Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Why We Love Stories

Sometimes I seriously consider overhauling my reading, and picking up a straight diet of strict textbook-style knowledge for a change. I never do. You will find something always connected to a story (real or fiction, history, biography or novel) where I keep my current reads. And in my Christian walk, I would say that stories-fiction or nonfiction-have helped me most in my sanctification process. For instance:

-It's easy to say to someone "Rejoice in the Lord always", but it sure brings the point home when you remember a loveable girl telling a poor minister  "God told us 800 times to rejoice and be glad, and Father said if he told us that many times, he must mean it." (Pollyanna)
-It's easy to say "Give your heart to your father", but the concept strikes me even harder when I read about Jane keeping house for her father on Prince Edward Island, even though he and her mother are separated. (Jane of Lantern Hill)
-It's easy to say "Trust in the Lord" but my mind accepts this as possible not just in hearing the concept, but in remember Corrie Ten Boom, and her trust in a concentration camp. (The Hiding Place)
-It's easy to say "Love your husband", but I really know what this looks like when I listen to the life of Nannie T. Alderson, a woman willing to follow her man even when she had to live in a house with five cowboys, and no fellow women for miles around. (A Bride Goes West)
-It's easy to say "Serve the Lord your God with all your heart" but my heart catches on fire when I read an allegory of knights serving their Prince through life and death. (Kingdom series)
-It's easy to say "Forgive your enemies" but oftentimes I find this to be impossible until I remember Jean Valjean, forgiving those who beat him down in his sin. And ultimately, when I read the account of Jesus Christ nailed to the cross, and forgiving those who stripped and killed him so shamelessly.

You see, a story gives flesh to the skeleton and life to the principle. We are a prideful people, and stories work around our defenses so that we readily admit the wrong before we realize it's our own problem. Think of these verses from 2 Samuel 11: 1-7

The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle,  but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.
  “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”
  David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this must die!  He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
  Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!"

That was pretty easy, wasn't it? What can David say?

You see, no matter what our personality type, God placed in us all a special need for people. For reality, I might add. We do need times of teaching without a tale, I grant you (such as Geometry. But on a side note, maybe Geometry would be more interesting in novel form.) However, we only really understand what we've learned when we can apply it to the people around us.

We all know that Pollyanna never existed.
We all know that Jane never kept house for Dad. (sigh)
We all know that Chuck Black wrote the 'allegory' of Arrethtrae, not the 'history'.

But we still carry the memories of these characters with their weaknesses and triumphs to spur us on in our own good deeds.

 Fiction isn't reality, nor do I ever think it is. But 'reality' and 'realistic' are two very different books. Nathan's story to David was fiction. But because it was realistic, David recognized it. I imagine the sheep imagery struck a chord with him, as he was a former shepherd. And so, when Nathan made the translation to David's own life, he got it. G.A. Henty's The Young Carthaginian is fiction, yes, but since he based it in reality for the times, I remember a lot more about Hannibal's march then I do from my former history textbook. Because I care about Malcus, a soldier under Hannibal, I care about Hannibal for his sake. And as a final example, I remember who Heinrich Himmler was because I remember and care about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor fighting against church compromise.

You see, it's our knowledge of people that helps us with the knowledge of dates and theories. And it's our love of people that make those dates and theories stick.

For most of us.

For Example
So what I'm trying to say here is this: God created in us an innate need to hear his truth. We need to be reminded again and again of His Law and His Love. And to teach us these concepts, He built in our hearts a need to hear these truths through stories. Why? So that we will not just memorize these things as head knowledge, but He lovingly forces us through stories to see how we need to apply His teachings around other people.

Here's the perfect illustration for my point:

Picture a lawyer, something like Jaggers in Great Expectations. Never lost a court case, able to defend innocent and guilty alike, smooth, sharp, polished. Always biting the side of his forefinger, but that's a side note. Abrupt, cold, logical, and disconcerting. To quote Dickens "with an air of authority not to be disputed, and with a manner expressive of knowing something secret about every one of us that would effectually do for each individual if he chose to disclose it."

You can picture him standing in the crowd near Jesus, staring at this strange rabbi out of calculating eyes, and contemptuous of the Pharisees' feeble efforts to trap him.

If any man has the means to trap him, it's Jaggers. Now read from the following:

 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

What does Jesus do first? He meets him on his own ground: the head knowledge.

 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

So Jaggers wins his court case. But somehow, it doesn't smack of the usual victory....

 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Pay attention, friends, to the following well-known story.

 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.  A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.  So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.  The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

So what did Jesus just do here? He used a story, a common, plebian illustration, to confront 'Jaggers' with the duty of all mankind: "Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but in actions and in truth" (1 John 3:18)

Why? Why didn't he use a fancy argument, one that would impress this expert in the law, this lawyer who surely would respect a man able to out-argue him?

Simply because he needed to leave 'Jaggers' without excuse. Someday, when this lawyer stood before the judgment seat of Christ, and the Lord asked him "Why have you broken my command to love your neighbor as yourself?" then he wouldn't be able to say, "You never explained to me what that meant. I didn't know what it looked like." Jesus used the commonest of illustrations to show the lawyer, "This is how you love your neighbor."  He used a story to illustrate one of the most important truths, the second greatest commandment, that he ever gave mankind. Again, so that this lawyer would not just memorize these things as head knowledge, but Jesus forced him through a story to see how he needed to apply these teachings around other people.

But even when Jesus explains concepts on the human level using stories, he still makes sure we know what he's saying. Read on:

 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

Poor Jaggers. What can he say now? Even the uneducated crowd around him can get this one.

 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

He has confessed with his mouth, and is without excuse. Jesus now gives him the command that always follows the principle.

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)

Jaggers just suffered his first defeat.

In conclusion, the principles that you learn through textbook-style knowledge equip you with the tools you need to advance the kingdom of God. But in all your learning don't neglect the stories, those tales (real as well as fiction) that turn your head knowledge to heart knowledge. Because in the end, it's not about what we know, but how we use our knowledge to give a cup of cold water to Jesus Christ.

That, my friends, is why stories are so important to me. And why, I hope, they are important to you.

Case closed.

Lady Bibliophile


  1. I really liked your post. Stories always get around people. They're enjoyable to read too. Just like your posts. :)

  2. I have never thought of Jaggers in conjunction with the Bible before:)--but the illustration fits! I enjoyed reflecting on that passage again with that in mind.

  3. Ooh. I'd forgotten about that story of Nathan's. It's a brilliant example of the right use of fiction.

    George Grant quoted someone once as saying, "If you want a person to know the truth, tell him. If you want him to LOVE the truth, tell him a story."

    It's so true!

    In addition, the Bible is wonderful because it tells us the truth. But good fiction is wonderful because it shouts the truth at us in a thousand different ways. It shows us what the truth looks like when it ambushes us in real life.

    In "Brideshead Revisited", it's said of Cordelia that "she had no past tense for 'love'."

    Not in the Bible. But oh, how true, and what a challenge!


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