Rowan Williams on Fairy Tales

Rowan Williams on Why Adults Don’t Outgrow Fairy Tales

In our day, it is adults who seem most to need and use them [fairy tales], because they are just about the only stories we have in common with which to think through deep dilemmas and to keep alive registers of emotion and imagination otherwise being eroded. …

One way of understanding the fairy tale is to see it as dramatizing the human confrontation with nature and “the impenetrability of destiny”. Our environment, the fairy tale says, is unpredictably hostile and destructive; it is also unpredictably full of resource. Family members may turn out to be murderous and treacherous, ordeals may face us in which our life is at stake, horror and suffering may bear no relation to merit or innocence. At the same time, animals turn out to be saviors, winds and waves mobilize to rescue us, lost parents speak to us through trees in the garden and forgotten patrons (“fairy godmothers”) turn up to support. The amoral scheme of the world can work in our favor; we never know when help is at hand, even when we have gone astray.

The message is not just that there is the possibility of justice for downtrodden younger sisters or prosperity for neglected, idle or incompetent younger sons. [Rather, the message is based] on the conviction underlying all this sort of storytelling: that the world is irrationally generous as well as unfairly hurtful. There is no justice, but there is a potentially hopeful side to anarchy, and we cannot tell in advance where we may find solidarity. Or, to put it in more theological terms, there is certainly a problem of evil in the way the world goes; yet there is also a “problem of good” – utterly unexpected and unscripted resources in unlikely places. And at the very least this suggests to the audience for the tale a more speculatively hopeful attitude to the non-human environment as well as to other people. Just be careful how you treat a passing fox, hedgehog or thrush . . .

From “Why We Need Fairy Tales Now More than Ever,” New Statesmen (19 Dec 2014)

Link: Kate Bowler on illusions of control

Yesterday the New York Times published, “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me,” a short essay by Kate Bowler, a professor of church history at Duke Divinity School. Bowler writes on coming to terms with her recent diagnosis with cancer (as a 35 year old), and how this experience squares with her understanding of the meaning of a “blessed life.” It’s a moving piece. It also sketches a more thoughtful alternative to accounts of suffering and grief than are typically offered by advocates of various prosperity gospels.

For more from Bowler, an expert on the history of prosperity gospel movements, consider her book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford UnivPr, 2013).

On God’s Presence in Affliction

Two Conceptions of God’s Presence in Times of Affliction

A. J. I. Packer

What is the purpose of grace? Primarily, to restore our relationship with God. […] Grace is God drawing us sinners closer and closer to himself.

How does God in grace prosecute this purpose? Not by shielding us from assault by the world, the flesh and the devil, nor by protecting us from burdensome and frustrating circumstances, nor yet by shielding us from troubles created by our own temperament and psychology; but rather by exposing us to all these things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to him more closely. This is the ultimate reason, from our standpoint, why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort and another: it is to ensure that we shall learn to hold him fast. The reason why the Bible spends so much of its time reiterating that God is a strong rock, a firm defense, and a sure refuge and help for the weak, is that God spends so much of his time bringing home to us that we are weak, both mentally and morally, and dare not trust ourselves to find, or to follow, the right road.

When we walk along a clear road feeling fine, and someone takes our arm to help us, as likely as not we shall impatiently shake him off; but when we are caught in rough country in the dark, with a storm getting up and our strength spent, and someone takes our arm to help us, we shall thankfully lean on him. And God wants us to feel that our way through life is rough and perplexing, so that we may learn thankfully to lean on him. Therefore he takes steps to drive us out of self-confidence to trust in himself — in the classical scriptural phrase for the secret of the godly life, to “wait on the Lord.”

from Knowing God (InterVarsity, 1993), 249-250.

B. Robert Wennberg

With the dark night of the soul the genie is no longer there to grant our every wish. God is no longer at our beck and call. By withdrawing, God communicates that he is not the servant of the person of faith, but it is the person of faith who is the servant.

from Faith at the Edge: A Book for Doubters, (Eerdmans, 2009), 65.

For two more conceptions

Austin Farrer on homiletics and theodicies

Austin Farrer on homiletics and theodicies

The Word of God brings upon human pain and strife the consolation of eternal love. It is often thought that the Christian preacher is called upon … somehow to prove that the intolerable evils which ravage the earth are only the price of greater good. But the answer naturally provoked by such explanations is that of the suffering woman: ‘That makes it no better; it hurts just the same.’ Or even: ‘If that is what God’s love does, then for God’s sake let me have a taste of his wrath.’ No, God does not give us explanations; we do not comprehend the world, and we are not going to. It is, and it remains for us, a confused mystery of bright and dark. God does not give us explanations; he gives up a Son. Such is the spirit of the angel’s message to the shepherds: ‘Peace upon earth, good will to men … and this shall be the sign unto you: ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.’ A Son is better than an explanation. The explanation of our death leaves us no less dead than we were; but a Son gives us a life, in which to live.

from The Essential Sermons, (SPCK, 1991), 204.

Robert Jenson on theodicy

Robert Jenson on theodicies

“All theodicies must eventually fail, whatever wisdom they may yield on the way. The evil and sin in God’s creation will always be reason to deny him; Luther’s rationalist will always have arguments for his conclusion. If we join the creeds against nihilism on the one hand and gnostics on the other, or against contemporary fusion of the two, our confession of a good Creator is and will remain a great ‘nevertheless,’ a defiance of what we would otherwise conclude. We may, however, explore the ‘nevertheless’ from within. […]

“Would any one sin or any one of history’s horrors have had to happen? No. Would the world have been another world without any particular selection of these? No. For sins and for horrors we can only repent and weep. Nevertheless we may give the last word to Maximus the Confessor, a man better acquainted with horror than most, and to the story of Jesus: ‘The one who knows the mystery of the cross and the tomb, knows the reasons of things. The one who is initiated into the infinite power of the Resurrection, knows the purpose for which God knowingly created all.’

“Maximus’s knowledge is that of initiates, into a mystery-event. Those who are baptized into Christ’s death and say ‘Amen’ to the Eucharist’s prayers and behold the Fraction of the bread that is Christ’s body, these are the ones who know the goodness of the creation, also as it is plotted by Christ’s suffering, and so also, somehow, as it is plotted by the sin for which he suffered and the evil that he suffered. The great ‘nevertheless’ cannot finally be resolved from the conceptual outside; but it can be liturgically inhabited.”

From Systematic Theology: The Works of God, Vol II., (OUP, 1999), 23-4.