…When all looked lost, their tragedy turned to comedy: the dragon was slain, the wicked king was overthrown, the quest was completed, the heroes returned, the princess was saved and she married the knight. So they all lived happily ever after.
What do you make of fairy tales? C.S. Lewis loved them. He spent much of his life studying and teaching the ancient Greek, Roman and Norse myths, and he went on to write some of the most popular fantasies of all time – the Chronicles of Narnia series (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and so on). In many ways myths were Lewis’s life, yet he had mixed feelings about them. He was enthralled by the stories, but at the same time he considered them as escapism – as mere fantasies. One night, though, he had a conversation that changed everything.
On 19 September 1931, Lewis was speaking with his great friend J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings. Mr Narnia was chatting with Mr Middle Earth! At this point Tolkien was a Christian but Lewis was not. In fact Lewis had a big problem with Christianity, namely the Easter story. He could understand that people might believe in a God. He could appreciate that God might want people to live in a certain way. That kind of religion sounded reasonable enough. But that isn’t Christianity. Christians insist on telling a story – all about God coming to earth to die for his creatures. More than its creeds or rituals or moral codes, it is the Easter story that is central for Christians. And that was Lewis’s sticking point. He didn’t understand how the death and resurrection of Jesus related to the rest of Christianity. What on earth was the point of Easter?
In answer Tolkien directed Lewis back to all the myths he loved. Didn’t Lewis appreciate the ancient stories of the dying and rising gods?
Didn’t he see how those myths worked on his heart in a profound way? Yes indeed, Lewis was deeply moved by such stories. Well, declared Tolkien, Christianity is the ultimate story of the dying and rising God.
But, Lewis countered, all those stories are just myths. They aren’t true. In a memorable phrase Lewis called them ‘lies breathed through silver’ – they are beautiful but ultimately empty.
How would Tolkien respond? Surely he would have to agree with Lewis. No-one could think that fairy tales were real, could they? Tolkien shocked Lewis with his answer: ‘No,’ said Tolkien, ‘they are not lies.’1 This was earth shattering for Lewis. If Tolkien was right, then there is such a thing as a real fairy tale. There exists a grand story that lies behind all other stories – namely Easter. Easter is the ultimate and original myth – the myth that really happened.
This got Lewis thinking of all the stories he had loved – not only tales of death and resurrection but stories of rags to riches; of defeating the monster; of epic quests; of grand romances; of desperate tragedies; of joyful comedies; of victory snatched from defeat; of the prince marrying the pauper and the happily ever after. These stories resonate with us across the cultures and down the ages. But why? Is there a reason our hearts are tuned to such realities? Might there be a grand, original story that is reflected and refracted in our little stories? And could this explain the centrality of Easter?
THE TRUE MYTH
Within a month of this famous conversation Lewis had all but converted to Christianity. He had begun to see the story of Christ as ‘a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.’2 In the Gospels – the biblical biographies of Jesus – Lewis said the old myth of the dying God ‘comes down from the heaven of legend … to the earth of history. It happens – at a particular day, in a particular place.’3
All the other myths take place in dreamtime – fairy tales happen, as Star Wars begins, ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’. The gods live and die beyond our time and space. However, the Gospels show Jesus living and dying in our world, under the reign of named rulers like Pontius Pilate.
This historical character sets the Jesus story apart from all others. Lewis later wrote, ‘As a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever the Gospels are they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing.’5 Legends are set once upon a time. You simply cannot answer the question ‘when?’ about any detail of a legend. You cannot find out when the Norse god Thor married his wife or when the Hindu deity Krishna fought Kaliya. Those stories are not set in our world of time and space. By way of immense contrast, the Gospels are detailed accounts of people, places and times. Even as they tell the most wonderful story, they are written as serious history.
So we find in the Bible an unparalleled combination: mirroring the claim that God entered the world as man, we see in the Gospels that a great myth has entered history as fact. There is an anchoring of the great stories in our time and space. Just as the gods sacrifice and come to life, so Jesus gave his life and rose again.
Just as the knight comes to slay the dragon, so Jesus came to defeat the powers of evil. Just as the prince comes to marry the pauper, so Jesus came to win his beloved people. Just as the hero comes to complete the quest, so Jesus came on a mission from God. And as he fulfils all these classically heroic roles, Jesus turns rags to riches and tragedy to comedy. Here is the love story that has really happened!
Lewis had thought of myths as silvery lies. When examining the Jesus story, he found it to be solid gold truth. More than this, he found it to be the fulfilment of all other stories. In Jesus – and in particular in the Easter story – Lewis discovered an answer to his heart’s cry for meaning, joy, hope and love.
In this book we will explore the Easter story for ourselves. We will examine the weekend of Christ’s death and resurrection – events that are traditionally known as the passion of Jesus Christ. Christians see Easter as the culmination of God’s great love story. As Jesus stoops, suffers, sacrifices and stands again, he is bringing to fulfilment an ages-long romance. Love Story is about listening to that romance again.