Tell Me An Old, Old Story
In our quest for academic excellence, it is easy for Christian scholars to forget that much of our best theology was first presented through stories. The teaching of Jesus is the finest example of all. Stories are too often a neglected form of communication. But they have unique qualities. Barry Chant discusses the great potential of stories – both for good and ill – and raises some interest¬ing questions in the process
tories are the oldest form of literature. Before reading and writing became common – and especially before printing made books readily accessible – history was passed on through stories told orally. Most peoples have ancient legends and tales. The Tales of the Arabian Nights, the myths of Greek mythology and the Australian Aborigines’ Dreamtime legends are well-known examples. The Bible is a classic model of story-telling. Jesus used stories over and again with great effect.
The oldest sagas were told in verse for ease of remembering. The names of the poets Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Spenser and Dante are known by millions of people, even by those who have never read a word of their writings. Much of the Bible is written in verse form. The Psalms are obvious examples. But huge portions of the prophets and even parts of the historical books are poetry (the song of Deborah, for example, in Judges 5).
What is often forgotten is that good stories have enormous and important value for all of life. For children, in particular, stories have a unique role to play.
Stories encourage us in the use of language. Those who read or hear good stories tend to speak and write better as a result. Sadly, the reverse is also true – badly-written stories or film scripts have a detrimental effect. There seems little doubt that children who have little exposure to good stories – or even worse, read or hear only bad ones – have limited language skills as a result. Spurgeon used to encourage his students to improve their own language skills by reading widely – especially in the classics, and preferably in the original languages!
I remember hearing the renowned Apostolic preacher Ian McPherson speak at an editors’ dinner in London during the 1976 World Pentecostal Conference. His word-spinning ability was such that when his time had expired, and he sat down, his address still incomplete, the assembly pleaded with him to continue. Part of his power lay in his story-telling skill. It stirred us all.
That language can be modified by what we read and hear is exem¬plified by what has happened in Australia. The large percentage of American television has resulted in both the introduction of new words into the Australian vocabulary and the replacing of Australian terminology with American equivalents. In a small way, a whole culture has been affected. Some unique Australian collo¬quialisms have been lost as a result. ‘Blokes’ and ‘sheilas’ have become ‘guys’; the ‘flicks’ are now ‘movies’; and ‘deenas’ and ‘zacs’ have gone from our currency forever. Because of American basketball, we now say ‘de-fence’ instead of ‘de-fence’ and Aussie gospel singers now praise ‘Gard’ and sing of his ‘lerve.’
Similarly, when children are exposed to fine language, their own use of words will be affected for good. The language skills of children who are raised on a diet of C.S.Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Bunyan, Mark Twain, Kenneth Grahame and the like can only be enhanced.
Stories stimulate the use of the imagination. Imagination is a God-given gift and it is encouraged by imaginative stories. Even a brief glimpse at nature shows the enormous range of God’s imagination! What infinite variety there is in the world of flowers, animals, insects, birds and fish! God is not dull. C.S.Lewis credited the `imaginative man’ in him for his writing of the Narnia series.
Books have an advantage over television in this respect. Film presents us with images already created for us – the printed page leaves us to form our own images according to how we inter¬pret the text. Guided by the author, we create our own story-world in a way that delights us.
It is helpful to remember that we are often less open to imagina¬tive concepts as we grow older. A few adult readers have reacted negatively to Redgum, the great prophet-figure in my Spindles series. The idea of a talking tree offends their sensibilities. But the children all love him! To my knowledge, none of the hundreds of thousands of children who’ve read or heard the sto¬ries has ever complained yet. C.S.Lewis had a similar problem. In a letter to a friend, he once wrote –
I am glad you all liked The Lion, the Witch and the Ward¬robe. A number of mothers, and still more, school mistresses, have decided that it is likely to frighten children, so it is not selling very well. But the real children like it, and I am astonished how some very young ones seem to understand it …
Four years later, Lewis claimed that the children’s fairy-tale was the best medium for some of the things he wanted to say.
Many of our greatest writers have used fantasy to enshrine their tales. The foremost Christian writer of all time, John Bunyan, made allegory the vehicle for his profound treatise on Christian living, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R.Tolkien and George McDonald are others who turned the world of the imagination into a world for God.
But we could also go back to some of the biblical prophets, where the imagination was the prophetic vehicle through which God spoke to them — Zechariah and Ezekiel, in particular. And our Lord Jesus clearly used imaginative stories again and again. In fact, the parable was his primary vehicle for teaching. Now this is not to give a blanket justification to all use of the imagination in writing or film-making. The kind of fantasy em¬ployed is still crucial. Jeremiah warned against prophets who spoke from the `delusions of their own minds’ (Jer 23:26). Much so-called `fantasy’ literature today provokes toxic imagery. The focus is on the sinister, evil, haunting side of life. Even popular Walt Disney films sometimes feature dark, brooding images where huge witches and bizarre monsters fill the screen and young viewers tremble and cringe in their seats.
But good stories do provoke the imagination – and they do so in a helpful way. In fact, we can go even further. Given that the imagination is the primary vehicle through which God’s Holy Spirit communicates with us (Numbers 12:6; Hosea 12:10; Joel 2:28f), its development and fostering is crucial to a child’s growing ability to hear from God. Like the seed in the parable of Jesus (Mark 4:26ff), small ideas can be buried in the deep recesses of the mind, ready to emerge later – sometimes much later – sprouting with a flourishing foliage of brilliant images and exciting concepts. Our Western rationalistic mind-set has tended to shut God out. It is no accident that the greatest divine revelations have been born in the East and that it is in the developing world that the Church is growing best today – where imagination still tends to run free and story-telling is an integral ingredient of life. J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which has sold millions of copies around the world, and the initial film which grossed over $20 million in its first six weeks in Australia, possibly owe their astonishing and in some ways inexplicable success to the spiritual vacuum in the lives of many children today, who have a sparse Christian background and have little or no sense of the numinous.
Why do we like stories? Basically, they offer us escapism. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of ‘that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith’. So for a short while, we turn our backs on this present world and enter the world of romance — where there is excitement, emotion, action, fun, love and adventure, and where our hopes and dreams come true. This is a healthy way to refresh our spirits and minds and renew our attitude to life.
What is it about stories that captivates us? All interesting stories build on conflict. Aristotle (384-322 BC) wrote, `The first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of drama is the action’ (Poetics, 6). Somewhere in every effective tale, people or events or ideals or movements confront one anoth¬er in an exciting and compelling way. The final scenes of C.S.Lewis’s The Last Battle (109ff) illustrate this point well. So, too, do the great Christian classics like The Pilgrim’s Progress and Paradise Lost. Frank Peretti’s highly suc-cessful This Present Darkness and Dave Hunt’s The Archon Conspir¬acy are examples of recent Christian fiction where the action moves at a gripping pace. This is part of the appeal of the Harry Potter series. They feed both the imagination and the yearning for action.
Action usually involves a sense of suspense. A good story de¬pends on it. Colin Pearce, a popular Austra¬lian story-teller, summarises the place of suspense simply like this: `Chase the hero; put him up a tree; throw rocks at him; then make the tree collapse!’ The action may not be just physical, of course. Emotional and spiritual conflict can be equally exciting. The Bible is again a model here. Biblical stories abound in action, conflict, tension, suspense, courage, danger, passion. The crossing of the Red sea, David’s conquest of Goliath, the Fiery Furnace, Jesus Walking on the Lake, the Crucifixion – all ¬¬these are dramatic sagas that can be told over and over and which grow more powerful in the retelling.
Often, action includes elements of violence. Even nursery rhymes and classic fairy tales are guilty here! And the Bible, of course, has its share. But it is not gratuitous, and there is never a preoccupation with violence for its own sake. In the stories I write for children, I endeavour to minimise negative effects by allowing only the kind of violence that children are likely to experience in real life – tumbling down hill-sides, throwing stones, chasing feral cats, being injured in a car accident, escaping bird-trappers – that sort of thing. Such incidents can be made just as suspenseful and exciting as the grosser acts of violence that are featured in many modern novels and films.
Violence tends to be overdone these days, especially in car¬toons. Modern children view literally thousands of acts of physi¬cal assault, murder, aggression and injury. A 1989 report claimed that by the age of sixteen, the average American child had seen more than 200,000 acts of television violence, including 33,000 murders. Another study catalogued 83 violent deeds per hour and an attempted murder every 30 seconds in one popular children’s series.
No other generation in history has ever had such enormous expo¬sure to such things. The long-term results may already be affect¬ing our way of life.
Good stories offer us idealism. By learning of the deeds of heroes, we are challenged to emulate them. Frodo in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is basically an ill-equipped creature for the enormous task before him, but he comes through as a hero, and one whose deeds can be imitated in their own context by the reader. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is hardly children’s viewing, but it has the same stirring approach to the eternal themes of good and evil. It clearly shows the sinister and seductive nature of power, as symbolised by the ring, the desperate wickedness of evil and the simple, yet profound goodness of humility, selflessness, friendship and sacrifice. The prince in Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper is another whose conduct under pressure and trial is worthy of replication. Through stories, we can identify with heroic figures, and for a brief time share with them a life which is exciting, challenging, difficult and successful. And we are ennobled in the process. The importance of reading books in which the major characters are essentially good is obvious here.
A problem today is the ambivalent hero, where it is not clear whether he is good or bad. The first Batman movie was a case in point. There was so much hype and heavy promotion for this pro¬duction, that, as with the emperor with no clothes, no one seemed prepared to state the obvious – that it was actually a bad film. Not only did it overwhelm us with black images of gloom and morbidity, but it confronted us with the dilemma of a hero who turned out to be almost as corrupt as the criminals he pursued. More recently, the highly-acclaimed The English Patient aroused our sympathies with its splendid photographic images and its tragic, anguished love story; no critic I know of pointed out that in the process it was persuading us to approve both adultery and euthanasia. On the other hand, films like Paradise Road depict the triumph of the human spirit and the power of faith in a way that leaves people inspired and uplifted.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet described the purpose of drama as `to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature’ (II.i.24). Some have inter¬preted this to mean that literature should simply reflect life as it is. Hence, it is appropriate that it should include gratuitous violence, immorality, bad language and the like. A by-product of this has been the questioning of Biggles stories because of their old-fashioned moral values and alleged racism. Similarly, Enid Blyton books are being altered to allow for feminist and humanist ideals.
Some years ago, Gillian Rubenstein, an Australian writer, controver¬sially won a children’s writing award with a book that included crude language. This was justified on the basis that such expres¬sions are part of life. From the Christian perspective, however, literature should not just reflect life as it is, but depict it as it might become – as the Bible does. This is not just a matter of accuracy, but also of moral truth. Truth is more than facts. It is presenting those facts in a way that relate them to the absolute integrity of the universe. Truth should be a necessary part of any story. C.S.Lewis wrote –
Literature written by Christians for Christians would have to avoid mendacity, cruelty, blasphemy, pornography, and the like, and it would aim at edification…
No good story can include approved actions and events which are contrary to moral truth.
What about the slogan, `art for art’s sake’? Should literature be accepted just because it is of value in its own right, whether it has moral worth or not? This is a meaningless question. In both Hebrew and Greek thought, the idea of something being beautiful without being good was an alien concept. The Hebrew tob and the Greek kalos both mean `good’ as well as `beautiful’. This doesn’t mean that stories have to `preach’ or `moralise’. There is no reason why books cannot be plain good fun. There are many delightful children’s stories, for example, which have no overt moral application, but which are nevertheless `moral’ tales. Good examples of this are the writings of Kenneth Grahame, Lewis Carroll, A.A.Milne, Francis Dixon and Mark Twain.
Now this concept that art should portray a message or offer a value judgement is often loudly disputed. Stories, we are told, should be `neutral’. In fact, it is impossible to divorce moral values from literature. Every book or film inevitably and neces¬sarily has a moral leaning in one direction or another. Recently, one of our grandchildren was watching a television cartoon in which the word `voodoo’ appeared frequently. It was being presented as something trivial and amusing. In other words, a positive attitude towards a very evil form of heathenism was being conveyed – or putting it plainly, the cartoon was making a moral statement. Similarly, once popular family television programs like Bewitched, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and The Addams Family clearly portrayed a subtle but dangerous value judgement – in this case, that the world of the occult is innocuous and amusing. The implicit approval of witchcraft in the Harry Potter series has raised questions about the moral values being imparted through them. In some ways, non-judgmental programs and books are more sinister than more blatant presentations of oc¬cultism could ever be.
Mention must be made here of satire. Sometimes, stories or films can be presented which at first glance appear to be negative or ambivalent, but which carry a subtle or hidden meaning. This subtlety may be lost on children. In adult literature, however, it can be very powerful. A case in point was the film American Beauty which confronted viewers with a menagerie of dysfunctional individuals and families yet expected them to laugh. . On the surface, it was shocking, immoral and depressing – a so-called ‘black comedy’ which presented an underlying pessimism and despair. On reflection, however, it conveyed a powerful message: suburbia is in great trouble and something needs to be done about it soon. Of course, the risk with such an approach is that the message may be overlooked and the evil that is being satirised may in fact be seen to be promoted.
It is also worth noting the reactions of leading characters in many modern novels or films, when they are under pressure or in danger. The usual response is to have a cigarette, a drink or a sedative, or to resort to violence. A life-attitude is plainly being offered here. When did you last see a James Bond film in which the hero, confronted by danger, says, ‘Let’s pray’?
We frequently hear arguments against censorship. Why shouldn’t we be free to see and hear whatever we like? The truth is that there will always be some censorship (we do not permit the free dissemination of materials advocating child abuse, for example). Furthermore, we do restrict sales of products which are toxic to the body such as dangerous poisons on supermarket shelves, and it is not inconsistent to censor products that are toxic to the mind. But the fact is that censorship already exists! What is presented to us through the media and bookshops in most cases is usually severely censored: we are only given what the publishers or editors feel we should receive. This explains the bias of much of the news media against pro-life argu¬ments or traditional Christian values and its unquestioning promotion of evolutionary views.
However, there are still openings for positive values to be conveyed. Through good writing, the truth can be subtly taught. This is particularly important for children. Lewis advocated this over 50 years ago in a talk he gave to theological students –
We must attack the enemy’s line of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects— with their Christianity latent … It is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him (modern materialistic man). But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian. The first step to the reconversion of this country is a series, produced by Christians, which can beat the Penguins and the Thinkers’ Library on their own ground …
Any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.
Some of the great novels in literature illustrate this such as Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities with its wonderful climax of substitutionary sacrifice and Victor Hugo’s extraordinary Les Miserables, whose hero Jean Valjean is so often a type of Christ.
A good story must be believable within its context. With fantasy and science fiction, things may happen which are impossible in a normal context — but they should still be authentic in the set¬ting of the story concerned. For example, animals do not usually talk, but once you have created an environment where they do, it is not a problem, as in Dr Doolittle or the Narnia or Spindles series. In the Spindles stories, furthermore, even though they talk, the Dusty Range animals are still normal animals. Everything else they do falls within their natural capacities.
Authenticity is important. It is disappointing that shoddy re¬search mars some recent Christian writing. There is an apparent willingness on the part of many people to accept anything as long as it seems to support what they believe. This is illustrated by the continual stream of myths doing the rounds of Christian magazines and pulpits. Joshua’s missing day, the discovery of Pharaoh’s chariots, the alleged satanic funding of a large Ameri¬can consumer goods company, the conversion of a pope’s nephew – these and a dozen other fictional tales have been passed on unthinkingly over recent years. Authenticity should be the mark of all writing – and of Chris¬tian writing, in particular. It is encouraging to see Christian novelists like Stephen Lawhead, Bodie Thoene and T.Davis Bunn researching their material thoroughly before going into print.
Characterisation is crucial to effective stories. It is the characters with whom we identify, for good or for ill. In good stories, the characters become our friends. We feel as if we know them. When I was writing my PhD thesis and reviewing some of my work, I came across the record of the death of Sarah Jane Lancaster, Australia’s first Pentecostal pastor. I had known for thirty years that she was dead, yet when I re-read the story, I found tears of grief running down my cheeks! She had become very real to me.
Charles Dickens is one of the most accomplished writers in this area. His characters come to life so vividly they are impossible to forget – Oliver Twist, Fagin, Miss Havisham and Wilkins Micawber are obvious examples. Hugo, C.S.Lewis and Tolkien are others whose characters live in the mind.
Whether characters are depicted as good role models or as corrupt or vicious models, the likelihood is that readers will emulate them in some way. There is a great responsibility on writers to choose the former.
7. EMOTION AND HUMAN INTEREST
Aristotle described the cathartic effect of tragedy – its ability to purge us of unhealthy emotions by our identification with the characters in a drama or story. He claimed that tragedy necessarily evoked pity and fear. These are precisely the emotions aroused by a gripping narrative. There seems good reason to suggest that experiencing these through stories is therapeutic. This blend of conflict and suspense is present in most stories.
Good stories arouse feeling. They stir the emotions. Stories that touch the heart are well-remembered. This is also beneficial for children’s development in helping them to understand the range of sensations that humans experience – and in learning to cope with them. C.S.Lewis does this powerfully in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The sacrifice of Aslan arouses all the sensations of fear, grief, awe, gratitude, wonder and love that lie deep in the human spirit.
In my stories, I have not been afraid to deal with disappoint¬ment, grief, loneliness, pity, pain or loss. Most children will confront all of these at some point in their lives, so it is beneficial to them to meet them early and to explore ways of handling or developing them, as the case may be. Of course, joy, trust, hope, gratitude and love are also evident. True stories reflect the whole range of human emotions.
One of my most treasured memories is of a conversation with a lady who had been reading ‘Spindles rides a race’ to her son. At the end of the tale, they were both deeply moved. The little boy said to his mother over and over, with tears running down his cheeks, `I didn’t know Jesus loved me so much!’ She wept with him as they thought on the wonder of God’s grace. In the corner of the room sat the boy’s father, working at his accounts. He, too, was wiping tears from his eyes! One simple tale had touched a boy, his mother and his father in a powerful way.
It has been suggested that modern technology will phase out the use of books. This is doubtful. The manager of a leading pub¬lishing house once commented: `If books had not yet been invent¬ed, someone would need to do so now: they will never go out of fashion.’ We may finish up with tiny electronic readers in our pockets instead of paper and ink, but stories will of necessity go on. The means of telling may change but the telling will continue.
Stories are a unique and necessary part of life.
Barry Chant has written several books for children. He is a former editor of the PCBC Journal.
Aristotle, Poetics various publishers.
Flesch, R., How to Write, Speak and Think More Effectively, Signet, 1951
Lewis, C.S., Christian Reflections, Collins Fount, 1980
Lewis, C.S., Letters, Fontana, 1988
Lewis, C.S., Timeless at Heart, Collins Fount, 1987
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations London: Chancellor Press, 1985
Wirt, S., You Can Tell the World, Augsburg, 1954
Chant, B., The Spindles series, Tabor, various dates
Chant, B., The Doom of Drakon, Albatross, 1996
Chant, B., The Scion Factor, Albatross, 1996
Lawhead, S., The Dream Thief, Crossway, 1983
Lewis, C.S., The Chronicles of Narnia, Collins, various dates
Peretti, F., This Present Darkness, Crossway, 1987
Rolwing, J.K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Bloomsbury,
Tolkien, J.R.R., Lord of the Rings, Allen and Unwin, 1954
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