Andrew Fulford Archive Nota Bene

Milbank on Imagination and Children’s Literature

Dr. Milbank writes:

This calls forth a wider reflection: is the entire adaptation of Christianity to a fantastic mode itself a sign of de-Christianization and a post-religious approach to religious materials? A conversion of doctrine into fictionalized myth might be seen as one manifestation of a post-Christian phase in which what was once truth still persists in the echo of public value. Moreover, the association of erstwhile Christian realities with other worlds, lost worlds or past worlds, might suggest a certain note of pathos pervading all such literature.

In a way, it is arguable that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien or J.K. Rowling are in negative agreement with Don Cupitt: there is no core of theological realism that can survive the lapse of belief in an enchanted cosmos. Hence one can read their work at times as a lament for the loss of enchantment. If it is more than that, if it is part of a project of re-enchantment, as seems to be the case, then one might ask, would not such a project have to exceed the realm of the fictional imagination? Can there be in any sense a realist understanding of this literature’s engagement with the seemingly fantastic?

I want to suggest that it is possible to read what I shall call “the MacDonald tradition” as more than a kind of rearguard action of retreating faith. It is not so much that this tradition merely represents Christianity in a fictional mode, as that it re-envisages Christianity altogether, in continuity with certain strands of the Romantic tradition, in terms of the categories of the imagination, the fairy realm and of magic. It is as if, in the face of the decline of Christianity, MacDonald and Chesterton put forward the radical claim that this decline is linked to a perennial failure of abstract reason sufficiently to grasp the character of Christian doctrine and practice.