“That whole Jesus thing is really interesting, isn’t it?”
“What d’you mean?”
“All those people wanting to kill him when he hadn’t done anything to hurt them.” She hesitated. “It’s really kind of a beautiful story—like Abraham Lincoln or Socrates—or Aslan.”
… She looked at him as if she were going to argue, then seemed to change her mind. “It’s crazy, isn’t it?” She shook her head. “You have to believe it, but you hate it. I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.” She shook her head again. “It’s crazy.”
I read Bridge to Terabithia this summer after seeing that an author I liked was a fan of the book. My feelings about it are mixed, and I’m thankful that I didn’t read it as a middle schooler. (Probably I would have hated it and declared it nonsense. I was an opinionated child.) I have no plans to recommend it to middle grade readers. There are a lot of complicated themes in the book—I’m not referring to Leslie’s death—and most middle schoolers do not have the knowledge necessary to appreciate them. From an adult viewpoint, however, the themes become more interesting.
Jess’s understanding of Christianity is primitive. He may live in the 1970s, but the nearly two thousand years of Christian art and culture have mostly never been taught him. Leslie knows little more than he does, but her upbringing at least has prepared her to recognize beauty. That is the reason she calls on “spirits” in the grove—contrary to the complaints of some parents, she is not practicing black magic. She is trying to make life in the grove into a work of art, and she has not been taught to see the “art” in a Christian view of the world.
It is Leslie, despite her nearly nonexistent knowledge of Christianity, who does eventually recognize what Jess has missed. When she hears the story of Christ, she hears it as a story. She sees is beauty in it along with the horror. Jess believes in its truth, but he is not prepared to see its wonder. Their views seem to be in direct contradiction.
Once, in college, I slipped a book off my English major roommate’s shelf and found The Dream of the Rood inside. It was perhaps the first time I had seen the story of Christ turned into something like a legend. “The young hero ungirded himself, Who was almighty God, strong and stout-hearted. He took his stand on the lofty gallows, courageous in the sight of many, since He would free mankind.”
Tolkien argued that the story of Christ is “true myth.” Christ fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. He also fulfilled the storytellers.
There need be no contradiction between truth and beauty—although truth may prove our views of beauty insufficient. The highest beauty form of beauty is no longer Venus, nor Freya, nor any other goddess—it is the brutal death of a Jewish carpenter.
Christianity’s views on beauty are not too narrow. Ours are.