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Worshiping Thor

November 25, 2013 — 20 Comments

thorI have a confession to make. One that is particularly awkward for a pastor.

The current success of the recent films about the Norse god of thunder have reminded me of one of the “errors” of my youth.

As a young boy I discovered great delight in reading comic books. And among all of the countless Marvel and DC titles I read during my youth, none was more precious to me than Thor. I never really “worshiped” him, of course, but I was enraptured by his saga.

I loved the comic, and it was difficult to wait each long, long month for the next issue to be published. I followed Thor’s adventures with intense devotion. An intense loyalty that was probably inappropriate since it was directed towards a pagan deity.

To make matters worse, the part of the magazine that appealed most to me was not the contemporary escapades of the otherworldly hero. The feature that most captivated my imagination was a smaller story included in each issue and entitled “Tales of Asgard.”

These stories were terribly brief, only five short pages, and didn’t introduce contemporary terrestrial or interstellar villains. Instead, they recounted the historic tales of Norse myth and religion. Their very earthiness—their historical authenticity—impressed me far more profoundly than did the 1960s superhero fare so commonplace during that era.

In fact, in Thor’s two cinematic blockbusters, I find the same to hold true. I find the mythological elements, the portions of the story set in Asgard far more captivating than the familiar, run of the mill heroic landscape of Midgard (Earth).*

I doubt  I am alone in my appreciation of the mythical over the scientific or magical elements. In the preface to The Pilgrim’s Regress, C.S. Lewis wrote, “When allegory is at its best, it approaches myth, which must be grasped with the imagination, not with the intellect.”

C.S. Lewis wrote a great deal about the power of myth. Like his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, Lewis brought myth to life in The Chronicles of Narnia. In 1944, Lewis wrote an essay entitled “Myth Became Fact.” In it he explores the notion that in a sense Christianity too, is a myth—with one distinction from all of the rest.

Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. 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.

I began by saying I was making a confession of sorts. In truth, fascination with myth is nothing to be ashamed of. Lewis describes how it was precisely his own interest in such matters that played a primary role in his conversion to Christianity. In a 1931 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, he describes the incipient process. These words foreshadow the message of the essay referred to above.

Now what [Hugo] Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels.

The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose “what it meant.” Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call “real things.”

Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a “description” of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The “doctrines” we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened.

The awareness that a mind so brilliant (and sanctified) as Lewis’ recognized the value of myth comforts me. I guess, in retrospect, that my youth was not entirely misspent reading those amazing stories. Thor still occupies a special place in my life journey, albeit not in a pantheon.

_____

* There are nine worlds in Norse cosmology. Midgard lies between the noble worlds of Asgard, Vanaheim and Alfheim . . . and Jotunheim, home of the frost giants, Svartalfheim, realm of the Dark Elves, and Muspelheim, abode of the Fire Giants and demons.

I was recently reminded that February 2012 marks the seventieth anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece, The Screwtape Letters. Other bloggers have remarked on the anniversary, for example here and here.

Lewis dedicated the book to his dear friend and fellow Inkling, J.R.R. Tolkien.

If you’re unfamiliar with the letters, you really should rectify that gap in your knowledge. The letters are penned by Screwtape, a senior Devil, to Wormword, a less experienced tempter. They illuminate Satan’s demonic tactics and provide keen insight into our fallen human nature, replete with its countless vulnerabilities.

There’s even a graphic novel version of the collection which was published in 1994 by Thomas Nelson in partnership with Marvel Comics.

While the anniversary of the Letters in and of itself is certainly significant enough to merit a blog announcement . . . this post includes something quite rare. The fact is we’ve come into possession of one of Screwtape’s instructional emails, written to another subordinate demon.

For the benefit of those who would arm themselves against the snares of the Enemy, we reproduce it in full below.

(Oh, and as a reminder, when Screwtape refers to his Enemy, he is actually talking about the Creator of heaven and earth. Also, you can’t actually trust anything he writes since he’s a Liar, just like the archangel he followed so long ago. For example, note his incorrect reference to his own “immortality.”)

My Dear Esculentus,*

Another decade has passed since that puppet of the Enemy released to the world a portion of my correspondence with Wormwood. Of course, the lamentable Wormwood has had ample time to regret his carelessness in that matter, as I often remind you.

A decade’s but a snippet to immortals such as us, of course, but to the mortals it marks a significant portion of their brief lives. Why the Enemy loves those pitiable insects so much goes beyond logic!

Still, another halfscore has flown past and that damaging treatise remains in print. In fact, if anything, it continues to grow in popularity.

We simply cannot have our “patients” made aware of our treatment regimen for them. If they come to realize that our most successful deception is untrue, the relentless work of centuries will be undone.

We have labored tirelessly up to the present day to persuade humanity that all truth is subjective! Fortunately, the vast majority of the population in what are ironically labeled “enlightened nations,” has accepted our suggestion. This allows them to eagerly swallow the comforting lie that “all roads lead to god.” If they realize that all roads do indeed lead to a ‘god,’ they might abandon one of the many paths that lead to our Master who is ever-eager to “swallow” them in turn.

Better by far that those entrusted to our misleading, nourish our infernal Father than that you and I sate his appetite. (As you know, I say that figuratively, since our Father’s hunger for power can never be truly satiated. His all consuming hunger is one of his infinite qualities, which we rightly extol.)

But, back to your primary concern my appetizing friend, your patient. By all means keep him from reading The Screwtape Letters. In fact, the farther you keep him from anything written by Clive Staples Lewis, the better!

Keep him in the company of liberal companions who have embraced the myth of there being no objective truth. That way, we can prevent him from ever meeting the Enemy who proclaims himself to be—yes, disgusting isn’t it—the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Never pass up an opportunity to impress upon your patient that such a claim is politically incorrect to the utmost. Remind him he will be shunned by society if he argued there was a single truth. Indeed, make him think the very suggestion that anyone sincerely following another path might be lost, is repugnant.

Many of your fellow tempters have experienced great success in motivating the humans they treat to replace in their world views the virtue of Truth with the sentimentality of Sincerity. This you must do as well.

Persuade him that the eternal destiny of all who believe in something, is secure. Convince him that it is by their sincerity that they are saved. Oh how sweet it is when they accept this dark epiphany!

And it has never been easier to win humans over to this view than it is today. If you wish to embellish the doctrine with vague language about “God being love” and all that, so be it. Just see to it that they never open the Enemy’s book to recognize how grossly they have edited and distorted that concept!

Oh, and in closing, allow me to once again remind you of how I began this digital epistle. (We both know that it frequently takes a dozen or more reminders to make a firm impression on your dull mind.)

Do whatever it takes to ensure that your patient never reads the Letters! And, be wise to guard our own correspondence, lest you end up in the agonizing company of the afore-censured Wormwood.

Your affectionate adoptive Uncle,

Screwtape

*Esculentus translates from the Latin as either “delicious” or “succulent,” and if you have read The Screwtape Letters you know what that suggests about Screwtape’s interest in his protégé.