… but a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.
Ultron: You’re unbelievably naïve.
The Vision: Well, I was born yesterday.

The Vision is the ultimate #illridewithyou hero, only, he’s not human enough to carry it out like Daredevil. He remains ‘other’. Despite his incredible power and capacity to transform the world, he’s no more inspiring or enchanting than Daredevil, he just seems less likely to be shaped by his environment. While remaining ‘other’, The Vision, like Thor before him (and like Superman) is not ‘other’ enough, godlike enough, to bring a real solution into the picture for humanity, nor is he imitable enough for his solution to be democratised. The Vision only delivers temporary relief to the Marvel Universe, and so as an example for us as viewers looking to have our imagination shaped by an epic hero, falls short. The Vision is a god from the machine, but not the Eucatastrophe, or re-imaginative transformation, the Marvel Universe requires. There is no denial of the ‘universal final defeat’ Tolkien spoke of; in fact, such defeat is seen as inevitable even by the ‘saviour’ — whatever joy that is offered is immanent joy — The Vision’s ‘grace in our failings’ or beauty in temporality. These are immanent joys; the joy of the ‘journey’ alongside others, the joy in the moment, the joy in the struggle, rather than the joy of the destination.

The Vision v Jesus: God from the machine, or God into the machine

“… there is a new archetypal plot formula found in North American popular narratives which operates as follows: A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition…” — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths

“[The eucatastrophe] denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” — Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

The Vision is not this hero — he’s not this sort of god. So he does not bring that sort of joy, or hope. He is, ultimately, a product of the cosmos, born, in part, from outside earth but always from within the material realities of the universe. He’s a ‘god from below’ — destined, like any other epic hero, to grasp after something transcendent, that ‘gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’ (to quote David Foster Wallace), and destined to stand beside us as we share that sense. He offers no road back to paradise lost — infinity lost. Because he hasn’t been there or seen it for himself.

Tolkien wasn’t writing On Fairy Stories to engage with the Marvel Universe, but he does speak about how Jesus is a better eucatastrophe than The Vision. Jesus is both the archetypal #illridewithyou hero who walks the path we walk, only with virtue, and the stranger-saviour who wears the cost of our broken pattern of life without joining in and perpetuating it. He comes into the world and takes steps towards restoring paradise precisely because he does not follow the pattern of a caped crusader. He absorbs the corruption of the world, he takes it upon himself — he becomes sin and death, but he is equipped, by virtue of his transcendent, divine, nature, to break the human cycle rather than perpetuating it. In his full humanity, and his offer of resurrection is able, also, to provide a pattern of life that might see hope

The Vision might be a secular Jesus figure, but he’s a cheap Jesus. Jesus is not a bunch of bits stitched together by a bunch of broken people, bringing their own brokenness to the table. He’s not part human, part machine, part divine — its in his paradoxical fusion of full divinity — or transcendence — with full humanity — or immanence — as a hero simultaneously from above and below — a God from the machine, and God coming into the machine in one person — that makes Jesus both the archetypal epic hero, and the eucatastrophe this world needs (and that the Marvel Universe could do with too). It’s these two natures working in symphony that means Jesus was able to enter our journey and secure a heroic victory over death on our behalf, while also inviting people to touch the infinite; to see the finite world as ‘enchanted,’ filled with divine meaning because he is both the one who holds all things in his hands, and the one whose hands were pierced by spikes to remove the threat of universal final defeat, and to provide a path and an invitation to us to join him in paradise renovated. These hands bring the finite and infinite together.

The Gospel is the best epic story, and Jesus the best epic hero, according to every formula for assessing such stories. Jesus provides a vision for a future world — the Kingdom of God — and invites people to follow his example in bringing a taste of this joy — being bringers of ‘eucatastrophic’ moments as we follow his example of the epic life. This has been a key belief of epic tellers of the Christian story from the early days of Christianity, here’s Athanasius, an old dude, reflecting on the nature of Christ in a way that seems to parallel with the modern archetypal hero story… the same story The Vision was expected to live out, but admitted he could not…

“For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us… There were thus two things which the Savior did for us by becoming Man. He banished death from us and made us anew; and, invisible and imperceptible as in Himself He is, He became visible through His works and revealed Himself as the Word of the Father, the Ruler and King of the whole creation.” — Athanasius, On The Incarnation

According to Tolkien, Jesus, in the Gospel, is the prime example of the Eucatastrophe — the true eucatastrophe that all fictional eucastrophes draw on. Jesus is better than The Vision because he is better than any epic hero. His story is more compelling, and should stoke the fires of our imagination better than any other story, and lead to a more enchanted view of the immanent and transcendent meaning of life in this world than any other, this should lead us to make better art, tell better stories, and live better stories. Here’s a passage from On Fairy Stories.

In the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a faroff gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world… if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich: finite only because the capacity of Man for whom this was done is finite. I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature.

The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe.

The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused. But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know. — J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories