I have heard a few times over the years about the book Landscape with Dragons by Michael O’Brien. Most recently it was recommended at the Story-Formed Conference. My expectation going into this book, based on who I had heard about it from, was that it would be great. Having just finished reading it, I am not only disappointed but rather surprised as well (in a bad way)that it has such a good reputation. There is useful material in this book and it did make me think which is the main thing I like in a book, but I can’t say I agreed with it overall.
The author, Michael O’Brien, has some assumptions that are really pretty central to what he ahs to say. These include:
- We are in the midst of a spiritual battleground:
“Christian parents must keep in mind that their child is an eternal soul, called by God into a world that is a spiritual battleground.” (p. 19)
- Children are affected by what he calls “impressionism” (p. 168). By this he means that they are profoundly affected by the books they read (and even more so by the movies they see).
- Given these two facts, parents have a big job before them:
“The absolutely essential task of parents is to give their children a true culture, a sure foundation on which to stand.” (p. 168)
In essence, I do not disagree with any of these points, and I did initially like the book and think that it would be all I had imagined. My problem comes when Viola gets down to the specifics of what he means.
Viola gives a list of questions one must ask oneself when evaluating a book:
“A simple rule of thumb is to ask the following questions when assessing a book, video, or film: Does the story reinforce my child’s understanding of the moral order of the universe? Or does it undermine it? Does it do some of both? Do I want that? What precisely is the author saying about the nature of evil? What does he tell the reader (or viewer) about the nature of the war between good and evil?” (p. 104)
These again are good questions, but it the application where we would begin to disagree. As I have said many times before in this blog, I am not generally bothered by fantastical or magical elements in books. While I do think books and stories have a great deal of power, I also think that we are capable of setting aside the world as we know it for a bit and accepting the world of the story without ultimately giving up our own values. There is a fine line here and I want to be careful how I say this. It is not that I would like or want my children to read a story which rejects the moral world I know completely. But I am willing to put up with a fair amount of magic and even things that might be labeled occult in our own world in a story-world. For instance, in our world if a wise old woman laid her hands on a hero to heal him of his wounds, I might scream “occult!” and say that the real power was from Satan. But I see no problem with reading a story in which this is part of the plot and is even portrayed in a positive light. Similarly, characters in a story might be able to read one another’s minds, but in real life I would not allow for such a thing to happen without demonic influence. I guess for me there is a distinction between the story’s natural laws and its moral laws. I am perfectly willing for the natural laws to change and for there to be magic which allows healing or mind-communication or other such things, but I would probably not like a story in which adultery and murder are acceptable and treated without disdain or consequences. I think my children also are able to distinguish between things hich can happen in the real world and what can happen in stories. This is why for the most part I am a lot more bothered by books set in this world in which siblings are always snarping at each other than by books with fantastical elements.
Viola also allows for some magic and fantastical elements in stories:
“The sun may be green and the fish may fly through the air, but however fantastical the imagined world, there is retained in it a faithfulness to the moral order of the actual universe.” (p. 28)
But, while not opposed to all magical elements, he takes a much harder line than I would in rejecting any story with what he deems occult elements. Viola is a big proponent of the works of C.S. lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and George MacDonald (as are many other Christians of all stripes). Though their works are often fantastical and contain magic, he sees a very different use of it in their writing:
“But there is an important difference: the neopagan sub-creation is very unlike Tolkien’s or Lewis’, for they portrayed original worlds in which the use of magic and clairvoyance is revealed as fraught with extreme danger. They demonstrate clearly the hidden seduction in the very powers that the neopagan proposes as instruments for the salvation of mankind.” (p. 106)
He distinguishes also between good and bad magic:
“Good magic and bad magic in truthful stories correspond to true religion and false religion in our real world . . . False religion . . . makes a god out of oneself; it makes one’s own will supreme; it attempts to reshape reality to fit one’s own desires. True religion is about surrender, while false religion is about control.” (p. 29)
I will admit I am a bit lost at this point as to how he would distinguish appropriate and inappropriate magic in stories. All I can say is that Viola clearly is willing to accept magic in some forms but not others.
Thus far, there are a number of points we might agree on: Stories have power. Not all stories are wholesome and good and we should exercise some discrimination in what we allow our children to read. Magic or fantastical elements in and of themselves are not enough to disqualify a story. Where we would disagree is on where to draw the lines. I think Viola also gives a lot more power to stories than I do. There are reasons for this will I will get into in a few minutes.
Now I would like to address another major point Viola makes with which I cannot accept. A major thesis of his book is that traditional Christian symbols have been inverted in more modern literature and that this is always bad. The biggest such symbol is the snake or dragon. These, Viola says, have always been evil symbols in Christianity, and indeed in most cultures, and to use them in positive ways is anathema to him. Viola himself acknowledges that the dragon as evil is not quite universal (see p. 31), nonetheless he maintains not just that the dragon or serpent is a symbol of Satan, but that he is identified with Satan:
“Actual dragons may or may not have existed, but that is not our main concern here. What is important is that the Christian ‘myth’ of the dragon refers to a being who actually exists and who becomes very much more dangerous to us the less we believe he exists.” (p. 32)
And then he cautions against ever changing these representations:
“I pointed out that the meaning of symbols are not merely the capricious choices of a limited culture. We cannot arbitrarily rearrange them like so much furniture in the living room of the psyche. To tamper with these fundamental types is spiritually and psychologically dangerous because they are keystones in the very structure of the mind.”(p. 55)
In other words, there is something very primal and basic about the snake or dragon as evil and it is wrong and even dangerous to portray them otherwise. He would not even allow snakes a pets it seems (see p. 58).
The changing of the dragon image he links with the occult in books, saying that both blur or invert the line between good and evil. He prefers a much more traditional world in which “dragons looked and acted like dragons” (p. 65). Viola laments any mixing up of these clear-cut lines. He laments the rise of children’s movies in which:
“‘Bad guys’ were at times presented as complex souls, inviting pity if not sympathy. ‘Good guys’ were a little more tarnished than they once had been and, indeed, were frequently portrayed a foolish simpletons.” (p. 72)
Viola also rails against stories (particularly Disney films here) in which the bad guys are attractive. He sees this an another inversion of the classic fairytales and prefers that a character’s outer appearance should reflect his or her inner character. He seems to be saying here that God receives greater glory when attractive people praise Him:
“Similarly, when worship of God is done poorly, it is not necessarily invalid if the intention of the worshipper is sincere. But when it is done well, its is a greater sign of the coming glory when all things will be restored to Christ.” (p. 35)
I think part of the difference I have with Viola may come from our underlying theological beliefs. It becomes pretty clear as one reads through his book that he is a Roman Catholic. This comes out in a number of ways. In his instructions to parents on how to choose good books for their children, he urges them to pray for wisdom not only to God but also to the saints and especially to Mary (p. 116). He also clearly believes in man’s free will and ability to choose good (p. 49, 113). These beliefs alone need not influence how we accept and evaluate books, but Viola also attributes much greater power to literature than I am comfortable with:
” . . . we must trust that over time the works of truth and beauty created from authentic spiritual sources will help to bring about a reorientation of man.” (p. 119)
“That restoration will necessarily entail a regaining of our courage and a willingness to respond to the promptings of the Spirit, regardless of the odds that are stacked against us.” (p. 118)
Here is what I think is really the crux of the issue: Catholics like Viola sacrifice God’s sovereignty and emphasize man;s free will and ability to choose good or evil. In my (reformed) world, stories can have a big influence on us, yes, but any power they have is bounded by the immutable will of God. No story is going to save my child, but no story will cause him to lose his chance at salvation either. In the above two quotes, Viola makes it sound as if not only individual salvation but even the ultimate salvation of the world can be impacted by the books we read and the movies we see. With such beliefs, I can understand why he feels so passionately about his subject, but I disagree with his fundamental principles.
On the topic of Christian symbolism, we also disagree. I am just not bothered by dragons being good characters. Viola thinks stories are more interesting if the symbols are used “appropriately” (p. 65), but I would say stories are both more interesting and more realistic if they are not used in the expected ways. Viola doesn’t like when the traditional image of evil is used to portray good. He thinks this will affect the reader’s own ability to distinguish good and evil. I would say the opposite. In our world, evil is often disguised as good and to show attractive bad guys or dragons who are good only helps us to understand that we cannot judge by appearances or first impressions. He laments the complex character attributed to bad guys; I would say that people are complex and few are evil through and through (thanks to common grace). What we learn from stories is not just about good and evil but also about ourselves and our fellow men. Those are pretty complicated subjects.
To sum up, then, I find that I would say many of the things Viola says when it comes to generalizations about stories and their power. But when it comes down to specifics, we have a fair number of differences. I find his work somewhat alarmist and his standards too limiting. I would say that I trust more to the grace of God to help us extract good ideas even from imperfect stories (and apart from the Bible, they are all imperfect anyway). This book has some long discussions of specific books and movies including many Disney movies, the Star Wars saga, the works of Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others. Keeping in mind Viola’s starting point, it is still interesting to read his interpretations fo these works though I think he often takes things too far. but this book could be useful as a starting pint for forming one’s own opinions on these works.