The “Puddleglum Defense” of Christianity is no match for the “Beautiful Mind” rebuttal.
If you haven’t read the Narnia series before, it will be hard for me to explain this post to you. But all seven Narnia books were very familiar to me growing up, and had a shaping effect on my ideas of theology.
The character Puddleglum gives a speech towards the end of the fourth book, The Silver Chair, in which he metaphorically defends Christian faith against doubt.
I used to find this a powerful moment in the book, and a powerful defense of belief as well. It’s only as I have grown older that I realized another fictional story provides the perfect rebuttal to this claim.
If you’ve never read this series, it’s presented as a fantasy series, but Lewis is more concerned with presenting theology than telling the story.
To recap: our heroes have journeyed deep under the earth, to a dark, subterranean world, to rescue a prince from an evil witch with mind-controlling powers. They’ve found the prince and are trying to escape, when they’re cornered by the witch who begins to ensorcell them with an intoxicating scent and a mind-numbing, hypnotic sound. They have what appears to be a ‘debate’ over the nature of reality, but thanks to the magic, our heroes begin to forget the real world even exists. As they succumb to the witch’s power and their minds become confused, they lose their memory of the sky and fresh air and the Lion (Aslan, who is God in this world), and become convinced they have always lived underground in the witch’s kingdom. Dejected, they repeat the false truths she gives them – there is no sun. There has never been a sun. There has never been any world but this one.
To save the day, Puddleglum takes action, disrupts the spell, and makes a speech.
“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
It’s great. It’s moving. Search online, and you’ll come across bloggers calling it “one of the most inspiring declarations of faith I’ve ever read.”
But as I said, I only found it convincing as a defense of Christianity back when I was a Christian, and didn’t need convincing.
The chief problem with this speech is that it only works because we, the readers, know already that Puddleglum’s world is true.
They’re not really babies playing a game. They really do come from a real world. And we the readers know it. If the world he’s talking about didn’t exist, the whole speech would fall flat.
How do we know this? All we have to do is look at the movie, A Beautiful Mind.
A Beautiful Mind concerns the brilliant mathematician John Nash, who gets involved in spywork during the cold war. He’s able to find and decode Soviet messages hidden in ordinary newspaper and magazine articles. His secret life working with the CIA sometimes puts him in danger, as he nearly dies during a shootout and car chase between his handler and Soviet agents.
Eventually, he is captured by Soviet secret agents and taken to an alleged psychiatric hospital. There, the agents try to convince him he’s not really working for the CIA, and he made the whole thing up in his mind, but Nash stands firm and won’t give up his secrets.
Except…the doctors and nurses of the hospital aren’t really Soviet spies. They are really doctors and nurses, and the hospital really is a hospital. The mathematician has paranoid schizophrenia, and he really did invent his whole involvement with the CIA based upon hallucinations.
There aren’t really secret messages hidden in magazines. Nash is imagining them to be there, not really decoding anything. The car chase and shootout never really happened, and his handler doesn’t exist. Nash has been delivering the results of his ‘decoding’ to the CIA at a secret location at an abandoned building for months now, but when his wife goes there to investigate, she finds all the documents are still there, stuffed in a slot. Nobody—CIA, Soviet, or otherwise—has been collecting them.
It’s extremely difficult for Nash to come to grips with the truth, and to believe that all these exciting things he has done were not real.
However, his hallucinations definitely are detrimental to his life. He’d been spending countless hours and lots of stress looking for those hidden messages. He feared for his life during the car chase.
And after he’s released from the hospital, he relapses and gets worse. He nearly drowns his own infant son—leaving him unsupervised in a bathtub filling with water because he believes one of his hallucinations is watching the kid for him. He even attacks his own wife—but from his perspective, he wasn’t attacking her, he was trying to push her out of the way because a CIA agent was about to shoot and kill her.
Several things are abundantly clear in this story.
John Nash is not really working for the CIA. His belief that he is working for the CIA is causing harm to himself and his family. And if he doesn’t overcome his false beliefs, he will lose a great deal of good things from his life.
In other words, if he were to adopt the “Puddleglum Defense”, he would end up harming himself.
What if Nash were to decide that he liked the story of the CIA work better than the story of schizophrenia? Certainly the first story was more exciting, more flattering, and more rewarding. What if, like Puddleglum, he told the psychiatrist “Maybe I’m only a baby making up a story, but the made-up things seem to be more important than the real ones. My play story is much better than this world you live in. So, I’m going to live in the play-world; I’m going to keep working for the CIA, even if there isn’t any CIA to work for, and I’m going to keep uncovering those Soviet secrets even if there are no Soviets.”
We in the audience wouldn’t admire him for this stance. And it wouldn’t give him a better life anyway. He world be wrong—the things in the real world really are worth living for.
If he decided to stick with the imaginary world, he would lose his wife. He would lose his child. He would would lose his friends, and only interact with imaginary ones. He might lose his job, which means he would lose his house. He might end up on the street, hungry, talking to thin air, shuffling through life with no accomplishments. Eventually he might get himself killed.
Instead, he does what Puddleglum (and C.S. Lewis) won’t do. He listens to reason—unpleasant as it may be—and as a result, he’s able to be a good husband to his wife, and a good father to his son, and he wins a Nobel prize for his revolutionary work on game theory.
A person who talked like Puddleglum in real life wouldn’t be inspirational. He would be delusional.
It’s not better to retreat into a fantasy world just because you don’t like the real one.
The real way forward for someone like Puddleglum is not to choose what to believe based on what you’d prefer to believe. It’s to face reality as it exists, and create a beautiful life out of whatever world you can.