Most Christians would agree with me if I were to assert the the Bible is The Greatest Story Ever Told (TGSET), and most would agree that Jesus was a divinely gifted storyteller. But I suspect some would begin to wonder about the ongoing need for storytelling (other than re-tellings of TGSET) this side of the cross. Maybe a case could be made for history or biography, but what place can fiction have?
I love stories — real or imagined — and I have great respect for good storytellers. One of my favourite story-tellers, Ursula Le Guin (1), writes of the opportunity science fiction affords her:
An imagined setting may be the most appropriate in which to work out certain traits and destinies… Those images [of space travel, imagined technologies, etc] used by a serious writer are images and metaphors of our lives, legitimately novelistic, symbolic ways of saying what cannot be said about us, our being and choices, here and now. What science fiction does is enlarge the here and now.
Le Guin argues that this is not fundamentally different from any other form of fiction:
All fiction offers us a world we can’t otherwise reach, whether because it’s in the past, or in far imaginary places, or describes experiences we haven’t had, or leads us into minds different from our own.
So, fiction allows us to explore in our imagination what is impossible in real life. Yet, at the same time, it is about real life — relationships, character, growth, failure — and helps provide insight and clarity in brief glimpses. Brief glimpses, like those described by Tessa Hadley recently in a short story in The New Yorker:
Sometimes, when she moved back out of the book and into her own life, just for a moment she could see her circumstances with a new interest and clarity, as if they were happening to someone else.
Jesus’ parables do a similar thing don’t they? They are fictional accounts that reveal our own circumstances with a renewed clarity (if we let them).
Despite the fact that people are messy and finite, and our stories will never be characterised by the same razor-sharp insight of Jesus parables, I think story-telling is a pretty key part of our divine image-bearing. I can testify to the fact that fallen people have created stories that are beautiful (or sublime), that teach us about ourselves and provide insight into the worlds of those around us.
So, over the next few weeks, I hope to share some reflections on the story-tellers I admire, who have helped provide me with moments of renewed clarity.