Friday, November 10, 2006

An Apology for Story

This is a paper I wrote for a local homeschooler's gathering. I presented it last night, and decided to post it here as well...

An Apology for Story

Apology: A formal justification, defense. A desire to clear the grounds for some course, belief, or position.1

Story: a connected series of events, real or imagined, with a common theme.2

Story. It is something we’ve all grown up with. Some of my earliest memories are of snuggling up close to my daddy, listening as he spun a tale of childhood—of playing cowboys and Indians with neighborhood children, of hearing the early morning clatter of pots and pans as Grandma cooked breakfast.

Later, my mother would spend hours reading to me. I followed Laura Ingalls across the open prairies, chanted the rhymes of Dr. Seuss and rejoiced when Peter Rabbit didn’t get his milk and berries.

As I learned to read on my own, I discovered that there truly is no “frigate like a book,”3 to take me to worlds unknown. I have never traveled beyond the borders of my homeland in the flesh. But in my mind, I can taste the tang of salty ocean breezes, see the rugged beauty of the Scottish highland, and traverse the staggering expanse of the Arabian Desert. I have friends from every age and every race. I know peasants, knights, farmers, painters, explorers and kings.

Books, but especially storybooks, have become integral and vital parts of my everyday life.

Imagine my surprise when one day I learned that it is not so for many people. For many, reading stories is considered to be an occasional luxury, or even as something to be shunned.

Imagine my amazement when one day I read that “modern Christians have forgotten the art of storytelling.”4 It truly is a sad loss. When I see bookstore shelves filled with the disposable cotton candy that is storytelling today, I wonder why.

As I pondered these disturbing facts, I began to wonder if it is because we have forgotten the importance of story. And even more importantly, whether we’ve forgotten the Storyteller.

Have you ever wondered why God chose to communicate to us in the way He did? He could have given us a list of the “Top 10 things you need to know about life.” He could have given us an encyclopedia of important facts. But instead, He told us a story. A story so incredible that it would sound like a fairy tale, if we didn’t know it was true. God’s book is a gripping tale of Paradise Lost, of a “poisoned” fruit, and a generational curse. It’s a story of a captive maiden saved by a knight in shining armor. It’s a tale of epic battle between a king and a wicked dragon. It’s about the beggar girl who marries the prince.5

Why read stories? We read stories because it is the natural way that we, as humans, learn. As Douglas Wilson wrote, “when it comes to having a need to orient all beliefs within a story, mankind is incorrigible…We do this for the same reason that we stick to the ground when we walk—this is how our Creator decided to do it.”6 A story takes abstract, dead ideas and resurrects them into vibrant life.

It sounds novel, but it’s true: I have learned more from stories than from sermons, lectures or textbooks. This is because through stories I see an author’s worldview fleshed out. My view of life is expanded, and I see the world through new eyes.

It is easy to unthinkingly absorb the ideas of our age, to allow our mental vision to become narrow and self-centered. But in books, the distance between our time and the wisdom of the past becomes only a thin veil.7 In books, my mind steps from it’s own small box and moves into the realm of wise men. This is how we escape the modern foible that C.S. Lewis called “Chronological Snobbery,”8 that prideful idea that we have all the answers and therefore have no need to learn from the past.

Stories don’t have to have a moral spelled out to be valuable. In fact, I admire authors who respect their readers enough to let them find the lessons for themselves. C.S. Lewis, speaking of writing for children, said, “Let the pictures tell their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life.”9 He brought up a point that is worth dwelling on. No art form is neutral. It is inevitable that an author’s worldview will be laced throughout every word he puts on paper. As Christians, we need to be acutely conscious of this and look at every story through the glass of the Greatest Story.

This is the starting point in appreciating great stories. How familiar are you with God’s story? Do you know the Author of that Story? If not, don’t leave tonight and grab Alice in Wonderland off the shelf.10 We need to get our priorities straight: put first things first, and become totally immersed in the waters of God’s word.

Once a person has done this, an exciting thing happens. He can begin to use his imagination to fulfill through story the mandate that God has given to live in His image, to be fruitful and to take dominion over the earth.11 J.R.R. Tolkien’s theory of “subcreation” is built upon this premise. An important aspect of this type of writing is the use of “eucatastrophe”, that is, the happy ending in the midst of overwhelming odds. “Eucatastrophe” is the opposite of tragedy, something that is unthinkable for the Christian. Tolkien, in his essay entitled “On Fairy-Stories” described his idea of eucatastrophe as a “sudden and miraculous grace…. it denies….universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world…”12

Stories are important to me. They can be beautiful, thoughtful, and extremely influential.
My desire is that someone here in my audience would be inspired to see, first of all, God’s word, and then other books, in a new light. I hope someone here will begin to read more widely and to write stories to the glory of God.

I’ll close with a quote by Douglas Wilson: “…this is the fundamental theology of story. God so loved the world that He sent His Son. And God so loved the world that He told us the story of what He had done. And so should we.”13

1Websters New Collegiate Dictionary (G & C Merriam Co., 1974), 53
2My own summary of various definitions.
3Robert N. Linscott, Selected Poems & Letters of Emily Dickinson (Anchor Books, 1959), 184
4Douglas Wilson, “Love Story.” Credenda/Agenda, Volume 15, Issue 6:4
5Genesis 3; Isaiah 27:1, 54:5-6; Revelation 19:11-16, 20:1-10
6Douglas Wilson, 4
7Metaphor inspired by Elizabeth Yates, Nearby (New York: Coward-McCann Inc., 1947), 46
8Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide (Harper San Francisco, 1996), 553-554
9 C.S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966), 33
10No insult to Lewis Carrol implied. I highly appreciate his stories.
11Genesis 1:28; Colossians 3:17
12J.R.R. Tolkien, quoted in Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien:Author of the Century (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 211
13Douglas Wilson, 4

Copyright 2006 Kara J. Alumbaugh

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