The Write Side: Story and Truth – Part 1 (Sept-Oct 1997)

By Matt Dabbs

(part 1 of a 2-part essay on story and the transmission of faith)

by Thom Lemmons
September – October, 1997

You have yet to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story …. Do not despise the story. A lost coin is found by means of a penny candle; the deepest truth is found by means of a simple story. – Anthony de Mello

What happens to you when you hear the phrase, “Once upon a time …” May I venture a guess? Whether you are six or sixty, my hunch is that you can’t help leaning forward a little, either literally or figuratively, because you know you are about to be taken on a timeless excursion. You may wrestle with giants and slay dragons, or you may match wits with evil stepmothers and sorcerers. You may discover buried treasure or dive to the bottom of the sea. In fact, “once upon a time” is a sort of incantation, an invitation to enter into the world of the story, to be carried along by the skill of the story teller to whatever destination he or she might have the courage and craft to attempt.

Storytelling is a high and holy calling, an art with deeply spiritual implications. I believe stories are as essential to society as language itself. In every age and culture, humans have been storytellers. Story is the tool, perhaps more basic than fire, by which human civilization has been shaped and altered. Calvin Miller, in his book on preaching titled Spirit, Word and story, says that our stories define us, both as individuals and as nations. If you would know the heart of a nation, a tribe, a culture, learn its stories. If you would understand the fondest dreams and deepest aspirations of a people, find out who are the heroes of their stories, their legends. And if you want them to be better people, they need to hear better stories. This last assumption must underlie any attempt to use story as a vehicle of eternal truth.

J.R.R. Tolkein, author of the epic trilogy Lord of the Rings, often spoke of the “tree of tales,” of which he claimed to be a devotee and caretaker. in Tolkien’s usage, the tree of tales represented that vast body of story, myth and legend through which mankind has, throughout history and in all cultures, striven to make sense of the sometimes hostile and always confusing universe in which he finds himself. Tolkien chose the arboreal metaphor because, in his view, all tales, legends, stories and myths, however ancient or modern, are manifestations and effluorescences from a central trunk, a unified Source which is the beginning point of all story, all legend, all myth and all truth.

In his essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” we find a partial explanation of Tolkien’s identification of what trunk from which all others stories are sprung. He writes,

“The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. [It] has entered History and the primary world … There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits …

But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is Lord, of angels and of men – and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused [emphasis added].”

Similarly, C.S. Lewis makes this observation in Miracles:

The story of Christ demands from us, and repays, not only religious and historical but also an imaginative response. It is directed to the child, the poet, and the savage in us as well as to the conscience and to the intellect. One of its functions is to break down dividing walls.

Many, however, would much prefer to maintain the walls between story and faith. One reason is that the essence of story is mystery, and our time is not too tolerant of mysteries. We think that unless we can track it down, document it, observe it, quantify it and replicate it under controlled laboratory conditions, it isn’t true. We assume that our destiny is to capture and domesticate the entire physical universe; to codify and quarantine it with laws, axioms, theories and hypotheses. We assume that the only good mystery is a dead mystery. This attitude is often evident even in the church. I can’t prove it, but I suspect this discomfort with mystery lies at the root of many of the schisms suffered by the body of Christ over the last two millennia.

The interesting irony is that the more we find out, the more elusive complete knowledge becomes. Even sub-atomic physicists will tell you that we cannot really discover anything about quarks and mesons and neutrinos without changing them in the process to something unfamiliar, something undocumented. Every discovery creates a new question mark. With Pascal, I find it interesting that on both the infinite and the infinitesimal scales, creation is stubbornly resistant to yielding up her secrets. Of course, that’s all right with me. I love a good mystery.

Another reason many are uncomfortable with a discussion of story’s place in communicating the gospel is that some cannot abide the juxtaposition of something fictional with the abiding truth of the gospel. In this view, “fiction” becomes a synonym for “lie,” as in “a fictitious address.” And we all know that truth can’t co-exist with lies. I once had a Christian book store owner tell me that he didn’t stock fiction titles in his store because “people don’t need that stuff. They need to know how to live here and now.”

But consider … When the prophet Nathan was charged by God to confront King David about Bathsheba, did he march into the palace, point an accusing finger at David, and flail him with citations from the Decalogue? No. Instead, he told him a story about a poor man, a beloved lamb, and a greedy neighbor, and David was held fast by his own imagination. Indeed, by the time Nathan finishes his narrative, David is red-faced with indignation at the gross injustice done to the poor man by the selfish neighbor. “As the Lord lives,” he roars, “the man who has done this deserves to die!” Nathan then delivers the coup-de-grace: “You are the man.” And God’s white-hot blade plunged cleanly through the armor of David’s self-importance to the core of his guilty heart. Nathan already knew what Shakespeare’s Hamlet would verbalize two-and-a-half millennia later. To paraphrase: “The story’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

And when Jesus was asked the question, “Who is my neighbor?”, how did he respond? Did he launch into a rabbinical midrash on the ninth commandment or the Levitical ordinances governing treatment of foreigners? No. He told them a story. “Once upon a time,” Jesus said, “a man was going from Jerusalem down to Jericho, when he was set upon by robbers …” At the end of the tale, Jesus allowed his listeners to define the truth for themselves. “Who was a neighbor to the victim?” he asked, and the correct answer was obvious, even to the hostile exegete who had started the whole thing. “I suppose the one who showed him mercy,” the legal expert muttered, probably out of the side of his mouth, not quite able to bring himself to say the word, “Samaritan.” But of course by then it didn’t matter.

Remember that the Good Samaritan, as we have come to know him, is a “fictional” character. But I doubt seriously that anyone would suggest this story isn’t “true,” in every sense that matters. Each time a human being reaches across barriers of hatred and mistrust to offer a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name, the eternal truth of this story is validated again. And what about the prodigal son, his steadfast, loving father, and self-righteous, self-consumed older brother: are these fictitious characters? The Good Shepherd, the Determined Widow, the Foolish Virgins, the Rich Man and Lazarus … the list is long, and comprises some of the most pervasive archetypes in human culture. Perhaps it is for this reason that novelist Madeleine L’Engle identifies Jesus as “God telling stories.”

Our hymns remember how important stories are to our faith, even if we’ve forgotten. How many of us could stomach a song that said, “Tell me the old, old doctrine, of unseen things above …” Or “Tell me the facts about Jesus, write on my heart every word …” Then there’s this one: “I heard an old, old sermon – ” And would anybody have bought Fulton Oursler’s book, would Hollywood have made it into an epic movie, had it been titled, The Greatest Theology Ever Told?

Perhaps part of the reason for the power of story is that when we listen, our capacity to hear is changed. We are pulled outside ourselves and our petty concerns and our carefully constructed defenses and compelled to interact directly with the heart-changing truth of the tale and its characters. We suspend judgment except as it applies to the justness of the story. We are instructed without realizing it. And at the end of the story, what happens? A guilty king sobs his repentance for adultery and base treachery to a loyal servant; a conniving scribe with ulterior motives has no choice but to concede an argument that is over before it has begun. Paltry things such as thrones and legal arguments can never hope to prevail against the potent authority of a story that is well and truly told. If the method was good enough for God’s prophets and his Messiah, it ought to be good enough for us.

The importance of story to the transmission of faith is no accident of culture. Indeed, the universal presence of story within all religious traditions would suggest that all human beings everywhere have an inherent need for stories as tools to grapple with the immense questions of life, death, injustice, mercy, and the destiny of the universe. If some cultures have dealt with these questions in terms of primordial turtles with the world on their backs – as in some native American creation stories – or jealous gods and goddesses who devour their offspring and mate with humans – as did Greek mythology – it is less an indictment of the propriety of story as a vehicle for truth than of the ability of fallible humans to hear properly. Indeed, these pagan myths, benighted as they are, do contain grains of truth. As C.S. Lewis and others point out, even such legends accurately explain that the universe is not self-sustaining; that it must rest on something outside itself. They hint that immortality might sometime choose to clothe itself with mortality.

No, the fact that humans have made bad or inaccurate uses of story is no more proscriptive of story than the fact of glutton is proscriptive of food. We are fallen beings who live in a fallen world, and our only hope is that our bodies, our appetites, our wills and our stories can be redeemed and made fit for the uses for which they were intended by their Maker.

Robert Coles, a doctor of psychiatry who teaches courses in medical ethics at Harvard, is also fascinated by the therapeutic and ethical function of stories. In his book The Call of Stories, he relates how one of his students describes the impact made upon her by a William Carlos Williams story:

“Williams’ words have become my images and sounds, part of me. You don’t do that with theories. You don’t do that with a system of ideas. You do it with a story, because in a story – oh, like it says in the Bible, the word becomes flesh [emphasis added].”

Indeed, the storyteller is engaged in an act of incarnation. Madeleine L’Engle says that a writer’s task is to serve the story, to give it freedom to become what it wants to be. As a storyteller who is a Christian, I feel an intense responsibility that what is born in the mind of my readers should bring them closer to the God who Himself became flesh, and dwelled among us.


The second part of this article is at http://www.wineskins.org/filter.asp?SID=2&fi_key=260&co_key=2043

Thom Lemmons

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1581 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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