Friday, April 5, 2013

A Brief Defense of Story

Tonight I attended a ladies' group from our church which my friend Lydia hosts; it is a small group of ladies of different generations (which I appreciate since in the world of fighter pilots everyone tends to be in their 20s and 30s). During a discussion of time-management the topic of reading came up. One lady remarked that she feels guilty whenever she reads novels since she has a friend who told her disparagingly that "I never read fiction!" and another lady added that she feels that if she's going to read it ought only to be the Bible or Christian nonfiction books.

I am normally very quiet in these types of settings when I don't know anyone, but I involuntarily sat forward, moaning half-articulately, "No! Oh– no– no– stories– but that's not true– fiction is– oh no!" The problem with being a writer is that my self-expression is far better on paper than through the spoken word, which is why if I'm going to say something in a group setting, I usually rehearse it two or three times over in my mind first, as if mentally writing it down, processing the thought, making sure it's worth speaking aloud.

Fortunately for the group, another lady spoke up after my twisted tongue had stopped trying to blurt in two sentences the thousand thoughts roiling in my mind, and she pointed out that all good fiction points out what is true and good and beautiful in the world, and therefore it is worthy of our attention. I voiced an "Amen!" because I never say "Amen!" in church but I like saying it in random conversation as a mark of approbation.

But, of course, mentally I couldn't leave it at that, and these are the things I wish I'd had the mental and verbal alacrity to say:

God invented Story.
History is a story, (His- story, of course!), the living breathing story of everything written by a divine hand. The Bible is a giant meta-narrative with a plot and overarching themes– the fact that it is true does not change its essential literariness. Within the Bible are hundreds, thousands of individual narratives, including the fictional narratives (also called parables) told by Jesus. In fact, Tim Keller explains in The Prodigal God how Jesus' story of the Prodigal Son reveals the heart of the gospel. When Christ wanted His listeners to understand His deepest message about mankind's need for redemption and the salvation He offered, He didn't write a tract, an essay, or a self-help book. He didn't write a five-step program or a four-week curriculum. He told a story.

Story is Art, and Art, as a reflection of the creativity of God, has no need of justification.
As Leland Ryken points out in his essay "Words of Delight: A Hedonistic Defense of Literature":
Through the centuries, the hedonistic defense of literature has had to contend with a utilitarian or functional outlook that belittles anything that is not directly useful in mastering the physical demands of life. The utilitarian disparagement of the arts has been a frequent ingredient in Christian attitudes towards literature... A Christian worldview stands opposed to such a reduction of life to the directly utilitarian. God did not create a purely functional world. Instead he planted a garden in which the trees were "pleasant to the sight" as well as "good for food" (Genesis 2:9, RSV). The writer of Psalm 19 valued nature, not because it was useful to him, but because it gave him the opportunity to contemplate the beauty and handiwork of God.
All art– whether stories, music, plays, poetry, the visual media, etc. – has the ability to reflect the beauty and creativity of the Creator. This can be done whether it is "religious" or not. Later on Ryken argues that first and foremost the job of Story is to delight, to give pleasure, and the seeking of literary pleasure
is every reader's instinctual (and fundamentally good) reason for reading literature.

A story need not be factually "true" (nonfiction) to depict that which is most deeply true.
Good stories expose both the highest and lowest of the human heart. Good novels do not shy away from humanity's weakness and wickedness, even while they extol the goodness of individual men and women. Courage, virtue, honor, integrity can be celebrated just as powerfully– in fact I would suggest often-times more powerfully– in a good fantasy novel as in a news article.

Story transcends all human barriers; it gives us the ultimate empathetic experience.
C.S. Lewis says it best (of course!):
We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself... We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own... My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others.

Without Story, how can we make sense of the world? Without narrative, our lives fragment, shattering into millions of purposeless actions and meaningless moments. Without the drama of the human heart spattered upon the pages of novels and poems and plays, how can we have those moments when we read and suddenly we realize that what we are reading may be fiction in genre but is Truth in every way that matters–in fact more clearly Truth than if we had baldly stated it in matter-of-fact exposition?

Tell all the truth, but tell it slant--
Success in circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

Emily Dickinson knew that Truth is most powerful when disguised in the "slant" of Story– for in a really good story the brightness of Truth becomes accessible to our hearts and our minds. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Marriage Thoughts IV: Space for Reunion

It had been over nine months since my last visit home to Colorado, so a couple weeks ago I boarded the  plane and sailed from summertime threatening the desert (highs in the 80s and 90s already, in March!) back to winter in the form of snow and single-digit temperatures on the Front Range.

I will make my confession.

I had been eagerly anticipating the visit... the time with my family, the time with good friends, some quality time with my parents' fuzzy couch-potato-dog. But I had also been looking forward to the short time apart from the Pilot.

This is not because I didn't miss him.
It's because I did.
And I knew I would. And I knew he would miss me.

This Air Force life ahead of us will hold many "missing" times. We were challenged with a month-long separation less than three months after we were first married (and, I might add, I was miserable. Not a drown-my-sorrows-in-cookies-and-wine and cry-every-day miserable, but the haunting in my consciousness of a general feeling of deprivation and not-right-ness miserable.) Now that the Pilot is almost finished with training and "real life" on an operational base looms large, so also the reality of deployments, of absences two and three and six months long, begins to loom ominously as well.

How then could I  have possibly looked forward to a week long-separation from him? Of course it was an inevitable by-product of me going to see my family (the Pilot isn't allowed to take any leave during training, so he couldn't have gone with me), but to purposefully anticipate the absence? Even just a year ago my newlywed self would have been aghast, even appalled at the idea.

Here's why I think the short time apart was good for us and our marriage: it gives us space for reunion.

Marriage blends the spice of intimacy with the bland of the mundane, the shifting sand of romance with the bedrock solidarity of ordinary every-day love that manifests itself in going grocery shopping together and balancing the checkbook and taking out the trash. Eight weeks married, I wrote rapturously that "love comes in messy kitchens and boxers on the floor" and a year and a month later I still think that's true. But it's not as easy to remember as it was then. A lot of the time now I just wish the boxers could end up in the laundry hamper. Routines are good and important, but I can cross the line too far into making my marriage a routine. Just because the Pilot and I make a habit of loving each other doesn't mean we want to become so accustomed to each other that we take each other for granted.

So I cooked extra meals (way more than I originally planned, because the closer the trip got to more guilty I felt about leaving my Pilot to fend for himself!) and kissed my husband goodbye and by the second day back in Colorado I was missing him. We called each other every night and texted during the day. We told each other about everything that happened each day. We whispered and giggled. He read me a section of The Hobbit over the phone one night so we wouldn't get too far behind (I've been reading it out loud as our bedtime story.) It felt like we were engaged again. He told me to come home soon, and I counted the days till we'd be reunited.

In marriage, distance can provide a lens that brings the focus to what's really important; pet peeves and minor squabbles blur into the background. I don't love the Pilot more now that I'm back because I never loved him less, but a short time away from him intensifies that truth and brings it forefront in my vision. When I saw my husband in the car as he drove up to pick me up from the airport, I wasn't remembering boxers on the floor (or even paying much attention to the March Mustache) because I knew that this was my lover-friend, my Pilot who woos and wins me, the man who is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. These are the things that are the most true, and it was the short time of distance which helped me remember.