The Phoenix, Mere Hope, and Criticism

Recently, my new book Mere Hope: Life in An Age of Cynicism was reviewed at ChristianBook.com under the title,

“Author’s use of pagan symbol of ‘the phoenix’ taints entire message of book.”

I’d like to provide a brief response to the review, but before I do, here are a couple of thoughts.

First, that anyone would read something I would write is no small thing. That someone would give further time and thought to something I wrote enough to write a review represents even more charity and graciousness, even if they did not like what I wrote.

Second, I am grateful for the review. In the academy where I serve, this type of sparing or critical interaction is the norm—the key is how you go about engaging and responding.[1] Much of what I try to teach my students is how to serve and live as a “careful scholar,” giving care to receive and consider all thoughtful critique. C. S. Lewis said, in his helpful essay “On Criticism,” that one of the ways an author can improve is by “reading the criticism of his own work,” but not blindly or without a foundation to weigh and consider fairly what has been said. [2]

Therefore, to receive any kind of review of Mere Hope is welcomed by me and I am eager to evaluate the substance of what is conveyed and appreciate the time taken by those sharing their thoughts. It is not a perfect book and there are a myriad of ways I could have written it better. Thus, I have something to learn from all those who take time to write a review of it.

To that end, here is a brief reply to the critique that the use of ‘the phoenix’ in Mere Hope taints the entire message of the book.

1. The Phoenix, as a symbol, though mythological, was not always employed as pagan.

Christians used it regularly throughout the first 1,500 years of church history. I explain this in chapter one:

At the end of the first century, Clement of Rome invoked a curious symbol when describing the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Borrowing from ancient legend—though he clearly thought the creature was real—he described the phoenix as a “an emblem of our resurrection.”[3] Clement was followed by a second century catalog of creatures, the Physiologus (meaning Naturalist) that included biblical references and commentary for each entry. This work articulated more clearly that the phoenix (like Christ) has the self-sacrificial “power to slay himself and come to life again” and resurrects from the dead “on the third day.”[4]

These two appropriations of the bird baptized this myth and led other Christians to employ the symbol for education and edification.  In the third century, Tertullian referred to the phoenix as an instrument of general revelation God provided as a “complete and unassailable symbol of our hope” in the resurrection.[5] In the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem wrote his Catechetical Lectures to train new disciples in the Christian faith. In his lecture on the resurrection he, seemingly believing that the creature exists, though “remote and uncommon,” mentions the phoenix also as an example in nature for the unbelieving world to have a symbol of Jesus’ own resurrection.[6]

Now, lest we get sidetracked by the Christian usage of a fictional creature, it is helpful to remember the limits of knowledge and etymology in these early centuries. As professor Micah Mattix explains, even though many of these early Christians seem to believe the bird is real “most of them are less interested in animals as animals and more interested in their symbolic significance.”[7] By the Middle Ages the regular use of the phoenix as a Christian “resurrection bird” faded, but throughout other forms of literature,[8] the avian myth appears to convey and remind of Christian hope.

2. As to the use of ancient pagan symbols, or other literature, to illustrate Christian truth, I believe these can be redeployed for good.

C. S. Lewis argues, in his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” that the use of story, or fantastical imagery, is useful “to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness” that keeps us from hearing the “news from a country we have never yet visited.” These symbols do not have, nor are meant to have, the authority of Scripture, Lewis says, but can be helpful to awaken us and put us on the path of searching Scripture.[9]

Further, Lewis also explains the aesthetic value of Christian theology in his essay, “Is Theology Poetry?” when addressing the “confusion between imaginative enjoyment and intellectual assent.” As to the specific use of ancient pagan imagery, Lewis explains,

“We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of great Pagan teachers and myth makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story–the theme of incarnation, death, and rebirth. … It is not the difference between falsehood and truth. It is the difference between a real event on the one hand and dim dreams or premonitions of that same event on the other.”[10]

Thus, the use of symbols like the phoenix or even allusions from the writings of Lewis, Tolkien, and yes, Rowling, themselves, are ways, in my view, of awakening the reader and pointing them to Truth and Reality.  Tolkien, in his essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” puts it this way:

“Probably every writer making a secondary world … hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. … The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to the question, “Is it true?'”[11]

Finally, I am grateful for this particular review of Mere Hope. Though drawing different conclusions, the reviewer did see that I intended for the image of a phoenix to influence and shape the entire book. It is up to other readers to determine whether this “taints” or “illuminates,” but from the phoenix feather on the cover to the last sentence of the book, the employment of this image was intentional. Here’s why:

What I love about the image of a phoenix—and I suspect it is what our friends in the early church loved as well—is that just at the darkest moment, when you think this majestic creature has died or given its life for another, it is reborn, returning to life. Just as Jesus said, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again,” (John 10:17) only through the death of the phoenix do we see an even more glorious life–through its suffering and demise, it finds victory.

Indeed, as I hope many will be awakened to see when they read Mere Hope: Life in An Age of Cynicism, Someone greater than the Phoenix is here (see Matthew 12:41).

—–

[1] I have often been helped and corrected by the late scholar Roger Nicole’s essay, “Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us.

[2] For a helpful commentary on Lewis’s thoughts see Louis Markos, “Genial Criticism,” in Restoring Beauty: The Good, The True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. Lewis, IVP, 2010.

[3] ANF 1:12

[4] “The Phoenix,” in Physiologus cited in Joseph Nigg, The Phoenix: An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[5] ANF 3:554. Tertullian mistakenly translates Psalm 92:12 as “The righteous shall flourish like the phoenix” to support his view of the existence of this bird.

[6] NPNF 2 7:135-136.

[7] Micah Mattix, “Birds of Paradise,” in The Weekly Standard, March 20, 2017, http://www.weeklystandard.com/birds-of-paradise/article/2007167

[8] See John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 5:272.

[9] As one contemporary example, read this moving account by Drew Bratcher of how his studying Moby Dick with Marilynne Robinson pointed him to Calvin and Edwards and then back to regular Bible Study.

[10] C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Socratic Digest, vol. 3, 1945.

[11] J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” OUP, 1947.

For further reading, see:

Jason G. Duesing, “Where are the Gentlemen Theologians?,” October 3, 2016.

Colin Duriez, “The Theology of Fantasy in Lewis and Tolkien,” Themelios 23:2.

Jim Hamilton, “J. K. Rowling Tells the Truth . . . In Her Fiction,” July 18, 2017.

C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” Oxford, 1941.

Andrew Peterson, “Harry Potter, Jesus, and Me,” July 11, 2011.

Charlie W. Starr, The Faun’s Bookshelf: C. S. Lewis on Why Myth Matters, Black Squirrel Books, 2018.

J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson, Harper Collins, 2014.