Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Power of Story

And with last night’s post, I am at peace.

I mentioned on Monday that there were several posts I could have written, but there was one that was really, really bugging me.  It was about finally making good on a promise to myself and reading Neil Gaiman, only to discover that I had been confronted in a brand-new and powerful way with the power of the story.  It came about when I finished reading Neverwhere, but I understood it while reading the introduction to Fragile Things.

As I write this now, it occurs to me that the peculiarity of most things we think of as fragile is how tough they truly are.  There were tricks we did with eggs as children, to show how they were, in reality, tiny load-bearing marble halls; while the beat of the wings of a butterfly in the right place, we are told, can create a hurricane across an ocean.  Hearts may break, but hearts are the toughest of muscles, able to pump for a lifetime, seventy times a minute, and scarcely falter along the way.  Even dreams, the most delicate and intangible of things, can prove remarkably difficult to kill.

Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds’ eggs and human hearts and dreams, are also fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks.  Or they are words on the air, composed of sounds and ideas – abstract, invisible, gone once they’ve been spoken – and what could be more frail than that?  But some stories, small, simple ones about setting out on adventures or people doing wonders, tales of miracles and monsters, have outlasted all the people who told them, and some of them have outlasted the lands in which they were created.

This is the logical conclusion to the thought that the story can best be described by being told.  It cannot be taken apart, dissected, evaluated, and explained.  For the story exists in a special place, set apart from all of us, set apart from the world we live in.  The moment we stop and say, “But, wait, that’s not possible,” or, “Well if the hero had just done [this] it would have worked,” we step outside of the story and back in to reality and the story, that fragile thing held together by our hearts and belief, shatters and falls apart.

The story will not bear scrutiny because the story cannot bear scrutiny.  Fortunately, the story does not need scrutiny.  This is the job of the storyteller, however, to create a story that does not need to be scrutinized.  This is why the story should always tell us where it is going and should not suddenly swerve to the left for no reason and with no gain when the narrative is driving to the right.  This, too, is the job of the audience, to believe for just a moment that the gods can walk the Earth, that Hel is a place just as Valhalla is, that the hero can make a journey of years across a barren land with neither food nor water, that the world is structured in such a way that what must happen is, naturally, what does happen.

We should put down American Gods or Neverwhere with a sense of loss.  When we step away from those books we should come back to reality, realize that we do not live in a world where the gods travel around in cars and there is no near-invisible, quickly forgotten world of London Below.  While we are in the book, however, we should believe that it is possible for those things to be real.  No, we should know that they are real.  We can talk about it as accepting the allegory and fiction, we can discuss suspending our disbelief.  But those are merely words, abstraction.  Whatever we want to call it, we must know that when we open a book or sit down for a story the storyteller is inviting us to experience a different world.  It is a gnosis, a secret knowledge that is shared only with those willing and prepared to accept it.

I did not understand this for the longest time.  I believed that I could be a good writer simply because I know how to put words together in a grammatically coherent way and can then use those words to present ideas.  I used fiction as a blunt instrument.  When I started storytelling I believed that the fact that I knew myth and archetype and could compose a story that meant that I was going to be able to step on to a stage and be a storyteller.

In truth, one can be a storyteller doing exactly that.  At least, in the sense that one can stand up and tell stories, since it doesn’t require anything other than a story and a language.  But, well, the difference between being someone who stands up and tells stories and being the storyteller I want to be is as vast as the difference between being a resident of Texas and being a Texan.  The former describes your location.  The latter describes your soul.


It occurs to me, too, that this particular bit of story is not so unrelated to the Ravi Zacharias posts or the Byzantine Logic and After the Flood series(es?) as it might first seem.

The farmer in my story necessarily exists in a place that cannot possibly exist.  You cannot built a high, stone wall all on your own in a single season.  You probably cannot go three years with absolutely no harvest.  More importantly, the farmer could have always taken the stone wall out and put in a chain-link fence or drilled drainage channels in to the wall.  These are real-world solutions to a problem.

But, of course, there is no farmer.  There is no farm.  There are no wild animals and summers with ironic weather.  It’s a story about me, a guy who grew up in the suburbs and works in an office building.  And since it’s a story about me that’s been universalized, the fragile thing becomes strong because I can stand in a room full of people who also grew up in the suburbs and work in offices and touch them because they will take out of the story the meaning that they need to take out of it.  The can see the farmer building that high, stone wall in their mind and associate it with going to school to get that degree they didn’t want because it was marketable.

This is how that fragile thing becomes remarkably strong.  It travels outwards from the storyteller and comes to rest for just a moment in the mind and heart of the audience member.  And as long as they live in the place where the story is they know that there is a farmer with a little field and that they are the farmer and their lives are that little field.

I could, I suppose, bring Carl Jung in to this conversation and discuss the collective unconscious and mythological archetypes.  Or I could bring Joseph Campbell in and discuss the Hero’s Journey and the monomyth.  But I’d much rather bring Paul Tillich in to the conversation and discuss ultimate concern and the broken myth.  In order for faith to center on an ultimate concern you must be able to approach with both doubt and belief.  This is why the drive in Christian evangelism has moved toward the personal testimony and the emotional story of a feeling of relief and transcendent personal change upon accepting Jesus as your “personal lord and savior.”  It’s not in the Bible and it doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense until quite recently in Christian thought.  But it has power because it makes for a damn good story if done right.

But, like any story, that one is a fragile thing, unable to bear scrutiny for too long.  This, ultimately, is why we see an endless series of arguments where opponents and proponents of Christianity talk around each other.  A high and mighty pastor spends Sundays talking about family values, then gets caught diddling a cocktail waitress on Monday and someone says, “See, he wasn’t actually protected from sin.  He’s no better than anyone else!”  What that critic is actually saying is, “The story has been broken.  It can’t live up to reality.”  So the proponent of religion says, “No, it was the Devil’s work,” or, “He wasn’t a true Christian anyway,” or, “We’re still human, even if we’ve been saved.”  What’s really being said is, “No, this one instance doesn’t break the story.  The story is still good.”

The Christian landscape is littered with broken stories.  One cannot walk across it in bare feet without getting cut by the shards.  But the true fight is over the big story, the myth at the center of the ultimate concern.  And this is where the Ravi Zachariases, the Ken Hams, and the Bill Coopers of the world unwittingly do the most damage to their own cause.

They hold up the story and try to make sure everyone can see that it is worth our ultimate concern.  And in this moment we must pivot, we must switch from Neil Gaiman to Paul Tillich.  For the broken story is a thing that is quite opposite from a broken myth.

Christianity was first conceived as a broken myth.  This is not in terms of cracked, damaged, and destroyed, but in terms of breaking through from the ethereal to the earthly.  The realm of the earth was on one plain, the heavens another.  But the moment the god stepped through in the form of Jesus that separation was broken and the myth became reality.

Perhaps the broken myth and the broken story are not so different, then.  It’s just that when the story breaks it is because we have exposed it to reality.  When the myth breaks it exposes itself to reality.  In both cases, though, what matters is that something that belongs elsewhere can now be examined, measured, inspected.

In insisting that the Bible is historical Ravi Zacharias encourages us to treat the Bible as any other history text, to evaluate it, break it down, apply textual criticism.  If we do that honestly we find that the Bible is like any other historical text of its day: as accurate as we can gather in some cases, wildly inaccurate in others, and sometimes just plain wrong.   Further, we find that it is filled with the biases of its writers and redactors just like any book.  That would be fine if we could just leave it at that.

But too many times the apologist then takes the next step.  They still insist on the certainty offered by the unbroken myth.  That means that if the myth does not line up with reality we must change reality itself.  To change the myth would introduce too much doubt in to that balance of doubt and faith, especially for those who cannot understand the difference between faith and certainty.

The story is a fragile thing.  It is immensely powerful, but only while it exists outside of reality.  This holds true even for those who insist it is reality that should be the one that breaks.

Reality will carry on whether there is a myth or not.  But we have forgotten all but a few of the stories and myths that were once told.  This, too, is why those who claim that the world would fall apart without Christianity are wrong.

The world is held together by stories.  In the end, though, the world doesn’t care which stories they are.  Jesus supplanted Sol Invictus as Sol Invictus supplanted Jupiter as Jupiter supplanted Zeus as Zeus supplanted Cronos.  That last one was a myth in and of itself.  Our stories can even tell us how they will be forgotten and fade away.

But there will always be another story.  As long as there are tiny people clinging to a miniscule corner of a vast universe and trying to make sense of it all we will tell ourselves stories to explain and entertain.

So I place my faith in the story.

1 comment:

Michael Mock said...

I wish I'd written this. I couldn't have, but I wish I had.