Monday, June 19, 2017

Making Good Appealing

I read a piece the other day, “The Taste of Strawberries,” by Jeffrey Bilbro for The Imaginative Conservative, about Tolkien, pointing out that his writing does something not easy to do:

One of the reasons that Tolkien’s stories continue to inspire us is that he does something few authors are able to do: he makes goodness compelling and desirable.
Bilbro (I’m delighted that his name sounds like he could be from the Shire) reminds us of the good places Tolkien created:
The Shire, in New Zealand
image from here

We long for the rich life experienced by the hobbits in the Shire, the elves in Rivendell, the dwarves in Moria and their kingdom under the Lonely Mountain, and the men in Rohan and Gondor. These places are not perfect, but their vibrant communities offer rich visions of shalom, of beautiful, harmonious ways of life.
I think he’s right. We don’t often come across imaginary creations that are truly good, yet are beautiful and interesting—never boring. More often we get depictions of good that are less than artistic, and often boring, even contrived.

We have a set of animated videos for children, intended for our grandchildren’s entertainment and learning, particularly on Sundays when we’re separating ourselves out from the world. I think they’re well done. They include music that is often worthwhile beyond the video. These videos depict scripture stories or historical characters. But my granddaughter, in a pique one day, refused to have those boring videos forced upon her. Sigh!

But I kind of understand. So much of literature—including movies—is about conflict, or other things more exciting than the good.

As Tolstoy points out in the beginning of Anna Karenina,

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I’ve always bristled against that. I don’t believe it deep down. Unhappy families come from people doing uncivilized things—lying, cheating, being unfaithful and disloyal, jealousy, coveting, stealing, selfishness, abuse. There’s not really that much variety.

But inventing bad things does seem to be easier. As Bilbro points out,

In many of our movies and stories, the good characters are rather insipid, while the evil ones are much more fascinating. Think about the character of the Joker in The Dark Knight, Walter White in Breaking Bad, or Darth Vader in the Star Wars series. These characters are complex and compelling—they draw us into their struggle.
Even the bad places are fascinating, though often morbidly so. Think The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and plenty of other dystopian series. And in historical literature, we’re drawn to the extremities of war and oppression—hopefully with the uplift that comes from overcoming the evil, but still that’s where we dwell: the German holocaust in Schindler’s List and others, the Armenian Genocide in the recent movie The Promise, the Japanese prisoner of war camps in Unbroken, the story of the survival of Louis Zamperini, or the martyrdom of Bonhoeffer.

It’s not that these aren’t stories worth telling. It’s that there must be stories of good that also ought to be told, and told well. But we’re not good at finding them—or telling them.

Even the way we talk about heaven isn’t appealing—floating about on clouds, playing a harp, singing praises. Most of us (including me) would say that sounds boring if that’s all there is for the rest of eternity. It’s not how I picture heaven.

So how do we picture heaven—or as close as we can get to it here on earth?

There’s a story from the Book of Mormon that uses the image of a tree of life. I’ve met people from other religious traditions that have a tree of life too. In ours, it appears in First Nephi, near the beginning of the Book of Mormon. The prophet and patriarch of the people, Lehi, has a dream. In it there are paths, obscured by a dark mist, on a narrow path alongside a gulf of filthy water. But there’s a rod of iron alongside the path. Those who hold onto the rod and stay on the path get to a beautiful tree, with fruit that is sweet above all that is sweet:

a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy./ And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen./ And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also; for I knew that it was desirable above all other fruit. [1 Nephi 8:10-12]
Lehi's Dream
painting by Steven Lloyd Neal

In this vision, many people seek the happiness of the tree. Many get lost along the way. But those who taste it—you’d think that would be the finale. For some it is, but others, even after they taste the sweetness, fall away from the tree after they notice ridicule coming at them from people pointing and mocking from a large and spacious building. There’s a lot to this dream we could apply as allegory to our lives.

Even if we find the best way to encourage people to seek and taste the good, that’s not the end. But at least we’d better start there.

In Bilbro’s piece, he says (and quotes C. S. Lewis as saying) that portraying an evil character is easy, because we can imagine an exaggeration of the evil already in us. But it’s harder to depict an extraordinarily good character, which we’ve never been. What Tolkien does that succeeds is putting decent but ordinary characters who are drawn to exceptional good and beautiful places.

In the words of Lehi’s Dream, they are people who seek that tree and taste the fruit—and then they remember the taste so clearly that, even when they might be placed in far distant circumstances, they will live for the day they can return and taste that fruit again. As Sam Gangee says to Frodo,

Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo? It’ll be spring soon, and the orchards will be in blossom; and the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket; and they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields; and eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?
So if I had to describe good in a way that would draw everyone to it, I’d say those sweetened-on-the-vine best spring strawberries.

In the Spherical Model, we use this description for good, or civilization. There are happy families, economic prosperity, living in peace, creativity and innovation in the arts and every other area of endeavor. We could use Bilbro’s words and say civilization is “vibrant communities [that] offer rich visions of shalom, of beautiful, harmonious ways of life.”

It’s just a description, not an enticement, really. There’s beauty in civilization. If you can picture it, it’s hard not to want it. But it’s not dramatic. If people are going to visualize it—and, better yet, want it and seek it—they’ll probably need both real-life and literary examples.

I recently spent a week watching a Netflix series based on Anne of Green Gables—a series I’ve read multiple times, and also enjoyed the 30-year-old PBS series. There’s a lot for the new version, Anne with an E, to live up to. But going to that beautiful world (which I’ve been to in person) was worth giving it a chance. The casting was excellent. The scenery, of course, was beautiful. And the parts of the story that actually came from the original were nicely done.
That's us at the Lucy Maud Montgomery home
on Prince Edward Island, in 1985

But then the people who created this new version decided what they needed was drama. So they added things: Anne getting sent back to the orphanage after a brooch goes missing and is assumed stolen (the brooch incident is in the book; getting sent back is not); quitting school because others don’t accept her; saving someone from a fire so that her bravery wins acceptance; willing to go back to school because of feminism (I’m rolling my eyes); a mortgage on the farm; a heart attack for Matthew so he can no longer work the farm (he does have heart problems in the books, but doesn’t get incapacitated in her first year, nor is the farm ever in jeopardy); going to the big city to sell all the household goods, and the horse—and the farm helper who goes along to sell the horse gets beat up and the money stolen; they decide to take on a boarder—who happens to be the thief of the horse money; add in a possible love interest for Matthew, and a near suicide, plus a lot of parenting angst and self-doubt for Marilla.

So, maybe in some other story the drama might add something. But what we love about Anne Shirley is just watching her be herself in that beautiful Prince Edward Island setting that she appreciates so thoroughly. The books are episodic, rather than dramatic. But we don’t mind. Episodes like dying her red hair accidentally green, and floating in a sinking boat to enact “The Lady of Shalott,” which are practically iconic parts of the book, were left out of the new version. What a loss!

We need portrayals of good, or, as Bilbro calls it, shalom, that are enticing enough that adding drama for the sake of drama is unnecessary. Stories still need drama, and contrast, and layers of rich meaning. But we have plenty of depictions of evil.

I think, if we’re looking for stories of the good, we’ll find stories about happy families, with lots of humor, along with facing the challenges that happen just because we’re experiencing earth life. Sometimes dads and moms are the heroes who ought to be “put into songs and tales,” as Sam Gangee would say.

So, I’m on a search—I hope you’ll join me—for the good that will be as memorable and enticing as strawberries in the Shire.

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