The Power of Story

In 1930, a conversation occurred that would change fiction forever. J.R.R. Tolkien — a Christian believer — and C.S. Lewis — an agnostic — were coworkers and friends at Oxford University, had both experienced the atrocities and hell of World War I, and shared a passion and interest for story and myth. While walking and talking together one night along the campus of Oxford, most likely each with a pipe in hand, Tolkien raised the idea of his firmly held belief that there is in fact more to life than the reality they found themselves in, and suggested that perhaps there is one fairy tale that is true. Of course, the tale he suggests is that of Jesus Himself, the one true myth that all other great stories point to, whether consciously or not. Tolkien believed that “[Jesus] had changed everything forever and ever, had brought spring into winter, had brought eternity itself into time. Lewis had never considered that. But Tolkien pressed him to consider it and so now he would consider it, and it would haunt him” (Metaxas). And haunt him it did.

What became of this conversation is quite evident; the following year, Lewis became the most reluctant convert in all of Oxford, expressing that he came to faith while on a trip to the zoo with his brother. Lewis describes it like this: 

“When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. […] It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, still lying motionless in his bed, becomes aware that he is now awake” (Lewis).

Of course, Tolkien eventually published one of the most widely popular fictional series of the 20th century (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), and Lewis became one of the most prolific apologists and fictional writers of the same. Lewis’ love for myth and his journey to faith strikes a chord in the hearts of all of us, if we choose to pay attention. This chord is the truth that we all long for something more than this life; we vehemently oppose death and desire a life of intimacy and adventure, yet must come to terms with the harsh reality of a world that often seems as if God is either absent or sadistic. And I am not sure which is worse. This is the world Lewis found himself in, and this is the world we find ourselves in today. And yet, despite the pessimism, cynicism, and subjective truth of the Postmodern era, neither Hollywood nor the individual has forgotten about the deep longing of the human heart. The world is dying, and we long for restoration — for redemption. Perhaps this is what the teacher of Ecclesiastes means when he writes that “God has set eternity in the human heart” (3:11). Even the most nihilistic existentialist still finds joy in movies such as  Star Wars, The Avengers, Captain Marvel, and The Lord of the Rings. Even Steven Hawking, a self-proclaimed atheist, longed for meaning and purpose in this broken world, too; the movie memoir to his life, The Theory of Everything, chronicles his own love story and life in a world in which, supposedly, nothing matters. And yet Hawking himself longed for something that did matter; he longed for life, for love, for purpose. For a story. My only question is: why? Why does Western culture, and humanity as a whole, gravitate towards stories in which Good ultimately prevails, love wins, and Evil is defeated? Could there be, perhaps, a Love that is stronger than Death? Could we in fact be a part of this very story? John Eldredge thinks so. In his book, Waking the Dead, Eldredge writes that “all the stories we tell borrow their power from the Great Story He is telling” (Eldredge). A fan of both Tolkien and Lewis (and all three are fans of George MacDonald), Eldredge believes that the Gospel is the most beautiful story to have ever been told, and is indeed a story that lives on today. However, like many of us, he is no stranger to the religious veil that so often masks the beauty and truth of the Gospel. It is not only possible, but indeed common, for one to grow old of the Story, and this boredom is often accompanied by contempt. The joy of the Story is replaced with systematic doctrine, and the freedom of Christianity is replaced with the legality of “churchianity.” There is a reason why theaters were sold out for the premier of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and why so many churches were lucky to have even 75% of their seats full the same weekend; it is because of the power of story. Eldredge writes that “proposition speaks to the mind, but when you tell a story, you speak to the heart” (Eldredge). This is the very reason why Jesus spoke in parables; the heart is the wellspring of the soul, as Solomon says in Proverbs 4:23. And yet, like a pilot who has grown numb to the joys and thrills of flight, so have many Christians grown numb to the joys and thrills of the Gospel. In his book Epic, Eldredge argues that “we have grown dull toward this world in which we live; we have forgotten that it is not normal or scientific in any sense of the word. It is fantastic. It is fairy tale through and through. Really now. Elephants? Caterpillars? Snow? At what point did you lose your wonder at it all?” (Eldredge, emphasis added). It is not the child who finds it difficult to see the beauty, mystery, and wonder of the world; it is the child’s parent who does.

If the world lacks meaning, if the world lacks any real morality, and if the world lacks God, then we must confront this brutal reality alongside the conviction that nearly all of humanity is groaning for something more. Paul felt it in Romans 8, Chesterton felt it in Orthodoxy, and we feel it today in the midst of our ordinary and everyday lives. As mentioned before, stories such as Captain Marvel and Star Wars offer a light in the darkness, bringing hope and life to a world that is defined by doubt and death. Perhaps this is simply a cynical result of evolution, as if nature is playing games with us. Or, like Tolkien, these deep longings for life, redemption, and the opposal of all that is not life are deep wounds that point to an even deeper truth. Jesus says that the truth will set us free when we come to truly know it, and He claims that He came to mend the brokenhearted. Perhaps we should take him up on this offer.

If we chase answers, we are bound to be met with disappointment. The Bible does not exist to answer our theological questions, and the Solomon-like teacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us that too much study will wear one out (Ecclesiastes 12:12). But if we engage with the child within us and muster up the faith to believe in fairy tales again, we just might find what we are looking for. Chesterton expresses the need for Story and imagination in Orthodoxy by writing that “poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not […] attacking logic; I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination” (Chesterton, pg. 6). The poet may not find answers, but he may find peace. The rationalist finds neither. Lewis said that perhaps there will come a day when we’ll be old enough to read fairy tales again, and perhaps there will come a day when we’ll be old enough to live them out, too. Perhaps, by opening up the pages of a story or watching a beloved film, we may have the strength to set aside all our pessimism and skepticism, look to the cross, and agree with the centurion when he says that “surely this man was the son of God” (Mark 15:39). He was, He is, and He always will be. But then again, Steve Rodgers was just a kid from Brooklyn, and Jesus was just a kid from Nazareth. Or so we thought.

 

 

 

 

References

Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. SnowBall Classics Publishing, 2015.

Eldredge, John. Waking the Dead: the Glory of a Heart Fully Alive. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 

2003.

Eldredge, John. Epic: The Story God is Telling. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004.

Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. HarperCollins, 1955.

Metaxas, Eric. “How J.R.R. Tolkien Helped to Lead C.S. Lewis to Faith.” Eric Metaxas

Metaxas Media, 12 Oct. 2015,

http://ericmetaxas.com/media/articles/how-jrr-tolkien-helped-lead-cs-lewis-faith/.

 

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