Falling Asleep in a Secular Culture

When Ian Lightfoot is given a wizard staff that allows him to bring his deceased father back for one day, Ian and his eccentric brother, Barley, set off on a quest to recover the gem they need to complete the spell. So begins the latest film from Pixar, Onward. Onward is an exciting and heart-warming story of brotherhood, camaraderie, and self-discovery. The story is set in a mythical world of dragons, pixies, unicorns, centaurs, and elves. There’s just one problem. Everyone has forgotten the magic.

Barley is determined that the world should rediscover itself as a magical place, but everyone else seems content to stay within the confines of the modern world. Once a land filled with magical wizards who used their powers to help others, New Mushroomton now looks a lot like modern suburbia. As technology has increased, magic has slowly fallen out of use, until it has practically vanished. Meanwhile, mythical creatures have settled down to the comforts of modern life. In short, the inhabitants of this suburban fantasy have forgotten what world they are living in. They’ve forgotten who they are.

The Centaur police officer, Colt Bronco, has become too lazy to run, instead, he rides around in a police car. The manticore has forgotten her fierce warrior nature, instead, she waits tables at a restaurant. The pixies have forgotten how to use their wings, so they ride motorcycles. Even ancient relics like the manticore’s sword are seen as meaningless and sold in pawnshops.

The Forgetfulness of Modern Life
Perhaps New Mushroomton is a bit like our own world. Once, our world was full of the supernatural. Ancient cultures saw gods or supernatural forces in everything—water, fire, wind, rain. Jews and Christians, while departing from the pantheistic or polytheistic ideas of the pagans, affirmed that the world was the result of a personal God—not just a distant “clockmaker” who got things running and then left his creation alone. The biblical God is both separate from his creation and active in his world. Not only is he the Creator (Genesis 1:1), he is also the Sustainer (Colossians 1:17). He is holding all things together. And all of creation reflects his glory. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said.1 The world truly is a magical place.

But today, we live in a secular culture, overrun with materialism. God is practically irrelevant to the daily lives of most people. Even those who don’t deny God’s existence, don’t find him to be of any practical relevance in their day-to-day life. For many Christians, it is much the same. The theologian A. W. Tozer once said that “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”2 But for many, the question is not what comes into our minds when we think about God, but rather, will God come into our minds at all?

Modern life pushes God out of our minds. We are distracted by the daily grind, consumed by our own consumerism, weighed down with endless paperwork, worn out by constant home-improvement or self-improvement projects, stressed out about getting our grades up, frustrated by relational squabbles, wearied by the challenges of raising a family, burdened by our loneliness, distracted by social media, and on and on.

Today, the ancient cathedrals are crowded with tourists, but few worshipers. Tourists gaze at the magnificent architecture and then walk out to resume their normal lives. And while secularists may find historical and cultural value in such places, there is to them no sense of the divine that these places were meant to convey. Instead, the cathedral tours tell us about the politics and the scandals. Meanwhile, other places of worship are transformed into bookstores and offices. Like the sword of the manticore, these places have seemingly lost the magic they once held. With secularism, the supernatural is out, the magic is gone.

Falling Asleep
Yet in our culture we are blinded to the fact that secularism is itself a bewitchment. As C. S. Lewis describes the White Witch in Narnia, “It was part of her magic that she could make things look like what they aren’t.”3 By eliminating the supernatural, secularism makes the world appear smaller than it actually is.

The truth is that the world is a much bigger place than we have been led to believe. Our world is infused with the supernatural. God’s presence is, in fact, all around us. We just have to know where to look. Sometimes, we find God in the smallest of places—in a simple act of charity or forgiveness, when the poor are fed, or when the sick are cared for. We can find God in a beautiful piece of music or in a story that reminds us of the greater story God is telling. Even the creation itself speaks of God’s presence. The skies are proclaiming the handiwork of God (Psalm 19:1).

According to Psalm 139:7-10, there is literally no where we can go to escape God’s presence. As Lewis put it, “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labor is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more to remain awake.”4

But we are asleep. We have forgotten that the world we live in is alive with the divine presence of God. Much like the characters in Onward, we have forgotten what our world is like, and as a result, we have forgotten who we are.

In the Bible, the people of Israel also had trouble remembering. I recall reading the Exodus story as a kid and wondering how the people of Israel could be so forgetful. God led them out from Egypt with amazing signs and wonders, but a few days later they were complaining that Moses led them in the wilderness to die. Didn’t they just see God save them from certain death by parting the Red Sea? Didn’t they just see him miraculously deliver them from four hundred years of enslavement? How could they forget so quickly?

But then, of course,—in the brilliance of Scripture—while I am wondering how the people of Israel could so easily forget, I slowly begin to see my own reflection in them. I begin to see how often I have forgotten God. I see how often I act like this world is really all there is.

The people of Israel forgot. We forget. What things cause us to forget? An empty stomach, a dry desert, a bad day, a new gadget, and much more serious things like a coronavirus. Every day, we repeat the story of the Israelites, who saw God’s wonders and continually forgot them.

Remember the Signs
We need to be reminded—again and again—lest we forget that the world we live in is full of God’s presence. In the book, The Silver Chair, the Lion, Aslan, sends two schoolchildren on a mission to save the lost prince of Narnia. Before he sends them into Narnia, however, he gives them a warning: things will not be as clear in Narnia as they are in Aslan’s country. Aslan gives them signs by which they may be guided on their journey, along with a way to identify the lost prince. The children’s duty is to remember Aslan’s signs.

Of course, no sooner do they land in Narnia, than they forget those signs. At first reading, it might seem as though Lewis didn’t put much effort into this story. Throughout the adventure, the children miss obvious signs that should have alerted them to danger or could have aided them in finding the Prince. But Lewis isn’t being lazy, he’s making the point that even in Narnia it’s easy to forget.

So, too, in our thoroughly secular world that is broken by sin. Things are not as clear as they might be. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to read Scripture often and to gather regularly in communion with other believers (even if it’s over Zoom or the phone right now). When we read Scripture, we encounter a living God who has been and is still active in this world. We remember that we are part of a larger story than the consumerist narrative in which we wander. We gather regularly with believers to remember who God is and in turn, we remember who we are. We gather to “remember the signs” as it were, so we know what to do in our world.

Good stories, like The Silver Chair or Onward, can help shake us out of our slumber and help us remember who we are. It is only when the manticore is challenged by the two young elves that she remembers her warrior nature. It is only when the pixies lose their bikes that they remember how to fly. Even Colt Bronco remembers that he was “made to run.” Sometimes, we too, need to be shaken up. Sometimes, we need a Barley to remind us that the world is indeed a magical place.

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Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.