Do you believe in fairy tales?
Recently, on the strength of our son’s recommendation, my wife and I have been on Netflix watching episodes of a television show called Once Upon a Time. The premise is, well, unique to say the least. Imagine that all the characters of the classic fairy tales actually exist, in a land ruled by an evil and vengeful queen who decrees that she will be the only one whose story will have a happy ending. She releases a curse whose power is beyond even her own understanding. Everyone, herself included, is thereby banished from the realm, and magically transported to…Maine. Yes, Maine–to the town of Storybrooke. There, they take up lives as denizens of this world, with no clear memory of their past. They remain trapped in Storybrooke, living under the watchful and malevolent eye of the town mayor (the queen’s new persona), unless the curse can be broken. But how?
There is a book, Once Upon a Time, that tells the true history of the people, of the land they have forgotten. It tells of the curse and the one person who can free those under its spell: Emma, the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. She was sent to this world as an infant to escape the wrath of the queen, before the curse was unleashed, and is therefore immune to its magic. But she grew up bitterly thinking she was an abandoned orphan, and does not know her true identity.
Only one person knows the truth: a boy named Henry, Emma’s illegitimate son, whom she gave up for adoption at birth and has not seen since. As storybook fate (and a devious subplot) would have it, Henry is adopted by the mayor of Storybrooke. But he holds the book. He believes. He finds Emma in Boston and manipulates her into coming back with him to Storybrooke. Can he make Emma a believer? Will she break the evil curse? Will people finally remember who they really are?
I told you the premise was unique.
Frederick Buechner, in his book Telling the Truth, once suggested that the gospel can and should be read as a story, and moreover, as tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale all rolled into one. To read the gospel as fairy tale does not mean relegating the story to the realm of whimsy, make-believe, and childish fancy. It does mean, however, appreciating and learning from the different story forms which seem embedded in Scripture itself, the better to shape our imagination.
Sound strange? Ask yourself this: can we learn anything of value for the Christian life by reading the fiction of George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, or J. R. R. Tolkien? If your answer is no, then Buechner has nothing to say to you. But if you would answer yes, even tentatively, then his thesis is worth some thought.
Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a world shrouded by a curse of evil. The people who lived there didn’t know they were under a curse, for their thoughts had become futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Only one person could break the power of the curse: the only begotten Son of the King, heir to the throne. He came to that world, even to those who were properly his subjects, but they didn’t recognize who he was. It didn’t take long, though, for it to become clear that he possessed great power and authority. And he called people to follow him, because he had come to set people free.
Some did follow him. The curse had such a hold on their thoughts that they could only dimly understand what the Son told them; they could not yet grasp their true identities. Others did not follow: indeed, to them, what the Son said was dangerous folly and it would be better for all concerned if he would be silent or go back from whence he came. But he would do neither. So they killed him, by stealth and treachery.
But they underestimated the King.
The King had the power to bring the Son back to life. The Son then returned to encourage his followers by giving them his Spirit and commissioning them to keep telling the truth about the curse, about the old way of death and the new way of life, about the Son and his father the King.
And slowly, those followers began to understand the truth of who they really were: they were the King’s adopted children. The Son was their elder brother. And they knew the day would finally come when the Son would return to claim the throne and reveal the identities of all his adopted brothers and sisters who would inherit the kingdom with him.
He would put an end to the curse, once and for all, and then, together, they would all live happily ever after.
And how do we know this? Because we have the Book, the story that tells us who we truly are.
Do you believe in fairy tales? Of course not, you might say, because fairy tales are only make-believe. They are by their very nature untrue, so how can one believe them?
Consider this: there are some things we know to be true, but cannot be fully embraced until we live inside the story. We believe, and that’s good; but do we have the sense of wonder, delight, and joy that’s appropriate to what we believe?
We live, today, as the heirs of the kingdom who will only be revealed when the Son comes to take the throne that is his rightful inheritance. We live as those who take a stand against the Curse, carrying on with the work that the Son began. And we anticipate the day when the Curse will be no more.
We are living signs of hope and joy, even now, even in the shadow of that Curse. And that’s because we’re children of the King, the One who decrees the happily-ever-after.