The Sacredness of Stories in the Modern Age
I recently attended a conference called Doxacon Prime. It is an annual conference that explores fantasy and science fiction from a Christian perspective. The Doxacon organizers bill the event as a place where “Faith and Truth meet Science Fiction and Fantasy.”
I had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with author John Granger, an Orthodox Christian and a leading authority on the Christian elements within the Harry Potter series. We had a fascinating conversation about stories, our consciences, their relationship, and the overall importance of stories in today’s culture. So much of what we discussed got my synapses firing and I mention John specifically because this blog and its content are based largely on ideas he either shared or we jointly discussed.
Stories are just as important in today’s culture as they have always been and perhaps even more so. They are often how we learn truth - not fact, but truth. Much of the deeper truths of Christianity come to us through stories. Christ taught primarily through the Parables. Even prior to Christianity, much truth was conveyed through story. So much so that the Church did not reject pagan myths and stories as much as it illuminated and completed the elements of truth in them in light of the fullness of the truth of Christ.
For nearly two centuries, most English literature was based on Christian truth. It is only fairly recently that literature (if you can even refer to some of today’s fiction as such) became simply intended for entertainment. Books, movies, television, and the Internet are all mediums now where stories are provided and the sheer amount is overwhelming. Yet, the truth still often comes through in today’s stories. But it takes discernment to see and experience the ones that still point to truth.
I wrote in my book Sacramental Living, and also discussed on my podcast Myth and Truth, how the movie The Titanic by James Cameron, one of the highest grossing movies of all time, is so much more than about a great ship sinking. It is about how Jack’s unconditional and sacrificial and redemptive love of Rose saved her, in her words, in every possible way a person can be saved. He saved her physical life and her spirit from wilting due to the hell like bondage of misguided society she was immersed in. This element of the story, the core element, is a version of the Gospel story. Cameron is not Christian nor was it likely his intent to tell a version of the Gospel story. However, if the Gospel is true, than it is true for everybody whether they are Christian or not. That means the Gospel will often shine through in stories whether the creator of the story is Christian or not, of whether he or she intended it or not.
Just like The Titanic, this holds true for another popular set of movies, the Star Wars saga. George Lucas was raised Methodist and is now Buddhist (if articles about him are factually correct). However, the Star Wars saga also has many Christian elements not the least of which is Luke’s redemption of Anakin through love and resistance to evil. These movies move people’s hearts tremendously. Many books do as well. For example, The Tale of Two Cities, The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series regularly top the lists of the best and most popular books of all time. Each of these books is often re-read by millions. The reason why people (myself included) re-read these books is again because of how their hearts are stirred. That deep stirring of the heart is something that is important for us to understand and goes beyond mere emotion.
John Granger pointed out something very profound to me that I have often thought about but never articulated as well in my mind as he did in words when we met. He explained our conscience is not entirely our own. That little voice in our head prior to a wrong act that warns us not to do what we are about to do, or, after we commit the wrong act lets us know what we just did was not good, is not entirely from us. If it was, it would kick in prior to our wrong acts and control us. It is the Holy Spirit, God in us; and, due to God’s loving gift of free will, He never tries to control, just gently persuade.
When I thought about what John said and how he said it, and how we understand the Holy Spirit dwells within us, this made so much intuitive sense his words felt obvious. We further discussed how our heart – not the organ that pumps blood or the seat of our emotions – is the innermost core of who we are where the Holy Spirit dwells. In Orthodoxy we call this the nous. This part of us is obscured by sin so often there is a fog or a degree of barrier surrounding our hearts that keeps us from hearing clearly the “the still small voice within,” especially before we do something we are not supposed to. Once sin has a foothold we tend to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit in our hearts in the form of our conscience which tries to admonish us and strives to get us to correct our behavior.
Our conscience or our nous or heart faculty – whatever you wish to call it – also stirs deeply when we experience books and movies such as I mentioned earlier. Why is that? To answer this question, we first need to look at ourselves in relation to others. We often form deep bonds with people when we have things in common, especially when these things are profound interests that are motivated by core values. Many of my deepest relationships are with people who are striving and struggling to be with Christ daily just as I am. I see myself in them and them in me. We recognize aspects of ourselves in each other and this binds and bonds us in love. Christ told us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The proper translation is more clearly stated “love your neighbor as being yourself.” When we recognize each other in ourselves, the image and likeness of God in each of us, we love each other as being of ourselves.
When we experience transcendent truth in movies, books or other mediums, this deep stirring we feel, is essentially, as John put it, our heart faculty seeing its own reflection in stories. It is the numinous recognizing itself. It is similar to the delight we feel when a new friendship is forming when we discover ourselves and another have something in common we deeply both treasure. It is said that the Persons of the Holy Trinity dwell together in an eternal movement of love. In a sense, we feel a taste of the delight of the Three Persons of the Trinity, though One, have in each other.
Further, this feeling of immersion into a story that makes us forget all else for a while and makes us feels so completely alive, echoes especially the resurrection experience, the feeling of moving from death to life, that we all long for. That is why many us watch and re-watch, read and re-read the same stories again and again. We are experiencing the transcendent coming through in our secular society as we shut off logic and experience with our heart. Father Stephan Freeman terms it “getting out of mind to come to ours senses.”
In America today, stories serve now what religion once did. Mircea Eliade captures this notion in his book The Sacred and the Profane. It is important, for us to understand this not just for ourselves. As parents, Sunday school teachers, and leaders, we should study and use today stories, especially the teen literature our kids read, much in the same way the ancient Christians used pagan stories to teach our children and faithful the Gospel and the reality of the transcendent.