Jul 10, 2021
Welcome to Upstream. I’m Shane Morris, and I want to reflect further on this week’s conversation.
When I spoke with Andrew Peterson as part of our Wilberforce Weekend online, we tried to answer the question of what it looks like to serve God with our creative talents. Why has Christ equipped his body with so many members who write, compose, paint, draw, sculpt, sing, act, play, direct, and design? Why is the urge and ability to create so liberally scattered among the people of God? And what does He expect us to do with such capabilities?
The answer is complex, and much more than I can tackle in a short reflection. But in turning to a story—The Lord of the Rings—and a character—Samwie Gamgee—to illustrate one of his central points about humility and faithfulness, I think Andrew offered a profound insight on why the Church needs creativity, specifically creativity in the form of stories.
I once heard someone make the argument that we don’t need stories, and it went something like this: revelation and truth are offered to us directly in Scripture. We needn’t look elsewhere, much less seek tales of witches, dragons, and hobbits to learn and grow in our faith. Besides, these stories are fiction, which is just another word for a lie. They never happened, and therefore don’t teach us anything true in the sense of factual. Much better to go right to the source and study the Bible.
It sounds like a pious and scrupulous objection, until you realize that the Bible itself is packed with stories: the prodigal son, the wheat and the tares, the soils, the Pharisee and the tax collector, the pearl of great price, the ten virgins, the lost sheep, the unforgiving servant, the workers in the vineyard, the rich man and Lazarus, the sheep and the goats. When God Himself dwelt among us in the flesh, He spent more time telling stories than He did doing just about anything else.
The person with whom I had this conversation suggested that perhaps these weren’t fictional accounts. Perhaps they had really occurred. Without completely discounting that possibility, I think requiring them to be factual stories radically misses Jesus’ point in telling them.
When I spoke with Seraphim Hamilton, he suggested that one reason the Holy Spirit bequeathed to us a library of books measuring in at over 700 thousand words, rather than a set of bullet-pointed doctrinal propositions was to force us to diligently study His revelation. Had He given us the bullet points, we likely would have read them once and then assumed we grasped the faith. But no true wisdom or insight is gained that way. It is, as Seraphim said, gained through careful meditation and rumination—through chewing on the Word of God over a lifetime until it nourishes our souls and ultimately becomes a part of who we are.
Unless a biblical story specifically claims to be factual, there’s no need for that to be the case. The parables Jesus tells are almost certainly not history. But they were and are true. That is, they are vehicles of truth in a way that simple, propositional, didactic teaching could never be. That’s part of the reason why Jesus used them. And that’s part of the reason I am certain that He invites us to be storytellers, as well.
In one of Andrew’s most beautiful songs, “To All the Poets,” he sings this:
To all the poets I have known
You built a kingdom out of sea and sand
You conquered armies with a marching band
You carved a galaxy in stone
You built an altar out of bread
And spent your soul to see the children fed
You wove your heart in every story read
Thank God for poets I have known
…In every man you saw the boy
The hidden heart the dark could not destroy
Slipped past the dragons with a tale of joy
Thank God for poets I have known
That last line is taken from C. S. Lewis, who wrote that well-crafted stories can slip past the “watchful dragons” that guard the human imagination—those inhibitions that “paralyze” our apprehension of truth. What gives them this power? There are really two answers.
First, God approaches us not only through the true, but also in the good, and the beautiful. Moral and aesthetic revelation are essential to our full and incarnate humanity. They are the means by which God gives (and invites us to give) flesh, bones, and splendor to the foundational but abstract revelation we call truth. This is the most basic reason why we worship God in song and sacrament each Sunday, and not merely in hearing His Word preached.
Secondly and just as vitally, stories allow each of us to internalize and personalize truths that otherwise might seem distant and even irrelevant to our lives. As another Peterson—clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson—points out in his new book, “Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life,” stories exercise power over us because they tap into collective and unconscious human knowledge and mimic the very form of our lives, which we experience in narrative form.
“In stories,” he writes, “we capture observations of the ideal personality. We tell tales about success and failure and adventure and romance. Across our narrative universes, success moves us forward to what is better, to the promised land. Failure dooms us, and those who become entangled with us, to the abyss. The good moves us upward and ahead, and evil drags us backward and down. Great stories are about characters in action, so they mirror
the unconscious structures and processes that help us translate the intransigent world of facts into the sustainable, functionable, reciprocal, social world of values.”
Andrew’s refrain throughout his own novels, which we’ve talked about at length on Upstream, is simple yet thrilling to young ears: “The stories are true.” He doesn’t, of course, mean that the world of Aerwiar is a place one could get to by boarding a ship or walking through a wardrobe (though as Lewis might remind us, one never quite knows). Andrew means that the stories he writes reflect in their beauty and goodness a truth we might otherwise miss, or fail to make our own.
These and other artistic portrayals of that truth not only invite, but give our hearts an opportunity to conform themselves to the contours of reality and of God’s own nature. By writing and reveling in them, we ourselves develop into the sorts of characters who are capable of confronting dragons—and more importantly, of living in an eternity where the chief Storyteller, Poet, and Creator meets us as goodness and beauty, as well as truth. Which leaves me, in my own way, thanking God for the poets I have known.