What makes a book endure? Why are the stories we love so lasting, so universally beloved and delighted in?
I've been kicking around this title idea for a long time, but I had no answer for my question. Was it seeing the Christ figures again and again in each story? Was it the love of a man for a woman, such a universal milestone on life? Or perhaps it was friendship, two people in a close bond that stick together through all difficulties. But I knew that all those elements, though they are certainly recurring in the greatest literature, didn't strike at the heart of the matter. They were just off-shoots--branches on the tree, when I wanted to get at the root.
Perhaps it was my reading The Children of Hurin that triggered the final conclusion. But when I pulled this article out today, the Lord graciously clarified it in my mind, and I discovered two specific elements that just might make up the whole answer to this question. You can fit all your favorite books into these two themes--and every classic book has them to a certain degree, whether written from a Christian perspective or not.1. The Hand of God
And all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, But He does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand
Or say to Him, ‘What hast Thou done?’
Any Christian who loves history can't go long without seeing God's hand in it. He controls everything from the rise and fall of empires to the election of city officials. It's like a giant puzzle made of up kingdoms and time where there are no missing pieces, and everything that is done has purpose and usefulness. Nothing is outside of his control.
God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: ~Acts 17:24-27
In the best of tales, you see the intrinsic concept that everyone's life and actions fit together to make sense. Take Dickens, for example--he'll throw around 30 characters at you with plots for each character, and in the end it all fits. I get so excited in the confusion of keeping track of everything, because I know that at the great revelation, I'll see the whole picture, and it will be beautifully complete.
That's what makes a story last--whether it's a ring travelling through a wonderful land on its way to final destruction or a mystery in which you have a myriad of clues that somehow all fit together to reveal the culprit. Every detail matters, the stories are rich with meaning, and in that fictional tale, the author imitates his or her Creator and the Providence that we see ruling the whole world.
2. The Journey of the Soul
One time I asked myself, "If you could boil down your writing into one reason why you write, what would it be?"
And I thought--it is because through it I explore God's working in the human soul. God breathed life into it; God redeemed it. And that is why fiction is so important to me: a thousand mirrors of ourselves, our real life, all placed into a masterful plot arc that shows us the big picture of how God entwines our souls with the lives of the dozens of people we meet for our good and His glory. I love studying characters. Emotions. Events. What makes them smile, what makes them cry. Throwing hard choices at them, and seeing what in the end they'll choose to stand by the longest and treasure the most. Watching characters meet people, and seeing who helps them and who hurts them, and why.
We like stories with struggles and triumphs that we can connect to. And perhaps that's why the most enduring tales come out of this second point. It is when we read books that trace human journeys that something in our soul reaches out in kindred fellowship with the soul of the character, and we embrace it. That is why stories are immortal. Because souls are immortal, and God's working in human lives is eternal, and each book--each enduring classic--takes the two themes of Eternal God and Finite Human and weaves them together into fellowship between Him and us.
Sometimes a soul journey can be as simple as a girl trying to accept her red hair. Sometimes it's something much more complex. But either way--it's something that we recognize.
While non-Christians don't always include both concepts, the Christian author needs both these points to make an enduring book. You can have the journey of the soul without reference to God's hand, but in the end that just leaves you with man's efforts to achieve life satisfaction. You can see the hand of God without the soul journey, but then you'll struggle to make the personal connection. But when you have both--just as God, the greatest author, has both themes in His Word--then you have the stuff that stands the test of time. Because it links us with Him, and that's what all good stories are supposed to do.
The stories that endure are when the author takes the eternal and the human, God and man, and mixes them together to enchant readers for endless generations.