While spending some time in the Gospel of Luke I was taken back by how MANY times Jesus told a story.
One right after another, after another, after another! It was almost non-stop. Just about every time Jesus was questioned or called upon to give an answer he would essentially say, “Well… once upon a time…” He never took a question ‘head on.’ He always backed up and told an enthralling tale. Which leads me to believe that he must have spent considerable mental energy inventing narratives. He cared so much about what he was trying to say that I’m sure he mused night and day over his various plots. So I’m left to believe that in Jesus’ opinion stories are the most powerful tool of instruction. And oh, those stories of his had a point. A sharp point. He was a masterful teacher and his stories were his lectures.
Before, I always told myself (and others), “I don’t have time for fiction.” I’ve always had a hunger to learn, so invariably I would utilize all things non-fiction. History, biography, polemics, apologetics, systematic theology, biblical commentary, devotionals, and technical books were pretty much all I trafficked in. And just a scant amount of fiction occupied my shelves. I had an unread copy of Pilgrims Progress, The Chronicles of Narnia (of course), some Frank E. Peretti, but that was about it. Pretty Scant.
I do remember having curiosity regarding some of the literary classics. In college I saw a friend of mine reading a copy of Moby Dick for one of his classes. And I thought, “Oh, that looks so much more interesting than my Organic Chemistry book right now.” Quite frankly, my real academic interest was probably surfacing and I didn’t even realize it. Didn’t see the value of it. Literature had just struck me as mere aesthetics. Valuable for it’s beauty perhaps, but really just pointless entertainment. And I didn’t have the time for it. Being busy and wanting to learn history and philosophy, I thought: “just give me the bald facts” and I kept to my didactic material. But, a fascination kept growing inside me for the great works I had always heard referenced, such as Les Miserables, Brothers Karamazov, Mark Twain, Dickens, Steinbeck, Toni Morrision, etc, etc, etc
It wasn’t until five years ago or so, in Church History class (of all things), that I decided to get into literature. I had noticed that my professor had such a beautiful command of language, that I asked him,
“Marc, how is it that you talk so well? You seem to have a perfect way of saying everything!”
He kind of laughed and thought about it for a moment. And finally said, “Well, I guess I like to read novels. It’s my way of soaking in good language.”
At that moment, I think I was born again! I thought, if for no other reason THAT’S a great one. I asked him for a couple of recommendations and he mentioned that Marilynne Robinson and Margaret Atwood are great contemporary voices in American literature today. I immediately ordered Gilead and gobbled it up. And after reading it, it struck me, Marilynne Robinson had something to say. It wasn’t just a story. She was actually teaching me things on many different levels. But she didn’t just speak, she tapped into the portals of my imagination.
That’s what novelists do!
I think what makes them so effective is that they’re appealing to much more than just cognition; they’re also appealing to experience and emotion. Didactic teaching alone is too manageable. It goes into your brain; you process it like a machine, store it on a shelf and discard the rest. It’s too slick. But, when your experience is awakened and your heart is played upon, you are listening (and learning) on a whole new level. Your imagination is aroused like a giant from his sleep. And when that giant is fully roused – whew – things begin to happen to your whole existence. Somebody finally is communicating with you. All of you! Our best novelists do this for us. They teach us just as well as professors do, but much, much better, for they speak to every element of our personhood.
Shortly thereafter I finished another novel entitled The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896), by Harold Frederic. And let me tell you, that messed me up. I can’t remember the last time I was “messed up” by a lecture. Well, I can recall a few times being messed up (in a good way) by a Ray Lubeck’s class! But the point is, it usually doesn’t happen in a classroom setting. (And don’t get me wrong, I love the classroom.) But, this book gave my cage a good rattle. And talk about instructive! I learned about late 19th century American social and religious culture. I felt instructed in marriage, in inner-personal communication. I learned how to use language more effectively. And I was convicted! Convicted about my moments of self-aggrandizement and naivete.
And then, there’s the linger factor! Stories like this tend to stick with you and linger in your mind.
No wonder the Master told stories.
- The parables of the 10 virgins
- The wise and foolish builders
- The sheep and the goats
- The workers hired in the twelfth hour
- The prodigal son… for crying out loud!
Parables stick with you. And like novels (which I would say are modern-day parables), they speak on so many levels.
I think the powerful thing about a story is you see yourself reflected in the people depicted in it. The Pharisees could often tell that the story was being spoken against them. But, if something is told to you point-blank defenses usually fly. However, if it’s couched in a story somehow it gets through the chinks of our armor and wounds us where it may. For once in life – through a well told story – we can actually see ourselves in an objective light. All because someone has taken the pains to – like Emily Dickinson suggested – “tell the truth, but tell it slant.”
This is why I began reading fiction and feel like I’m catching up for lost time.