Stories; all well and good

I feel as if I should be beating dust off covers and brandishing a broom to collect the lingering spiderwebs. It has been more than a little while since last post. It’s time to finally round off that four-part series  on stories.

We need to tell good stories. We need to tell them well. Not only does it matter  that we grasp God’s big story our place in it, but we need to thoughtfully consider how the other stories we tell could be told so as to reflect that reality. As previously noted, this makes the storyteller and his story important.

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I’ve had some indirect involvement with kids minstry over the last few months, so  I’ve come across a bunch of storybook bibles. Sometimes these are great, but there are instances where they just miss the mark. Where the images accompanying the story don’t do it justice, where the narrative or characterisation is off-kilter, where elements have been stripped to hit the target audience of cute and crazy pre-schoolers.They grapple with the junction of entertainment and truth. It’s the same with some preachers: amidst profound anecdotes and dazzling descriptions, the theological or pastoral significance is lost. Language and story can give wings to exegesis, but equally a story may bury theology, avoid deep thinking or misdirect attention.

We have to tell our stories well. Be it the grand sweep of progressive revelation or a fictional anecdote to illustrate a point, both the content and act of telling are involved. A good story is not one that deceives, misleads, or draws people away from truth but one that grabs attention and causes people to ask the right questions, to think deeply, to be caught by something true.

What does it mean to tell it well? It means clarity, but not sterility. Entertainment doesn’t mean value. But a story can reach and inspire many people in a way that a systematic theology tome cannot. A story may obfuscate truth, undermine convictions, moralise, trivialise or lead someone along an unhelpful path all while being gripping and enlightening. This is true of any story, be it the rhetoric of a politician or a piece of classic fiction. Yet perhaps this is more dangerous among “Christian” stories. There is some great Christian fiction, but much of it is, quite frankly, rubbish. Having “Christian Values” doesn’t make a novel worth reading. I have read relatively little of this fiction, or similar attempts to engage Christianity and society with story. That which I have read has not always been approached, on my part, in a thoughtful and alert manner. And that’s precisely the problem: I haven’t come to these things with a good framework for understanding their ability to convey meaning by their stories. Equally, every advertisement, movie, politician is telling a story. We need to hear them, learn, consider them in light of God’s story. We need to be able to tell our own stories and God’s story, and others that teach truth and cast a vision. That means cultivating thoughtfulness and artistry.

A few years ago, “The Shack” was about the most popular book in Christian bookstores. Apparently compelling and confronting, I had people both recommending and condemning it to me. I haven’t read the book, so I won’t make any claim. What is clear though, is that some people may have not realised the correct way to read the story. Perhaps it – and many other stories besides – are being told in ways which people are lapping up to their detriment. If people are coming away from ”The Shack” with a “clearer” understanding of the Trinity which is actually a fictional simplification, they may have traded in a mysterious and profound truth for a convenient, quasi-Modalist metaphor. If that is the case, is it a good story? Is it being told well? Any story can be twisted or misconstrued. But we must craft them carefully, so as not to deceive.

What of the tendency of Christian storytelling to put words in God’s mouth. That’s a powerful device. Using a God character or Jesus figure in your stories is dangerous, as some will fail to see that this is an imperfect characterisation. Is it within our liberty to do? We are at risk of false testimony about God.

But where does this place us with well-accepted stories such as the Chronicles of Narnia? Though I believe Lewis (did you know his middle name was “Staples”?) has often hit the nail on the head imagining how the Son of God might interact with fallen beings in another world, does it escape the difficulty? The Screwtape letters is another example: it’s incredibly clever and for many people – myself included – a piece of fiction which has practical implications for faith, prayer and attitudes. But is it true to the reality of the Spiritual? Lewis makes no claim in Narnia or Screwtape to be speaking in God’s behalf, and is clear that these are fiction. I think Lewis has been faithful: he has done well in telling stories well: stories which are a joy to read, yet also allow someone to consider Christ. Though not in the immediate sense true, these stories use a story to reach a deeper truth, or perhaps many. A story is used to make the gospel story manifest in a different way.

Still, care is needed. There are points at which Lewis’s story may be misleading. Atone point Aslan accepts a man who has been a devoted follower of Tash, on the basis that he was sincere and was drawn to the attributes of Tash which most resembled Aslan himself. Without going into the discussion about whether this constitutes classical universalism, we can see how it might be easy to take from this episode a misguided view of salvation, where sincerity trumps all – something which a glance at Mt Carmel or Jesus’ teachings would refute. TO continue with Lewis as a case study, the space trilogy takes a different approach, and if one did not understand the nature and purpose of the pre-fall dialogue mirrored in Perelandra they may import extra-biblical speculation into their understanding of the reality of creation and fall.

Are the stories we tell glorifying God? Are they told in such a way that truth wins out, even if the story itself is fictional? Are we educating people to value and learn from stories in the real world and the fictional realm? Does that involve an understanding of the danger of a bad story?

I don’t know. But I am excited about storytellers who are theologically clear, who can write in a way that ignites  the imagination yet makes sense of real lives,  who, by the grace and work of God,  tell stories in order to every thought captive for Christ.


 

Initially this post was intended to interact more with specific examples. The plan changed, but if you’ve made it this far you might find it interesting to read these articles by Tim Keller and Trevin Wax over at The Gospel Coalition which touch on The Shack and comparison to Lewis. If nothing else, they are a good example of how we might approach particular instances and evaluate their potential power and pitfalls.

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2 comments on “Stories; all well and good

  1. Mono says:

    Cool thoughts Hansel – reading in class, so not super focussed on either what you wrote or on the French Revolution, but commenting anyway.

    I think there’s another kind of fiction that could be characterised as “Christian” – though I hesitate to call it “Christian fiction” for reasons that I’ll explain.

    I’m thinking of fiction written from a Christian perspective – that is, fiction which examines the world through distinctively Christian eyes, without (necessarily) trying to convey a theological or pastoral point.

    A great example is Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead”. It’s a beautiful book. Robinson is a Christian, and the novel is written from the point of view of a Congregationalist minister. It’s not allegorical, and it’s not a vehicle for communicating theology – it’s a story about fathers and sons that is told in a distinctly Christian way. As such, I hesitate to call it “Christian fiction” – I don’t want to load it with the baggage that comes with that label (i.e., Robinson is a different type of thing entirely to Narnia or something like The Shack).

    I think it’d be cool to see/discover more fiction like this. Such fiction is, in my view, important for two reasons.

    First, books like this could be great evangelistic tools. They’re not “Christian books” – they’re just ‘normal’ books! They’re books that we can read with people who might not engage with Christian material, but who will engage with good fiction.

    Second, writing books from a distinctly Christian perspective helps us to avoid the dangers of putting words in the mouth of the Lord. More positively, life as a Christian is one thing which we, as Christians, are actually uniquely qualified and free to write about, without fear of ‘getting it wrong’. I think it’d be great to see more honest fiction written about life as a Christian – both the beauty and hardship of that life.

    Here ends the rant. #yearofcondensedmilk #cheesedreams #gazebodreaming #obscurehashtags

    • amacdonald56 says:

      Yeah, nice. I started writing a reply about how I agree and it’s in some sense putting out the hope that others can read that sort of fiction in a similar way to how we might try to approach other stories – not necessarily for a clear easy articulation of a certain worldview or concept, but to broadly get a sense of meaning, experience, emphases, and even just for the sake of solidarity and experience. It was a nice comment, but then my phone deleted it. I like your insights!

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