One of my favorite blogs is a site called Story Warren. Story Warren’s tagline is “Allies in Imagination,” and its stated purpose is “to serve you as you foster holy imagination in the children you love.”
One of the things I love most about Story Warren is that it’s a place where people care about stories and are passionate about sharing the best stories with children to help them grow in both godliness and creativity. The people there think about stories, about what makes them good or bad, appropriate to share with our children or not, and under what circumstances.
So I appreciate deeply the thought and care that Josh Bishop put into his post about the nature of symbolism and story. That said, I’m afraid I’m going to respectfully disagree with his conclusion. (If you haven’t read Josh’s post, please do him the favor of doing so before you read my response.)
Josh claims that symbols in stories “embody for us, and especially for our children, something deeply true….[Symbols] put warts and hands and jaundiced teeth on an otherwise invisible truth.”
So far, I am in complete agreement. But he goes on to claim that:
Giants are real… because evil is real. And Jack climbs his beanstalk to teach our children the only proper response to evil: “Giants should be killed,” Chesterton wrote, “because they are gigantic.” Anything less would turn the world on its head.
Yet our culture has inverted these timeworn symbols, and to the extent that we mix up our symbols—that we take a giant, which has always meant evil, and call it good instead—we risk mixing up our morals.
Here’s where I begin to disagree. For one thing, I don’t think symbols are as univocal as Josh claims. A giant, for instance, isn’t always evil (think of Rumblebuffin in Narnia). And part of the nature of a symbol is that it can mean more than one thing. In Christian tradition, the lion symbolizes Christ (the lion of Judah), but in Scripture as often as not, a lion is a symbol of the enemy (see Psalm 22 or 91) and even The Enemy (1 Peter 5). Symbols are multivalent. That’s part of what makes them so powerful.
For this reason, I don’t think the issue is truly with the symbols. The issue is that we’re inundated with stories these days in which there is no evil or in which evil can be defeated if we’re just loving and understanding enough (an idea Josh mocks so delightfully in his “Jack-the-Giant-Hugger” story). I share Josh’s objections to and concerns about the ideas behind these stories: that the only evil is intolerance (which is bogus) and that there is no sentient malevolence in this world bent on our destruction (which is not just false but dangerous).
But he seems to be conflating these false ideas about evil with the symbol(s) used to represent them. And I’m not convinced that the conflation is either necessary or true. The symbol, I would argue, matters less than the reality it points to. Whether there’s a giant or a fanged rabbit or a fallen angel of light at the top of that beanstalk is not nearly as important as the fact that the giant, the rabbit, and the angel incarnate evil and must be defeated.
The symbol—in this case, a giant—points beyond itself to something deeper, and because symbols are multivalent, they can point to different things, depending on the story in which they’re embedded. Sometimes, as in Jack and the Beanstalk, the giant needs to be killed, and sometimes, as in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he needs a handkerchief.
Children are capable of understanding which response is appropriate in a given story. They already understand that a good book creates a world that is different from other worlds and that the world in one book is different from the world in another, so they are able to recognize that the Lion Aslan is good and the Nemean lion is not. As my nine-year-old son, said, “People don’t think kids are smart enough to tell the difference between a good dragon and a bad one, but we are.”
Jack (my son) is right: kids are smart enough to discern the different characters behind a symbol, but only, I must add, if they are trained to do so. It’s our job as parents to help our kids grow up to be discerning, to be able to test the spirit of our symbols—just as the Hebrews of old had to test the spirit of their prophets—so they can tell whether the symbol is pointing to God and good…or elsewhere.