If there is one clear point of dystopian stories, it is that the dystopia must be resisted. A well-crafted dystopian story presents that resistance as tenuous and difficult. One of the best-known stories of this type, George Orwell’s 1984, is an extended exploration of the formulation and failure of resistance. As Winston Smith, the main protagonist, grows in his awareness of his degraded condition, he resolves to do what he can to resist the oppression of Big Brother. However, the matter is not so simple as he imagines, and he is ultimately overcome. This raises an important set of questions for the reader: “What would I do if I were there? Could I successfully resist?” For the Christian, these questions resolving toward allegiance ultimately come down to, “Would I ever betray my Lord?” This paper will explore two possible answers to the questions posed: resistance through strength, and resistance through virtue. Finally a Christian understanding of resistance will be presented with grounding in the doctrine of regeneration.

For any character in a story who becomes aware of the existential degradation of a dystopia, there are essentially three options: fight against the oppressive systems, attempt to simply exist within the system without opposing or supporting the oppressors, or surrender and unite with the oppressors. A good dystopian story precludes the second option altogether, forcing the members of the society to choose either the first or third option.[1] Finally, the decision of a hero to fight against the oppressive system is what makes dystopia resonate with our humanity in the first place. The stronger the oppressor and more pervasive the oppression, the more engaging the story. The task of an author, then, is to craft a world where the dystopia is pervasive, where the question of resistance seems futile. Orwell does a masterful job of this in 1984, leaving the reader with a longing for an answer, still unsure of the depth of the power of Big Brother. Charles Williams, a member of the famed Inklings along with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, is not presenting a dystopia, per se, but his novel Many Dimensions presents an attempt to control the thoughts and actions of an individual through the use of supernatural power.[2] The story is not a parallel to 1984, but the center of the attack, specifically the surrender of the mind, is remarkably similar to Orwell’s presentation. Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, resists through the strength of his resolve, while Chloe Burnett, a secretary in Many Dimensions resists through her personal character.

Winston Smith: Resistance Through Strength

Throughout 1984, Winston continues to find solace and hope in the thought that Big Brother can never totally win as long as something is beyond its reach, as long as Winston can keep something for himself.[3] In a similar vein, he believes that he is connecting to an underground organization called “The Brotherhood” that is fighting against Big Brother.[4] Even if Winston himself is captured and killed, The Brotherhood lives on. The defeat of Big Brother depends on the fortitude of those willing to resist.

This view that resistance is the key to victory is a very common conception of dystopian stories. As long as someone somewhere is resisting, then the oppressor can’t have a true victory and will eventually fall. Orwell, however, understands the thinness of such a dystopia, and recognizes that a victory-formula so simple does not deeply capture the reader’s imagination. As a result, Winston discovers to his horror that while he had believed that death was the biggest threat and that confession and betrayal of information would be Big Brother’s ultimate goal, his surrender must be much deeper. In the past, oppression was intended to elicit words and actions, but under Big Brother, the attack aims deeper, to the nature of existence.[5] No, Winston cannot simply make confessions; he cannot merely denounce co-conspirators. He cannot even simply be killed for his offenses against Big Brother. Even after unimaginable torture, and after surrendering his mind to the world of doublespeak, Winston still harbors the hope that if he might die hating Big Brother, he would have the victory.[6] This can never happen, though. Big Brother will not kill before it converts.[7] Winston must surrender everything. He must learn to love Big Brother.[8] In the end, all of Winston’s efforts at self-preservation and his imaginations of resistance are shown to be deficient. The story closes with the poignant lines: “But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”[9]

Orwell’s masterful presentation exposes the insufficiency of the mind and the heart as safeguards against surrender. The strength of Orwell’s dystopia is that it frustrates the reader’s attempts to find any satisfactory loci for resistance. The reader sees himself reflected in Winston’s resolve to fight against Big Brother, and the reader must also reluctantly identify with Winston’s successive surrenders. Big Brother is simply bigger than Winston’s resistance, and if the reader is honest, he must admit that his own mind and heart are not big enough to resist either. Resolution and determination only lead to defeat. Resistance through strength fails when it encounters greater strength.

Chloe Burnett: Resistance Through Virtue

Charles Williams, though not specifically addressing dystopian stories, provides an interesting possibility for considering how a powerful oppressor can be resisted. In Williams’s novel, Many Dimensions, a stone that enables supernatural activity comes into the possession of one Sir Giles Tumulty, a character of dangerously thin scruples. As the tension of the story mounts, Sir Giles attempts to overcome his opponents by using the stone to perceive the thoughts, and possibly control the actions, of his nemesis, Chloe Burnett, the private secretary of Lord Arglay. This is not an absurd proposal as the stone has already been used to perform similar tasks, and Sir Giles has displayed some competency in accomplishing such mind reading on other subjects. However, when Sir Giles uses the stone against Chloe, he finds that her thoughts are not only misinterpreted, but her mind is essentially closed to his manipulation.

In some ways, this attempt at understanding and control bear similarities to Orwell’s Big Brother; real victory is not won externally but by transformation of the will and desire. In Orwell this transformation is through physical and psychological means, while in Williams, it is attempted through supernatural means. However, unlike in 1984, in Many Dimensions, the attempts fail. The reason for the failures, though, is what is most important. Chloe Burnett doesn’t resist through strength; indeed, she and Lord Arglay are not fully aware until later of Sir Giles’s efforts. Williams summarizes the failure of the attack: “He [Giles] had not reached to the extremer places of Chloe’s own manner of experience; it had been but her conscious thought that he could dominate, working inwards from without.”[10] Sir Giles is not limited in the power he possesses, the stone being apparently unlimited in its capabilities, but he is instead limited by a fundamental incompatibility between his mind and that of Chloe. Sir Giles’s calculating and desirous mind can’t comprehend the altruism of the protagonist, and so he is left trying to make sense of the accidents of thought rather than the substance of the mind itself.[11] Protection for Chloe doesn’t come through power or resolve but by a fundamental difference in kind from the one attacking.[12]

A Christian Reading

For the Christian, the ultimate conflict in life is not with an oppressive state as in Orwell or with a vindictive occultist as with Williams, but instead, as Paul writes: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). The dystopia that Paul paints is one that, if truly seen for what he intends, is far more sinister than Big Brother. Orwell imagined a dystopia of global proportions; Paul speaks of oppression on a cosmic scale. Winston surrenders his heart and mind; a Christian must not surrender his eternal soul. With so much at stake, what can give the Christian a hope of enduring, and even overcoming, such a threat?

Orwell should be credited for his presentation of suffering and the way it works on the human psyche. As Winston is systematically broken, the arrogance of the reader dissolves.[13] For the Christian, this is particularly significant since capitulation is so tragic. For Winston, it meant a flavorless existence until a merciful death; for the Christian, betrayal of faith carries a threat of eternal damnation.[14] Resistance is paramount.

In Williams’s work, Chloe Burnett is protected by being different, by being under the protection of one who is greater.[15] She is not of the same stuff as Sir Giles, and so she is beyond his reach. Her resistance isn’t to do something but rather to be something, particularly something untouchable to someone of Sir Giles’s nature. This description bears a striking correspondence to the Christian doctrine of regeneration. A Christian is not defined as someone who acts like a Christian but rather one who has been made new through faith in Jesus Christ.[16] John uses the accessible picture of being “born again” (John 3:3) to describe this change, and though the term is often applied in sectarian ways, the reality is that it is actually an ontological expression: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6). The strength of this shouldn’t be overlooked. “Born again” is not a reference to a “fresh start,” but rather to being made into something that is not like it was. The one who is born-again as spiritual (John 3:6) is beyond the reach of those who only exist in the flesh. Attacks will come, but protection from surrendering to the spiritual enemies is not a matter of building a bulwark of resolution against them but rather of abiding in the reality of what it means to be a Christian in the first place. Resistance to temptation must spring from and be grounded in that reality. Action follows ontology.

A Christian Application

If this matter of ontology is correct, then, what is the effect on the approach of a Christian to dystopian suffering? First, the Christian may have confidence that victory is not a mere possibility but that it is an extant reality. Paul’s words for those “considered as sheep to be slaughtered” was that “we are more than conquerors” (Rom. 8:31-39). Paul isn’t talking about ascendant warrior-sheep conquering their enemies; in fact, the book of Hebrews provides a sometimes-grisly account of the suffering many endured.[17] If, then, “more than conquerors” isn’t referring to the perceived conditions, it would seem to be referring to a reality that exists beyond natural perception.[18] Big Brother can attempt to destroy the love for Christ, but the source of that love is inaccessible.

Second, the Christian does not approach the threat of suffering by preparing mental and emotional structures intended to secure his fidelity to Christ. Just as Winston’s allegiance to Julia, intended by its virtue to provide final security, ultimately makes his downfall that much more tragic, so we essentially create false hopes and greater perils when we attempt to constrain our minds and hearts by rules or resolutions.[19]  Setting up heroic visions of ourselves, theological paradigms, or even devotional things like the visage of Christ as means of reinforcing our spiritual fidelity is a dangerous proposition.[20] If we do this, we attempt to support the strength of Christ by means of our weak will. Instead, a continual remembrance that Christ has made us new and that his Spirit remains within us focuses our dependence on him to preserve us.

Finally, the Christian has a duty to exercise himself in the good things of God. Chloe Burnett is sustained in Williams’s novel through the virtues that are produced by her nature. She acts kindly, is not greedy or malicious, and, after recognizing that Sir Giles had attempted to attack her mind, she even desires to help him, to preserve him if possible from the danger to which he has exposed himself.[21] [22] [23] Though during the attack she in fact felt “desirous” and “calculating,” she felt, at the same time, that such things were ultimately foreign to her, and it was this foreignness that proved to be the point of resistance.[24] Because of the shaping of her mind toward good, evil is unable to penetrate to its depths. In the Christian life, Paul reminds us that what comes from the Spirit are things such as love, joy, peace, and patience (Gal. 5:22-23). The things that are true, noble, and right should occupy our thoughts and ambitions (Phil. 4:8-9), and as we are thus conformed to the image of Christ, we strengthen the ability to resist those who desire our destruction. The words of the old song are appropriate here:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,

Look full in His wonderful face,

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,

In the light of His glory and grace.[25]

Conclusion

Stories are best when they produce consideration and reflection in the reader. Dystopian stories are best when they stir the desire to resist an ascendant evil and cause reflection on the many ways in which that evil may need to be resisted. The stronger the enemy, the harder the question of resistance becomes. In the case of the Christian faith, the enemy is unimaginably powerful, and, just as Winston Smith discovered in 1984, personal strength is ultimately an insufficient answer. However, the Christian’s strength does not lie in himself but in the fact that he has been made new and is no longer accessible at the deepest levels to the enemy. As Chloe Burnett’s mind was impenetrable to Sir Giles, so the born-again Christian is inscrutable to evil. A powerful Christian answer to spiritual attack is to rest in the reality of regeneration and to resist through the power of the indwelling Spirit of God.


[1] One notable exception to this pattern is people who are essentially outside of the dystopian system who do not fully participate in the society. These groups include such examples as the “Proles” in Orwell’s 1984 or the “Savages” in Huxley’s Brave New World.

[2] For those unfamiliar with this novel, the following is a brief plot summary: A stone that appears to have some supernatural powers has been procured by Sir Giles Tumulty, and he begins to perform experiments on it to see what use and profit it may provide. Lord Arglay and his secretary, Chloe Burnett, as well as a Persian Hajji are concerned by the apparent sacrilege of these activities, and they attempt to restrain Tumulty. This builds into outright hostility between the two parties and progressively more questionable uses of the stone by Tumulty. Ultimately, both Chloe and Tumulty are consumed by the stone, but in different ways and to different ends. This mysticism and spiritual conflict is a common element of Williams’s novels.

[3] George Orwell, “1984” in Animal Farm and 1984 (Austin: Harcourt, Inc., 1949), 243.

[4] Ibid., 248.

[5] “The Command of the old despotisms was ‘Thou shalt not.’ The command of the totalitarians was ‘Thou shalt.’ Our command is ‘Thou art.’” Ibid., 331.

[6] Ibid., 355.

[7] Ibid., 330.

[8] Ibid., 356.

[9] Ibid., 370.

[10] Charles Williams, Many Dimensions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 211.

[11] Ibid., 206.

[12] The fact that Chloe in particular is under grace is indicated concretely in the description of a Mr. Ibrahim that she possessed “the Name” written on her forehead. External referents aside, this is a demonstration of Chloe’s fundamental otherness with regard to the self-serving Sir Giles. Ibid., 201.

[13] The sentiment here echoes Paul: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Cor. 10:12).

[14] I make this statement aware that a variety of beliefs exist within broad Christianity with regard to apostasy. Without attempting to make a specific theological argument here, I believe that the threat of damnation for the sin of apostasy must be taken seriously.

[15] See note 11. Williams, Many Dimensions, 201.

[16] Paul presents this succinctly (Gal. 6:15 and also 2 Cor. 5:17).

[17] The account includes both active and passive oppression, physical harm and destitution (Heb. 11:35-38).

[18] Paul describes this reality in his epistle to the Colossians: “Your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3).

[19] Orwell, 360.

[20] I borrow this reference from Shusaku Endo’s powerful novel, Silence, in which he demonstrates a similar point to the one being made here, that even the highest ambitions fail to provide sufficient buttressing in the face of uncommon oppression.

[21] Williams, Many Dimensions, 206.

[22] Ibid., 201.

[23] Ibid., 207.

[24] Ibid., 206.

[25] Helen H. Lemmel, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” 1922.

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