Stories are the most natural way in which we come to know God’s created world and our place in it. Whether we are young or old, our desire to tell and hear stories is a fundamental part of our human nature—of being made in the image and likeness of God.
Good stories reveal God’s beauty, affirm the meaning of life and its purposes, and give needed recreation and refreshment to tired souls.
Good stories teach us to live well, but it’s not a crash course. Unlike books that lay out ten steps to a better life, a good story will not provide a formula to plug into a given situation or problem. The plethora of self-help books available these days are no substitute for good literature; they may be easier to read and give a temporary motivational boost, but to the degree that they deconstruct and demystify life while claiming false promises, they will be ineffective and potentially detrimental. Good stories don’t tell you directly what to do or how to do it; rather, they use the structured art of storytelling to instill life with continuity and order, thereby showing the best paths by mirroring God’s created order.
A faithful commitment to live well in a sinful world demands laborious work, confusion and even pain, and good stories do not eliminate these hard aspects of life. As a matter of fact, good stories ought to leave us with a greater appreciation for the time commitment and hard work that are required in order to live thoughtful, meaningful, and purposeful lives. They should provide us with a clearer understanding of the messiness that comes with fostering good relationships and a better awareness of the sacrifices that are imposed by “loving your neighbor as yourself.” If you commit to the partaking of good literature and the telling and hearing of good stories, you will eventually be rewarded with thought-provoking, purposeful direction.
This takes time: it moves far beyond your high school English class. It takes a while—sometimes a very long while—to unearth truths buried deep inside good literature, and often the better the narrative, the deeper you have to go to discover what’s there. This process of discovery calls for patience as you contemplate those truths and allow them to form your imagination, vision, and perspective.
Although stories provide amusement and enjoyment, they are much more than that. They are markers left by earlier travelers to guide us. Like the construction of a great cathedral that takes centuries, good stories build upon the foundation stones of earlier works. Authors, philosophers, poets, and storytellers throughout history have laid the bricks and mortar of language necessary for imparting wisdom to the generations to come. As we choose what to read, both for ourselves and our families, we do well to remember this long history of storytelling. As G. K. Chesterton writes, “It ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people.”
These trusted authors, philosophers, and theologians help us not only “to know the truth of things” but also “to learn how to go about knowing.” In Russell Baker’s memoir, Growing Up, he describes the family stories that were shared around the table night after night:
Usually I listened uncritically, for around that table, under the unshaded light bulb, I was receiving an education in the world and how to think about it. What I absorbed most deeply was not information but attitudes, ways of looking at the world that were to stay with me for many years.
Not all narratives are built on a solid footing, and not all face the right direction. We must use discernment and discretion when choosing stories for ourselves and our children because stories will permeate our hearts and minds, influencing our beliefs and shaping us into the people we become.
What are some characteristics of a good story? First of all, it “must be striking enough to be worth telling,” writes Thomas Hardy in The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy. A good story is artistically constructed, imaginative, and honest in its portrayal of the complex human condition.
Second, in a good story, the story conveys the meaning. “When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story,” writes Flannery O’Connor. Everything in the story is there because it is necessary for the telling of the story. The meaning is embedded within the story—in the plot and the events and the characters themselves—and unveiled through their choices and consequences, their virtues and vices and ambiguities. From them, you learn what to avoid; they are, in a way, warning signs placed along the trail, alerting you to the dangers lurking up ahead but not yelling your name with specific moral directions to “stop” or “detour” or “keep to the right.”
Third, a good story “enraptures,” argues C. S. Lewis in On Stories. It stirs you from a deep slumber and invites you in; once inside, your sense of reality is enlarged and deepened. Its doors are the passageways to other times and places as well as to other ways of thinking about and participating in the larger world. This is not mere curiosity: a desire to take apart, examine, or utilize it. Flannery O’Connor cringed to think of her stories on a dissecting table. No, this is an invitation to gaze, to linger, to ponder—to wonder. There is a “looking, listening, and receiving” as Lewis put it in An Experiment in Criticism. This has a transforming effect on the character of the receiver.
When good books and stories are read and heard and retold, something wonderful happens: you discover that a few good stories have come to be the best. They were thus all the while; you had only to see, and this kind of seeing takes vision. It’s exciting to discover that over time the best stories have remained true and slowly influenced you for the better. The best stories, like the closest friends, are the ones that stay with you—the ones about which you keep thinking and to which you keep returning. They are the stories you read and reread. With well-formed vision, you are better able to discern what narratives offer a depth of perspective on the world’s fullness, and thereby set themselves apart from other works of literature.
You will soon discover that the best stories most potently shape your interior world—forming your imagination, structuring your thinking, ordering your days, and enhancing all areas of your life. As you mature, these stories grow with you, and there are always more discoveries to be made each time you return. They lead the way to other topics worthy of thoughtful attention. Over a lifetime, the books that you read can tremendously impact your thinking, affect your emotions, and influence your choices—all for the good. Whether it’s a children’s classic such as Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, a masterful fictional narrative like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, or simply another adventure in John Erickson’s Hank the Cowdog series, your life becomes fuller and richer. In stories like these you hear an echo of Truth—the highest and most profound knowledge regarding what is good, beautiful, and true.
There are relatively few stories worthy of being classified as good, even fewer worthy of being distinguished as the best, and only one “greatest story ever told” in which all other stories find their meaning—God’s story. He has graciously revealed himself, his ways, and his will in the Bible, and often through a narrative form of storytelling. If we are to teach the oldest things to the youngest people, what is older than “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1)?
True books and narratives have transported countless people over centuries, in both times of plenty and times of want. I hope you consider good and worthy stories—stories that can provide shelter as you weather storms, quench your thirst as you traverse deserts, soothe your soul as you battle pestilence, and lead where a new land awaits.
The author is a biblical counselor and member of Providence OPC in Southfield, MI. New Horizons, April 2019.