I believe in stories. It took me an inordinately long time to figure this out, but when I finally did, I went from being a reasonably good writer to being a committed, disciplined, practicing writer—a writer in the business of telling a good story. I also happen to practice Christianity, which is rooted in a story, as are all the other religions I have ever studied.
As a species, humans seem to come equipped with religious imaginations. However, Gods are, by definition, abstractions and most of us do not process abstract information easily. Stories are a natural way to bridge the gap between earthbound imaginations and dreams of the divine. Creation myths are found in all cultures, as are stories of heroes who transcend day-to-day limits and change their worlds. Most cultures have stories of an afterlife—a possibility for redemption, justice and comfort in a world that can be, as Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher once said, “nasty, brutish and short.”
Stories do not lay out naked prescriptions for life—not without becoming very bad, boring stories. Better stories go like this: A compassionate man lays down his life for his friends. A great people wander through the centuries led by faith. A mighty prophet receives a revelation of God’s expectations. A noble prince’s heart is pierced by the suffering around him. A host of Gods endlessly create and destroy worlds and lives. Ancestors move on to another realm but still require the attention of their descendants.
Embedded in these stories are virtues that fire our imaginations: grace, faithfulness, obedience, transcendence, perfection, reverence. These virtues are, I believe, the point of each story but when we fight, we very predictably champion a particular story, not its universal lesson. In spite of this, we somehow convince ourselves we have owned and understood the story because we did fight for it.
We live in a time where great conflict is said to spring from the clash of religions. Violence has long been justified as a means of establishing the supremacy of one religion over another. The first irony in this is that violence is often the very behavior most restricted by religion. The second irony is that most of us who practice a particular religion do so mainly because our parents did—we know the story and want to continue sharing in the community the story created.
After reading a great novel, short story or poem, I get a satisfying sense of some truth revealed that is nothing like a tidy resolution. In a great story, there is no one static and irrefutable point. Rather, the author has pointed to many truths that resonate in our own lives. A successful story speaks to the reader’s own journey. It also kindles a desire to hear more stories and learn more truths.
To love stories, to believe in stories is to look for the truth in them—a truth that is larger than the story itself. This I believe.
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