C. S. Lewis once wrote of the way stories might be able to convey truth and foster emotion more effectively than commands and imperatives could (see his essay “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said” in the book On Stories). He understood the way we often let our guard down when enjoying stories and are thus more open to consider ideas than when they’re presented to us as teachings requiring our affirmation.
We can likely think of good examples of such an approach if we consider our favorite shows from childhood. Sesame Street, The Magic School Bus, Mister Rogers Neighborhood, and Schoolhouse Rock each demonstrate creative ways to teach kids important information. By attaching a lesson to a song or a game, the creators of these shows managed to make learning fun for students. And the lessons stuck. We likely can still hum certain songs or can recall certain facts picked up from these shows. Of course, we can all likely think of bad examples as well. Sometimes the lesson gets lost in the story. Sometimes the story suffers because the lesson is too strongly introduced. Lewis understood the importance of a healthy mix of the two. Still, Lewis’s point stands: a story may be able to reach you with an idea you might never consider otherwise.
I think this truth is one reason stories are so important. While stories entertain, I’m not convinced that’s their only function. They also introduce us to new ideas, different perspectives, and opposing worldviews. They lead us to question our assumptions, to pursue further understanding, and to grow in knowledge. And these are good things. But we need to consider how we engage stories. Whether you read novels or comic books, watch tv shows or movies, or play tabletop games or video games, you’re engaging in stories at every turn. How are you engaging?
Some may recommend avoiding stories that don’t fit your worldview, but I’m not sure that’s wise. Part of Jesus’s commission to his followers is to go into all the world, to engage all peoples with the gospel message. That’s going to involve interacting with people from a multitude of worldviews, perspectives, assumptions, biases, and ethical frameworks. While we dare not uncritically embrace every differing position we encounter (we dare not uncritically embrace every one of our own assumptions either), neither should we enter the world ignorant. Paul seems to embrace such an approach in his description of becoming “all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). He doesn’t trade his faith or morality in his pursuit of kingdom work, but neither does he allow his own cultural preferences or comforts to keep him from engaging someone who needs Jesus. He focuses on the most important thing and adjusts to the context of his audience in order to convey better the most important of stories.
I suggest engaging stories with wisdom. Doing so means we’ll want a healthy dose of perspective, seeking out voices that differ from and disagree with our own. But doing so doesn’t mean we’ll accept every message wholesale. Rather, we will listen to stories to learn and to understand. We’ll listen for the hurts and the hopes of the storyteller, for the ideals and the desires of their hearts. And we’ll consider their stories in light of the gospel, looking for where they ring true and where they fall short. As we do, we will not only better understand the world we’re called to reach, but we’ll better know how to lead them to Jesus. We’ll see how Christ offers hope to the hopeless, life to the dead, purpose to the purposeless, comfort for the sorrowful, and rest for the weary. As we hear the stories told around the world, we’ll hear expressions of great need, and we’ll know that our needs are ultimately met in Christ.
As we grow in our relationship with Christ, we can better determine what is of him and what isn’t, allowing us to engage the stories of this world with an ear for the echoes of the greatest story. And as we hear its echoes and whispers in the stories surrounding us, we can find ways to highlight those themes and to point to their source in the story of God. After all, we’re all following more stories these days anyway, right? Whether it’s the newest season of The Mandalorian or an early season of The Office, we’re joining the current of culture as we follow these stories, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. So this week, as you watch a show or read a book or listen to a podcast, consider the worldviews, the assumptions, and the arguments being conveyed. Seek to understand the storyteller’s perspective. Consider the stories in light of the story of God. Then pray for opportunities to tell his story.
I’ve been reading a book about a haunted house, and I’ve been struck with how simple the recipe has been for creating the setting. So far, the author has simply taken things that are good, sacred, or safe, and he’s inverted them in some way. Mealtimes, normally times of nourishment and fellowship, become settings for chaos and division. Chapels, normally places of peace and holiness, become places of disquiet and depravity. Bedrooms, normally places of rest and safety, become places of fear and danger. In many ways, sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant, the author turns the natural into the unnatural, and the result is largely unsettling.
You’ve likely seen instances of this in horror stories before. A cross or a crucifix is turned upside down to denote the subversion of faith. A common household tool becomes a menacing weapon. Innocent beginnings can lead to terrifying places as these stories undermine the things we often take for granted. And even if you don’t engage such media, you can’t deny its popularity. Humans seem fascinated with tales of the unnatural.
While I think such fascination can become unhealthy, I believe some good may come from our interest in the unnatural. Consider, for example, the focus of much horror. In seemingly every case, horror turns our attention to the ways things can go wrong in the world. In fact, the most frightening stories are those that reflect reality, highlighting the actual horrors produced by this world. Granted, horror stories often sensationalize the real world inspirations, but the real world inspirations exist. Thus, although horror often deals in extremes and in caricatures, it operates on a deeply unsettling truth: our world is not all love and light. Darkness lies strong across the globe. Evil pervades our existence. Life is marked by the unnatural.
The unnatural aspects of horror, then, can act as reminders that the world is not the way it was created to be. These stories introduce unease into our sense of calm, shattering any illusions that this world is tame or safe. And when we see the darker aspects of the world, we begin to recognize our need for a hope that can overcome the world, a hope that can only be found in Christ.
When horror focuses our attention on the unnatural, we might do well to ask what the natural state of things might be. And the answer to that question may be found nicely in a Christian worldview. We have a story that deals with all of reality and a protagonist who doesn’t shy away from the darkness but instead confronts it and overcomes it. We have the only source of true and lasting hope that the darkness is not ultimate, that the unnatural state need not be permanent. And so we tell the story, the story that makes sense of other stories, even the darker ones. And we hope, even when face to face with the darkest of evils, for we know the one who has already overcome it all.
I cannot find the words to share my grief.
I sit instead in silence, and I mourn
Those dreams that were conceived but never born.
I pray for rest, for respite, for relief.
Remind me of the gospel’s grand motif:
Light for the lost and hope for the forlorn.
This all is grace, the flower and the thorn.
Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief.
I am a broken soul haunted by fears
With naught to offer but these feeble prayers
For hope and help to trust you through the tears.
With glory soon revealed, no pain compares,
So I cling now to you, the God who hears.
O Father, comfort me in these affairs.
You have been used to chronicle the rise
And fall of kingdoms, showing them to be
Far frailer than what many then could see.
You lend perspective to our searching eyes,
Reminding us that, under younger skies,
Stories of fears and foes and fantasy
Appeared in fiction and biography.
You keep the record of both truth and lies.
And through mere momentary markings, you
Can capture glimpses of eternity,
Can testify to what is ever true
In ev’ry ebb and flow of history,
Can tell the tale of what one Word can do
When written in the heart of one like me.
We want but are not satisfied in gain,
And so we gain new wants to add to old.
This futile journey is an old refrain
Of wants too weak to trust the Story told.
“Our hearts are restless till they rest in thee,”
The saint once wrote, and still his words resound.
They ring from Africa across the sea,
True both on foreign and familiar ground.
For we were wrought to reckon with our ends,
To know the purpose t’ward which passion points:
Temp’ral desires call for that which transcends;
What leads to life divides marrow and joints.
O LORD, align our wanting with your will,
And turn our hearts to you and so fulfill.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
1 Corinthians 15:3-5
Christ died for sins, was buried, and was raised on the third day in fulfillment of the word of God. This is the gospel. This is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). This is enough.
Recently, I’ve given more thought to students in the church who don’t know Jesus. As I prepare lessons, I wonder how to help kids see that Jesus is better than anything else in life. I wonder how to connect the dots between what a student knows and what a student believes. I want lives to be changed, not just heads to be filled. So I try to use good illustrations and plan better lessons and answer questions well, yet I still feel like I’m missing something. I’m still unable to open a student’s ears to truth.
I find a similar difficulty in writing. I often approach the blog with a desire to be profound or novel in some way. I want to say something meaningful, something worth pondering or repeating. I want to stir up a love and a reverence for the Lord. So I consider phrases and consult editors and attempt to use pointed words, yet I still feel like I’m missing something. I’m still unable to open the reader’s eyes to truth.
I sometimes feel my words are too simple or too ordinary to get the work done, yet I forget that the effectiveness of the gospel isn’t contingent upon my eloquence or profundity. No quality or quantity of speaking or writing can make deaf ears hear or blind eyes see. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, can do both. He works through human words to awaken souls to life, empowering the gospel message as it is spoken or written. And while profundity and eloquence and wit can serve us well, Paul argues that the gospel message is enough on its own to change lives. He writes,
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
1 Corinthians 2:1-5
While Paul did at times delve into deeper matters – and was not always easy to understand, according to 2 Peter 3:15-16 – he reminds the Corinthians that the gospel by itself is sufficient for the work. The Spirit moves through the simple message to transform lives for eternity. So we need not worry as we share the message of Christ with others. Words that may seem simple and ordinary to us still have the power to shake loose the shackles of darkness and to bring life to the dead. The gospel is enough for that student, it’s enough for that post, and it’s enough for you and me.