“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” (J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’).*
The escapist gets a bad name.
In our wisdom, we consider those who seek to escape “real life” as doubly cursed: first, as deserters, because they make the attempt to abandon reality, and second, as idealists, because they think such flight from the facts of life is at all possible.
Among the Reformed traditions in which I find my home, I suspect that some view escapism with this kind of suspicion. Reformed theologians are forever talking about the necessity of engaging with real life, the significance of engagement with culture, engaging with this and that issue related to the public sphere.**
And, closer to home, I see this suspicion, or blind spot, with regards to “escape” in my own thinking. The aim of this blog, after all, is to provide a “refreshingly realistic take on Christianity and politics”. And, in re-reading my own most recent reflections (here and here), I find that it’s almost as if I am making excuses for retreating from the world.
But what if retreat, or escape, or whatever we want to call it, is at times—I do not say always—necessary? What if the world out there, and in here, is so dark, that we ought to escape, ought to take refuge elsewhere?
This is precisely the point suggested by J. R. R. Tolkien in his famous essay, “On Fairy Stories”. Tolkien praises the genre of the fairy-story for its ability to provide consolation, escape and inspiration in a dark and dreary world.
And so recently, amidst all the darkness of the season, and the darkness of recent events, I have found myself escaping for a time. I escape, for example, by immersing myself in good stories, in stories that inspire the good: the Lord of the Rings, Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife.
Yes, there are wrong forms of escape. Yes, there are situations from which we are wrong to seek escape. And yes, we of course badly need Christians to engage well with the cultures around us.
But the order of things matters here. Escape precedes Engagement. Engagement follows on from Escape. We retreat from the Darkness to once again be reminded of the Light. We escape the frost to have our cold hearts warmed. And then, and only then, we act and take our place in the world.
*I owe these thoughts to a conversation with Nathan Hood.
**I should say some Reformed traditions here, because the Puritan movement offers among the Reformed movements a significant attempt to attend to the inner or spiritual life. Their attempt to forge a Reformed spirituality, with a rich inner life, is why the Puritans remain a subject of fascination for me, and one I hope to delve more into in the near future.