Trilemma on 34th Street
C.S. Lewis, the Narnia author and theologian, put forth the argument that logically, Christ must have been divine. If He weren’t divine, then He was either lying or insane. Those are our only choices. If you don’t believe in Christ’s divinity, do you believe one of the other options is true? Lewis called this the trilemma.
Whether or not you accept the premise, it is thought-provoking. Is it thought-provoking enough to weave a story around? I have a few children’s author friends who stop by here—how would they build a plot around Lewis’ argument?
First, you need an Everyman character—someone who could be influenced to believe or not believe. Add two more characters: one advocating for belief in His divinity, one against. Then add Christ Himself to the mix. Let’s set the story in the here-and-now.
Christ appears on the scene; some people believe in Him, some don’t. Of those who don’t, some think He’s insane, and subject Him to psychoanalysis, and finally have Him committed.
Christ gets out of the insane asylum, but now He needs to prove He’s not lying—in a court of law. His lawyer doesn’t actually succeed in proving His divinity—because there never can be such proof—but he does show that so many people do believe that there must be something to it. That’s the best any of us can do. That’s the nature of faith.
What a great plot! Of course it’s the story of Miracle on 34th Street. Santa Claus (Edmund Gwenn) stands in for Christ; the little girl (Natalie Wood) is Everyman; her mom (Maureen O’Hara who scorches the screen even in black and white) is a militant disbeliever; John Payne is a lawyer who literally advocates for belief in Santa. Santa is psychoanalyzed, committed, and put on trial. He’s either insane, lying—or he really is Santa Claus.
What does this have to do with a kids’ book illustration blog? Well, this is what we kids’ book illustrators do. Whenever I get a new manuscript to work on, it’s my job to scrutinize the story on more than one level. Many of the stories I get won’t stand up to too much analysis; they’re meant simply to entertain. But every story began with the germ of an idea. If I can discern that original idea by thoroughly analyzing the story, I’ll do a better job of illustrating the book.
On the other end of the spiritual spectrum—believe it or not, I’m currently working on a children’s story that I’m pretty sure is the author’s retelling of Doctor Faustus. Even if the author didn’t intentionally base her story on Marlowe’s masterpiece, the plot construction is so similar to Faustus that Faustus informs my visual interpretation of it. No, no devils, no Hieronymus Bosch, but there’s a character in this story who was about to get cut—and I argued for her to stay, since she would be Helen of Troy in Doctor Faustus. If I hadn’t read the play, I wouldn’t have realized her importance to this new story.