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. 

1 comment:

  1. "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?"
    This is so beautiful, dear friend. Will you share some of your poems and stories in this space?

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