As we encounter Scripture in the liturgy, and in preaching, do we do so as if it were a portal, or an immersive encounter? And how might your answer to that shape how you approach preparing a sermon?
This is the brilliant question posed by one of my regular readers and commenters in response to the piece I wrote on the theology of Tolkien and Lewis’ fantasy worlds. It was such a thought-provoking question that I started sketching out my answer in several different directions, and so thought I’d write a whole new piece to address – with many thanks for the prompt!
“Portal” and “immersive” (to recap) are two of the categories which Farah Mendlesohn provides in her critical work Rhetorics of Fantasy. They are used to explore the ways in which different kinds of fantasy proffer fantastical elements, and how readers encounter those elements during the development of the narrative. So portal fantasies involve characters travelling from “our” world into the fantasy world via a portal (Narnia being a classic example), whilst immersive fantasies present a complete fantastical world within which the reader “starts”, and within which the whole story takes place (Middle Earth). I explored the theological implications of these styles as they appear in Tolkien and Lewis, suggesting they coincided with broadly Catholic and Protestant tendencies in their thought (though that wouldn’t be the case for every fantasy author’s theology.) I didn’t mention the other two rhetorical categories Mendlesohn offered: “intrusion”, where the fantastical element enters the real world (most common in horror) and “liminal”, where the fantastical is never entirely faced or defined precisely. These may also be useful.
The distinction between portal and immersion, then, is not the same as shoddy versus effective worldbuilding, the relative coherence of the fantastical elements, nor whether people move between imagined worlds inside the fiction (though they might be mistaken for those aspects.) They are about the relationship between the world the reader inhabits and the fantastical elements of the fiction, as I understand it. Mendlesohn describes the modes at one point in terms of “shells”: in immersion, the reader sits inside the same shell as the characters, and is assumed to be as at home in the world (if written carefully.)
With those caveats in mind, I can start thinking about how these categories might map across the Bible and our engagement with it. (I do so in the awareness that Mendlesohn is a very astute critic when it comes to religion and fiction, and has made some intriguing comments about fantasy and Christianity in the past – describing the New Testament, for example, as a paradigmatic portal fantasy. My own observations are much more tentative, especially as I am borrowing some of her term.) John’s Gospel has more in common with intrusion and portal then immersion, to me. It has its Creation narrative, rewriting the “in the beginning” of Genesis to present its own version in which not emptiness and chaos wee most noticeably present, but the Word of God. But it soon moves into what seems like the language of intrusion: the light is “coming into the world”, John the Baptist is “a man sent from God” and acclaims Jesus as the Lamb of God, “This is he of whom I said ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me’”. It’s not just the narrative actions here, of moving from the heavenly realm to the earthly, which persuade me of the intrusion quality, but the rhetoric in which they’re described. John the Baptist sees the messiah and turns to explain to the people around him who this is, and the Gospel’s text explains to us where this person has come from and what his entry into our world implies.
There is a strong sense here of a normal world around us, onto which something remarkable has impinged, and needs to be understood. There is a slight tendency to portal fantasy, perhaps, produced by the historical chance that John was the last gospel to be compiled, and therefore the narrative voice separates itself at various points from the action taking place and the characters, because of linguistic necessity. So when Mary Magdalen addresses Jesus in the garden, the narrative glosses itself: “She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher)”. This establishes a slight distance between reader and characters, though the same could be said of the “Talitha, koum” saying in Mark’s Gospel.
There is a strong sense of intrusion at the beginning of Revelation, when a voice breaks in on John of Patmos with various instructions. By chapter four however, the movement inverts itself, and it adopts the portal rhetoric, quite literally: “After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open!” This door provides an image through which the text turns its style inside out, and John is led into a symbolic landscape where the extraordinary he sees are explained to him from time to time: “Then I heard a voice in heaven proclaiming: “Now have come the salvation and the power/ And the kingdom of our God…” – “But the angel said to me, ‘Why are so amazed? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her.’”
This is the equivalent to the movement noted by Mendlesohn in Harry Potter: an intrusion of the weird (owls, magic letters) into a suburban world is followed quickly by the protagonist’s journey through a portal (station wall, trip on a steam train) into a fantastical world where a certain patient and well-informed companion explains to him what he is seeing…
It’s striking that this is the last book of most Christian canons, and its inclusion was controversial in the early centuries of the Church. Its image of a portal through which the devout writer sees wonders, and through which he is transported, offers a distinctly “portal” rhetoric at the end of the New Testament. This aligns with its apocalyptic, heaven-focussed theology, and the book has often encouraged Christians to train their attention on a dramatic future, and a heaven which is elsewhere. Coupled with John’s Gospel, the two books present a sequence of intrusion, withdrawal and portal which construct a distinctly transcendent model of God and reality.
Compared with these, the Gospels of Mark and Matthew feel more immersive to me. The deeds of Jesus are no less dramatic or arresting, but they are told from a position more securely within the world where the fantastical is taking place. As Biblical critics have pointed out over the centuries, the Markan and Matthean Jesus is much less “the man sent from heaven” than John’s Jesus. There are miracles and demons, but they are treated in language which situates them in the same “shell” as the reader, it seems to me.
Perhaps this is encapsulated by the conversation between Jesus and the demons who possess the man in the Gerasene tombs. Jesus demands the demon’s name, and he provides it, with a helpful explanation: “My name is Legion; for we are many.” This answer, to many readers, begs quite a few questions. What is a demon? How can they possess people? Why this man? Who gives demons their names? What’s at stake in recognising and knowing each other’s names, given that the demons in this book seem very keen on addressing Jesus by his? This explanation seems to take it for granted that we are at home in the miraculous and demonic universe, and that our interest at this point will be focussed on this particular demon and the fact that his name is a plural noun. We will need a different kind of reading when the “system” of the miraculous and surprising is not being explained to us as we follow the protagonist through the book – or when it is not even being marked out as different from the rest of the narrative.
This may be partly caused by the difference in compositional dates and cultural background. Though there is still controversy, a broad consensus tends to place Mark earlier than John, and in a more Jewish context when compared to the more Greek-influenced Logos theology of the latter Gospel. Even a matter of decades of time passing, and the rapid development of early Christianity may, have produced a different rhetoric in John. It may also be the theological tendency of the Gospels, with Mark tending towards the immanent and John towards the transcendent, that leads their rhetoric to differ to accommodate their particular emphasis about the meaning of Jesus’ life and death. (Though where “rhetoric” and “theological tendency” diverge in this kind of discussion is an open question…)
So that’s a quick sketch of how some of the Biblical texts strike me when we attempt to apply Mendelsohn’s rhetorics of fantasy to them. I’m very aware that I haven’t really answered the question posed so kindly by the reader, about how we encounter these texts in the liturgy and in preaching. Instead I’ve laid some of the rhetorical emphases which seem important to me in the structure of the texts themselves – in the next piece I’ll move onto thinking about how we encounter them, and how that might be shaped and influenced by styles of liturgy and modes of preaching.