There are people who believe that the story at the center of Christmas—that a virgin conceived and bore the Son of God—is a myth or a fairy tale. And they are right. It is.
In his book The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton points out that the ancients (at least those who were not privy to divine revelation) employed two approaches to reality: The first was reason, and the second was imagination. The tradition of reason produced philosophy and history, and the tradition of imagination produced myths and fairy tales.
Both were attempts to approach truth. Reason tried to approach truth through the process of logical argumentation, and imagination through the telling of stories. The methods of reason worked to reveal the ultimate nature of reality, and the methods of imagination worked to reveal the meaning and purposes of things. But, as Chesterton pointed out, the two traditions operated as entirely separate streams of thought. It was only Christianity that ultimately brought them together.
This was precisely the issue C. S. Lewis worked through before his Christian conversion. History, he believed, was factual but had no meaning, and while myths had meaning, they were not factual. They were two streams of thought, and he didn’t see how they could be brought together. Breaking through this false dichotomy between reason and imagination is what led him to the brink of the Faith.
In fact, the two approaches were often pitted against each other. In 1904, Chesterton responded to the atheist editor of London’s Clarion newspaper, Robert Blatchford, who had argued that the fact that many Christian beliefs had the same character as myths was evidence against the historical veracity of Christianity.
But Chesterton turned the argument around on Blatchford:
Mr. Blatchford and his school point out that there are many myths parallel to the Christian story; that there were Pagan Christs, and Red Indian Incarnations, and Patagonian Crucifixions, for all I know or care. But does not Mr. Blatchford see the other side of the fact? If the Christian God really made the human race, would not the human race tend to rumours and perversions of the Christian God? If the centre of our life is a certain fact, would not people far from the centre have a muddled version of that fact? If we are so made that a Son of God must deliver us, is it odd that Patagonians should dream of a Son of God?
In other words, Blatchford’s argument that Christianity was just another mythology, far from being an argument against the truth of Christianity, was really an argument in favor of it. Chesterton did what he was so good at. He refuted the argument by simply restating it: “The Blatchfordian position really amounts to this – that because a certain thing has impressed millions of different people as likely or necessary, therefore it cannot be true.”
In other words, the existence of myths and fairy tales and their striking resemblance to key elements of the Gospel story shouldn’t make us doubt the Gospel story, but trust it all the more. The fact that many cultures have had meaningful myths and stories similar to the Christian story could be because it is just another story. However, the more universal such stories are (and some of them appear in the traditions of almost every culture), the more we are justified in suspecting that something more is behind them than mere fancy. The sheer universality of these stories suggests not that they are false, but that there is some underlying reality to which all of them harken. So if the Christian story really is at the heart of human reality and history, then we should expect the same themes to recur again and again in human myths.
When unbelievers see what we see, we should not be astonished. This is essentially the Apostle Paul’s point in the Mars Hill Discourse: “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.” (Acts 17:23)
Lewis frequently took walks with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien along the banks of the Cherwell River at Oxford, and this very issue was the topic of many of their conversations. Tolkien took Chesterton’s point, and took it further. Tolkien believed not only that the Christian story drew from the same reality even the pagans saw, but that it was the very consummation of it. The basic elements of Christianity bubbling up in the stories of other cultures did not make them mere fairy tales: Christianity was the fairy tale, the fairy tale to rule all fairy tales, the myth that superseded all myths.
The Christian story is not the imitation of ancient myths; fairy tales and myths are imitations of the Christian story. The Christian story is the story par excellence: The rest are fractured fairy tales.
The Gospel story subsumes and completes all fairy tales, most noticeably, Tolkien believed, in the surprise happy ending, which he called “eucatastrophe.” When all looks like defeat, somehow, from somewhere, comes salvation. A god comes to Earth proclaiming the truth, and because this truth is a scandal to the rulers of this world, he is executed in the most ignominious way. The story seems to end. But all of a sudden, on the third morning, the stone blocking his grave having been moved way, he walks again. He defeats death itself, and in doing so, he removes the sting of death for those of us who will also die.
What if such a story, in addition to being a story, were also true? It would not only partake of the kind of excitement and joy that we feel when we read it as a story, it would be something more, since it was not just a story. As Tolkien argues:
The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.
It took awhile, but Lewis finally accepted Tolkien’s argument. History was not meaningless, but meaningful; meaning was not imaginary, it was also historical.
Before the Great Eucatastrophe—an event we call the “Resurrection”—is the other great miracle of Christianity that had to happen first—an event we call the “Incarnation.” This event is surprising too. It is not what we would expect. God comes in lowly status, born in a manger, in a far corner of the world. The story that ends in a turn begins in one—the God of the universe is born a babe in a manger. Chesterton captures the paradox:
The Child that was ere worlds begun
(…We need but walk a little way,
We need but see a latch undone…)
The Child that played with moon and sun
Is playing with a little hay.
Christianity is the Great Fairy Tale, the Great Myth, the Supreme Story—because it is more than just a story.