Wednesday, December 29, 2010

thoughts on "story"

Last week in her article, Dr. Libby raised a point that bears repeating. As Christian writers determined to “do all for the glory of God,” we may be tempted to “get our point across” by explicitly stating the moral of our story or by quoting a plethora of Bible verses in our story. Of course it is imperative to live uprightly and to constantly nourish one’s soul through Scripture—but a story must first of all be a story, not a thinly-disguised piece of didactic advice or moral instruction.

This doesn’t mean your stories can’t be Christian (even explicitly), or that your work cannot plumb the depths of ethics and theology in detail.[1] It does mean that this Christian element must be natural to the story; must arise from it, instead of being tacked on to it; must have power and substance in itself, and not rely on Scriptural quotations or witty proverbs to back it up.[2] (After all – if your story relies upon such gimmicks, why should someone read it at all? Wouldn’t it be far better for your readers to consult the original source – the very life-giving Word of God?)

And in all honesty, I think this is very freeing. It allows you to explore the fantastic realms of your imagination without first setting an agenda for yourself – which is one of the quickest ways to kill off the spirit of a story. Anyway, if this Christian element “bubbles out” of the story itself, as Lewis suggested, it is far more likely to plumb the depths of Christian thought than a purely didactic story. It is also more likely to have a lasting (and positive) impression or influence upon your readers.

But that’s enough of my jabber. Below are concrete examples of what I am talking about. Neither of them reference God or are explicitly didactic, but they are inherently Christian, quite relevant to our day to day thought and conduct, and deeply moving.

From The Princess and the Goblin (by George MacDonald)

Context: The two protagonists, Princess Irene and the miner boy Curdie, are attempting to escape out of the mountain where the goblins had imprisoned Curdie. Irene was able to find and rescue Curdie because she followed a magical thread which led her into the mountain and is now leading her out again.

“I told you already,” answered Irene; --“by keeping my finger upon my grandmother’s thread, as I am doing now.”
“You don’t mean you’ve got the thread there?”
“Of course I do. I have told you so ten times already. I have hardly – except when I was removing the stones – taken my finger off it. There!” she added, guiding Curdie’s hand to the thread; “you feel it yourself—don’t you?”
“I feel nothing at all,” replied Curdie.
“Then what can be the matter with your finger? I feel it perfectly. To be sure it is very thin, and in the sunlight looks just like the thread of a spider, though there are many of them twisted together to make it—but for all that I can’t think why you shouldn’t feel it as well as I do.”
Curdie was too polite to say he did not believe there was any thread there at all. […The thread leads them out of the mountain.]
“Now, Curdie!” she cried, “won’t you believe what I told you about my grandmother and her thread?”
For she had felt all the time that Curdie was not believing what she told him.
“There! – don’t you see it shining on before us?” she added.
“I don’t see anything,” persisted Curdie.
“Then you must believe without seeing,” said the princess, “for you can’t deny it has brought us out of the mountain.”

Moral: One might sum up the “moral” in a few phrases: faith is what is unseen; faith is reasonable, founded on evidence; faith increases sight and disbelief instills blindness.

From The Silver Chair (by C. S. Lewis)

Context: After entering the magical world of Narnia for the first time, Jill Pole is separated from her companion (Eustace Scrubb) and, becoming extremely thirsty, encounters an enormous lion (Aslan) beside the stream where she stops to drink. Scrubb knows Aslan, but Jill does not.

            “Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
            “I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
            “Then drink,” said the Lion.
            “May I—could I—would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
            The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
            “Will you promise not to—do anything to me if I do come?” said Jill.
            “I make no promise,” said the Lion.
            Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
            “Do you eat girls?” she said.
            “I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
            “I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
            “Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
            “O dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
            “There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

Moral: There is only one way to be saved, and that is through Christ. God is not “safe,” but we must trust Him.  

Now, which did you find more interesting: the excerpts from the novels, or my interpretations of them? Which would you rather spend time thinking about? Which would you rather “have more” of?

The excerpts, surely! That’s what I thought. :-)

[1] Lewis certainly did! Think of The Screwtape Letters—better yet, if you haven’t read it, pick up a copy from the library or a nearby bookshop. It will both astound you and enrich your soul.

[2] Of course, there’s an exception to everything: while your story should have its own power and “substance” instead of relying on Bible verses, it isn’t always “bad”or un-literary to quote such verses. You’ll find verses and allusions to Scripture heavily sprinkled throughout many of the best and most beautiful works of literature ever written. The catch is that you must tell your own story, and not rely upon other quotes to give it depth. Use Scripture as a supplement if you like, but tell your own story.

1 comment:

  1. Great thoughts, Crista! The more I study good literature, the more I realize that strong stories drive good writing. Character development and style are both aspects of good writing, but without a powerful storyline, writing falls flat. Story is what gives our style and our characters life: something to do, to write, to experience.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! (Both the books you referenced are excellent choices, by the way.)