Of Wardrobes and Potters

A story about faith and fairy tales.

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today, October 2005 (vol. 49, no. 10), p. 92.

Once there was a land where religion had not yet been forgotten. To be sure, it was declining in importance, for the people were busy and prosperous. But most of them carried a vestigial memory of their ancestral faith. And for the children of these not-yet-faithless people, a man of great learning and warm imagination wrote stories that quickly became beloved. A generation of schoolchildren read them at night, dreaming of worlds inside wardrobes.

Her stories were ever-bolder attempts to reassert a truth that only faith could teach: that love is stronger than power and that only sacrificial love can overcome evil.

Many years passed. The land forgot its founding faith. Churches stood empty or were turned into discos and condos. The great man’s stories, full of faith as they were, had done little to stop the receding tide.

But there was another land across the sea. This land, like the first many years before, had not yet entirely forgotten its faith. On Sundays half the people were in church, though often distracted by their cell phones.

Unfortunately, the people of this new land had a hard time making up stories of their own—even though, or perhaps because, they had the most sophisticated storytelling industry ever created. So they spent most of their time retelling others’ stories, and retelling the retellings. Unfortunately, most of the stories they could recall involved boorish post-adolescent males, car chases, and improbably perfect female bodies in short shorts, and each time they retold them, the stories grew duller. The churchgoing among them longed for better stories, but they had few to tell.

Then one day a powerful man among them noticed the stories from the once-not-entirely-faithless land across the sea. They were rich and lovely, with lions and magic and talking animals. They echoed of the religion that many in his land had not yet forgotten. He opened up his storehouse of treasure, containing more gold than any man except a Hollywood executive could ever spend in a lifetime, and the storytelling began.

The result was, of course, wonderful. Finally the hapless storytelling artisans had a real story to work with, and a budget to match. And the people, especially the churchgoers with small children, were delighted. Many, many times they went to the storytelling palaces, and not long afterwards they opened their purses to purchase small silver story platters to enjoy in their homes.

Religious leaders were the most delighted of all. They envisioned a renaissance of faithful storytelling, the opening up of a new era when faithful people would once again tell the best stories.

But what new stories, exactly, would they tell?

In the old land where the great man had once written his tales, a young mother with a classical education was writing hers. The great man’s tales, as wonderful as they were, had lost their power to charm, since the last vestiges of faith had ebbed away. The mother understood that new stories were needed. And she also knew—though who can say exactly how or why?—that there was something true in those now-empty churches. At least we know this: She had made sure that her daughter was baptized.

Yet strangely, her stories displeased some religious people in the new land. Her heroes were too ambiguous, they complained—even though those disillusioned with faith, the context in which she wrote, know from hard experience that all heroes are ambiguous. Her stories had no lion, no obvious divine figure—even though her countrymen saw magical lions as a dream of childhood that had little to offer the grown-up world.

No matter that her stories echoed with the great struggles of her time against prejudice and terror. No matter that her stories were ever-bolder attempts to reassert a truth that only faith could teach: that love is stronger than power and that only sacrificial love can overcome evil. No matter that unlike the great man’s stories, hers were read not just by children but by college students and young parents and old professors, all staying up late at night to find out what would happen to “the boy who lived,” a boy who just might turn out to be a divine figure after all.

No, some of the religious of the new land were nonplussed by her new stories. They preferred the old ones by the great man from years before. And one can hardly blame them, for her world was not theirs. Still basking in the rays of a sun that had set in her land long ago, they did not yet need new stories.

But the disenchanted world greeted her, and anyone else who could tell a story both new and true, with hungry, hopeful eyes.