Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Derrida?

I may be dating myself as someone who can no longer watch “30 Something” vicariously, […]

JDK / 2.4.10

I may be dating myself as someone who can no longer watch “30 Something” vicariously, but growing up, one of my favorite genres of books was the Choose Your Own Adventure Series. Like most fans of these books, I would keep a finger on the page when you were given to choose to see if my choice had worked out. “If you want to go into the cave, turn to page 35; if you want to fight the bear, turn to page 62.” Often, you would turn to a page only to find out that “you fell into a ravine,” or “you were eaten by cannibals.” Luckily, you could turn back and go the other way, and be greeted with something much cheerier, “Congratulations! You were elected to the school board.” The impression these books left was not that we were in complete control of our destiny, but that there is a path full of choices, and we better make the right one, or we will turn the page and be greeted with a grisly end.

On The New Republic, I ran across this fascinating article by Ellen Handler Spitz entitled Postmodern at Bedtime about the way contemporary revisions of classic stories are heralding a new dawn of childhood escapism: Choose Your Own Adventure, has given way to Choose Your Own Narrative Ontology. Unlike the choose your own adventure books, which in some way corresponded to the dark sides of reality, these new books sanitize life from any real threat of a big bad wolf. And while there is no way to put your finger in time and skip ahead, I’m afraid this choice is leading to page 101, which reads “Oh no! You find yourself drowning in a vodka and Red Bull-filled pool of disillusionment and nihilistic despair.” That’s me trying to be funny.

According to Spitz, these new books:

...eschew linear plots, and favor formats that demand participation from individual child readers in various processes of active co-creation. Each book serves as an elaborate set-up for storylines that can vary not only from reader to reader but also from one reading to the next. An early groundbreaking example of this genre was David Macaulay’s Black and White, a picture book in which at least four versions of the same story are simultaneously recounted, but which may be read in any number of ways. Like a child clicking a mouse or tapping a screen, the reader of Black and White is free to move in any direction and thus to construct his or her own narrative.

But, continues Spitz, there is a cost.

The risk with the cyber-genre is that, with all its glitz, we lose the pity and terror which Aristotle extolled and Plato feared. Surely we need not make such a sacrifice. Think of Ovid, after all, with his Orpheus, Icarus, Daphne, and Phaeton: he did not write for children, but he proved forever that you can glide from story to story without losing the quiver, the throb, the core. Whatever the achievements of much new work in the field of children’s books—of David Wiesner’s work in particular—I confess that I am still on the lookout for those rare treasures that can make us tremble mightily like Disney’s giddy piglets under their blanket when the wolf is at the door.

In these new books, Spitz is bemoaning the lost connection between reality and fiction, because a clear grasp of the former is a hallmark of the best and most enduring examples of the latter. Good art is cathartic, argues (a paraphrased) Aristotle, because even if its a puppet show, if it connects with reality it helps us to process what is actually taking place in our lives.

From a theological perspective, it is this same loss of connection to reality that has dethroned the Queen of the Sciences and what the distinction between Law and Gospel helps correct. Reality is life under the Law, and the demands of the Law are driving everyone at all times towards the one place where they have been silenced—“on a hill, far away, stood an old, rugged cross. . .”

When Dr. Luther reflected on how the doctrine of justification and the distinction between Law and Gospel came clear to him, writes Pastor Norman Nagel, he saw it as a movement from the abstract to the concrete. So whenever you hear yourself talking abstractions know that you are moving in the opposite direction.

Like a Choose Your Own Adventure Book, life has consequences and choices and pitfalls and marauding lions. It is in light of this that we have been brought to this Gospel message of “God’s justification of the un-godly,” and why we’re more interested in the people we are than in who we want to be. After a long-time flipping back and forth, we’ve finally found the page we’re going to be stuck on for a while—cannibals and all:)