While cynics and pragmatists are quick to carp that the Gospel and the Christian worldview don’t offer solutions to real-world problems—as if this punch delivered the ultimate technical knock-out—I’d like to suggest that this world we live in now is not the real world.
Fiction writers, too, are frequently criticized for not focusing on real people in the real world. Never mind that reality TV shows aren’t any more real than the old sitcoms, much nonfiction is also pretty fantastic these days, and the secular media gave up reporting real news around the time Walter Cronkite retired.
So…what is the real world?
In one of his best-known allegories, the Greek philosopher, Plato, depicted human beings as prisoners chained in a cave, who perceive life in the outside world only by means of shadows cast onto the wall from the cave mouth. This, my friends, is not the real world. All is but a flickering illusion, at best a guess at reality, from a limited perspective.
Another stab at defining the world has been made by the fiction genre known as magical realism, which is sometimes considered a specifically Latin American style. This literary trend stirs elements of fantasy with an ordinary setting into an almost surreal blend of absurdity and strange reality. Magical or supernatural events are presented as realistic occurrences.
In magical realism, the highly unlikely becomes perfectly plausible. The basic configuration of reality twists into an alternative world where all things are possible. Though this is not the real world, it gives a revealing picture of the world we live in.
This genre’s pinnacle is Gabriel García Márquez’s landmark 1967 novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. It relates the seven-generational story of the Buendía family who live in a fictitious Colombian town. The egotistical and adulterous characters return in the next generation as ghosts or reincarnations, but their fortunes rarely change significantly. We may say that the novel shows the cyclical nature and eventual downward spiral of the family’s fortunes—and the nation’s history. They seem doomed to continually relive past tragedies.
In this kind of story, reality shatters into a heap of rubble so hopelessly broken, so wretched and wearisome, that only magic can patch it into some mosaic of sense and order. Like Plato’s cave-dwellers, these people see a version of the real world, but it’s more of a mirage. Since they understand so little of the scene, they often turn to making a mockery or a nonsensical dream out of it.
The story resolution in a novel of magical realism is, like in much of our so-called real world today, not true change. It merely alters the perspective of reality. Accepts the charade in the end, ignores the truths too evil or uncomfortable to confront.
Of Myths and Mushrooms
As with a mind-bending drug, the magic has us floating in a bubble of illusion. Or in the world of Bilz and Pap, as we say in Chile—rainbow-colored fizzy drinks. The magical realism of our “real” world hardens history into hideous stereotype…which in turn devolves into myth. Perhaps they overlap. But the only ending in sight is a nightmare.
Born out of the Latin American boom of the ’60’s and ’70’s, the magical realism genre plays with political subversion, a sort of statement of Latin American autonomy at the height of the Cold War. It frequently critiques society, especially the elite, by recounting the misfortunes of the oppressed and exploited. But not with any anticipation of a brighter dawn.
“We have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been the lack of conventional means to render our lives believable.” – from Gabriel García Márquez’s acceptance speech of the 1982 Nobel Prize
In other words, García Márquez didn’t need to overwork his imagination to write his stories, because his people’s real-life sagas seemed so incredibly fantastical that those outside the cultural context could barely conceive it.
After recently skimming an excerpt from Chilean José Donoso’s 1966 Hell Has No Limits, another example of magical realism, I tend to agree. It portrays many of the elements of the mythical Latin American cantina scene, rife with sleazy political scandals, prostitution, bribery, corruption, and conspiracy. Unfortunately, it reads like yesterday’s newspaper.
But this is not the real world.
In my new Work-in-Progress, Hope Chest, the villain resorts to “magic” mushrooms, harvested in Chiloé Island’s temperate rain forests. These hallucinogens distort his perception of reality to the point where he becomes obsessed with harming the person he most desires. Is it magical realism?
Miracles or Magic?
Surely the worldview isn’t. A fan of magical realism, I’m not. But I’ve discovered that elements of similarity abound:
For example, the unbelievable is the norm. The line between incredible and logical blurs out of existence. Hmm, that’s enough like what we’ve faced in Chile over the past month to raise an alarm.
Someone has said, “The whole (magical realism) movement relies on fakery and…presents life in Latin America as more fantastical than is true to their real lives.” Another way of saying, If this is real life, it looks abysmally insipid. Let’s spice it up a little. Maybe that’s where Chiloé’s mythology sprang from. Or even this month’s anarchy.
However, I do believe in magic, real magic—that is, the miracles of God that lead to the happiest endings. The miracle of Chile, as has been boasted? Not so much. Whether that was more hot air or a magic trick—sleight of hand, tromp d’oeil—the real Chilean miracle isn’t the desert’s bloom-and-boom, but how long a country with first-world prices managed to live on third-world incomes. (Talk about bread and fish!)
Now with the bread-crumb solutions camouflaged behind a constitutional smoke screen, is the outlook all negative? Is there any hope for change…in the real world?
Nope, not much. But remember, this isn’t the real world.
So therefore, the answer lies in the real magic—the miracles of God. Our puny attempts to unravel life’s thorny knots without God is the ultimate hubris. And futile in the long run.
Because those who disregard Christ and His Word experience a rupture with reality and imperil their sanity, whether they realize or admit it. We cannot make sense of the world we live and move in without Him. Nor find enduring peace and joy.
But Jesus came to sort out our tangled thinking, to shine a light on our selfish pride (Mt. 5-7). There’s a better story, a moment in world history, that changed everything—all our bleak futures and grim realities—from desolation and despair to divine possibility.
“This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought… That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” –Maltbie D. Babcock
Our enemy has many ways of concealing the truth from our senses. But hear me, sister, the real world is the world designed, created, sustained, ordered, and governed by God—and no other.
He is loving, wise, and wholly good as well as holy, sovereign, and almighty, and we were meant to enjoy communion with Him in this real world. Without Him, we wander empty, lost, and lonely, but He has provided a home for our souls.
In the real world, our Father holds every one of us responsible to give account. He commands us to repent of wrong, because He will one day judge the world. But again He has provided…the Advocate, Jesus Christ, who died and rose again to rescue us.
That is the real world…
…not a magical image of Alice-in-Wonderland realism of our own making. It is not a parallel universe, an alternative reality, a fantasy epic, or a wild dream. The real world patiently waits behind the veil for the revelation of the Great King and a kingdom that cannot be shaken, world without end, amen.
To ignore these realities is to live in a nightmare of restlessness, frustration, and fear. And to claim otherwise is wishing on a star.
Reality check: If we are out of touch with God, we are out of touch with reality. Lord, in Your compassion and mercy, send us a miracle of transformed reality.
And let us remember this world is not our home.
This nation is not our kingdom. This city isn’t our final destination.
Because the real world is our Father’s world.