Holly Ordway is Professor of English and Director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014). She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst; her academic work focuses on imagination in apologetics, with special attention to the writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams.
Why Story Matters
We are all storytellers.
Our lives have a beginning, a middle, and – one day – an end. Birth announcements connect the new baby with the lives of the parents; later, graduation, wedding, and retirement announcements flag important plot points; the obituary will be a final summing-up.
Couples recount the story of how they met and fell in love. Travelers regale us with the stories of their adventures. Frustrating events become good stories when the sting has passed.
We need story. Imagine encountering a friend who seems distraught. Our first question will likely be “What happened?” We know intuitively that we must know something of the narrative to understand and sympathize properly. It’s the same when we encounter a joyful friend: we want to be drawn into the story, to be able to rejoice!
We understand our lives in terms of story, and thus story can help us understand our lives.
Stories are necessary for presenting truth in other contexts as well. In a court of law, we don’t just have a set of facts, we have the testimony of witnesses, individual stories about motives and events that make part of the larger narrative of “What really happened?” In job interviews, every candidate has a narrative of past jobs and experience, a story that is more than just items on a resume, but includes what that person has learned from those experiences.
Yet, in our increasingly post-Christian culture, the idea of story has become divorced from the idea of truth. Even though we live our lives in a context where true stories are vitally important, the connection of story with objective truth is obscured at best, obliterated at worst.
In the secular world, story is often treated as morally insignificant. Movies, books, television, and video games are all built around narrative - that's what makes them powerful - but the idea that these forms of story be challenged as to their truth seems odd at best. “It’s just a story, just a game, it’s not real” - these are the stock responses to any who express concern about what falsehoods or bad influences might be presented in entertainment media.
Paradoxically, however, our culture encourages us to consider own stories about morality and the meaning of our lives to be authoritative. Our modern culture encourages a cafeteria spirituality, in which we pick and choose our values, with personal preference having ultimate authority. “This is what’s true for me. It might not be true for you, but it is for me.” It’s impossible to argue with, and isn't that the point? Splendidly free from anything that might challenge our carefully constructed citadels of individual truth, we carry on untroubled by any suggestion that self-sacrifice rather than self-indulgence is called for.
Sadly, Christians have contributed to the marginalizing of story as a means of telling truth. Although the Scriptures are largely composed of story - narrative and poetry - many Christians, especially Protestants, view story with suspicion, as a form of lying, and have thus impovershed their imaginative lives. A few crucial figures over the past century have kept the connection between story and truth alive for Christians: most notably the Protestant George MacDonald, the Anglican C.S. Lewis, and the Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton. Their work, especially that of Lewis and Chesterton, has had a profound effect on many individuals, and is becoming more and more on the forefront of apologetics - the defense of the faith - and evangelization today. We need to carry on that good work, as a way of bringing the light of Christ to a culture in desperate need.
In order to understand what has happened to story as a mode of telling truth, and how we can reclaim story, we first need to consider what has happened to the Western worldview over the past few centuries.
In a slow process that began with the Enlightenment and has continued to the present day, the human faculties of reason and imagination have been separated, to the detriment of both.
On the one hand, reason has been given free rein, and the pursuit of knowledge using our God-given intellect has become scientism and materialism, the idea that only those things that can be empirically measured and logically figured out can be considered “true” or “real.” In the world of science, truth is held to be only that which is measurable and testable. Intangible things like emotions and spiritual truths are decidedly second-class citizens. After all, souls can’t be detected with an MRI, and love can’t be weighed and measured!
This adulation of reason without the counterbalance of imagination leads to an inevitable diminishment of the vision of what it means to be human. Our culture is showing many signs of this part of the reason / imagination divide. For instance, in a culture that embraces “scientific” ways of thinking, it becomes difficult to justify spending any extra time or money in promoting the arts, or making buildings beautiful. In older cities like Boston or Philadelphia, the public buildings from the 18th or 19th centuries – the town hall, the courthouse, the banks – have elegant, inspiring architecture. Contrast that to your local 20th century Department of Motor Vehicles.
More seriously, the fact that the human soul cannot be weighed, measured, or detected with scientific instruments has led to a creeping tendency to define human beings by what they can do, not by their innate dignity as men and women made in the image of God. The elderly and disabled, who cannot define themselves in terms of what they can accomplish, can very easily be considered a burden on society.
Narrowing the definition of truth to what reason alone can determine makes it possible for people to design functional buildings that depress the soul, and for people to talk about the suitability of ending one’s life simply because one is old and tired. With the use of reason alone, it is too easy to make categorical distinctions; a person can be a statistic, not recognized as one of the human beings that the scientist or bureaucrat interacts with on a daily basis. It is Imagination that would reveal the truth: the true connection between the imago Dei, the image of God in human beings, and each individual, unique human being.
Yet in the broader culture, unchecked imagination goes its own route to error. Ungrounded and undisciplined, a de-Christianized imagination has not led to more beauty, but to less. When less is left to the imagination, storytelling becomes shallow and limited. In order to get some sort of response, art, literature, music, and film move toward the breaking of standards for the sake of destruction, and the rejection of limits of any kind.
Sexuality and violence, ever more of it, and ever more corrosive, become the norm for entertainment. In movies, we have gone from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho to the gore-fest of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with the same trend appearing in books. The popular young-adult series The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, is full of graphic depictions of violent injuries and gruesome death. Peter Jackson’s film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit adds violence at every turn.
The high level of sexuality in books and film, including books for younger readers, has become so much the norm that one of the things that makes the Harry Potter series distinctive is its refreshing lack of explicit sexuality and its depiction of chaste dating behavior – in other words, J.K. Rowling is notable for holding to standards that were normal up to a few decades ago.
Criticism of these trends is muzzled, however, because all of these excesses are claimed to be for the sake of art or fun, with no “meaning” behind them whatsoever. “It’s just a book” or “It’s just a movie” are the most common retorts to any expressed concern about the ideas and behavior being presented (and implicitly promoted) in the media.
We need to recover the connection between imagination and truth. Without the recognition that our values are objectively grounded in the living God, and that our flourishing as whole human beings depends on a right relationship with Him, the imaginative impulse will lead us to destruction as surely as unchecked reason.
But we are all storytellers, and the human need for story pops up wherever we look, even where we would not expect to find Story at all. In the realm of unchecked reason, skeptics tell just-so stories to explain every aspect of our lives in terms of biology and evolution. In the realm of unchecked imagination, celebrity culture allows people to participate in drama, and to have heroes and villains (if only for a fleeting moment). Even when we’re completely wrong about the way the world works, with our lives completely out of touch with the living God, we are drawn to narrative, imagery, characters – story. Such is the power of storytelling.
Story, when it is rightly used in the service of truth, can help connect reason and imagination into a healthy, God-focused whole.
A Dangerous Dead End
Redeeming story for the cause of truth means more than just slapping a Christian label on the idea of storytelling. Portions of the Christian church – most notably those that describe themselves as the Emerging or Emergent Church movement – have wholeheartedly affirmed a postmodern understanding of story. In this view, Christians have a wonderful story, one that brings meaning and joy and purpose to those who accept it, but it is a story that makes no claims, or sharply limited claims, about objective reality and objective truth.
The Emergent movement has been reacting against extremes in both the secular and Christian world. On one hand, the Emergents are rightly reacting against the harsh extreme of scientism, which has no room for human spiritual needs. On the other, they are also reacting against the extreme of cold literalism in the church, which strips Scripture of its beauty and reduces our relationship with the living God to a set of detailed doctrinal principles to affirm. The postmodern reaction against these extremes is not surprising, and indeed in many ways the postmodern Christians serve as a canary in the coal mine: the reason / imagination split can't be ignored as something in secular culture alone.
The postmodern view of story can be very appealing at first, but it fails because it does not firmly connect story to truth. If our narratives are generated and sustained by our communities, eventually differences in beliefs will fragment those communities down to the individual: my truth, my story. Either we will be trapped in the particular story we happen to be in, or we will shop around for a story we like better. Ultimately the postmodern Christian view of story disintegrates, because it acknowledges no transcendent Author of the story, and offers no way to determine if a given story is true.
Such a view is deadly, for it saps all the urgency to find the truth about spiritual matters. If Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life only for those who find that particular faith flavor appealing, then Buddhism or transcendental meditation or indulging in unlimited sex is equally valid for those who prefer those alternatives. Why pay attention to the Gospel if it is just one story among many?
Even in ordinary life, story without truth fails to satisfy. When I hear a story of my friend's life, I expect it to be true, that is, corresponding to the way things actually are. When I read a poem, I expect it to show me something true about the world, to illuminate some aspect of my experiences, or help me appreciate real beauty better. When I read a novel, I expect it to make sense, for it to add to my enjoyment of the world, or help me understand things better, even if those things are sad or terrible (since we live in a fallen world, much of what is true is rather painful to hear). Even a story read for pure escapism needs to have some connection to truth in character, setting, or plot (not necessarily all three!). Surrealist fiction does not make for good beach reading; adventure and romance stories do, because they connect with things that we do recognize as true, namely that people can have adventures and do fall in love.
On a day to day basis, we flourish when the stories we tell about ourselves and the world, including our inner narratives, are true. The self-esteem movement attempted to help children live better, happier lives by telling them stories about their own greatness. But such stories were fabricated: kids were praised even when there were no objective grounds for praise. As a result, we have an entire generation of young people who have been trained in narcissism and brought up to believe that what matters is how they feel - the story they tell about themselves - not their actual accomplishments or character.
Simply telling oneself a new story is appealing. Americans are constantly reinventing themselves. It is good to have the freedom to make a course correction in life, but it is burdensome to think that one’s identity is one’s own responsibility. Our culture produces tremendous pressure to define oneself according to other stories: workplace success, or physical beauty, or social conformity. These are powerful alternate stories, and a Christian "story" that is simply one more feel-good option among many does not stand up as a viable alternative.
We must reclaim and redeem story, for the Church and for the world to which we minister in the name of Christ. If imagination gives us story without truth, and reason gives us truth without story, what we need is Christ who is Truth in story, the living Word.
The Christian Story
Christians are the only ones who can truly reclaim story. We do not offer just one more story, but the true story that is grounded in reality.
Reason and imagination are not separate, but are two sides of the same coin – two aspects of being made in the image of the Creator God. In Holy Scripture, we see no such false division between reason and imagination.
Consider Genesis: we can make propositional statements about the truths expressed in Genesis, but the way in which God chose to reveal these truths is in narrative. Out of nothing, God created everything that is, and He gives us a story about it: then, and then, and next, and then. Genesis is the truth behind every “once upon a time,” the reason that we thrill to a story. We make, we create, because of who God is. God Himself is the ultimate Maker, the ultimate creative artist, whose creative stamp is impressed on us.
Holy Scripture is largely composed of poetry, narrative, parables. It is filled with beautiful imagery and communicates profound truth through metaphors: consider the description of the New Jerusalem, in Revelation, or the gentle imagery of Jesus as the Shepherd.
And, pre-eminently, the Word became flesh came and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. We who follow Christ do not just know about him (with our reason), though our reason tells us many true things about him, such as the fact of his Resurrection, and the nature of his claim to be our only Lord and Savior. We also know him, directly and experientially, most deeply in the Eucharist. Such an experience cannot be fully conveyed through words, but only experienced, but the faculty of imagination helps in the process. Imagination opens the doors of our hearts, so that the Spirit may more fully enter in.
The beauty of the true Christian story is that it works at every point on the scale - as you would expect from a story that corresponds with truth.
The Christian story accounts for creation, for why there is something rather than nothing.
The Christian story accounts for the existence and nature of human beings, of rationality, of thought and language, logic and art.
The Christian story means that each of us has an absolutely secure part in the great Story, as adopted children of God the Father, an adopted brothers and sisters of God the Son, and as temples of God the Holy Spirit.
Reclaiming Story for Christ
For the Christian, the created world, which God made and called good, is full of beauty that points toward the living God. We do not create the meaning in the world, but rather discover it. We each have our own story, but it has meaning because it is part of a grand narrative that has an Author.
As Christians, we have the best story of all: the fairy tale to cap all fairy tales, the epic to top all epics, the romance of all romances, the bitterest of tragedies and the most joyful of happy endings – we have the story of a Creator God who so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son to die on a cross to save us. It is the best story of all – utterly captivating, thrilling, and satisfying – and also absolutely, completely true.
We need to reclaim story from those who would separate story from truth, making the one into meaningless reverie and the other into sterile ‘facts.’ It is one of the great lies of the Enemy in this day and age that storytelling is nothing but entertainment. Oh, no. The power of story is the power to tell the truth in ways that reach deep into both heart and mind; to draw the reader into the experience of knowing truth.
The account of God’s plan for the redemption of the heavens and the earth, our glorious future in the new creation, is often shrugged off by skeptics as just a story. Such a dismissal leaves us, however, with an intriguing opening. Indeed, we can say, the Christian story does sound like a fairy tale, but we have it reversed: in fact, it is fairy tales that sound like the Christian story.
We need to recover the ability to read redemptively: to find and cultivate truth and beauty in the stories we read, watch, and share. Fiction, fantasy, poetry – too often we either disregard the power of storytelling or fear it as deception, but for human beings made in the image of the Creator God, storytelling is a profound means by which the Spirit can move and transform us.
Given that I have been talking about story, it may surprise readers to realize that most of the essays that follow focus on poetry. There is no mistake! Poetry offers us story just as much as novels do, though sometimes in different ways or in smaller, tantalizing glimpses. Above all, good poetry can help us to connect to the larger story that is our God’s work in the world. If we can read rightly, treasures await.
How can we read redemptively? The process includes recovering an understanding of how:
Literature can both reveal and reinforce worldview (one’s basic understanding of how the world works).
Imagery and symbols both communicate truth and deepen its impact on the heart and mind.
Immersion in the right kind of literary experience can refresh and renew our vision, enabling us to see the world in the light of Christ.
Reading redemptively will help us in discipleship, providing more ways in which we can grow in heart and mind in our relationship with Christ.
Photo: "old book" by T. Carvalho. CC License.