I binge-watched Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle over the Thanksgiving break. I’m not proud of it, but as the Good Word says, “God works everything together for our good.” In the last few weeks I’ve gotten farther along in the series and have almost reached the end of Season 2. Season 3 is currently in the making.
The show’s fundamental proposition is both intriguing and chilling: The U.S. lost WWII and its eastern half is under Nazi control and its Western under Japanese. A band of diverse men and women have formed The Resistance. Their fight for freedom centers around the collection and distribution of strange, contraband films—films an aging Hitler is desperate to have. Most Resistance members don’t know the content of the films; they simply do whatever is necessary to get them to the mysterious, brilliant, and eccentric “Man in the High Castle.”
That’s enough for now on the plot. What you really need to understand is that the show viscerally portrays the relentless fear of living in a totalitarian society. The main character, Juliana, is drawn into the Resistance in the aftermath of her sister’s own involvement. The Japanese throw her boyfriend Frank into a dank prison cell as a result, and there he suffers horrendous physical and emotional abuse. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the clinical brutality of the main Nazi character, Obergruppenführer John Smith (played brilliantly by Rufus Sewell) unfolds in a daily, blasé manner embodying what Hannah Arendt once called “the banality of evil.” Smith moves seamlessly from supervising bloody interrogations in a basement torture chamber to discussing his children’s school day over the dinner table.
Somewhere around the 7th episode I realized I had been completely—heart and mind— drawn into this make-believe world. I sat one evening in my bedroom considering the show’s heroes and villains. An insistent theme of implication underlies the story: How should one respond to life in this world? Keep your head down, follow the rules, ignore state-sponsored violence again innocents, and just scrape out a living for you and yours? Or will you be a lion, throw in your lot with the Resistance, and work for a new world of freedom and justice? The show made me confront such questions about security versus courage.
And then I realized that I didn’t have to engage in a fantasy to imagine totalitarian oppression. There’s a real-world example of it, right now, happening in my lifetime. It’s called North Korea.
And all of a sudden I realized that I needed to do something about those suffering in North Korea. The exercise of “I wonder what I would do if I lived in the United States portrayed by The Man in the High Castle?” turned into “How can I help God’s image-bearers who actually, literally live in this sort of totalitarian world just on the other side of the globe?” The show had moved me—to care, to prayer, and to action. I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning doing research on the internet, certain that there was some ministry, some nonprofit, that was doing something to help North Koreans. I found a great organization: LiNK. It stands for Liberty in North Korea. This group, headquartered in Long Beach, CA, works through a modern-day “underground railroad” to rescue North Koreans fleeing the country, and to help the refugees when they land (typically) in China.
Fiction moved me more than fact.
I devoured LiNK’s website, watching every video, following every link. (For one powerful story of a North Korean whom LiNK helped escape and resettle, check out Joseph’s talk from the TED stage.) I checked their status with Charity Navigator, read what others have said about their work (Forbes ran a good story on one of LiNK’s major donors.) I wrote a letter to LiNK’s Director of Finance and Operations offering to try to use the public speaking platform I have to champion their cause. And I made what (for me, anyway) was a sizable donation. In short, I acted.
The strange thing is that I already knew something of the suffering of North Koreans. Two summers ago I read Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by journalist Barbara Demick. It’s very well-written and well-researched; Demick spent hours interviewing escapees from North Korea. And I recall being horrified as those pages illuminated the realities of life in the hell-hole that is North Korea. I remember that I talked about the book with a couple friends. I did an hour’s research online about the country’s notorious labor camps and learned that Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was interned in one. I hadn’t known that and I began praying for Otto (who, tragically, died shortly after his release in June).
But the truth is that in just a few weeks I largely forgot about ordinary people in North Korea and what they’re going through. Demick’s (very good) nonfiction book educated me, informed me, opened my eyes. But its grip on my heart was short-lived. As a result of my reading it, I didn’t really do anything for the people I’d learned about.
But the creatives behind The Man in the High Castle changed that. Their fiction moved me more than fact had. And that’s why I want to praise every artist and writer, every poet and producer, every actor and make-up artist. I want to tell you creatives: Your work matters! Do you realize the power you hold in your inventive hands?
In his book, The Day the Revolution Began, theologian N.T. Wright says: “Gifts that stir the imagination can frequently unblock channels of understanding that had remained stubbornly clogged when addressed by reasoned words.” Wright’s statement aligns with C.S. Lewis’ belief in the power (and necessity) of a “baptized imagination.” Lewis argued that imagination was vital to Christian discipleship because it was the way we follow Jesus’ command to become like little children. The baptized imagination has a capacity for wonder, an ability for play, and an appreciation for the sort of literary fiction that makes truth, morality, and the unseen spiritual realities of life three-dimensional.
For Lewis, Christians are not merely those who know and intellectually ascent to propositional truth; rather, Christians are people who love truth and virtue.
Lewis believed that there was an essential connection between a baptized imagination and perseverance in Christian mission. Believers who endure have hearts that have been deeply moved by stories that illuminate Christian virtues like courage, mercy, faithfulness, and sacrificial love—as well as Christian concepts like the cosmic battle between good and evil and Good’s ultimate triumph.
I’ve no idea whether anyone involved in the making of The Man in the High Castle knows Jesus. What I do know is that the story they imagined and the world they created on the screen incited me to some (admittedly modest) compassionate actions that I wouldn’t have taken otherwise.
“All truth is God’s truth,” said the wise Augustine. The Big Truths—about love and redemption, responsibility and sacrifice—nose their way into “secular” stories. With Christian creatives this happens intentionally; with others, largely unintentionally. Well-crafted stories and films embody these Truths in flesh and blood so that we can see and hear and touch and feel them.
So, here at Christmastide, kudos to all you creatives for that incarnational work. Your labor gave birth in me of a fresh passion to “love mercy and do justice” on behalf of oppressed North Koreans—and I’m grateful.
Dr. Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute and author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (IVP).