My entire life, I have believed in the tangible power of Story. The fictional stories I have read, the personal stories I have lived, and the true stories of others I have listened to have shaped my life in countless ways. As a librarian who also studies story structure and occasionally writes fiction, I have intentionally applied narrative principles and concepts to my daily life, activities, and goals. However, it has really been in the last few years—specifically through my work as an educator and researcher—that I have recognized that there is theory to backup my own life-changing experiences with stories.
Narrative theory is a concept I have been exploring in my own research as a librarian and soon-to-be PhD student. While there are multiple ways this theory has been described, Project Narrative says that “narrative theory starts from the assumption that narrative is a basic human strategy for coming to terms with fundamental elements of our experience”—and that the study of narrative theory is really just the study of “how stories help people make sense of the world” (Project Narrative). If this still sounds too complicated, perhaps the way narrative theorist William Randall puts it will be more helpful—that the “narrative impulse” is hardwired into our very brains. That we, in other words, are wired—created—for Story.
Through narrative theory, numerous disciplines are recognizing the power that stories have on the tangible world. Teachers are using storytelling techniques in the classroom to increase learner retention and create an environment that caters to the needs of all types of learners. Leadership theory experts are using stories as case studies through which to help others visualize and embody the principles that make organizations, teams, and individual leaders effective. Story is a significant part of marketing, psychology, sociology, and countless other disciplines. Recently, I have been reading a book on Storytelling for Social Justice—a book that provides insight on how to use stories and storytelling principles to combat racism and offer hope for justice. Stories are relevant in all fields, because they are relevant to all people—thus, stories transcend disciplines.
For me, personally, my understanding of this idea began with my early study of the works of Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton. Lewis’ writing in “On Stories”, Tolkien’s in “On Fairy-Stories”, and Chesterton’s in Orthodoxy were all instrumental in shaping my initial understanding of the idea that stories—perhaps especially fantastical stories—can actually point to something that is more real than what we often perceive as “reality”.
As C.S. Lewis says:
“The fairy tale is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in. But I think no literature that children could read gives them less of a false impression. I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them,” ~ C. S. Lewis (On Stories)
One of the reasons I most love beautiful, well-crafted stories (of all sorts, though I have a special place in my heart for fairy-tales and fantasy) is that they can have the capacity to point us to a reality that is more real and true than the one we can see and experience with our physical capacities. Just as fairy tales—including more modern stories like The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter—feature hidden, magical worlds that are (despite being generally unseen) no less real than the “earthly” (or Muggle) human experiences, there is also a deeper and truer “world” around us that, though invisible, is no less real. Since the Fall, the realms of heaven and earth are torn in two—the physical and spiritual realities no longer reconciled as one, as they were created to be. Today, as it says in 1 Corinthians 13, we only “see in a mirror dimly”—we see reflections of heaven, we see glimpses of light, love, and truth in the midst of a world that is broken and scarred from its severing. Yet, as so many of our favorite stories demonstrate, what is real is no less so simply because we do not see it. Like Puddleglum in The Silver Chair, we can recognize that even though it sometimes seems as if our faith, our hope, and heaven itself are “made up things”, we ultimately can recognize that sometimes what is most true is the hardest to see while in the darkness—that faith and hope themselves even require an element of the unseen.
Stories are a vehicle through which we can see truths that are otherwise obscured in the rational world; but they are also even more than that. If narrative theory has truth to it (and, I believe it does), then we are wired for stories—we are made for them. We use stories and story structure to make sense of our lives, to cope with adverse life events, and to understand the world and greater narrative we live in. At its core, Scripture itself is a story—the greatest and most true story of redemption, grace, and selfless love. Simply coming to the understanding that our lives are the actual sequel to the narrative of the Gospel is astounding and potentially life-changing. It is easy to read Scripture from a distance—to believe in our head that it is true, but not fully take in the implications that its truth has—or should have—on our lives. But if we really believe in our hearts that the Gospel is, in fact, the greatest True Story, we must live as if we are an actual part of that story. As if miracles, and spiritual warfare, and encounters with the Holy Spirit not just really happened at singular points in history—but as if they still happen, now, today. Stories help us to see truths that are otherwise obscured, and they also help us connect to truths that we may acknowledge but which can seem otherwise abstract or impersonal.
Ultimately, thinking so intentionally upon story—applying narrative theory to my actual life—has helped my eyes to become more open to the very real battle of good and evil that is taking place all around us. Surely, spiritual warfare can look differently at different times and in different places—but, I believe that one of the greatest threats to Christianity in our 21st Century world is not always seen in outright attacks from the Enemy, but rather in a shadowing or veiling of what is true. C. S. Lewis appears to have similar thoughts, as expressed in The Screwtape Letters—when the demon Screwtape writes to his nephew,
“It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality, our best work is done by keeping things out.” ~C. S. Lewis (The Screwtape Letters)
Perhaps, in that way, the Enemy achieves his greatest victory when we simply cease to recognize the reality of the war around us. Sometimes, the Enemy tries to convince us that the sun itself is not real; but, other times, he simply convinces us that there is nothing beyond what we see—that there are no miracles, that there is no battle, that there are, in fact, no “dragons”. The latter is, of course, the easier lie to believe. Going back to The Screwtape Letters once more, Screwtape writes:
“It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” ~ C. S. Lewis (The Screwtape Letters)
Small lies often lead to much bigger deception—and, it is only through the power of the triune God (the Great Storyteller) that we will be able to see the narrative clearly and truly.
We are wired for story, because stories are true—we live in the greatest story ever told. Heaven and Earth are severed from each other—and, because the world is broken as the result of sin, we live on a very real battleground. Christ has redeemed all things through His death and resurrection—but, we are still waiting for the final results of that redemption. In the meantime, our challenge is to first recognize the truth behind the stories—to see that our story is no less fairytale-esque than Narnia; that the battle between principalities and powers is no less formidable than the battle between wizards and Death Eaters; that the stories are true, and that our story has the highest stakes of all. Then, we must recognize that though the battle will not be finished until the final day of Christ’s return, it is already won—and that though dragons do exist, we can hope in the midst of the fight. As Andrew Peterson states in the forward to Russ Ramsey’s Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative—
“The gospel gives me hope, and hope is not a language the dark voices understand.”
The “not yet now” reality of Christ’s victory and the world’s final redemption is one that can provide all of the courage and hope we need to face our stories, as we recognize that they are all a part of a much bigger story—the greatest Story ever told—of which we, like eager children, have already been allowed (by the Writer) a proleptic peak at the ending.