Roald Dahl is best known as a children’s author, particularly for his beloved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which celebrates fifty years this year. His zany plots, fantastic oddities, and unexpected endings make for stories memorable to both parent and child. In one particularly memorable passage for me as a child, Dahl shouts of what happens to children who sit in front of televisions to “loll and slop and lounge about, And stare until their eyes pop out.”(1) I remember hearing often that I shouldn’t watch excessive television; this was the first time I vividly considered what it might do to me (with the help of the Oompa Loompas):
IT ROTS THE SENSE IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!
IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!
IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND
HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND
A FANTASY, A FAIRYLAND!
HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!
HE CANNOT THINK — HE ONLY SEES!(2)
I was surprised to learn recently that Dahl’s first published story was neither zany nor imaginative in the sense he is known for. And yet, the paradoxical nature of sight still seems an invisible thread connecting his thoughts together. Dahl served in the Royal Air Force during World War II as a fighter pilot and intelligence officer. His first piece of published writing was an article in the Saturday Evening Post based on his flying experiences and a crash that left him with multiple injuries and months of blindness. He writes:
“This business of looking is the most important part of the fighter-pilot’s job. You’ve got to have a rubber neck and you’ve got to keep it moving the whole time from the moment you get into the air to the moment you arrive back at your base. If you don’t, you won’t last long. You turn slowly from the extreme left to the extreme right, glancing at your instruments as you go past; and then, looking up high, you turn back again from right to left to start all over again. Don’t start gazing into your cockpit, or, sure as eggs, you’ll get jumped sooner or later, and don’t start daydreaming or looking at the beautiful scenery—there’s no future in it.”(3)
In each case, Dahl describes seeing as a complicated business—and blindness, a fearsome consequence of looking after the wrong things.
Faith for me as a young person was something quite like Dahl’s description of the child whose eyes were popping out from starring. I was captivated by what the heavens demanded of me, the rules and disappointments I believed the God of Ideals listed for me ad nauseam. It was a vision that stole the senses and killed the imagination. God was exasperating, and faith, if it could be called that, was life-dulling. Still, I watched on with baited attention.
Mine wasn’t a startled awakening, yet over time, mercifully, the God I so badly wanted to please pulled the plug on the artificial images that seemed to play on a continual, blinding loop in my mind. Lifting my eyes to the human Son of God, the love of God in person stole the show.
This is not to say there is no temptation to gaze toward the many streaming screens of distraction that steal it back again. There are surely visions which when given too high a place of prominence or too much attention skew the view in ways that very much become blinding: a particular worry or a sense of despair, a negative experience fixated in my mind from the past, even an excited preoccupation with the future. Dahl’s description of trying to fly a plane and getting lost gazing at the cockpit is a vivid example to this end. It is not that these things are necessarily even false or wrong visions; there is just little future in staring at them exclusively.
Quite the reverse, there is a lot to look at in the vision of Jesus as vicarious human person, God in flesh like mine and yours and the broken bodies all around us. Jesus surely darts in and out of the scenes that captivate us, often on the sidelines, trying to grab our attention from lesser plots, showing us in flesh and blood what it means to be human. In a recent issue of Image journal, editor Greg Wolf describes the artist somewhat similarly, as “someone who is driven to go out to the margins of society in order to learn what the margins can teach those at the center.”(4) Dahl would no doubt find this an agreeable image, his use of the marginalized Oompa Loompas the strange helpers who bring Charlie and his eager followers to new visions of their own humanity. Jesus in these terms then is God at his most artistic, driven to the margins of humanity itself to show us who we are.
It is a common perception that religion, Christianity included, is a mind-numbing, humanity-stealing collection of rules and controlling stories. How startling then, zany and beautiful and wrenching, the discovery of one who so loves humanity that he lifts our eyes from less imaginative visions and shows us in flesh and blood, life and death, himself, his love, creation remade.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (New York: Penguin Books, 2007), 137.
(2) Ibid., 138.
(3) “Shot Down Over Libya,” Saturday Evening Post, August 1, 1942.
(4) Gregory Wolfe, “Editorial Statement: Art and Poverty,” Image, Issue 84, Spring 2015.