The Thin Places of Fantasy

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Why would you go back to normal, if you found out that life could be so much more? If you found a reality so much better than what the world was offering you?

This is what some of the best fantasy literature reminds me of and points me toward.

Now when it comes to fantasy, there are different kinds. There’s the fantasy of a Tolkien, which immerses us in an entirely different realm from our own. Then there’s the fantasy that starts grounded in the normal world then pulls back a veil into a realm of wonder. This is the fantasy of Lewis’s Narnia books, of the Harry Potter series, and of some of my personal favorites like Stephen Lawhead’s Song of Albion trilogy and, most recently, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Neverwhere. And while I love Tolkien, what I particularly love about these latter books is the way they reawaken me to the magic threaded through the fabric of creation. Alan Jacobs argues along these lines in a recent essay, “Fantasy and the Buffered Self”:

[T]he desire for a world resonant with spiritual meaning, of one kind or another, does not easily die — perhaps cannot die until humanity itself does. Technology is power, but disenchanted power. And so the more dominant mechanical and then electronic technologies become as shapers of the social order, the more ingenious grow the strategies of resistance to their disenchanting force — the strategies by which we deny the necessary materiality of power. In the literary realm, the chief such strategy is the emergence of fantasy genre.

Why is this drive to re-enchant ourselves so tenacious? Or even further, why is it important? The reason is that such fantasies, while not true, do point us to a truth about the world, that the physical is woven inextricably with the spiritual.

As Christians we have also been somewhat guilty of disenchanting ourselves with bad theology, particularly in our portrayal of heaven. We have often imagined and spoken of heaven as being a long way off, “up there” somewhere, removed from the fallen world. But the reality is that heaven and earth are not so far apart. As N. T. Wright says in his book Surprised By Hope:

Basically, heaven and earth in biblical cosmology . . . are two different dimensions of God’s good creation. . . . When the Bible speaks of heaven and earth it is not talking about two localities related to each other within the same space-time continuum or about a nonphysical world contrasted with a physical one but about two different kinds of what we call space, two different kinds of what we call matter, and also quite possibly (though this does not necessarily follow from the other two) two different kinds of what we call time.

Heaven is not so much far up in the clouds as it is right next to you, just beyond the veil of our space-time-matter dimension. And heaven is liable to burst through, or we to stumble into it, perhaps in the form of a burning bush, or three mysterious visitors come for dinner, or a carpenter from Nazareth. But it is easy to forget about these things in our rational day and age, where the signs seem increasingly subtle. And so in our imaginations we stumble through wardrobes or jump on trains headed for schools of magic. But as we do so, let us not get so lost in the realm of fantasy that we fail to look about us. Let us listen for a brush of angels’ wings behind a veil of wind. Let us keep our eyes open for what the Celts called the “thin places” of the world, for as Elizabeth Barrett Browning said,

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries.
Not one day, in the artist’s ecstasy,
But every day, feast, fast, or working-day,
The spiritual significance burn through
The hieroglyphic of material shows,
Henceforward he would paint the globe with wings,
And reverence fish and fowl, the bull, the tree,
And even his very body as a man.

Chris teaches writing and literature to college and high school students. He is the author of several books of poetry, and has released several albums of original music. He is also an amateur photographer, part-time stick-swordfighter, and chai enthusiast. He and his wife Jen enjoy reading, writing, and exploring the cities, coasts, and forests of New England.


11 Comments

  1. Dan R.

    Thanks, Chris. I read “Surprised By Hope” this summer, and I really like this truth, and how you’ve taken us further in it.

  2. Peter B

    What a fascinating point Alan Jacobs makes. I’m going to have to chew on that for a while.

    “…the way they reawaken me to the magic threaded through the fabric of creation…”

    In this category, I can’t help but add Nate Wilson’s work.

  3. Dawn

    I think this is exactly why I love painters like Georgia O’Keeffe and Emily Carr. They painted landscape but it was MORE than landscape. They saw the spiritual coming up through the land, trees and skies. This is just the “First sketch” as Lewis said. But what a sketch! It quickens my heart!

    Thank you for this.

  4. Peter B

    Aaron, I have never read your blog before — to my detriment.

    Just… wow. Thank you for your faithful work and for inviting us into it.

  5. Loren Warnemuende

    I need this reminder constantly these days. It’s been hard to see through the veil in the midst of stresses.

    This is great:
    “Heaven is not so much far up in the clouds as it is right next to you, just beyond the veil of our space-time-matter dimension. And heaven is liable to burst through, or we to stumble into it, perhaps in the form of a burning bush, or three mysterious visitors come for dinner, or a carpenter from Nazareth. But it is easy to forget about these things in our rational day and age, where the signs seem increasingly subtle.”

  6. Peter B

    Loren, thank you for highlighting that quote. You reminded me of Deuteronomy 30 (picked up by Paul):

    11“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

  7. Lisa

    Thanks for this, I really enjoyed it! My favourite kind of fantasy is the one that starts off in the real world and ends in another. In my novel the main character goes through a Thin Place to end up in Dark Ages Britain. In writing it I’ve entered the world of the Celtic Christians, who were really good at recognizing those burning bushes EBB writes about. It’s helped me to open my eyes more to the kingdom of God, here with us now; the “magic threaded through the fabric of creation”.

  8. Hannah Long

    Thanks for this – it’s gotten me wanting to drop my computer – rush around some corners really quickly, and peer into all the cupboards in our house – just in case. In other words, I remember just what it felt like to be eight years old and reading of Middle Earth.

    My American literature class is studying the Enlightenment right now – our teacher considers that period a paradise of reason compared with the “superstition” of “the dark ages” (i.e. any time before The Enlightenment except maybe Ancient Greece.)

    Before, during that class, I was fantasizing about having a ghostly C.S. Lewis appear to critique this mindset – from now on I’m going to daydream about thin places.

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