Last year I watched the movie Lincoln. I came in with very low expectations since the trailers did not impress me and I do not like the the writer. But I was pleasantly surprised. I was drawn into the moral maze that Lincoln and others had to navigate in order to get the 13th Amendment passed.
I remember one scene in particular that was treated with such stirring complexity. Senator Thaddeus Stevens wants full equality of blacks with whites. But he knows that if he makes this case in front of Congress, they will balk and not agree to the minimal step of outlawing slavery. So, he makes a moral compromise and says he does not hold to full equality, only equality under the law. And while Mrs. Lincoln is impressed with Stevens' restraint in order to get the amendment passed, Mrs. Keckly, an African-American observer has to excuse herself because she is too hurt and upset.
The movie raises some of the big questions, particularly, how much can you compromise to achieve progress? As I was watching, I could not help but think about the struggles of the Pro-Life cause. Since we believe that every human life is sacred, our ultimate legal goal is a ban on all abortions. But the introduction of such legislation now would be seen as so radical that there would be large blowback. So we start at half measures like banning late-term abortion. But that still leaves all the babies vulnerable in the first two trimesters.
But the more I pondered, I thought that other groups could also see their cause reflected in the movie Lincoln. I image those in favor of "gay marriage" also observe the need for incremental change at the state the federal level to achieve their goals. First they started with civil unions. Then recognition only within certain states. Now the scales are tipping toward full acceptance in the entire country, except of course in the Churches. But I imagine that will be the next frontier.
I was struck by how I could see two very divergent political views could be so closely paralleled in a movie set over a hundred years in the past. And yet the movie is not about either modern issue. It is not about any modern issue. And yet it is.
It was here that I reflected upon JRR Tolkien's distinction between application and allegory.
Tolkien spent decades building the world and history of Middle-Earth and produced one of the most popular novels of all time: The Lord of the Rings (which, incidentally, did not make EW's top 100 novels). But he was distressed when people tried to say that his story was an allegory for the atomic bomb, something so powerful and evil that it could not be used, only destroyed. He dismissed this interpretation out of hand.
He said, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
In an allegory, you take the topic or idea that you have in mind and you create a symbol of that idea and tell your story with those symbols. The prophet Nathan told a parable to King David about a rich man, a poor man, and the poor man's sheep. This would be an example of pure allegory, since each character symbolized someone else (rich man = David; poor man = Uriah; sheep = Bathsheba). And while this does not stop Nathan's parable from being a good story, it limits its application.
I would venture to say that most modern stories are not pure allegories. But many heavy-handedly tell you that "this is a substitute for that." James Cameron's Avatar has clear allegorical critiques of the American military, especially with lines like "We're going fight terror with terror" and "Shock and awe."
But my problem with allegory tends to be that it takes me out of the story and makes me think too much about the thing to which it is referring. One of the reasons I am reluctant to see the upcoming movie Elysium is that has clear allegorical elements to the themes of last year's Occupy Wall Street movement. That isn't to say that it cannot be a good movie, but allegories tend to focus on preaching rather than entertaining. They seem to shout "Are you getting the lesson, children?" instead of simply presenting a piece of art for your mind and soul to digest. Lincoln didn't do that. It held up to you the fundamental questions of life and let you ponder. This is what Tolkien was saying when he said that allegory is all about how the author is using the story as a delivery system for his message, but applicability is about the audience using the art to more fully engage and reflect on life.
Take, for example, The Hunger Games. The movies and books have been huge hits. One of the things that amazed me was how philosophically diverse the acceptance was. For example, the plot centers around the super-rich in the Capitol, where the government there imposes its horrific will on the other districts. Those who lean politically left saw the evils of the 1-percenters. Those who lean politically right saw the dangers of totalitarian government control.
Some criticized the story as being too devoid of traditional values, for example, there is no religion ever mentioned. But I found that to be one of the book's strengths. Unlike other futuristic fantasy where religion has been eliminated, like Star Trek, you felt the absence of faith in Panem. The people were lost because they had lost the great light, only they never knew it.
And I think great stories should be like this. People should be able to come from wide and varied life situations and use the story as a lens with which to see the world through.
Does this mean that great art is a Tabula Rasa, a blank canvass that can mean anything you want? No.
But the great stories go deeper than the modern problems and fashions of the day. That makes them too quickly worn out and dated. As CS Lewis said, "Whatever is not eternal, is eternally out of date." Am I the only one who roles their eyes now at the Star Trek IV: Save the Singing Whales or a Giant Space Pencil Will Blow Us Up? Great stories dig down into the fundamental truths not just of our times, but all times. And no matter when or where you experience these stories, they will strike a chord, because you also share the same universal human nature we all do. And the great stories will find some aspect of the grand human experience raise it up to our consciousness for us to behold.
This does not mean that allegories cannot be good or enjoyable, but they are limited. There, the author is trying to get you to see their truth.
But in the great and grand stories, the author helps you experience THE truth.