On Christian Dragons
Once upon a time...
There was a City on the shore of a great Sea. Its name was Carthage, and it was filled with pagans. But not just any pagans.
These were pagans in the old style. Pagans who studied the liberal arts to become orators. Pagans who studied philosophy to live virtuous lives. Pagans who enjoyed the theater and the circus as entertainment. Pagans who gave money to their city to erect monuments and public works.
And they wanted to become Christians.
Deogratias was the deacon of the cathedral where they came for instruction, but he had a problem. As he wrote his friend and teacher Augustine of Hippo, he was bored with giving the pagans lessons. He didn’t know what to tell them when they asked for instruction, so much so that his discourse left a nasty taste in his mouth, not to mention leaving his audience confused and unconvinced.
“What should I say?” he begged Augustine. “Why can’t I explain to them what it means to be Christian when it is so clear to me? Why do my words fail to inspire them?”
“Start with love,” Augustine counseled him. “But also start with the realization that, if you find your words wearisome and profitless, think how much more frustrating it is for God, trying to talk with us.”
This is what Augustine, the great professor of rhetoric, actually told Deogratias, as translated by S.D.F. Salmond:
Now if the cause of our sadness lies in the circumstance that our hearer does not apprehend what we mean, so that we have to come down in a certain fashion from the elevation of our own conceptions, and are under the necessity of dwelling long in the tedious processes of syllables which come far beneath the standard of our ideas, and have anxiously to consider how that which we ourselves take in with a most rapid draught of mental apprehension is to be given forth by the mouth of flesh in the long and perplexed intricacies of its method of enunciation; and if the great dissimilarity thus felt (between our utterance and our thought) makes it distasteful to us to speak, and a pleasure to us to keep silence, then let us ponder what has been set before us by Him who has “showed us an example that we should follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21). For however much our articulate speech may differ from the vivacity of our intelligence, much greater is the difference of the flesh of mortality from the equality of God. And, nevertheless, “although He was in the same form, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant [being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the] death of the cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). What is the explanation of this but that He made Himself “weak to the weak, in order that He might gain the weak?” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
Got all that? Right. Neither did Deogratias’s pagans. Nor do most modern Christians, to judge from the debates raging on the Internet. (I’m sure you’ve encountered the modern-day Donatists! You haven’t? Try mentioning the pope.)
“But it’s so clear to me!” wailed Deogratias. “That flash of understanding, and I just know Jesus Christ is Lord as prophesied in the Scriptures, born of the Virgin Mary, sent to save humanity from its sins! How is it that others can’t hear me?!”
Imagine that you are Deogratias, surrounded by pagans, and you want them to understand and experience the mystery of Christ.
What would you say?
“You need to tell them a story,” answers Augustine. “And you need to show them that they are already in it.”
Once upon a time...
There was a City on the shore of a great Sea. It was Every City and No City, a great City of Light. And it was filled with pagans. But not just any pagans.
Once upon a time...
There was a City on the shore of a great Sea, and a dragon had captured it. The people lived in fear of angering the dragon. They called it by abstract names like “The Government” and “Scientific Consensus” and “Emergency Use Authorization” in order to avoid attracting its attention. No one had ever seen it, but they knew where it lived.
Once upon a time...
There was a City on the shore of a great Sea about which many stories were told. This is one of them:
I am convinced that if we could tell the supernatural story of Christ word for word as of a Chinese hero, call him the Son of Heaven instead of the Son of God, and trace his rayed nimbus in the gold thread of Chinese embroideries or the gold lacquer of Chinese pottery, instead of in the gold leaf of our own old Catholic paintings, there would be a unanimous testimony to the spiritual purity of the story. We should hear nothing then of the injustice of substitution or the illogicality of atonement, of the superstitious exaggeration of the burden of sin or the impossible insolence of an invasion of the laws of nature. We should admire the chivalry of the Chinese conception of a god who fell from the sky to fight the dragons and save the wicked from being devoured by their own fault and folly. We should admire the subtlety of the Chinese view of life, which perceives that all human imperfection is in very truth a crying imperfection. We should admire the Chinese esoteric and superior wisdom, which said there are higher cosmic laws than the laws we know... If Christianity were only a new oriental fashion, it would never be reproached with being an old and oriental faith. — G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (1925)
Here is another:
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 fairy-story, 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. —J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories” (1947)
And a third:
So that is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the underdog and got beaten, when he submitted to the conditions he had laid down and became a man like the men he had made, and the men he had made broke him and killed him. This is the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero. If this is dull, then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore—on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him “meek and mild,“ and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. To those who knew him, however, he in no way suggests a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand. True, he was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before heaven; but he insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites. He referred to King Herod as “that fox”; he went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a “gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners”; he assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the temple; he drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations; he cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people’s pigs and property; he showed no proper deference for wealth or social position; when confronted with neat dialectical traps, he displayed a paradoxical humor that affronted serious-minded people, and he retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb. He was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either. But he had a “daily beauty in his life that made us ugly,” and officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without him. So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness. —Dorothy Sayers, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged Is the Official Creed of Christendom” (1938)
Once upon a time...
There was a City on the shore of a great Sea. You know the stories that are told about it. You have lived them your whole life.