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Friday, September 28, 2012

The Fairy Tale

A Reflection for St. Mary and St. Martha of Bethany for October 2012
By Daniel Haynes
Christianity is the greatest fairy tale of all time…

Before you slam down your computer or mobile device, please hear me out. What I mean by this seemingly pernicious statement is very different from how it may sound. Before unveiling my intention of calling Christianity a fairy tale, I think it is important to first ask, from a Christian point of view, why is this statement so shocking? As we approach Halloween this month, I really cannot think of better theological question to ask. Even though Halloween does not have anything to do with Christianity, it reminds us all that we have lost an enchanted cosmos, where something supernatural can occur in the natural world. Let me unpack this a little.

In the West, we are generally shaped and formed by a certain narrative about life and existence. I would like to say that this narrative is a Christian one, but unfortunately this is not the case, well not the whole case anyway. Instead, there is a shadow narrative of Christianity in modern society called secularism. This view of life says that there is a realm on the earth, where God and faith are not at the center; there is a neutral ground whereby we can all hash it out in the public square of ideas. Yes, there are a many good and welcomed outcomes from adopting a non-religious foundation for thinking about the makeup and organization of society, such as being able to get along civilly in a pluralist culture. However, my focus here is not on politics or economics—though these areas are not outside of theological reflection—but on the loss of a theological imagination. For how can the kingdom of God leap out in expected and unexpected places if we assume from the outset that we are the masters and authors of the terrestrial landscape, a material domain excluded from the grasp of the spirit?

Often coupled with the Western movement towards secularism is another highfalutin academic word called naturalism. This view of the world says that only what is physical exists. This means that God, the soul, and angels should not be believed in because they are not physical and available for scientific observation and scrutiny. There is certainly nothing wrong with scientific discovery and innovation. In fact, I am a huge supporter of the scientific endeavor to understand our amazing universe. It is not what is included in science that is troubling for Christian theology but that which is left out as a possible explanation for reality. I am referring here to the supernatural.

Before the Enlightenment in the 18th century, Western Christian culture generally understood the world to be composed of two interweaving and interacting realms: the natural and the supernatural. We can see this not only in the Pagan legends, such as Irish fairy tale of “Knockgrafton,” where the humpback Lushmore comes across the song of the Trooping Fairies and his hump tumbles off his shoulders, but also in the Christian imaginings of the enchanted world, such as another Irish fairy tale called “The Priest’s Supper,” where Father Horrigan interacts with fairies and catches a salmon dinner.  

What these stories reveal is that the realm of the spirit is always around us and that something unexpected is lurking just under a lilly pad or behind a tree. The enchanted cosmos is a place where fairies, elves and angels dance and sing to demonstrate the gift of materiality and embodiment. Many of the great folklore tales involve the hero or heroine receiving assistance from a supernatural being (either good or evil), such as the fairy mender of pots and kettles Tinker Bell in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. The assistance often comes in the form of something physical yet magically potent, such as a ring, or fairy dust in the example of Tinker Bell. These objects help the characters in the story to achieve a happy ending, to discover something about themselves that they never before thought possible. A physical gift imbibed with magical potency not only transforms material reality, but it also transforms the recipient of the gift. So when Peter Pan is sprinkled with fairy dust and thinks wonderful thoughts, he is able to fly away to Neverland. So, how is Christianity a real fairy tale?

The first point to lay out on the table is that a purely modern scientific view of reason, the naturalistic form that is, will not allow for the enchanted cosmos of the fairy tale. In Modern thinking, there is an absolute division or rift between the physical and the spiritual worlds. The divine is always beyond the horizon of human knowing and experience. Fanciful folklore is just fiction, stories made-up for the amusement and entertainment of children; they are not characteristic of the “real” world.

While the existence of fairies or the truth or falsehood of fairy tales would be an interesting discussion, this is not the focus of my reflection here. A fairy tale is true to the extent that it shows us how to read the world. For the world of the fairy tale is one where the miraculous can happen, where a magical gift or interjection can reveal that the physical is not all there is to this world. Similarly, a Christian view of the world is one where a thousand angels can indeed dance on the head of a pin, and a divine grace can be given through the materiality of the bread and wine in the Eucharistic celebration. For this reason, 16th century poet Richard Corbet laments the loss of a dynamic spiritual and physical universe in his poem ‘A Proper New Ballad, Entitled the Fairies Farewell, or God-a-Mercy Will’ [1]. The first line of this poem states “farewell, rewards and fairies.” Corbet is referring to the closing of the monasteries in the British isles and the loss of the magical. He connects the magical realm of the fairies with blessing and gift of the monasteries residing in the land in the second stanza of the poem:

Lament, lament, old abbeys,
The fairies lost command;
They did but change priests’ babies,
But some have changed your land;
And all your children stolen from thence
Are now grown Puritans;
Who live as changelings ever since,
For love of your demesnes.

The Christian view of the world, one with a rich theological imagination that is in point of fact true, perceives physical reality as permeated by the divine. As Bishop Whitmore reminded us all at St. Mary and St. Martha last month, the spiritual world is even more real than this one because of the superabundance of truth that it reveals in and through the physical world. This is why elements of the Christian narrative, such as the cup at the last supper or the burial shroud of Jesus, took on fairy tale like signification in later medieval legends. Again, the important question is not whether such items exist—though I am not discounting the significance of such questions—but whether we can read the world as a Christian story?

The Christian story is the greatest fairy tale ever told, not because it is made-up, but because it proclaims the truth that the supernatural and divine can incarnate into the very bone and marrow of created existence. As the opening to the Gospel of John tells us, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Because Jesus the Word took on flesh, we can experience divine grace and power in material existence. The supernatural can appear unexpectedly in the world, such as in a miracle, and we can be led to the divine through the physical signs and symbols that we celebrate in the mass. There is a wonderful reciprocity between the natural and the supernatural in the Christian story because of the Incarnation.      

In a beautiful sermon by fourth century bishop Gregory Nazianzen, the theme of the Incarnation is described as “play.” Gregory says, "The High Word plays in every kind of form, mixing, as he wills, with his world here and there" [2]. Later commentators tried to imagine what the great Church Father meant by the phrase “the High Word plays.” Several centuries later, another Father of the Church, Maximus Confessor, described this phrase as a kind of spiritual pedagogy or learning:

"Perhaps, then, as I said, from these passages we may find a way of interpreting “The High Word plays.” To use examples from things we are familiar with to explain matters that are above us: it is like parents helping their children, about out of indulgence seeming to take part in their childish games. They play with nuts and dice, or prepare for them many-colored flowers, and clothes dipped in colors that enchant the senses, and play hide and seek, or are astonished, as if they had nothing else to do than play at children's games. But after a while they lead their children on further, and begin to share with them more perfect reason and their own concerns. So perhaps in these words the teacher is saying that God who is above all leads us through the historical nature, so to speak, of the appearance of created things to amazement and a kind of ascent through contemplation and knowledge of them, rather in the way in which we care for children, and then introduces the contemplation of the more spiritual meaning (logos) within these things, and finally leads us by way of theology up to the most hidden knowledge of himself" [3].

I believe Maximus is pointing to the truth of the fairy tale, that the world should be read as a story where divine truths and powers can be communicated through everyday material existence, even through simple children’s games. Not only are we enticed by the divine through the material world, but the material world acts as a sign or symbol directing the gaze of the mind upward to transcendent truth. We cannot have eyes to see the truth if we do not first have an active spiritual and theological imagination.

Perhaps this is why Jesus reminds us in the Holy Scriptures that in order to truly see the kingdom of God we must come to Jesus like a little child (Matthew 18). In this passage, Jesus is talking about having humility and openness to God like that of a child in order to see the work and power of kingdom. It is this openness to God’s kingdom and a desire to see the miraculous and the impossible that fuels the imaginations of little children. This is why the fairy tale is so appealing to the world they inhabit.

My little five-year-old niece is obsessed with fairies, princesses and princes (affirming my theory that all children are secretly monarchists). When we go on walks in the park, we have to be on guard and look out for fairies because “you never know where they could be hiding.” What if we adults regained this sense of wonder at the mysteries hidden in the world? What if we could theologically re-imagine the world as a Christian fairy tale, where Christ and the angels play in a thousand different places? The next time you read your child a story from the Bible or take them to mass, remind them that the physical is not all there is in this world. They can experience the mysterious power of God all throughout creation, in the stories of Holy Scripture and in the Eucharist because the Incarnation of Jesus makes an enchanted cosmos possible. This is why the Christian story is the greatest real fairy tale ever told. We must learn to read the world as a Christian story full of mystery and divine potency.

1. I would like to thank my teacher John Milbank for pointing out this poem and the general theme of the relationship between Christianity and fairy tales in his article,  “Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,” Religion & Literature Vol. 37, No. 3 (Autumn, 2005), pp. 1-35

2. Gregory Naziazen, Sermon 29.2. 

3. Maximus Confessor, Difficulty 71.


  1. This seems similar to C.S. Lewis referring to Christianity as 'true myth.'

    1. Yes, in a way, but myth is different from fairy tale. Milbank addresses the difference between the two (basically differences between a focus on the objective vs. subjective) in his article that I cite at the end.