I’ve spent the last three months discussing literal versus figurative language with a four-year-old. It started with Amelia Bedelia, whose stories are moved by misunderstandings, by Amelia thinking she is supposed to bolt from third base to her physical place of residence when the coach says “run for home!”
That’s the fun of it, the gimmick—to see someone take figures of speech to their literal conclusions. To “draw blood” with a pen and a line of red ink instead of a needle in a vein.
From our Amelia conversations, I’ve discovered that my son is intensely interested in what’s “real.” He has thusly interrogated The Sandlot kids and The Lorax and the recalcitrant bunny in Goodnight Moon.
I could feel the question ballooning in him the other night as I fumbled through an abridged, oral version of the Desolation of Smaug before bedtime.
“Did he really die?” he asked, looking a little too concerned that either Bard or Thorin Oakenshield (I couldn’t remember which) found a chink in the dragon’s armored underbelly and felled the beast.
“Smaug is fictional,” I said. “A character invented by a writer of stories.”
He looked less than convinced.
And those Sandlot kids? How does one describe the onion layers of the real and invented in a coming-of-age movie leeching on the myth of mid-century America?
“They are real human beings playing fictional characters based on schmaltzy 1960’s stereotypes for a camera that has captured and digitally delivered them to this little Lenovo opened on a coffee table,” I said. Or something.
The thing is, though, for the last year Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez has been about as true in my son’s mind and heart as his own baby sister.
I know many of us are past the point where conversations of truth in fiction still feel provocative. Perhaps no single person has delivered the official verdict—although some have made more eloquent cases than others—but there is a chorus of readers and writers who agree that invented characters in concocted settings can be every bit as “true” as those enfleshed in our actual lives, and the narrators of memoirs and personal essays are mostly hybrid constructs of the objectively factual and factually massaged.
Yet it’s exciting to see the ideas igniting in my little boy, who now knows Hellen Keller actually lived on earth and the Lorax exclusively on the page (and by extension his imagination), yet both have spoken important things to him, each in their own way. Both are now companions for the journey, alongside “The Jet” Rodriguez.
The last ten years of my personal life have been marked predominantly by an unraveling of faith. Belief, of course, was once built on a foundation of Jesus-stories I took as literally true. Not only did the historical figure exist, but in my imagination (mind and heart?) he also rose from the grave, became the pivot point in human history, and provided a younger version of me a singular hope: a kingdom emerging. And me, a participant.
For those stories to devolve into the figurative and mythic has been more devastating than I’ve cared to admit. I’ve heard people describe the movement from faith to “other” as liberating, even life-giving. For me, I have felt mostly sad and scared. I mean, if not the kingdom, what exactly isemerging? And what the hell am I for?
I know there are lots of answers. I’m not belittling them.
But I’ve been revisiting the idea of faith these days, trying to look again at its architecture with fresh eyes, the exterior buttresses and interior beams. I blame this on my son.
Remembering that a universe—dust and fission and appetite—swirls within the word: perhaps.
Wondering what magic could still ignite within the suspension of disbelief.
Imagining divine meaning beneath the material.
Faith is rarely an arrival. It mostly remains mercurial on a spectrum, from the locked down dogmatism of the assured to the cracked questioning of the skeptic.
For me, faith might simply be the making of room, the carving out of a small internal reservoir of What If, a place where the story of a rightful king and an end to winter is still sort of plausible, despite whichever evidence suggests otherwise.
This might be all I have: a haggard willingness to still give the story of the King room to be real. This is a confession. And a declaration.
My son asks me every day if the stories are true. More and more I say it’s possible. More and more, all things are possible. Plausible.
“Perhaps,” I say.
And anyway, it’s good to grieve in real life over a dragon, no matter how gruesome, fictional or non. It’s rare that everything is as it seems.
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